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Championships Are Not The Only Thing

Winning a championship is the only thing that matters.

You've heard this before. If you haven't, someone will say it to you, brimming with earnestness. But if you're a Charlotte Bobcats fan, it won't sound quite right. Something about it rings hollow because, empirically, fans don't actually believe that winning a championship is the only thing that matters to them.

If someone tells you that winning a championship is the only thing that matters, you can be assured that person:

A -- Roots for a team that has little to zero chance of packing up and leaving in the foreseeable future, and

B -- Believes his team will have a title shot within his lifetime, given the cyclical nature of major American sports and the hope that ownership will find someone competent to build a title contender, even if finding that architect was due to blind luck.

B is somewhat conditional upon A, since if a team might leave, either folding or relocating, everything else is kind of irrelevant. However, off the top of my head, at least 90% of major league teams in MLB, NFL, and NBA are covered by both A and B. The Charlotte Bobcats are not covered by both A and B.

There is a non-zero chance the team will leave Charlotte, either via contraction or moving somewhere, with a new owner assuming all of Bob Johnson's debts and the supposed $100 million-plus relocation penalties. Said hypothetical owner might justify paying to leave Charlotte by going to a place with an arena in place, like Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, or Seattle. Again, it's unlikely, but a non-zero chance.

However, I'm pretty optimistic the Bobcats will be title contenders someday if they stay in North Carolina. Johnson is no Donald Sterling; his intention is to make money here by winning, and though he may make misguided choices, they are well-intentioned and I have faith things will eventually work themselves out.

Winning a championship is the only thing that matters.

The reason this statement, in all its variations, irks me so much is because the history of pro sports in the United States disproves it again and again. Yes, winning a championship is awesome, but it's not a basic desire for fans. It's a secondary desire that fans can afford to have once their primary needs are met.

This is a concept that's not unique to sports fandom. Political pundits love to argue about how biased the mainstream American news media is. They can argue forever over whether or not liberals or conservatives or moderates get preferential treatment. However, hardly anyone will talk about the biases that everyone agrees to support: Responsible capitalism is good, the United States government's existence is good, and so on. If you don't agree with the primary conditions, there's no use discussing the secondary ones, and you won't be allowed into the discussion, anyway.

So it is with fandom. What every fan wants, primarily, is reasonable hope for a championship in the foreseeable future, and sustained success year after year. If championships were the only thing that mattered, the Florida Marlins would be sitting pretty with tons of fans. But they're not.

I understand it's not exact, and please excuse the strained comparison, but that's a main reason why a team that's won two championships within the past twelve years, the Florida Marlins, can't build a fan base, and a team that's never won a championship, the Carolina Panthers, has a rabid and devoted following. Since 1993, the Marlins have had 6 bad seasons, 8 middling seasons, and 2 great seasons which resulted in championships (under 75 wins is bad, 75-85 wins is middling, and 85+ wins is great). Since 1995, the Panthers have had 2 bad seasons, 8 middling seasons, and 4 great seasons. It's getting better for the Marlins since they haven't had a terrible season in a few years, but they did not have sustained success like the Panthers did, in which every season they could legitimately talk about having a competitive team. Championships don't mean anything if no one has a connection to the franchise, that connection is only built with a multiyear relationship, and that only occurs when a team is competent for a number of years in a row, giving people reason to stick around.

It's not good enough for the Charlotte Bobcats to merely make the playoffs. In the NBA, earning the right to be rocked by the Cavaliers in the first round is no accomplishment. The novelty of being in the playoffs for a year or two and the reasonable amount of winning that accompanies a playoff run will draw some people in. But I'm against so many moves the Bobcats have made this year because I don't see how they lead to sustained success, which would draw so many more people to the team.

As it stands right now, the Bobcats have put themselves in a position to compete for a playoff spot this year, next year, and perhaps the year after. However, they're set to spend so much money in future seasons that their cap situation looks to be screwed through 2012, so they won't be able to sign anyone of note to be the final piece of the puzzle unless they move nearly unmoveable contracts (Diaw, Diop) or trade core building blocks (Gerald, Emeka). And even if they do nail their draft picks, those guys won't fully develop for three or four years. That has the wonderful effect of giving the Cats a chance to top out as a low playoff seed for two or three years, then start the rebuilding again, only this time without Gerald or Emeka, because their current contracts were spent as the cornerstones of a seven seed unable to add talent due to the bloated contracts at the back end of the rotation.

The best case scenario is that Augustin takes a giant step forward, we ride out our current contracts as a lower tier playoff team, and we hit the jackpot on our two first round draft picks (another one will go to Denver if we make the playoffs thanks to the Ajinca deal), so we won't really need to rebuild when Gerald's and Emeka's contracts come off the books in 2013 and 2014, because the new guys will be hitting their stride and they will become the cornerstones. But, as we're well aware (Cough!AdamMorrisonCough!DariusMilesCough!AlexisAjinca!), getting a franchise pillar in the draft is no sure thing, let alone an All Star. And if if you take a step back from the best case scenario to a more reasonable, if still optimistic, expectation for the players those picks will yield, well... we're right back here again and not building a team to have sustained success.

It would be greedy to ask for the Bobcats to be like the Spurs. Ideally, short of the Spurs, I just want them to be like the Mavs or Suns of recent vintage. Every year, we know they're going to make the playoffs, and in a special year, where things break their way or they discover a dynamic new player, they have a real title chance. Year after year. Like the Stockton-Malone Jazz.

It's not good enough to make the playoffs knowing we won't win a title, and then wondering if we'll get back any time soon. Aim high. This team needs to build a stronger relationship with fans and the region, and that will only happen if the team strings together years of reasonably successful seasons. The way we're going, I'm afraid we're not headed in that direction.