The Curse of the Loyal Sports Fan

The Chicago Cubs’ customers show up win or lose—which may explain why, until now, the team has mostly done the latter.

Mike McQuade

In the bottom of the seventh inning of their home opener this spring, the Chicago Cubs didn’t have a hit, and the 40,882 fans who had crammed Wrigley Field were reverting to learned habit. Attention was waning, and the ballpark—consistent with its reputation as “the world’s largest outdoor beer garden”—was buzzing the steady, convivial buzz of a block party. When a Cub finally looped a single to left field, the fan sitting in front of me sounded comfortably numb to the outcome. “Well, if they lose, at least they’ll have a hit,” he said cheerfully. Only when the next batter reached base did reality begin to sink in. This Cubs team was favored to win the World Series—a situation that none of the time-tested coping mechanisms could redress. What had been a social event was, suddenly, a ball game.

The Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908, the longest such drought in any major American sport. At the time of that victory, crossword puzzles, sliced bread, and the state of Arizona had not been invented. Heroin was sold over the counter as a cough suppressant. Las Vegas, at last census, had a population of 22. The word drought may be a misnomer, as actual droughts (excepting one that supposedly felled Egypt’s Old Kingdom in the 22nd century b.c.) do not last this long.

Conventional wisdom has it that the Cubs are either cursed—by a billy goat, a black cat, a fan whose name we shall not speak—or, less cosmically, just plain unlucky. But are they really? A University of Chicago economist, Tobias Moskowitz, asked the same question a few years back and arrived at a startling conclusion: The main source of the Cubs’ curse was the fans themselves.

They are too loyal.

If this sounds like a terrible case of blaming the victim, I never said it wasn’t. But Moskowitz bleeds Cubs blue. He grew up in West Lafayette, Indiana, watching Cubs broadcasts and hearing over and over again that the Cubs were simply star-crossed, always finding a way to come up just short. Only years later, while researching his 2011 book, Scorecasting—a lively Moneyball-meets-Freakonomics collaboration with the sportswriter L. Jon Wertheim—did Moskowitz revisit this narrative and find that it didn’t hold up.

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Some teams, he found, did have a legitimate history of last-minute downfall. The Boston Red Sox made an art of it, pushing four World Series to a definitive Game Seven between 1946 and 1986 before finally winning in 2004. But this sort of choking requires opportunity. The Cubs have not even made it to the World Series since 1945. In fact, they’ve made it to the postseason only seven times since then, and five of those trips ended in series they lost 4–1, 3–0, 3–0, 3–0, and 4–0. Since World War II, Moskowitz calculated, the team has finished last or second-to-last in the standings more than 40 percent of the time. The odds of that happening by chance are 527 to 1.

Why, he had to ask, didn’t the Cubs field better teams?

Another economist, Philip K. Porter, of the University of South Florida, had wondered two decades earlier whether fan loyalty might have a perverse effect on winning. Baseball teams, after all, make money not by winning games, but by filling seats. And if lost games do not translate into lost customers, the economic incentive to improve approaches zero. Crunching 25 years of data, from 1966 to 1990, Porter found that the teams most likely to win were not those with the loyalist fan bases, but those with the ficklest.

Porter wasn’t speaking of the Cubs in particular. But Moskowitz ran his own numbers and found that no team better illustrated Porter’s findings. For the crosstown White Sox, a 10 percent dip in winning percentage translated, on average, into a 12 percent drop in attendance the following year. For the Cubs, that drop was just 6 percent—the smallest of any team in the majors. Cubs fans were insensitive not only to prices (paying the second-highest ticket prices in baseball), but also to losses.

Surely the Cubs wanted to win. But Moskowitz believes that the fact that they didn’t have to—“I think [just making the playoffs] is already enough for Cub fans,” a local news anchor said with a smile last fall—was not lost on executives or players. If young talent isn’t paying quick dividends, then sure, trade future Hall of Famer Lou Brock to your archrivals in St. Louis. If teammates don’t like the volume of your salsa music, then handle it the way Sammy Sosa once did: “Fuck my teammates,” he said.

All of which squares with the comments of the team’s relatively new and highly accomplished president of baseball operations, Theo Epstein, whom the team’s owner, Tom Ricketts, hired in 2011 to engineer a top-to-bottom remake of the organization. “We’re not rebuilding,” Epstein told an interviewer in 2013. “We are building a championship organization.”

Yet prior to World War II, despite several decades without a World Series championship, the Cubs had been a top-notch club—winning four National League pennants over a 10-year stretch and adding another in 1945 (the year a fan and his billy goat were asked to leave the park). Then the team fell off a cliff, producing a single winning season in the next 20 years. What happened?

In the mid-1930s, the Cubs’ owner, chewing-gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley, was poring over yearly figures when he noticed a correlation he didn’t like: When the Cubs won fewer games, fewer people came to games. When a team executive mentioned that the public had been conditioned to expect a winner, Wrigley averred that this could be changed. “See those people going by,” he said from his office overlooking Michigan Avenue. “They are all consumers of chewing gum.” They could be made into consumers of baseball, too, with the right advertising campaign.

Wrigley’s gum company spent as much as 25 percent of its revenues on advertising—“a rate,” Fortune marveled, “matched not even by the cigarette industry”—and in many ways functioned like an ad agency disguised in a gum wrapper. Philip Wrigley himself wrote copy, selected artwork, and oversaw ad placement.

The ad campaign he envisioned for the Cubs, he told team executives, would shift the emphasis to “the fun and the healthfulness … the sunshine and the relaxation” of a day at the ballpark. The idea, he said, was “to get the public to go see ball games, win or lose.”

To this end, in 1937, he had ivy planted on Wrigley Field’s previously barren outfield wall. A monumental hand-operated scoreboard was constructed that, even brand-new, looked like a mechanical holdover from an earlier era. Wrigley wanted the same “outdoor, woodsy” motif he had just used to convert another property, Catalina Island, off the coast of California, into a profitable escape from nervous tension. Only the eight Chinese elms planted above the bleachers refused to take.

Meanwhile, Wrigley set the gum company’s top illustrator, Otis Shepard, to work designing just about all the visual elements familiar to Wrigley-goers today: new uniforms whose colors would pop vibrantly against the field’s carpet of green; the circular red C on their front; the stylized cub-face patch; the W flag flown atop the scoreboard after each home win. Most striking of all, perhaps, were Shepard’s illustrations for the official game program, which began to feature the faces of fans—not identifiable players—in bright sunshine.

The final piece of the marketing puzzle was the one that hooked Moskowitz as a boy. Any radio or television station that wanted to broadcast the games could do so, free—with the understanding that the announcers refer to “beautiful Wrigley Field” whenever possible.

It worked. It worked so brilliantly that when the Cubs suddenly plunged to the bottom of the standings in 1948, a near-record 1,237,792 fans still came to the park that season. Wrigley, according to a biography written by a family friend, “took satisfaction in the phenomenal drawing power” of the team. It validated his theories. But the losing part wounded him. “Your loyal support when we are down is a real incentive … to give all of us a winner,” he closed a written apology to fans that fall.

It did not seem to occur to him that the opposite might be true.

As the team’s play deteriorated further, he searched for an explanation. In 1952, he wondered whether a different kind of incentive might be the problem. Those new signing bonuses for young players, he complained, were dissipating the players’ motive to improve. And yet, “whenever we traded players away, they seemed to become stars,” he acknowledged in the mid‑1960s. Maybe they needed a tougher manager, like Leo “Nice Guys Finish Last” Durocher, “to wake them up.”

The realization came too late. Arriving in 1966 to a culture that even Chicago sportswriters called spoiled, Durocher got the team to start winning. But his hard tactics sparked a player revolt that came to a head at a 1971 team meeting. “I grabbed Leo and had him around the neck,” team captain Ron Santo recalled afterward. Durocher left. The Cubs went back to losing. When, in 1983, manager Lee Elia erupted at the unmotivated losers ruining his team, he was referring to the fans, not the players—“the motherfuckers don’t even work,” he said of the paying customers who reliably showed up for day games, but sometimes booed when the team reliably lost.

Yet at this point, no amount of abuse could drive the fans away. Like a super-resistant strain of bacteria, they not only held on through the indifferent ownership of the Tribune Company; they multiplied. From 2000 to 2014, the Cubs compiled the eighth-worst record in baseball and still drew more fans than all but four other Major League clubs.

To Moskowitz, the story is an object lesson in the hidden power of incentives, whose importance can be overstated but not safely overlooked. In his lifetime, the increasingly forlorn Philip Wrigley was accused of seeing the game through an economic lens. What he really needed, Moskowitz implies, was a wider lens, capable of recognizing how one corporate function (marketing) could subtly thwart the goals of another.

The question for the present, though, is: Why not keep a bad thing going? If what the management guru Peter Drucker said is true—that “the purpose of business is to create and keep a customer”—then the Chicago Cubs rank among the great American businesses of the past half century.

The short answer is that Tom Ricketts, who bought the team in 2009, is one of those people Lee Elia thought should get a job. In graduate school, before becoming a financier, he spent a great deal of time in Wrigleyville. He lived a few blocks from the park and met his future wife there. He thought the Cubs should field a team worthy of its beauty. Which they now do. The team outscored its opponents 232 runs to 122 in the first seven weeks of this season.

But what about the business itself? Could jettisoning the “win or lose” philosophy (which helped make the franchise the fifth-most-valuable in baseball) for a “win” philosophy have negative repercussions at the gate? Not in the short term, says yet another Cubs fan turned economist, Timothy Zimmer of the University of Indianapolis. The Red Sox, who have drawn bumper crowds since breaking their curse in 2004, have demonstrated as much. But when a team goes back to losing after winning a championship, Zimmer’s research suggests, eventually fewer fans show up than when losing was a given. “If your brand is ‘Lovable Losers’ and then you win a World Series,” Zimmer told me, “it’s conceivable you’ve actually done harm to your long-term brand.” Julian Green, the Cubs’ vice president of communications, acknowledges the challenges of raised expectations. “Now that it’s about fielding a winner,” he says, “you’ve gotta deliver.”

By the bottom of the eighth inning in their home opener, the Cubs had put only two runs on the board to the Cincinnati Reds’ three. There were two Cubs on base, though, and “Under Pressure” was playing over the PA system as Addison Russell came to the plate. The song trailed off, the pitch arrived, and there was a sharp report off Russell’s bat.

Sound travels well in cold air, but baseballs do not. The fans needed to see the ball clear Wrigley’s left-field wall before they knew. The solid mass of the crowd suddenly dissolved into 40,000 separately moving bodies. Strangers exchanged high fives. Beverages were dropped underfoot. And inside that deafening moment, it felt as if Philip Wrigley’s ghost might have finally left the building.