Hope and Glory

A major league team could be the ticket to putting Hampton Roads on "the map", but after so many defeats, are local fans still able to stand and cheer?

Eric Kevitz was cheering too loudly.

At least that’s what the so-called fan next to him said.

Kevitz, a civil engineer by trade, had been standing and yelling and rooting for the Norfolk Nighthawks, a now-defunct team in a now defunct Arena Football league at a game at Norfolk Scope 10 years ago.

It had seemed like the right thing to do. Kevitz loves sports. Growing up in Western Branch, he went to Tides games and Admirals games. As an adult he attended professional indoor soccer matches and yes, even developmental Arena League football games. Each fall, he splurges and takes a trip to Chicago to cheer for his beloved Chicago Bears in person. And every time there are rumors of an NHL or MLB or NBA team moving to Hampton Roads, Kevitz hopes this is the year it happens.

But at this moment, at this minor league arena football game, he was struck by a series of questions. Too loud? At a football game?

How could Hampton Roads ever have a professional sports team of its own with so-called fans like this? When Kevitz tells the story today, he answers the questions himself. First, you can’t be too loud at a football game. Second, the repeated teasing and near-miss opportunities of a professional team moving to southeastern Virginia has sucked the life out of fans and led to situations like this.

Roll the highlights:

  • In 1997, leaders in Norfolk tried to bring an NHL team to the region. League officials decided on four other cities instead.
  • In 2002, leaders in Norfolk thought they had won over the ownership of the Charlotte Hornets. The team moved to New Orleans instead.
  • In 2004, leaders in Norfolk believed they could win over the Montreal Expos. The team became the Washington Nationals.
  • And earlier this year, leaders in Virginia Beach were negotiating with the owners of the Sacramento Kings to move to Virginia Beach. Now it appears the team may go to Seattle.

This close. So close. Almost there. Heartbreak and failure are the pedestals of professional sports. Fans associate their own identity and their cities’ identities by the teams that play there: the last-second collapses of Cleveland, the ruthlessness of Philadelphia, the arrogance of New York City, the small-market surprise in Oklahoma City.

In pro sports towns, fans are disappointed by what happens on the field. Unfair calls from referees. Boneheaded coaching gaffes. In Hampton Roads, sports fans are disappointed by what happens off the field. Arena deals. Legislation. League negotiations.

But is Kevitz right? Has the cynicism sucked the life out of fans?

Better yet, can fans in Hampton Roads who feel the need to second-guess every decision do so without players and coaches to second-guess? Can they feel a kind of regret every time they turn on ESPN and see teams that they believe should have been their own? Has, in some sick way, the disappointments of the last 15 years created a new kind of extra-acerbic, Hampton Roads sports fan?

 
Hampton Roads has tried multiple times for a pro sports team

In other words, can Hampton Roads have downtrodden fans without a team for them to feel downtrodden about?

A few years ago, the broadcaster and avid baseball fan Keith Olbermann assembled a list of cities where the St. Louis Cardinals could move if they were to hypothetically leave St. Louis.

He wrote about the ideal spot this way: “If you could perfectly place a franchise somewhere in Virginia where people in Richmond and people in Newport News could all think of it as theirs, it would have a market to draw from of 2,912,685— big enough that in theory the Cardinals could think about moving there.”

He was essentially describing Hampton Roads.

City and state officials are quick to point out southeastern Virginia is the largest market in the country without representation in any of the four major sports leagues (the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball or the National Hockey League). Their figure is accurate but requires some generous gerrymandering of the region’s boundaries to include part of Richmond.

They say Hampton Roads has more fans than 22 cities blessed with franchises—but again, only if you view these statistics with a distinct home crowd advantage. Still, for all the cynicism, for all the empty minor league seats, for all the times the fans have asked if they could cheer a little more quietly, true-believers see an unrequited, if un-served, passion for major league sports.

They point to the time in 2001 when Smithfield Foods had agreed to put up $40 million for naming rights for an NBA arena. Or in 2004, a potential MLB team in Norfolk sold 60 suites and 4,000 season tickets almost instantly. Or last year, more than 11,000 fans liked the idea of bringing a pro arena to Virginia Beach on Facebook.

This spring, the General Assembly passed a bill that would give Virginia Beach additional flexibility to build for a pro team. And at the same time, city leaders have called for the re-institution of the Hampton Roads Sports Facility Authority to help a pro-team in the region. There’s a reason for all of this support and foam-finger waving among the masses and even non-sports fan.

Michael Danielson, a professor emeritus at Princeton University, wrote in his 1997 book, Home Team: Professional Sport and the American Metropolis, that “having a team marks a city as being in the Big Leagues, while not having one, meant a place is a minor league or bush league city.” In sports talk parlance, a cow town.

Many supporters believe a professional franchise in Hampton Roads could help solve one the region’s most superficial problem—a long lingering identity crisis. The quickest way to prove Hampton Roads is not minor league or bush league, the way to get on the proverbial big-time map, is to land a team.

In 2010, after the upstart United Football League announced a franchise for Virginia Beach, Kevitz immediately started the group’s official fan club.

“I knew it would take more than passive support to make sure something stuck,” he said.

If done right, he hoped, the Destroyers could prove to the world, or at least to franchise owners, that Hampton Roads was ready for a major league team of its own.

Kevitz plopped down $300 for season tickets. He traveled to road games out of state. In an extreme case, he once spent more than $1,000 on noisemakers.

For the team’s first game, without the major marketing power of the major leagues, without an ESPN television contract, or non-stop hype on sports talk radio, 15,000 fans showed up at the Sportsplex ready to scream for their hometown team.

Kevitz started to believe. “The fans showed we can spend a professional team in Hampton Roads,” he said.

Later in the season, one player told him the Sportsplex was the loudest he had seen any stadium in the league.

Kevitz was convinced.

But, almost just as quickly, the next season of football was scuttled by the league’s financial difficulties, and today Kevitz doubts what kind of influence the fans’ efforts in Hampton Roads made to the rest of the country.

Amid rumors of the Sacramento Kings landing in the Beach, the same jokes about the region resurfaced.

National pundits cracked that Hampton Roads was too racist. Others said it was too small to be considered small market. A Sacramento columnist referred to the region as “the backwater sticks.”

“I think the biggest thing for us is just getting out publicly what the Norfolk/ Hampton Roads area is,” Will Somerindyke, one of the organizers hoping to bring major league baseball to Norfolk, said in a 2004 interview. “Not only what we are demographically, but how corporately we could support a Major League franchise.”

That struggle continues nearly 10 years later.

 

Some local business leaders don’t like the name Tidewater, which last had sports prominence as the minor league home of a young and potent New York Met teams of the 1980s.

Some fans don’t like the name Hampton Roads. Nor can they support the name Norfolk or the name Virginia Beach or Norfolk-Virginia Beach metro area to describe the region.

Kevitz tells fans at Bears games he’s from Virginia Beach, because it’s the only place they’ve heard of. “We haven’t had anything to put Hampton Roads on the map,” he said. The Map.

The reasons for identity issues are oft repeated. The area is transient because of the military. Fans love the Redskins, but fans also love the Redskins’ rival, the Cowboys. Fans love the day-to-daymachinations of Virginia Tech football, but they love the event atmosphere of going to ODU games. There is no regional identity because the identity is a melting pot of everywhere else.

According to sociologist Janet Lever, a professor of at California State University in Los Angeles, professional teams are “common symbols, a collective identity and a reason for solidarity.”

Yet, the hope is that maybe a major league franchise in southeastern Virginia would finally unite the region.

To be a sports fan, to stand up and cheer and shout and potentially be told to sit down, “It takes a lot of trust” at first, Kevitz said. “It’s a blind faith.”

Fans can believe or they can become agnostic. They can see the success of Old Dominion University’s instant powerhouse of a football team and deepen their beliefs. They can watch the nearly annual local surprises in the NCAA basketball tournament and win over converts.

Or they can hope and fruitlessly pray for a professional team to land in their backyard year after year for 15 years and become agnostic.

“They’ve now become cynical,” said John DeCandido, the host of the sports talk show “The 757 Club” on WXTG-FM, 102.1 The Game. “They’ve been through this before, the whole been a bridesmaid, never been a bride.”

But the skeptics here are unlike cynicism in other parts of the country, he said. There is a fundamental difference between doubting a team will ever play a single game in your hometown and doubting your hometown team will ever win a championship.

There is a difference between fans, who at the end of the game, believe no lead is safe, who are convinced their team will not come back, who are hopeless and expect defeat, and what happens in Hampton Roads.

In pro towns there is a glint of something fans grasp on to once their season ends. “You have to have something to hold onto,” he said.

There is the hope of a new spring, of another chance, of worst to first, of improving your lot. Those fans cling to the beauty of next year. And that, DeCandido says, is what’s missing in Hampton Roads fans: hope.

It’s different from the it’ll-never-happen attitude he sees locally.

And so oddly enough, hope has become the litmus test for sports fans in Hampton Roads. And maybe for the region’s identity on The Map.

Do fans believe, after 15 years of defeat after defeat after defeat, they will eventually get a team of their own? Have they lostthat last shred of optimism? Or do they stand and cheer, maybe even a little too loudly, in the belief that next year brings a new beginning and maybe even a little hope?

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