Boycott movement grows, but fan groups usually go nowhere

July 31, 1994|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Sun Staff Writer

We're as mad as hell. And if history is any guide, we're going to take plenty more of it.

Fans distressed by the prospect of a baseball players strike have made themselves heard loud and clear, clogging radio talk shows to bash owners and players alike. At least five groups have been formed to vent anger, including some who are promoting a one-day boycott next month.

"These guys have shown utter contempt for their fan/customer base," said Frank Sullivan, a founder of one of those groups, Fans First, of Cleveland.

A boycott, he said, would "send a clear message to owners and players alike that fans cannot be taken for granted."

But, as laudable as they seem, such efforts have always failed. Americans have demonstrated time and again that despite what they perceive as unfair treatment by indifferent owners or greedy players, they will continue turning out at the local ballpark.

"It's very hard to take a variegated crowd and turn it into a special-interest group," said David Voigt, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Albright College and the author of the three-volume "American Baseball."

Over the years, there has been plenty for fans to cry foul over, from bloated payrolls to skyrocketing ticket prices. And now, many players even charge for autographs. But the crowds keep coming back, in greater and greater numbers. Baseball set another attendance record last year, nearing 70 million.

"People are quick to forget. They get hot and bothered, but they want the game," Voigt said.

Consumer activist Ralph Nader even founded a group for sports fans in 1977 called Fight to Advance the Nation's Sports, or FANS.

The group spent a few years trying to convert fan angst over strikes, ticket price increases, television blackouts and the elimination of single-game NFL tickets, into action. It conducted surveys, investigated issues and published a newsletter.

Only about 2,000 people paid the $15 to join, and the group faded away after a few years.

"The fans are at a huge disadvantage in organizing," said Peter Gruenstein, the former executive director of FANS.

"There's a flurry of articles and anger during a strike, but when the crisis is over, people want to get back to the game," said Gruenstein, now a lawyer in Anchorage, Alaska.

There are apparently plenty of people willing to prove him wrong with the current crisis in baseball, which comes as the average salary of players has topped $1 million and franchises are often valued at more than $150 million.

A group of New York fans has organized itself into Nationally United for Fans and Family, or NUFF, as in "enough is enough." Strike Three You're Out, Strike Back, and the Professional Sports Fans Association all have the same idea.

Fans First and NUFF were both urging fans to stay away from the stadiums for a day, and the two groups eventually settled on a common date: Aug. 13.

L Then the players last week set a strike deadline of Aug. 12.

Sullivan, of Fans First, will appear tomorrow on CBS' "Good Morning America," then meet with his New York counterparts in hopes of picking a new date for the boycott. Under consideration: Next Saturday or Sunday.

Ron Dalton, another Fans First organizer and a lifelong Orioles fan, said he went to his first baseball game at Memorial Stadium when he was 7 and he and his father drove from their Fallston home to see the Washington Senators play the Orioles.

Dalton is now 31 and an administrator at Ball State University in Indiana. He's not sure he wants to take his 3-year-old son to a game.

"At this point I'm not sure I want to encourage it. Why encourage disappointment?" Dalton said.

He hopes a boycott would jar the players and owners into considering the fan. Organizers say the point will be made if people at least stay away for the first few innings. "What we're hoping to do is have the umpire yell 'play ball' to an empty ballpark," Dalton said.

Gruenstein said the now-defunct FANS considered organizing boycotts but decided it would be impossible and possibly zTC self-defeating because a failure would reinforce the idea that fans don't care. He said there have been isolated attempts at sports boycotts over the years -- including one led by disgruntled Buffalo Bills fans in the 1970s -- but none has ever succeeded.

Organizing them requires immense resources and sophistication and could, ultimately, be defeated by owners willing to lure fans in with cheap tickets or giveaways, he said.

"It is a very difficult thing to do and the prospects for failure are very great," he said. "I wish them the best of luck and hope I am wrong."

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