Something strange happens to fans of successful teams that start losing. It happens gradually and you hardly notice it at first. Fans stop talking about sports amongst themselves. I've seen it with fanbases all over the country, and the change is gradual. First you're just discussing the occasional good games looking for hope, then the good players looking for effort and individual excellence, then, before you know it you're talking about favorite cocktail mixers, arguing about the right vermouth for a Manhattan, and whether the maraschino cherry adds anything. The correct answers are sweet and no, respectively.
Being a fan requires emotional investment, but doubly so for a loser. It's easier if you grow up with a losing teams. Cubs fans have remarkably hardy attitude. It's borderline pathological how they can watch a team and seem divorced from its outcome. Winning seems to detract from their identity as beleaguered underdogs. Fans who grow up with winners are the worst, they don't know how to handle sports adversity. Again, being a fan takes a lot of time, energy, and effort. It becomes easy for many of them take up another
hobby lifestyle entirely. Or worse yet, another team. College sports add even more wrinkles because the mentality of high school fans plays a heavy role in the decisions of young athletes.
What makes Texas an interesting study, as a generation that grew accustomed to the idea of championships becomes more generally accustomed to the idea of a dominant Holiday Bowl performance, is its business empire. What Texas has, that most fallen powers don't have, is a marketing engine almost unparalleled in its particular niche. Texas, Inc. has a remarkable ability to channel its message to the state's population. It will be interesting to observe how the marketing engine adapts the old narrative of BCS games, an MNC, and annual conference title contention, to newer and possibly less pleasant realities.
There is precedent, Notre Dame went from a school that competed for Championships (as opposed to that January defenestration) and top five finishes, to a marketing engine that sold Ty Willingham's marginal athletes as "good kids with grades" and Charlie Weis's "decided schematic advantage" as "The New Gold Standard" (for $9.98 on Amazon) to inclined consumers. Revenues were nice but the on field results proved hollow. With that in mind, it will be good to ask ourselves the extent to which these narratives become self-fulfilling prophecies. With Texas coming off a disappointing 9-4 season and concerning recruiting hiccups, it will be interesting to see how Texas Inc. adapts. Will they take advantage of A&M's move to position the school as a more Texas centric brand, and play up Texas ties instead title contention? Will they try the Notre Dame formula, and sell "good Texas kids with grades"? And as the narrative changes, what will that do to recruiting and the future of Texas football? Will the marketing engine undermine the results on the field?
I'll be the first to admit that a disappointing season and a program seemingly lacking in an identity has me searching for tea leaves to read, but I feel confident that the business minds have already discussed what will happen if Texas doesn't return to championship form soon. I see comments like those Deloss Dodds made two weeks ago as impromptu trial balloons; times when the back room business narrative and front page sports narratives collide. Business and marketing people for a sports empire like Texas, Inc. can't allow themselves the luxury of believing that Mack Brown's program will succeed against all challengers for victories and viewers after the last few years of non-contention, conference mates successes, and A&M's revival. Those who remember the 80's and 90's know how soon the tide can turn as unaffiliated Texan football fans find a new frontrunner.
Over the next year, regardless of play on the field, I'll be watching for signs of a marketing hedge. If there are signs that Texas, Inc. is scared of hinging its brand identity and viewership on championship and BCS caliber play, it may not mean that the near (but not quite) dominant run of the last decade is truly over, but it will indicate that the decision makers no longer believe that narrative can hold. They will do whatever is necessary to keep the money flowing, and the possibility of undermined recruiting will take a backseat to safeguarding revenue.
I'm vaguely frightened by what narrative the marketing minds and Disney may choose for Texas in the absence Saturday victories. Selling something other than championships may mean that I'm spending a lot more time talking cocktails with my fellow Texas Exes.