What it means to be a Boston sports fan has changed drastically since the turn of the millennium.
After Larry Bird’s final championship with the Boston Celtics in 1986, Boston was the loveable loser in the sports world until Tom Brady and the New England Patriots’ first Super Bowl title in 2001. The Boston Red Sox held that reputation until they finally broke their 86-year “curse” in 2004.
Since 2000, the four major Boston sports franchises have combined to win 12 championships. Needless to say, fan expectations have skyrocketed over the last two decades.
That brings us to our new “State of the Fan” series. Our insiders Tom E. Curran, Phil Perry, John Tomase, and Chris Forsberg joined forces to share their thoughts on how the modern Boston sports fan consumes their favorite teams. For the first installment of the three-part series, the panel discussed how Boston sports fandom has changed over the years and whether they believe fans have the same level of passion they had during those lovable loser days.
Patriots insider Phil Perry: “You don’t have that badge of courage that you can wear when you, like me, as a Red Sox fan went to college and the Patriots had won a bunch by then, but the Red Sox really hadn’t. And it was almost a point of pride that my heart had been broken the year before by the 2003 Red Sox.
“And so, it has to be different, right? Because my earliest days, my teams weren’t really in the mix. For kids now, or people in their mid-20s, they know nothing other than their teams being in the mix. That has to be how it’s different. I don’t know if it affects their passion at all, if their passion has waned in any way.”
Celtics insider Chris Forsberg: “It all boils down to expectations. It’s sort of the overarching theme here. For those of us old enough, you just felt like one of these teams was never gonna win it. Every year you came back and it was like, it was OK if the (Red Sox) just got to the ALDS. It was OK if the (Celtics) just got to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. I don’t know if that exists anymore.
“I’m covering a really good team now, and every time they get bounced in the Eastern Conference Finals it’s like, ‘Man, that was a disappointment.’ We’re just so conditioned that it’s title or bust that I do think it changed sports fandom a little bit. … I think the passion is the same from the fandom, it’s just we know so much more. Our expectations are so much different. And I think it just manifests different how we embrace it.”
Red Sox insider John Tomase: “You go back to ’03, ’04 — I am telling you, it’s hard to believe now — every single one of those games felt like life or death. Every single one. You would go into the clubhouse as a reporter after those games knowing that anything you wrote, people desperately wanted to know about a June game against the Astros. Then obviously they win it all in ’04. From the heartbreak in ’03 to winning it all in ’04 with that comeback against the Yankees, it was never possibly going to be the same. …
“For me, personally, being around this team for so long and seeing how my interactions with fans have changed, there’s a level of apathy with the Red Sox that even in 2013, that was probably the closest season they’ve had to the glory days of the early-2000s with the marathon bombing and David Ortiz’s ‘This is our bleeping city.’ The way they rallied and brought the city together and all of that, even that team — I was with them every single day — fans didn’t really catch on until September.
“And then 2018, you had to be in the playoffs before people were like, ‘Oh, this team’s pretty good.’ It might be the best Red Sox team ever. So you just look at it and you say, you can’t win and win like all of our teams have and maintain the same level of passion. That’s not how human brains are wired.”
Patriots insider Tom E. Curran: “I’d also say this has altered the local passion, is the ability to be a fan of so many different things. You can be a fan of the team that wins you money through gambling. You can be a fan of the player on the Chargers who amasses you massive fantasy points. You can be a fan of Shohei Ohtani or the Detroit Lions and you can consume an immense amount of information on them. The passion about the Red Sox, the literal pride that you would have about the Patriots that existed, it’s still there. But I think it’s diffused by, ‘You know what, I’m also a fan of Austin Ekeler.’
“Plus, there’s more. Premier League soccer, who was even cognizant of that 12 years ago? Same thing with golf. Golf has exponentially risen. I mean, people watch cornhole and give a (expletive). … I think the passion for sports exists in the same way, and maybe even more so, but the passion level for our specific teams is less patient. … You better be good, and if you’re not, I’ve got another team down the road to watch.”
For the full discussion, you can watch the YouTube video below: