Fandom in the Free Agency Era
Being a Falcons fan has been tough over the years. It has been beaten to death that the team has never had consecutive winning seasons. We have seen so many promising starts end with disappointment. Some have asked me why I was a Falcons fan to begin with, and my answer is that I lived near Atlanta when I was younger, and started following the team because of it. The NFL has fans that have no such association, so I began to wonder why they attach to a certain team.
For the older fans, they may have liked a particular player, be it that the player went to a nearby college, or just had a personality they liked. Prior to free agency, these players would have been with the same team for a long time, so it would have been easy to keep up with the player and grow fond of the team.
For the younger fans, they tend to be children of NFL fans, may follow the team because their parents/alternative role models do. I know this to be true with my own children, as they can identify the Falcons and many of the players on the team, due to my fandom. If it were not for me, I doubt they would have any interest in the team whatsoever.
It begs the question, how does the NFL draw fans that live away from an NFL team and have no family or friends to draw them in? I strongly believe that free agency has hurt the league in this aspect. It is very difficult for those that are not truly invested to keep up with the players constantly changing teams, and the team doesn’t truly have an identity, unless it employs a long-term coach, which is also rare.
I believe that the NFL should restructure the salary cap and free agency rules to allow teams more flexibility in keeping players that were drafted by the team and players who have been with the team for a long period. Basically, the cap hit for these players should be smaller than it would be for another team if they switched. This will still allow players to change teams if they desire, but would give the teams that draft well the ability to retain their own players and keep an identity. There is nothing worse than seeing a Jerry Rice playing for the Raiders or Emmit Smith playing for the Cardinals due to a cap number. I think this would be good for the veteran players, as they could finish their careers where they are comfortable, and it would be good for the league, as fans would be able to follow the core players throughout their careers with the same team, and the league would benefit from having identifiable teams to the casual fans.