Die-hard sports fans never waver in their loyalty. They are there in good times and bad. Most fan bases are a combination of die-hard fans and fair weather fans. The latter sort show up when the going is good, but slip away to other pursuits when the going gets rough.
Being a fan is an investment. For the die-hard fans, they are ‘all-in’, no matter what. For the fair weather fans, they are only in if the good times are rolling.
The strength of the San Jose Sharks fan base has waned in recent years as fair weather fans have decided to use their time and money on other things. There are several causes. Results on the ice is one contributor. After years of similar results (make the playoffs and be done before reaching the Cup finals), the Sharks gave fair weather fans (and perhaps even a few die-hards) a major reason to step away. The reverse sweep at the hands of the Kings in 2014 took a downward trend and accelerated it. Sharks management added more gravity to the descent by making several questionable offseason moves and delivering a basket-case season (by San Jose standards) in 2014-15.
The Shark Tank attendance has suffered this season. The attendance figures do not resemble the actual fans in seats. At the second to last game of the season, the official attendance was stated at 15,900. The place was roughly half full. In a venue that holds 17,562, there were under 10,000 actually there.
The Inflection Point
For the Sharks, a moment of change is here. The question is, which way will things turn?
This Sharks team has put themselves exactly where they need to be. They are ahead 2-0 in a series against the same team who dispatched them in a series they led 3-0 just two seasons ago. This is a chance to write a redemption story and perhaps go deep into the playoffs. This Sharks team is good enough and given the fickle nature of playoff hockey, healthy enough to go far.
The franchise would love to send a message of “it’s different this time”. A skeptical and somewhat apathetic fan base isn’t yet responding, though there have been occasional signs of a rebound. A check of available seats just over 24 hours before Game 3 against the Kings showed several hundred unsold seats. If the primary outlet for ticket sales has yet to sell out, one expects the ticket brokers are also holding some inventory. Though the game will likely sell out, it hardly compares to the times when a Sharks playoff game would sell out minutes after tickets were made available.
The message from the fans back to the Sharks franchise seems to be “we’ve been here before and we’ve got other things to do at the moment”. For many fans, nothing is different until it is actually proven different. With postseason success, the answer might change to “this is new and we’re interested.”
Even if the fans current response is tepid, they might be paying attention. Should the Sharks take care of the Kings, fans may start to sense something really major is happening. They may decide the weather is fair and its time to grab something teal from the closet and head down to the Shark Tank. Alas, attendance is a lagging indicator. Fans want proof things are genuinely are different before full support returns.
But should the Sharks fail against the Kings, the downside is there as well. Few think the Sharks are a team on the upswing. The team’s best players are all in their 30’s. The best player happens to be 36. For San Jose, a failure at this point would reinforce to the fair weather fans that nothing has changed. These fans have decided they’ve seen this show before and well, there are other things to do in April. And there will be other things to do in October, when next season starts.
For the Sharks team, they’ve gotten to this point in the postseason by playing good hockey and improving collectively. There is plenty to enjoy. It starts with the league’s most interesting player, Brent Burns. Joe Thornton is playing like the legend he is. It also includes creative youth such as Joonas Donskoi and the ‘cool as cucumber’ new goalie, Martin Jones. Drop this team as it exists today into a dozen or more NHL markets and it’d be ‘let the good times roll’.
One can’t help but feel things will change, for better or worse. If postseason results resemble the past decade, the ship continues its downward drift. A failure to beat LA would accelerate it. However, a successful playoff run could flip the script and remind the fan base there is something special about the Sharks. In the coming days (and perhaps weeks), the gap between the team and the fan base is certain to change. Which direction that change takes will have everything to do with what happens on the ice.
For all the talk about the battles of California, their playoff rivalries are really quite recent. The Sharks and Kings are now in their fourth playoff series in the last six seasons. Prior to 2011, though, they had never met in the postseason, despite being in the same conference for nearly 20 years. The Sharks have won more games than they’ve lost against the Kings in the postseason (12-10), but it doesn’t feel that way to Sharks fans. They’ve met their other Southern California rival, Anaheim, just once in the postseason. Should both the Sharks and Ducks advance, they will meet in the next round.
Former Sharks goalie Alex Stalock continued his difficult season. The AHL Toronto Marlies decided they could make their postseason run without Stalock. From an NHL goalie to fourth string on an AHL club in just a few months. That is one rough ride.