While working on our series on the Rams' rise up ESPN's Ultimate Franchise Rankings (part 1, part 2, part 3), we discovered an interesting little statistical tidbit. The Rams' ranking on "Fan Relations" leaped forward from 110th out of 122 teams to 68th... still below average across all sports, but just outside the top ten of all NFL teams.
ESPN's metric is supposed to quantify "openness and consideration toward fans by players, coaches and management."
And according to fan surveys by Maddock Douglas and NetReflector, which contributed to this metric, the NFL just doesn't get it.
Of course, maybe we don't need a fan survey to tell us this. Not when Commissioner Roger Goodell is busy informing season ticket holders that "The Lockout is for the fans' own good." This is his argument, cited (and then torn to shreds) by Yahoo's Doug Farrar:
"We can't continue to shift the cost, whether it's the rising player cost or the rising cost of operating an NFL franchise, on to our fans," he said. "That's why we're trying to get a better economic model."
That's all well and good, but Fan Relations, as measured in this poll, has nothing at all to do with costs. It has to do with how you treat people.
Specifically, they asked about fans' perceptions of player conduct on and off the field (a personal bugaboo of Goodell's), appreciation shown from the teams to the fans, accessibility to the fans, and listening to fan feedback. Pretty simple stuff, but why so many teams in the nation's most successful sport can't figure it out is beyond me.
Here's what the Rams are doing right, and what so much of the league is doing wrong:
Perception is a Powerful Thing
In this poll, only three teams in the NFL truly "get it" in terms of knowing how to knit together the team and the community: the Saints, the Packers, and the Steelers. Two old-school franchises with a long history of fully requited love between the fans and the team, and a once-troubled expansion team that was united by tragedy, and then by cathartic championship glory. Each team is inseparable from their city -- they know it, act like it, and treasure it.
The fans in St Louis are enjoying a renewal of their affections with the Rams. Open practices and a team-wide commitment to character, personnified in Spagnuolo's "Four Pillars," and even the goofy-but-innocuous addition of Rampage as a team mascot helped create a friendlier fan atmosphere. That, followed by an influx of talent and wins to back up the soft improvements, have led to a mini-rennaisance of fan love. And the Rams are building on their positive momentum by including the fans in such decisions as "Which game should the Rams wear their beloved throwback jerseys for?"
However, while we're re-festooning our cars and man caves with Rams gear, we have to ignore the elephant in the room: the ever-shortening life span of the Edward Jones Dome, and Stan Kroenke's close-mouthed approach toward the situation. However, that's far from the worst behavior an NFL fan can complain about.
After all... the Rams aren't actively suing their fans in court, or charging fans $25 to park at their own "fan appreciation day" like Daniel Snyder's Redskins. (These are just two of a litany of Redskin fan complaints, captured gloriously in encyclopaedic detail by the Washington CityPaper.)
The Rams are a far cry from Al Davis' Raiders when it comes to publicly battling the local community, while keeping the team's constantly festering internal turmoil veiled in a shroud of secrecy.
And the Rams don't have to suffer an owner like the Titan's Bud Adams, who seems to seek out every opportunity to publicly embarrass his city and fans while steering the franchise deeper and deeper into mismanagement. (The fans have started their own public Facebook group, optimistically titled "Fire Bud Adams.")
The players don't get a free pass either. Not when the NFLPA* is trying to negotiate their way out of punishments for professional idiots like Kenny Britt who get arrested during the CBA-free Lockout. Or publicly tweeting about how happy they are to not be practicing. Or hiring police officers to keep fans and media away from their players-only minicamps.
These are some of the most glaring examples, but when fifteen of the 32 teams rank in the bottom tier of all professional sports, you know there is plenty of rancor to spread around.
And it becomes increasingly obvious that while Roger Goodell ostensibly has the fans' best interest in mind during these Lockout negotiations, you and I both know where his bread is buttered.