Who do I root for now? the impact of franchise relocation on the loyal fans left behind: a case study of Hartford Whalers fans.
|Abstract:||While team relocation has been examined from economic, legal/political, ethical, and civic identity perspectives, there has been little in the sport marketing fan loyalty literature or the sport consumer behavior literature that examines the impact of relocation on the fandom of the loyal left-behind fans. As such, it is unknown who loyal left-behind fans will root for in the years that follow. In-depth interpretive interviews with loyal Hartford Whalers fans revealed how the team's 1997 relocation to North Carolina affected their fan interest in the years after the relocation. The majority of the fans interviewed said that they do not follow the Carolina Hurricanes (the relocated Whalers), do not consider themselves fans of any single current NHL team, but still consider themselves to be Hartford Whalers fans. Some said their interest in the sport of hockey has waned, and a few indicated that the experience of losing their favorite hockey team to relocation has left them with much less interest in all professional sports. The interviews also revealed that many who still consider themselves to be Whalers fans continue to display unique behaviors that show their loyalty to a team that has not played a game in many years.|
Fans (Persons) (Social aspects)
Sports franchises (Location)
Sports marketing (Evaluation)
|Author:||Hyatt, Craig G.|
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Sport Behavior Publisher: University of South Alabama Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health; Sports and fitness Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2007 University of South Alabama ISSN: 0162-7341|
|Issue:||Date: March, 2007 Source Volume: 30 Source Issue: 1|
|Topic:||Event Code: 290 Public affairs; 120 Organizational history; 389 Alliances, partnerships|
|Product:||Product Code: 7319800 Sports Marketing Services NAICS Code: 54189 Other Services Related to Advertising SIC Code: 7319 Advertising, not elsewhere classified|
|Organization:||Organization: Hartford Whalers|
|Geographic:||Geographic Code: 100NA North America|
Given the importance of loyal fans to the economic success of
professional sport, it is not surprising to see the recent proliferation
of articles in the sport marketing and sport consumer behavior
literature that address the ties that bind fans to their favorite teams
(Funk & James, 2001; Funk & Pastore, 2000; Harada &
Matsuoka, 1999; Kolbe & James, 2000, 2003; Mahony, Madrigal, &
Howard, 1999, 2000; Sutton, McDonald, Milne, & Cimperman, 1997).
Most fan loyalty work presumes a fairly stable relationship between the
team and the fan (see Harada & Matsuoka, 1999; Mahony, et al., 1999,
and Wann, Tucker, and Schrader, 1996, for exceptions). Without stating
it directly, there is usually an assumption that the team/fan
relationship can continue indefinitely into the future. What is seldom
addressed is the impact the team's relocation to a different city
can have on the sports fandom of the loyal left-behind fans.
In North American major professional sport, franchise relocation is not uncommon. Over a dozen big league teams have left one market for another since the early 1980s. Sport marketing researchers have used the outrage expressed by fans at the prospect of losing their team as an example of how strongly they care about keeping their team (Sutton, et al., 1997), but little is known about their lives as fans in the years after the move. Who would such loyal fans cheer for after one of their favorite teams leaves town?
The fans the Hartford Whalers left behind faced such a scenario in 1997. The Whalers were born in 1972 as a charter member of the World Hockey Association. The WHA was formed to challenge the NHL for the title of North America's elite professional hockey league. The Whalers played in Boston under the moniker "New England Whalers" until they moved into the Hartford Civic Center in 1975. After seven years of fighting over the best players and the best markets, the two leagues merged in 1979. The Whalers dropped "New England" from their name in favor of "Hartford", and along with the Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers, and Quebec Nordiques, jumped from the WHA to the NHL.
For eighteen years, the Whalers played mostly uninspired hockey. They had only three winning seasons, and made it into the second round of the four-round Stanley Cup playoffs only once (in 1986). The following year, they won their division, but were upset by the fourth-place team in the first round. The team never contended for the Cup again, and they left Hartford and moved to North Carolina to start the 1997-98 season as the Carolina Hurricanes. By interviewing these fans in-depth, an understanding of their lived experience as loyal Whalers fans resulted. Part of this understanding involved learning how living through the loss of their favorite NHL team has influenced their lives as sports fans in the years since the move.
Review of Literature
As the academic discipline of sport marketing evolved throughout the 1990s, much attention was paid to studying the positive link between the fan loyalty to/identification with/ relationship with a team and fan attendance/revenue generating behavior (Gladden & Milne, 1999; McDonald & Milne, 1997; Sutton, et al., 1997; Wakefield, 1995; Wakefield & Sloan, 1995). As fan loyalty research progressed, such topics as the relationship between team-related brand associations and fan loyalty (Gladden & Funk, 2001, 2002), and the process by which non-fans become loyal fans (James, 2001; Kolbe & James, 2000, 2003; Wann, Tucker, and Schrader, 1996), were examined. Articles concerning scale development/theoretical models to classify or predict levels of fan loyalty soon followed (Funk & James, 2001; Funk & Pastore, 2000; Kwon & Armstrong, 2004; Mahony, et al., 2000), as did articles examining motivation and sport fandom (Armstrong, 2002; James & Ridinger, 2002; James & Ross, 2004; Robinson & Trail, 2005; Trail & James, 2001; Warm, Bilyeu, Brennan, Osborn, & Gambouras, 1999; Wann, Royalty, & Rochelle, 2002).
While most fan loyalty research examines the continuing bond between fan and team, at least three articles examine how that bond can be severed. Wann, Tucker, and Schrader (1996) asked participants to list all the reasons they stopped following a sports team that used to be their favorite, and found that lack of success, loss of certain players, and new-found lack of time were the top three reasons fans stopped following their teams. Mahony, et al. (1999) found support for their theory that the personality trait of self-monitoring was linked to the phenomenon of National Football League fans switching loyalties from one team to another. Harada and Matsuoka (1999) discovered evidence to lend support to the notion that in the case of Japanese professional soccer, the entry of new teams into the geographic region of an existing team could result in a defection of fans from the more established team to the new regional rivals. While issues concerning team success, player personnel, time constraints, personality traits and league expansion are now seen as potential antecedents to the break-up of the fanteam bond, there has been little in the sport marketing or sport consumer behavior literature that examines the effect of franchise relocation on the bonds between loyal left behind fans and sport teams.
While scholars have studied franchise relocation from legal/political perspectives (Euchner, 1993; Shropshire, 1995), from economic perspectives (Noll, 1991; Quirk & Fort, 1992; Scully, 1989), with an ethical orientation (Mason & Slack, 1997), and within the framework of civic identity (Scherer, 2001 ; Whitson, 1995; Wilson, 1994), few address post-relocation rooting patterns. While some authors note cases where left-behind fans continued to follow the team in its new home (Euchner, 1993; Shropshire, 1995), others suggest that it remains unknown whether fans would cheer for the relocated team, if they would continue to support the league that allowed their favorite team to relocate, and if the sport that team played would continue to have a prominent place in their lives (Mason & Slack, 1997).
The sport sociology literature contains some studies dealing with the impact of relocation on sport fans (Lewis, 2001; Mitrano, 1999). Mitrano examined the effects of impending relocation on Hartford Whalers fans. His goal was to understand the meanings the fans attached to their loss. He noted that the fans commonly made sense of their loss by using such metaphors as death and divorce. Because his data collection ended before the start of the first hockey season without the Whalers, many fans revealed that they were still unsure as to who they would root for in the upcoming NHL season. Lewis looked specifically at the impact team relocation had on the fan allegiances of the fans of four different professional teams that moved in the mid- 1990s: the NFL's Houston Oilers, and the NHL's Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets. After examining messages posted on team-related web pages, he concluded fans could be grouped into two different categories: fans who pledged allegiance to the team name/logo and thus cheered for their former team in their new home as long as it kept the original team name/logo, and fans who would only cheer for teams in their hometown. Thus some fans expressed what he called civic allegiance ("I am a Houston football fan."), while others showed what he called symbolic allegiance ("I am an Oiler fan.") (Lewis, 2001,p.10).
Lewis' classification fails to address a third possibility- continuing to cheer for the relocated franchise even after a name/logo/color change. While some recently relocated teams kept the team name, logo, and colors (the NBA's Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies, the NFL's Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams), others have not (the NHL's Winnipeg Jets/Phoenix Coyotes and Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche). The Whalers fall into the later category. They moved to North Carolina, renamed themselves the Hurricanes, wore a new logo, and dropped their green uniforms in favor of red. Even with these changes, can we not expect at least a few Whalers fans to follow the Hurricanes?
It can be inferred that this is exactly the scenario sport marketer Jeff James presumes would happen based on the operationalization of fan loyalty he used in his 2001 research. James interviewed children of different ages to determine at what age a child was capable of being loyal to a favorite sports team. Each child was tested to see if she or he had developed an attachment to her/his favorite team that was strong enough to indicate loyalty to that team. He operationalized loyalty in part by saying that loyal fans have a resistance to change. If the children showed resistance to change, they were viewed as being more loyal to their favorite team than children that did not resist change. James assessed resistance to change by, "asking a child if she or he would continue to like a specific team even if the team lost all of its games, or if there were some change in the team (e.g., a team moved to another city or star players left the team)." (James, 2001, p. 240- italics added). James takes as a given that for fans to be loyal, they must continue cheering for their favorite team even if the team were to relocate.
What Lewis fails to directly acknowledge as a possibility, James takes as a given. The stories told by loyal Whalers fans reveal that some indeed became Hurricanes fans, but that most did not.
The purpose of this paper is to examine the effects of a sport team's relocation to another market on the sports fandom of the loyal fans left-behind. It should be noted that while this is a case study of a single NHL team's fans, the study is not limited solely to how the Whalers' relocation affected their lives as hockey fans. To do so would presume that the team's move to North Carolina would have no impact on their support for teams in other sports. Because there is no evidence for such a presumption, many of the questions asked of the fans refer to sports in general and not hockey in particular. In this way the fans were free to discuss hockey specifically, as well as sports in general.
Mode of Inquiry
This analysis of post-relocation cheering patterns is part of a much larger study of the lived experience of Hartford Whalers fans. Between April 2002 and April 2003, 24 people who were loyal fans of the Hartford Whalers while the team played in Hartford were interviewed face-to-face and one-on-one in order to gain an understanding of how they progressed through what was conceptualized as a four-stage process: becoming a Whalers fan, being a Whalers fan, living through the relocation, and living life in a world without the Whalers. Since the research was positioned within the interpretive paradigm, no hypotheses were pre-determined and no scales were used in an attempt to quantify their experiences. The goal was one of inductive theory generation instead of deductive theory testing. Because of the unique history of each team and the unique social, cultural, and historical situations influencing each fan region, the experiences of loyal Whalers fans were thought to be contextually unique in that no other team's fans lived through an identical process. While Whalers fans would share some commonalities with fans of other professional teams (the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat), they also had conditions others would not be able to relate to (being in a small market sandwiched between the two huge world class cities of New York and Boston, for example). Interpretive qualitative interviews with open-ended questions where people can tell the stories of their experience in ways that make sense to them, have the power to capture the contextual complexities inherent in the processes that define phenomena (Burrell & Morgan, 1979; Denzin, 1989). Sport marketers have noted the potential of interpretive inquiry and have periodically encouraged the use of qualitative methods and inductive reasoning when the goal is one of understanding the meanings imbedded in a lived experience (Funk, Mahony, & Havitz, 2003; Kates, 1998).
Finding the Participants
The idea for this study originated while I was teaching and studying at a university in southern New England in the spring of 2002. At that time, this potential research project was casually mentioned to various people on and around campus. Due to the campus' relatively close proximity to Hartford, it should not come as a surprise that over a dozen potential informants had been identified before interviewing commenced. These include students and faculty, and their friends or family. Contacting these fans and asking them to participate was the first step in finding a pool of participants, and nine of the 24 fans were found using word of mouth. Each participant was asked to recommend any other Whalers fans they knew who would be interested in taking part in the study. This "snowball" method of finding interview informants is not uncommon in qualitative research (Swain, 1999; Taylor & Bogdan, 1984; Taylor & Toohey, 1999), and four of the 24 fans were found in this manner.
To supplement word of mouth and snowballing, I approached the Hartford Whalers Booster Club. The Booster Club remains active, and meets regularly. I attended their November 2002 meeting and joined the club. After hearing about my research, many expressed excitement at the thought of participating in the study, and eventually four active Booster Club members were interviewed. They offered to lend their assistance by posting a solicitation for participants on the club's internet home page. Consequently from mid-November 2002 to the end of February 2003, a note explaining this study and asking for participants could be found at whalerwatch.com- the official home page of the Hartford Whalers Booster Club. This notice attracted seven more participants.
After signing an informed consent form, each fan was interviewed for between 36 and 98 minutes in a mutually agreed upon location. All interviews were audio-taped and transcribed verbatim resulting in 401 single-spaced pages of transcript. Nineteen men and five women participated in the study. Ages ranged from 20 to 63. Pseudonyms were assigned each participant to better ensure anonymity. Each fan completed a short demographics questionnaire designed to gather information regarding age, race, gender, education level, income, and where they lived when the Whalers were in Hartford. The survey data revealed a wide range of ages, education levels, incomes, and geographic locations. While all 24 fans were Caucasian, consultations with both an expert familiar with Hartford's African-American community and with a former member of the Whalers' management staff revealed that the team failed to develop much of a following with people of color. As such it was concluded that the 24 fans formed a non-atypical group of Whalers fans.
To be considered for the study, an individual had to have been a loyal Whalers fan. They had to have cheered for the Whalers as their favorite NHL team, and had to demonstrate both behaviorial and attitudinal loyalty to the team- a conceptualization of a loyal fan common in the fan loyalty literature (Funk & James, 2001; Gladden & Funk, 2001; Mahony, et al., 2000). A positive attitude involved caring about the team's success. This may simply have been being happy when they won and disappointed when they lost, or something more intense where the Whalers formed a significant part of the fan's identity. The fan also had to indicate that behavior was directed toward the team. This may have been something as straight-forward as attending games, watching games on television, or discussing the team with like-minded fans, or it may have been something unique to the individual fan uncovered by the interpretive interview process.
People who might otherwise be classified as consumers (buying a Whalers hat because they like the color), or spectators (attending a Whalers game as a designated driver), or as casual uncommitted fans, were excluded from this study because they failed to indicate that the Whalers were their favorite NHL team and/or they failed to show both behavioral and attitudinal loyalty to the Whalers. Twenty-six self-identified Whalers fans were interviewed, but two did not demonstrate attitudinal loyalty. As such, their stories were not included as part of the larger study. One of the 24 switched loyalties from the Whalers to a different NHL team years before the relocation. Since he was no longer a Whalers fan when the team moved, his stories are not included in this analysis of post-relocation cheering patterns.
While the fans were given great leeway to take the interview in whatever direction they liked, the purpose of the study remained. The goal was to develop an understanding of what it was like to become a Whalers fan, be a Whalers fan, lose the team, and live life without them. As such, the topics included in the following eight open-ended questions were addressed with each fan:
* What place did sports have in your life before you were a Hartford Whalers fan?
* How did you originally become a Whalers fan?
* Tell me a story about cheering for the team.
* What was it like to be a Whalers fan back in their heyday?
* Where were you when you first heard that the team was leaving town?
* How did the loss of the Whalers affect you?
* Do you consider yourself to be a Whalers fan now?
* How are you a sports fan now?
While only the final two questions concern post-relocation cheering patterns directly, much of their sporting lives since the team's departure can be better understood after analyzing their words within the context of their stories regarding the earlier stages of the Whalers fan process. Earlier experiences help shape how fans feel and behave in later stages of the fan process, and in the case of many loyal Whalers fans, the frustration they now feel as sports fans can be understood in part by understanding their entire Whalers fan experience.
Analyzing the Stories
The qualitative data analysis program QSR N6 was utilized to manage the stories. The stories were analyzed as part of an ongoing process similar to both the simultaneous data collection and analysis technique suggested by Merriam (2001), and the open-ended analysis suggested by Rossman & Rallis (1998). Themes identified in the fan loyalty literature were used as preliminary codes during the early stages of data collection. As interviewing progressed, transcripts were read with attention paid to interesting themes that were beginning to emerge from the stories, and these new themes were then coded. Subsequent transcripts were read with these themes in mind and were coded accordingly. Previous transcripts were re-read as newer interviews revealed more interesting insights, and earlier transcripts were re-coded with these new insights in mind. Researcher memos were written as the data collection continued in order to keep track of the thought processes inherent in the evolving analysis. Themes that began as hunches become more solid as new transcripts were compared to older ones as the stories were simultaneously collected and analyzed in an iterative process.
Six strategies were used to help ensure that the final analysis of the process of being a loyal Whalers fan corresponded to what these fans lived through. First, fans were screened to ensure that they considered the Whalers their favorite NHL team and showed behavioral and attitudinal loyalty to the Whalers. Second, if and when a fan's story seemed unclear, follow-up questions were asked to clarify misunderstood or potentially contradictory explanations in a process common with interpretive interviewing (Schwartz & Jacobs, 1979). Third, as rudimentary themes developed as more and more stories were heard, subsequent interviews involved asking fans to comment on the accuracy of the emerging analysis should the fan's story touch on a specific emerging theme. Fourth, to help insure that the transcribed versions of their stories reflected what fans actually said, all informants received a copy of their interview and were asked to check it for accuracy. Eleven of the 24 transcripts were returned, and any errors that were noted were corrected before further transcript coding and analysis was attempted. Fifth, regular meetings were scheduled with peers who were also working on similar qualitative research projects, where ideas were shared, writing and analysis were reviewed, feedback was received, and revisions were made. Finally, since this research was conducted as part of a dissertation, a process similar to that of the peer review outlined above was followed with the panel of experts comprising the dissertation committee members.
Findings and Discussion
While there are as many post-relocation rooting attitudes and behaviors as there are loyal Whalers fans, some trends emerged from the stories. Table 1 provides a summary of the fans' rooting interest in current NHL teams, while Table 2 summarizes other behaviors and attitudes of note. Some are interesting in their commonality (15 fans no longer have a single favorite NHL team), while others speak volumes by their rarity (only one fan regularly attends games of the American Hockey League's Hartford Wolf Pack- the minor league team now playing in Hartford's arena).
Are the Hurricanes the Same Team?
Of the 23 fans interviewed, three equate the Carolina Hurricanes to the Hartford Whalers, and thus actively root for the Hurricanes. Twenty-year-old Luke even prefers to refer to the Hurricanes as the Whalers:
A majority of the interviewed fans, however, believe that the Whalers stopped being the Whalers when they left for Carolina. As such, the object of their original loyalty- the Hartford Whalers- underwent a transformation that in the end created a new entity- the Carolina Hurricanes. To these fans, the Hurricanes are not the Whalers (even with the presence of former Whalers players like Ron Francis in the Hurricanes line-up), as the following quotations attest:
This group of fans does not see themselves as being disloyal to the Whalers; they see the team's owner as being disloyal to them. To these fans the two teams are completely separate. As such, their non-support of the Hurricanes does not translate into disloyalty to the Whalers.
Few Have Strong, Positive Relationships with Current NHL Teams
While it may not be totally surprising to hear that relatively few Whalers fans became Hurricanes fans, it is interesting to note how few found a new NHL team for which to cheer. Of the 23 Whalers fans, only one fan follows an NHL team with levels of behavior and attitude similar to those experienced with the Whalers. Four others follow other NHL teams, but say the experience is less intense than with the Whalers. 28-year-old Shane's feelings towards his new team are representative of this phenomenon. He became a Whalers fan as a boy growing up in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. There is tremendous pride in his voice when he tells of the effort it took to follow the team from afar. Now living in Toronto, he says he cheers for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but it is just not the same:
Shane exhibits very minimal levels of behavior and attitude towards the NHL team he cheers for now. An analysis of his entire interview indicates that he used to directly and indirectly generate revenue for both the team and the league by ordering Whalers merchandise from the team store in the Hartford Civic Center and by watching every televised Whalers game he could. Since he began cheering for the hometown team, he has not purchased any Maple Leafs merchandise, he has watched relatively little of the Leafs on TV, and he has attended very few of their games in person.
While the Leafs and the NHL generate extremely little revenue from the likes of Shane, they generate even less with the majority of the Whalers fans interviewed. Fifteen of the 23 say they no longer have a favorite NHL team. Many of these 15 used to have very high levels of fan behavior- attending games frequently, watching the team on television often, buying and displaying Whalers merchandise, while caring very deeply about the success of their squad. Most of these 15 fans invested relatively large amounts of time, money, and emotion into following the Whalers, and for most of these 15 fans, the amount of time, money, and emotion spent cheering for a favorite team has been reduced to almost nil.
When asked how the relocation of the Whalers affected him, 27-year-old Anthony gave an answer fairly indicative of the sentiment of those who no longer cheer for an NHL team. While he now lives in New York, Anthony grew-up in Hartford and attended many games as a child accompanied by his season-ticket-holding parents. He formed a strong bond to the team, and does not think it likely he could ever duplicate the amazing experience he once had with the Whalers:
Trying to Recreate the Whalers Fan Experience but Failing
While many of the 15 fans have not even made an attempt to align themselves with another hockey team, others have tried and failed. While interviewing 31-year-old Jack, he kept mentioning attempts to follow the NHL's New York Islanders. Jack became a Whalers fan while growing up in southern Connecticut across the water from New York's Long Island. He remembers that the Long Island-based Islanders were on the local hockey radar screen, but never became hated rivals to the Whalers like the Manhattan-based New York Rangers. When left Whalerless, Jack thought it natural to try to cheer for the Islanders since they were relatively close-by. After two Islander references during the interview, he was asked to comment on the team. The following exchange resulted:
Jack: Yes, umm- I have an appreciation for the Islanders. I guess- some point in my life if it really looks bleak, you know- I'm in my autumn years and there's still no hockey in the State of Connecticut, I could probably see myself being an Islanders fan. There's some tradition there. They're not the Rangers. (laughs) You know, there's just some kind of appeal to them.... If I had to be a fan, that would probably be it.
Interviewer: Are you a fan of the New York Islanders?
Jack: No. Could I be? Yes. (laughs) Think about it this way, it's like if I had a painful divorce, and you know- are you a fan of women? Well- yes, but could you get back into a relationship right away? No. You know? I guess in a lot of ways I'm like the bitter divorcee- afraid of getting hurt again. (pause, then lots of laughter)
Jack said that he is afraid of getting hurt again. This is the one major reason he has been unable to get attached to another NHL team. Elsewhere during the interview he mentioned how fortunate he felt in that his other favorite major-league teams (MLB's Boston Red Sox, NFL's New York Giants, and NBA's Boston Celtics) did not seem to be relocation candidates. As such, he felt fairly secure that he would not experience the pain of team relocation again.
Professional Sports Less Appealing to Some
While the NHL has basically lost 15 former team-fans like Jack, it should be noted that three of the fans interviewed said their attraction to all professional sports has diminished since the Whalers left town. Not only has she not picked-up a new NHL team to follow, but 35-year-old Alexis also does not follow the Boston Red Sox with the same intensity she used to as a result of the trauma she experienced in losing her beloved Whalers. While representing the most-extreme case that was encountered, it is included to demonstrate the lasting effects relocation can have on fans. When asked how she is a sports fan now, she said, "I'm not. I mean, I watch the Red Sox, but not as hard- I don't get emotionally involved.... (resumes crying) Because I don't want to go through this again."
Alexis broke down and cried throughout the interview as she described what it was like to root for a team that eventually moved away. A former season ticket holder who rarely missed attending a home game, she no longer attends hockey games at any level, nor follows hockey on television. While the NHL should certainly note that they lost a fan, the other major professional sports leagues should take notice that she was one of three who say the relocation of the Whalers left such a bad taste that their level of fan interest and activity has dropped across the board in all professional sports.
"I am Still a Whalers Fan"
Possibly the single most interesting finding involves how the majority of those interviewed still consider themselves to be Whalers fans, even though so few consider the Hurricanes as the Whalers. Many see themselves as fans of a team that no longer plays. This fact at first seems incongruent with the definitions used by fan loyalty researchers. As discussed earlier, many researchers consider a person to be a loyal fan to a team only if that fan exhibits both a positive attitude towards the team and directs behavior towards the team (such as attending games, watching games on television, discussing the team with other fans, etc.). This definition was used to identify the fans who participated in this study. While still having strong nostalgic affection for the Whalers is understandable, it was less obvious what behavior they could exhibit to demonstrate their loyalty to a team that played its last game years before. It was not uncommon to hear that fans have Hartford Whalers stickers on their cars, often wear Whalers jerseys or hats, search ebay in hopes of acquiring more Whalers memorabilia, or visit internet web-sites dedicated to remembering the Whalers. Such behaviors could be expected under the circumstance. However, the in-depth interpretive interviewing technique helped uncover unique behaviors that otherwise might not have been discovered. The following is a sampling of what these fans have done as Hartford Whalers fans since the 1997 departure:
--Andy, 26, is attracted to sports teams that remind him of the Whalers. He developed a kinship towards Montreal Expos (MLB) fans as it became clearer the Expos would relocate. In what was expected to be their final season in Montreal (2002), Andy drove to Montreal to attend an Expos game to show his support as a fan who lived through the pain of relocation. He wore his Whalers jersey.
--In 2002, Anthony joined an adult beginners hockey league. Every time he leaves the dressing room and steps onto the ice, the Whalers theme song (an instrumental ditty called Brass Bonanza) goes through his head. This was the song the Whalers took the ice to at home games.
--Alexis got married in 1999. During the interview in her home, she showed me a photo taken at her wedding. Of the six people in the photo, five (including Alexis) are wearing Whalers jerseys. Brass Bonanza was played at the wedding.
--24-year-old Ted worked in sales in 2002. When his department had a good day, he would play his Brass Bonanza CD loud enough for the whole office to hear. It became known as the sales theme song, and since it was played to celebrate sales success, hearing it made everyone in the office happy. As Ted said, "even if they didn't get the connection with the Whalers, it was a cool little song ... I guess it made me feel better that the Whalers could make other people happy."
More Interest in University of Connecticut Athletics
Of all the changes to the Whalers fans' fandom since the team's departure, the one that may be the most positive to sport managers is the increased interest in University of Connecticut athletics as expressed by seven of the 23 fans. Care must be taken, however, to presume a cause and effect relationship between the Whalers' departure and the increased interest in the local college athletic program. The University of Connecticut men's and women's basketball teams both made great strides towards becoming powerhouses in the mid'90s while the Whalers were still in Hartford. The women's team became national champions in 1995, and followed with championships in 2000, 2002, 2003, and 2004. The men's team won the national title in 1999, and repeated in 2004. The University of Connecticut football team jumped from Division I-AA to Division I-A in 2002, and moved into a new a new 40,000-seat stadium the next year. Due to the increased excitement surrounding these teams, it could be argued that even if the Whalers never left town, some Whalers fans would have developed more interest in University of Connecticut athletics. That said, four Whalers fans expressed an increased interest in University of Connecticut basketball, while three expressed an increased interest in the school's football team. Of all 23 fans, only a single person even mentioned the existence of the school's Division I hockey team- a team that plays home games less than 30 miles outside of Hartford in Storrs.
While the Huskies hockey teams have not won championships, or moved into a brand-new 40,000 stadium, they did find themselves in a market with thousands of hockey fans who found themselves without a team to cheer for in 1997. Because all 23 fans had a history of following hockey, and seven spoke of an increased interest in University of Connecticut athletics, it seems the potential was there for their hockey program to win-over the Whalers fans who found themselves teamless. There is no evidence that this occurred, even though multiple fans mentioned that with the Whalers gone, the University of Connecticut Huskies have become the near-unanimous choice as "Connecticut's Team."
An analysis of the 23 fans' stories resulted in a number of conclusions with implications both for sport managers and for sport marketing/sport consumer behavior academics.
First, while a few Whalers fans transferred their fan behavior and attitude to the Carolina Hurricanes after the relocation, most did not. The majority of the fans interviewed say they no longer have a favorite NHL team, and many of the ones that do follow a new team have a much more casual interest in that team than they had in the Whalers. When leagues allow franchises to relocate from one market to another, they should not presume that the loyal left-behind fans will simply keep cheering for the relocated team, or find a new team to cheer for with the same intensity. As such, leagues should very carefully weigh the expected gain of developing new fans in the region getting a relocated team against the expected loss of the fans left behind.
Second, the loss of cheering interest should not be the exclusive concern of the league that allowed one of its teams to relocate. Three fans said that since the Whalers left Hartford, their interest in all professional sports has diminished considerably. While the situation surrounding each major league team relocation is unique, and the conclusions drawn from this study of Whalers fans are not meant to be generalizable across all left-behind fans in all cities in all sports, the fact that some Whalers fans have less interest in all professional sports should serve as a warning to the entire major league sports industry. Team relocation in one league can result in lower fan interest in other leagues' teams. As such, teams across leagues should consider opportunities to work together to help ensure everyone's success, in much the same spirit advocated by Lachowetz (2001).
Third, college teams located in markets where professional teams have left town have a golden opportunity to position themselves as the hometown team that will never leave. While college sports teams have been known to fold (as any NCAA men's gymnastics fan can tell you), they cannot relocate. This fact gives them an instant marketing opportunity where they can communicate to the fans left-behind by a professional team that the local college will never be a threat to relocate. Examples of such scenarios include the aforementioned University of Connecticut men's hockey team, and the Vancouver-based University of British Columbia men's basketball team following the departure of the Vancouver Grizzlies NBA franchise to Memphis in 2001.
Finally, fan loyalty researchers should recognize that a fan's favorite team may no longer be actively participating in a league, and that these fans can still direct both behavior and attitude towards such a team. From a sports marketing standpoint, the opportunities to convert this behavior and attitude into revenue are limited, but from an academic standpoint, the recognition that left-behind fans may never stop being fans of a team others have relegated to the history books can only lead to conceptualizations that better reflect the lived experience of all sports fans.
Limitations and Future Study
All of the research findings are based on stories told at least five years after the Whalers left town. Over that time, memories can fade and emotions can dull. Ideally, a study of the Whalers fan experience would have been longitudinal, where fans were interviewed over time to capture real time experiences in contrast to retrospective recollections.
It can be presumed that the interest these fans have in sports in general and sporting teams in particular will continue to evolve over time. By re-interviewing these 23 fans periodically in the future, we could learn if/how their rooting interests change as the Whalers' legacy recedes further and further into history.
The Hartford Whalers were but one of over a dozen North American big league teams to relocate to a different city in the last generation. It can be presumed that many of these fans who lost their team will have similar feelings afterward, but due to the differing cultural, social, and geographic factors surrounding each individual team and city, one would expect to find a number of differences as well. By replicating this research in other regions with other left-behind fans, sport management practitioners and scholars could learn the similarities and differences.
Positivisitc researchers interested in large-scale studies designed to generalize cause and effect relationships may be able to incorporate some of the insights learned in this study of Whaler fans to create surveys to be administered to left-behind fans of other teams in other sports. As one reviewer commented, the Internet now makes it easier for researchers to administer such surveys to large numbers of fans that are geographically dispersed.
Major league professional sports teams will relocate from one city to another to increase their expected profitability. More favorable facility lease agreements, a larger facility capable of holding more fans, the availability of more lucrative revenue streams like luxury suites or team-controlled parking lots, a larger market promising greater local television revenues, and markets with residents of higher socio-economic status, are all commonly cited as justification for franchise relocation (Quirk & Fort, 1992; Shropshire, 1995; Wilson, 1994). These and other reasons for moving or suspending operations are also applicable to non-major league sporting organizations as well. As such, fans do not have to cheer for a major league team to be left-behind. As NASCAR moves races from older smaller tracks to newer bigger ones, as professional golf and tennis tours move events from one community to another, as colleges competing in NCAA sports drop long-established teams for various reasons, and as minor professional teams in assorted sports relocate to different markets, fans of these teams/events can find themselves abandoned. Studies of such cases can help practitioners and academics alike better understand the impact of these major changes in the rooting interest of all types of sport fans. Unfortunately for these fans, there does not seem to be any shortage of cases to study.
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Craig G. Hyatt
Address Correspondence To: Craig Hyatt, Department of Sport Management, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario L2S 3A1 Canada, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm a Hurricanes fan- I'm not afraid to admit it. But I'd rather say I'm a Hartford Whalers fan. Just to bring up in conversation, you know what I mean? Just to say that was the team I went to growing up during youth and adolescence.... I'm still a sports fan. I'm still a hockey fan. I'm still a Whalers fan, well Carolina Hurricanes, A.K.A. Hartford Whalers. I still root for them.
I won't follow the Hurricanes, primarily because of the bitterness. I mean, it's bitterness. I won't support (owner) Peter Karmanos. Period.... It was never the same once the Whalers left. And I do know people that are like, "Well you know, I'm still-" They'll follow the team, because it's still 'the team,' even though they're in Carolina. I do know people that will do that. But to me, it's not the same ... While you still may have some of the players- and now Ron Francis is back, well- it's not the same. (Bridget, 37) ... Hate them (the Hurricanes). And it's not because- again- love Ron (Francis)- but it's that ownership group. You know, I don't blame them. I don't blame (Governor) Rowland. I blame them both ... So, I have no loyalty to the Hurricanes because they are not the Whalers anymore. They are in Carolina. And it's not the same franchise to me, you know? I mean, it has some of the same players, but to me it's just not the same. (Jack, 31) ... I don't hate Carolina. I don't care about Carolina. But I don't hate them. I mean-people down there, they had nothing to do with it. But do I follow that team? No. I don't care nothing about it ... Like some people say they're still the Whalers. They're not. (Keith, 46- emphasis his)
I don't think I'll ever find a team to replace Hartford. I don't think it's possible. I watch the Leafs now. I cheer for the Leafs now. You ask me the question, I'm still going to say I'm a Hartford Whalers fan. But you know, I want to see the Leafs do well; I want to see my city do well. So I've started watching again. It's not like when I was a child when I'd always scour the newspapers to see what hockey games would be on, and anytime I saw, "Oh! Hartford," I would make sure that I was home or out at a sports bar and be able to watch that event. Didn't matter to me whether the game was being televised in French or English. If they were playing the Nordiques and it was being broadcast on TQS in French- fine- the game was on in French. And I wouldn't miss a televised Whalers game. It doesn't bother me if I miss a Leafs game on TV. In fact, I rarely watch one start to finish, except maybe in the playoffs. And I think that's the biggest difference. I was a die-hard Whalers fan and anytime the Whale was on--didn't matter if it was regular season, playoffs-- I was there glued to the TV. Now it's, you know, (mimicking pointing a TV remote control) "Click. Did the Leafs win last night? Yeah. Ok. Cool." (laughs) You know? It's not the same. I sort of have a team to cheer for if I want to, but that link to the heart- that affiliation really isn't there.
Well, yeah- what I'm trying to say is that I think it (the relocation) did affect me ... It's a bold move to actually make the direct connection there, but I do think that because I love the Whalers, I don't see myself being able to love a team like that again- unless I move to some other small community and my kids get really into a certain team- maybe. It would have to take something like that. Basically, I can't- I don't have the interest for one reason or another. I don't have that allegiance- and I like going to sports games- when (a friend) invited me to go to the Diamondbacks game last summer, I was psyched to go and it was a fun time. I don't really care if the Diamondbacks win or the Yankees- it was a Diamondbacks/Yankee game- I don't care who wins. Even though I'm from New York- I'm kind of like, from New York at this point, because I've lived here for so long. So it has affected me. It's like maybe- having sex with a really amazingly hot super model, and (laughs) then everything else becoming not as significant. Like, I've had the Whalers. I've had that fan experience and now like, it's really hard for anything else to compare. (laughs) (emphasis his)
Table 1. Rooting Interest in Current NHL Teams Of the 23 fans interviewed, the number who said they ... ... do not have a single favorite NHL team they root for now 15 ... root against the Carolina Hurricanes/hate the Hurricanes 6 ... root for another NHL team (not the Hurricanes) with an intensity less than they used to have for the Whalers. 4 ... root for the Carolina Hurricanes 3 ... root for another NHL team (not the Hurricanes) with an intensity similar to that they used to have for the Whalers. 1 Table 2. Other Behaviors/Attitudes of Note Of the 23 fans interviewed, the number who said they ... ... still consider themselves to be Hartford Whaler fans 15 ... have developed more of an interest in University of Connecticut athletics 7 ... actively tried to find a hockey substitute for the Whalers but failed 4 ... have much less interest in the sport of hockey (but maintained their interest in other professional sports) 4 ... have much less interest in professional sports 3 ... follow ex-Whalers players throughout the NHL 3 ... regularly attend Hartford Wolf Pack AHL games 1
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