On Franchise Loyalty, and Storytelling

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jonah Keri Sports writer/Stock market writer/Hoser

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In the weeks and months leading into this fall, ESPN did a great job building buzz around its "30 for 30" documentary series. The idea was simple enough: Make 30 documentaries covering the 30 years ESPN has been on the air. The hook was in the how: The Worldwide Leader planned to turn the keys over to accomplished filmmakers, give them total autonomy, and let them pick topics that interested them. This was an encouraging departure from some of ESPN's past self-congratulatory ventures, from their 25th anniversary blowout to their infamous "Next" Series.

Between writing my book, advocating for a hostile takeover of Planet Earth (or at least Major League Baseball) by robots, and the relentless but thrilling time suck that is caring for newborn twins, it's been tough enough to find time to shower, let alone sit down and watch 60 minutes of uninterrupted TV.

I finally found some free time to watch this weekend, though. My first viewing: Barry Levinson's "The Band That Wouldn't Die", the story of the Baltimore Colts marching band.

The film hit me in two ways. The first was the vivid description of the heartache that fans suffer when their hometown team gets ripped away.

Levinson takes a complex issue -- Robert Irsay wresting the Colts from Baltimore in the dead of night and dropping them in Indianapolis -- and boils it down to a simple main theme, the Colts marching band. It's an approach that hits you on a visceral level. As a lifelong Montreal Expos fan, I related to the pain suffered by these Colts die-hards, the band that kept playing the Colts fight song, often well beyond Baltimore's city limits.

Carrying water for a defunct or transplanted sports team, to an outside observer, might seem the height of intellectual folly. Most players and coaches won't dwell on the matter, collecting themselves and cashing checks in greener pastures. The league commissioner won't object, since he's the one approving the move, either through tacit approval by way of lack of disapproval (as was the case with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle on the Colts), or by orchestrating a series of shady moves himself (as was the case with MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and the gifts he handed Expos turned Marlins Owner Jeffrey Loria...sorry...JEFFREY FUCKING LORIA...and Marlins turned Red Sox Owner John Henry).

And of course the owner certainly won't care -- he's the one agitating for an exodus in the first place. In a way, it's tough to blame the owner too. If Microsoft suddenly decides it's better for business to relocate corporate headquarters to another city, it's certainly going to hit the city of Seattle hard. But Microsoft also has a responsibility to its shareholder to make the fattest profits possible.

In the case of private sports team ownership, the interests are inherently more selfish, since it's one's personal fortune, and not those of shareholders, at stake. If Peter Karmanos wants to move the Hartford Whalers or Art Modell wants to move the Cleveland Browns to make more money elsewhere, it stinks, but it's well within their rights. Building new stadiums for multi-millionaires/billionaires on the public dime remains one of the most ridiculous practices the sports world has ever foisted on us. But if some other city wants to foolishly write a blank check, why would any reasonable businessman say no?

All that aside, as jilted fans we feel only sadness and bitterness toward those who took our team away. As Baltimore native and current Baltimore Ravens Owner Steve Bisciotti put it:

It was kind of surreal to not have a team. I remember thinking back then, what it was like to be a city without a football team. To watch games, and have no rooting interest...It was just something that I had never experienced, and didn't know until you did experience it how tough it was to view the NFL as a world that you weren't really a part of.

The second aspect of "The Band That Wouldn't Die" that struck a chord was the amazing storytelling involved. The true test of a good storyteller, be it a writer, a filmmaker or just a buddy spinning a yarn, is his ability to capture the attention of his audience without the crutch of a universally appealing subject. If you're writing about JFK or World War II or the Moon Landing or Michael Jordan, you've got both plenty of great material with which to tell your story, as well as a captive audience.

In "The Band That Wouldn't Die," Levinson offers an orgy of consumable material for older Baltimore natives. If you loved "Diner", you'll flip for this documentary. In one hour, Levinson ticks off the big Ballmer standbys: Johnny Unitas, the glory days of the Colts, Mayflower moving vans, the unique character of the city, and the band that everyone loved. All he needed was Tom Waits intro music, Bodie and Poot slinging on the corners and a token love note to Cal Ripken and you'd have covered the gamut for the city.

But this story hits you even if you're too young to remember the pre-Indy Colts, too skeptical to buy the marriage quiz in "Diner" and too reputation-obsessed to have ever set foot in Baltimore. Levinson tugs at your heart strings when he describes the suffering loyal Colts fans felt when their team left -- like they lost their best friend. He makes us laugh when the Colts band tells of the trickery they performed to hide their trademark uniforms. He makes us think when he notes the conflict Baltimore fans felt when they finally got a team back, with that team being poached from the fine folks of Cleveland.

And Levinson makes us want to toss our TVs off a cliff every time he presents the image of Robert Irsay, the drunken, despotic former owner of the Colts who didn't give a rat's ass about anyone but himself.

It's not your ball team. It's not our ball team. It's my family's ball team. I paid for it and I worked for it.

This is what Michael Lewis did in "Liar's Poker", taking a subject that might seem interesting to only a small segment of people (bond trading) and making it into a rollicking read. It's what Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner did in "Freakonomics" and "SuperFreakonomics", showing the world that the reach economics has goes way beyond that boring macro class you took as a freshman. It's what I hope to do in my upcoming book about the Tampa Bay Rays, a team that would seem to lack appeal beyond the Gulf Coast (and possibly Hazleton, PA); you dig for the interesting nuggets, you present a story people can get behind, and eventually the subject becomes far less relevant than the message, and the journey.

Many of the other topics ESPN plans to cover in "30 for 30", such as the USFL and Terry Fox, would seem to only appeal to small audiences. But if the storytelling in those flicks rivals the job Levinson did in this case, the WWL will quickly win big numbers and much acclaim for its efforts. At the very least, ESPN has already earned one loyal viewer.