International Fans – Loyal to the Player or Loyal to the Team?

So, I have a bit of a dilemma. This blog is, obviously, primarily statistical in nature. However, my ideas for statistical analysis tend to be a bit few and far between – too much so to really carry a real blog.

So, I’m introducing a category called “Little White Lies”, which are regular blog entries, minus the heavy statistical slant. Don’t worry, this blog will still be grounded in statistics, but it’ll be nice to not have to run a database full of numbers for each post.

Introducing this idea is a post on a growing trend I’ve noticed in the NBA. Traditionally, fans are theoretically fans of teams. They debate their team, they discuss their team, and they cheer for players on their own team. There are exceptions of course, but in general, you’re a fan of a team.

With the growing influx of international players, there’s been a notable trend that bucks this traditional framework. Fans from that player’s home nation overwhelmingly favor the team that their player plays on. This isn’t a groundbreaking idea – survey China for their favorite NBA team and every single person will cite the Rockets or Nets (naturally I don’t have a poll to back this up or else that note at the top wouldn’t be necessary).

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this at this level. Fans want their player to succeed, and success in the NBA is typically defined by the ultimate team accomplishment: a championship. And this idea most cetainly exists in the United States as well. Atlanta Falcons rookie quarterback Matt Ryan recently played in Philadelphia, his hometown, and had a strong show of support from the Philadelphia fans. Local fans tend to cheer for local players, even if the player is not playing for a local team.

The international audience adheres to this concept, but hyper-charges it. We’re not talking about Carlos Boozer’s 30,000-citizen hometown. We’re not even talking about Allen Iverson’s home of Hampton, Virgnia and its 150,000 citizens. We’re talking about entire countries – China’s 1.3 billion people are an obvious example, but don’t forget other countries, like Argentina’s 40 million. These are entire countries lining up behind single players.

The country label carries a greater inherent strength to it as well. It’s the country that appears in place of your college, the flag you wrap around your waist, and the country you play for in the offseason. In many cases, it’s even the origin of your name. I can’t say for certain, but I don’t anticipate many NBA fans outside Virginia (or maybe even in Virgnia) knew that Allen Iverson hailed from there. But I’d be hard-pressed to find a semi-interested NBA fan that doesn’t know that Manu Ginobili comes Argentina, or even any American that doesn’t know that Yao Ming comes from China.

The connection is similar to American towns’ allegiance to their players, but blown incredibly out of proportion. These are entire countries of tens of millions people, uniting behind a player who is indelibly stamped with the name of their home country. Every player carries come contingent of fans that supports their player over anything else – their family, their hometown, their friends. But international players carry entire nations’ worth.

What am I getting at? I have no problem with nations cheering for individual players. It’d be ridiculous to expect China to continue to care about the Bucks right now after they traded Yi. The problem, however, comes in those instances where the interests of a particular player conflict with the interests of the team they plan on.

My example of what I mean comes from my tendency to frequent Spurs-related forums. There is a huge proportion of Spurs fans from Argentina that only care about the team because of Manu Ginobili (and to a lesser extend, Fabricio Oberto – but Manu is clearly the focus). I’ve spoken with Argentinean fans that hate – yes, hate – Gregg Popovich for not starting Manu. Most analysts state-side, while perhaps not completely agreeing with his decision to bring Manu off the bench, can at least see the value in it. But there’s a contigency of Argentinean fans that consider it a personal affront to Manu to bring him off the bench.

This is where the conflict lies and true colors show. As far as his personal fame, success and legacy, it would probably be better for Manu to start. He’d easily be one of the league’s leading scorers and would likely be a shoe-in for the All-Star team. However, that may not be what’s best for the Spurs franchise.

The problem goes further than that. When the team isn’t successful, there is a tendency among international fans of their hometown player to lay the blame everywhere else but on their own player. The front ofice, the coach, the other players – but their home player is infallible.

I’m treading on light territory here, so let me pause and say that I am not implying for the slightest second that all international fans fall into this category – that is most certainly not the case. But there is a large, vocal contigent of fans behind every international player that, when you get down to it, is more a fan of their player than of the team they play for.

If the relationship isn’t clear yet, let’s consider an analogy: marriage, putting two entire families together on account of a single pairing. The pairing of a team’s fans and a new international player’s fans is similar. They deal amicably and they rejoice at the couple’s happiness. But if things go south in the couple, the particular circumstances become irrelevant – each family sides with their member.

Fortunately, in most circumstances, the fans have little or no impact on the actual team. But that’s the crucial note: in most circumstances. There do come circumstances, rare as they are, where fan desires actually impact the decisions made. Think Yi Jianlian and the Bucks – it was pressure from the Chinese government, itself essentially a really powerful fan, that caused the Bucks to cave and promise Yi playing time as a rookie. And if we venture outside the NBA for a moment, recently it was fan pressure that caused the Cleveland Browns to switch quarterbacks.  Fan pressure does occassionally influence the decisions by the franchise. It shouldn’t be that way, but at the end of the day, the NBA’s a business and ticket sales, merchandise and TV contracts rule.

My prediction is there’s going to come a day when somehow, some way, international fans of a particular player are going to affect a team’s decision-making in a significant way, and there’s going to be consequences. It’s going to change the way NBA teams do business with international players. Teams are going to become more and more skeptical of the worth in dealing with a player’s international baggage in exchange for their play. Or, teams are going to see the marketing value associated with international players and make concessions for the sake of profit. Either way, it’s not a good result.

So all I can say is that international fans, take a long look at what you’re supporting. Ask yourself, if my player was traded would I still care about his current team? If the answer is no, that’s perfectly fine – but please, for the sake of the league, stay out of the coach’s, front office’s, and others players’ business. Yes, they’re doing what’s best for the franchise, not what’s best for your player – that’s what team sports are. If you persist in allegiance to your player above and beyond the team’s best interest, all you’ll end up doing is hurting the player, the team and the league in general.

8 Responses to “International Fans – Loyal to the Player or Loyal to the Team?”

  1. paul123 Says:

    You make a couple of valid points. I’m German and I’ve been following the NBA closely for about 16 years now. My allegiances have always been with certain players. I used to be a Bulls fan, then a Sonics fan (Schrempf being there played a role) and then a Sixers fan. Now I’ve been a huge Mavs fan since Dirk started there but I’m pretty sure I would lose interest in them if they were to trade Dirk, even though I’ve been following them religiously. I don’t really share your fear that one day international fans will negatively influence a team’s decision making.

  2. paul123 Says:

    Thinking about it, maybe I would remain a Mavs fan if Dirk would retire as a Mav and never play for another team, at least until there’s a new German superstar, which might never happen again in my lifetime.
    As for the other aspect, I think the only fan base large enough to exert any influence would be the Chinese, but so far it’s only been the Chinese government/ sports officials who may have had a say in Yao’s or Ji’s decisions, not the fans per se. A valid question is how a team’s decisions could be influenced by a desire to profit financially by signing a player from a certain country (China again), but isn’t income from merchandising/ broadcasting contracts shared among all teams equally? So could money only come from separate sponsorship deals (for example arena naming rights with a company from a foreign players country)? I’m not informed on how this works in the NBA. Do you know how the Rockets have profited financially from having Yao?
    What teams could maybe count on is selling more tickets to immigrants in the US from other countries, which would apply to the Chinese again, but could also be relevant if for example there was a Mexican star in the league.

  3. Jay Says:

    Why can’t fans influence decision-making? Since when did basketball become foreign relations? It is entertainment after all, and fans are the main consumers- it is only right that they have at least some input in what they see on the court. Otherwise, why have all-star games and dunk contests? Why make basketball stars into virtual deities through global marketing? And after all, its not as if every front office or gm or coach knows what they’re doing- Isiah Thomas was an EPIC FAILURE who almost ruined my beloved Knickerbockers. I personally know more fans who would probably be more qualified as gms. Thanks for reading

  4. kostas Says:

    Interesting article with solid points but I think there is a hint of exaggeration.IMO you have 2 kinds of basketball fans,both in the US and internationally.Those who above all appreciate the game of basketball regardless of which team they support and those who don’t really have a knowledge of the game but like to take a look once in a while.I believe or maybe I like to believe that the majority of basketball fans fall in the first category, which is contrary to your view.I am saying that a basketball fan in eg. Argentina would not really mind the benching of Ginobili because he would understand it is better for his team.He knows better.Now someone who doesn’t watch much basketball would maybe be upset judging it in a naive way.These people rarely are actually basketball fans,they just like to criticize everything.I don’t think there should be any concern for the involvement of foreign governments and fans in the decisions of GM’s and the like (you blew it a little out of proportion there).If they become annoying it would backfire by making their own products-their players unattractive, after all.Thanks

  5. Zeiram Says:

    Interesting note, as an international fan I can partly agree with you. I´m German so naturally Dirk Nowitziki is one of my favorite players (my favorite being Tayshaun Prince) but although I route for him I don´t really care for the Mavericks. That however has to do with the fact that as a fan of Dirk I cannot decide on which team he plays so it isn´t that I am always valueing the player over team but rather that particulary team. I am a Piston fan and as such I want the best for the team even if that means tradeing players I liked (Billups) and so on. Now if Dirk were to play for the Pistons I wouldn´t care if he was benched or something like that if it were for the teams sake. If the Mavs would bench him I would go nuts. I think this is true for most international fans who came to like basketball first and the player second. These kind of fans will always have a favorite team which they like more than any player and certain players the value regardless of the team they are playing in. The kind of fans you describe came to love basketball through one player and therefore value him above all else. Take Yao for example he is the sole reason so many chinese are basketball fans nowadays so he is the focus of their (fan-) love. That is why as you described they would rather see him benched throughout the playoffs than to have his injuries persist through the summer. There are however some chinese fans how became basketball fans because they watched Jordan kill the Jazz in the finals or Shaq dominate whoever stood in his way. These fans came to love the Bulls,Lakers or some other team and although they support Yao as a fellow chinese they value the success of these teams over his. These are the real fans and these are the fans that impact the NBA so you don´t have to worry so much about us international fans.


    a German Piston maniac
    (Iverson will brings us the banner!)

  6. Javier Says:

    You can’t pretend that a basketball fan overseas, thousands of miles away from the US, feels any special empathy with an NBA team. In Europe and LatAm, sports fans cheer mostly for their hometown teams of for teams whith whom they have some sort of emotional connection.
    So we in Spain support Pau, Calderon, Marc, Rudy and Sergio because they represent us in the national team.

  7. Marshall Says:

    Interesting post, and I certainly think you have a point. However, having attended the Beijing Olympics, I can personally attest that the most popular basketball player in China during that time was Kobe Bryant, not Yao Ming. I have also heard that Kobe’s jersey and even T-Mac’s are more popular than Yao’s in China. This is not to say that people in China don’t root for the Rockets because of Yao – but they are completely obsessed with Kobe, there is not other way to describe it.

  8. Mike Says:

    Yep. I live in Shanghai, and while the Rockets are the #1 favorite team of people I have asked, the Lakers are #2 and I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone say the Nets. Kobe and T-Mac are much more frequently cited as a favorite player than Yao.

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