Last Thursday's Times ran a feature titled "The Loss of Tradition" that used the Pirates to illustrate the decline of small-market major league baseball while clubs with more money (Yankees) and national following (Red Sox) make the playoffs year after year.

The story has little that's news to local baseball fans, though it does have a pretty photo of PNC Park. It does remind me of some things that are peculiar about the psychology of professional sports in this county, and it prompts a little metaphorical thinking about local problems. American sports fans either embrace collectivism (i.e., revenue sharing in the NFL), or wish for it (in Major League Baseball), in an economy that is otherwise tethered to the ideology of the free market. We tie support for our team to the belief that the team has (or at least should have) an "equal chance" at winning each season's championship. If the team doesn't or can't have a shot at the playoffs, then a lot of people aren't going to go, or watch, or even care.

In both senses, in other words, sports fans in this country not only believe that teams and players belong to the fans in an abstract, pscyhological sense, but they believe that the leagues, players, teams, and local governments should share that ownership with fans in a slightly more concrete sense. Fans who stop buying tickets because the team is lousy aren't just shoppers in a free market; they're like shareholders who are getting out of a stock. Revenue sharing and public financing for stadiums are subsidies for small "stockholders" -- ways to help small investors get into the market for less than full price, and ways to keep the stock price moving upward later.

I don't own season tickets, and I'm not really a sports stockholder, but if I did, and if I were, the first thing I would want before buying in is honest accounting from leagues, owners, players, and cities. My guess -- and it's just a guess -- is that the Pirates are in the dumpster because psychologically, the team and the city are fiscally indistinguishable. Too much money borrowed by feckless leaders and spent on the wrong stuff, hoping for the ship that's not really going to come in. The Steelers are different, psychologically speaking. Strong, stable ownership and leadership. Accountability and responsibility. And these days, great results.


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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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