Rest in Peace, Chicago Cubs.      


(3 of 99)

The Lovable Losers seem to have it all: a storied history, a classic park, and perhaps the most long-suffering fanbase in all of modern sports (the Dallas Cowboys, who also happen to be having a good year, run them a close race on this count). Yet until Game 7 wrapped up early Thursday morning, the only thing the Cubs have seemed able to do consistently is lose; from their 1908 to 2015, they lost a staggering 51% of their games.

So why are Cubs fans so loyal? One answer is that Philip Wrigley (as in Wrigley Field and Wrigley’s chewing gum) made it his goal way back when to break the link between team wins and fan attendance. Over the years, Cubs fans bought into the idea, showing up at the ballpark (sometimes described as the world’s largest outdoor beer garden) whether the team won or lost. In other words, Wrigley made “take me out to the ballgame” an experience in itself, regardless of the team’s performance (see also Cowboy Stadium, aka Jerry World, The Palace in Dallas, Cowboys Cathedral, Jonestown, Jerassic Park, etc.).

And in an ironic twist, Wrigley’s win in the stands may have actually encouraged his team’s losses on the diamond. Two decades ago, economist Philip Porter found that the teams with the best records were actually those with the least loyal fans. In other words, if the fans (customers) keep buying tickets (purchasing the product) despite losses (low product quality) then the owner has no incentive to invest or improve. Porter and others have proposed that Cubs fans, by showing up regardless of the win-loss record, may themselves be the true source of the Cubs Curse, although I’m a fan of the goat theory myself, because hey, it’s a goat!

Which brings us back to the original question: how can rooting for a loser make you feel like a winner? Here are four ways:

  1. Losing can bond people together just as strongly as winning. Oxford University’s Martha Newson says the intensity of the experience builds the bond, so that ‘oh so close’ season (or 100 of them in a row) may forge an unbreakable fellowship of shared misery. Or something.
  2. You can define yourself just as well by losing as by winning. George Ellis, in his book The Cubs Fan’s Guide to Happiness, shares perspectives that make the whole thing seem perfectly reasonable, with chapter titles like “Loyaltiness is Next to Godliness,” “To Boo or Not to Boo,” and “The Power of Low Expectations.”
  3.  For some, your team is an extension of yourself. In Cleveland (a.k.a The Mistake by the Lake) the NFL Browns (currently 0-8, last championship in 1964) seem to mirror the city’s seemingly insurmountable urban struggles (Forbes named it the “Nation’s Most Miserable City” in 2010). The Cavs’ curse was broken by LeBron. Period.
  4. Losing is like drugs. Seriously. Scientists at Tufts university demonstrated that competitors experience a release of Dopamine (a feel-good brain chemical) after a win…and a LARGER release after they lose. In other words, losing feels good, in some strange way.

So as the “City of the Broad Shoulders” stands a little taller today, keep in mind what your kindergarten teacher probably told you: “Winning isn’t everything.” In fact when it comes to happiness, winning may be a lot less important than we think; Red Sox fans cautioned today that in their experience a ‘win for the ages’ like this one is mostly forgotten by Christmas. Are they jealous? Of course. But also correct.

So… congratulations Cleveland Indians! You may have lost (again) but in your own weird way you continue to make tens of thousands of fans very, very happy.

“Tis better to have loved a team and lost, than never to have loved at all”         (with apologies to Tennyson)

Next time: How to make your kids HATE math

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