On a frigid Monday evening this January—in the midst of a Raptors season that has forced long-suffering fans to grapple with unfamiliar feelings of optimism and even pride—I went down to the Air Canada Centre with a couple of friends to watch the team take on the Detroit Pistons.
The seats belonged to my friend Dave, an avid fan and long-time season-ticket holder. Dave lived through the Vince Carter heartbreak and the Bargnani Experience. He witnessed a garish parade of uniforms, cheered for journeymen like Steve Novak and Jason Kapono, and spent countless evenings in the ACC when the only thing worth clapping for was the promise of free promotional pizza. In other words, he’s more than earned the right to relish this season. He should have been enjoying himself.
Instead, as we watched the Raptors run out to a big first half lead, Dave’s mind was on contracts. “Now’s the time to trade Terrence Ross,” he said, sipping his beer. “He’s still on a rookie contract and he’s got some value.”
At that precise moment, the young small forward streaked down the court, leapt high through the air to catch a Kyle Lowry pass above the rim, and slammed the ball home. It was the kind of athletic feat that you hope for from a night at the arena—when years of training and a freakish natural ability conspire to create a moment of breathtaking kinetic beauty. We waited a moment for the cheering to subside. “Now’s a good time to make a move,” Dave said. I nodded vigorously. “He’s a good asset.”
This is, of course, totally sound logic. But that didn’t make the contrast less striking. There we were—watching a man soar through the air like a god—and all we could think about was possible trade value.
It’s a way of thinking that seems more and more prevalent. Today, being a sports fan increasingly feels like being a fan of a business—an exercise in corporate loyalty more than anything else. It means being familiar with salary caps and having an opinion on restricted versus unrestricted free-agency. After a trade is made or a player is signed, our first impulse is to evaluate whether or not the deal is good value, as if the pocketbook of some faceless cable provider or oil baron billionaire should be our primary concern. Players aren’t heroes, or even individuals. They’re assets and trade chips—tools to be used in the real game being played out in boardrooms and corporate head offices far from the court.
While fans have always dreamed up trade scenarios, in recent years the business of sports sometimes feels like it will subsume the games entirely. NBA reporters gripe that the offseason, with its flurry of free agency rumours, has become busier than the season itself. After all, what basketball moment could ever match the absurd theatre of The Decision, Lebron James’s hour-long ESPN special built around a one-sentence announcement? And, a few years later, what single Cavaliers game could be a fraction as emotionally satisfying as the heart-string-pulling narrative of Lebron’s return to Cleveland?
There’s no single reason for this shift. As Will Leitch argued in a piece for New York Magazine, the rise of fantasy sports means we’ve become intimately familiar with the intricacies of roster construction. And the salary cap era in basketball and hockey has meant that barstool GMs musing about trades now need to have a certain knowledge about cap rules and contracts in order to flout their pie-in-the-sky trade scenarios.
More than that, while the game on the court or the ice can be predictably depressing (or, for Leafs fans, depressing in totally unpredictable ways), the game in the boardroom always holds a flicker of hope. For Blue Jays fans, few on-field moments in the last decade were as thrilling as what happened during the offseason of 2013, when a series of bold moves suddenly seemed to make the team relevant again. The possibility of landing a star free agent, the promise of a high draft pick—if you are a fan of one of the hopeless franchises of the world, these moments are your Super Bowl.
Perhaps the most obvious comparison to the shift in sports fandom is in the world of entertainment. Twenty years ago, Samuel L. Jackson’s Pulp Fiction hitman had to patiently explain the process of TV-production to John Travolta and, by proxy, the audience. “The way they pick the shows on TV is they make one show, and that show’s called a pilot,” he said.
It’s a scene that would never exist in 2015. Today, people casually talk about their favourite showrunners and discuss the merits of a 13-episode order. They read the industry gossip on Deadline and quote opening weekend box office numbers, as if a flick’s overseas gross has anything to do with your appreciation of the narrative onscreen. We live in a moment when showrunners like Dan Harmon or Matthew Weiner have become stars just as General Managers like Masai Ujiri or Rockets boss Darryl Morey have become cult celebrities.
With both sports and TV, the impulse is the same: to get an insider perspective on an entertainment we love. The idea of simply accepting these products at face value—thinking about Sam and Diane as characters, accepting the cartoonishly heroic image of Michael Jordan that the NBA served up—seems impossibly unsophisticated. We’re no longer content to sit back and watch the product on our screens. Now, we constantly have one part of our minds on the meta-narrative, the game outside the game.
None of this is bad, necessarily. It just means that we watch the game with a slightly different eye, our perspective increasingly aligned with the graying men sitting in the owner’s box rather than the athletes on the floor. It’s telling that the best sports movie in years, Moneyball, is about a general manager who learns to harness the power of analytics. The quintessential sports hero of the modern age isn’t the plucky underdog who comes up with the clutch play in the big moment. It’s the guy who trades that underdog the instant he starts over performing, freeing up cap space by flipping the asset for a first-round draft pick.
At the Raptors game, Dave and I kept talking deals. It was so clear: Ross was a decent trade chip that we need to cash in to make an upgrade at a key position. The smart fan, like the smart GM, knows to an even-keel. Don’t get carried away by your emotions and lose sight of the real game. Discard childish hero-worship in favour of an attitude closer to that of the ruthlessly efficient factory owner.
Somehow, later that quarter, Ross once again got free on the baseline. Lowry caught his eye and from just past half-court tossed an arcing pass high into the space just next to the backboard. Ross took a step past his defender, leapt into the air and seemed to hang there for a moment before contorting his body, taking the pass and slamming it through the rim.
I stood and cheered along with the rest of the building, banging my hand on the railing in front of me in appreciation. Watching a game with an eye to business makes perfect