Lately the continued poor performance of the Knicks combined with the statements made by Isiah Thomas has me wondering why people would continue to be fans of the team? The franchise has had 6 consecutive losing seasons, and this year will most certainly be number 7. Additionally team president Isiah Thomas has twice insulted the fan base. The first comment was revealed during the sexual harassment trial where Thomas allegedly voices his disdain for season ticket holders (“I don’t give a fuck about these white people”). The second just last week when a fan claimed that coach Isiah blamed the team’s woes on the sixth man, referring not to David Lee but to the crowd (“We need a sixth man to be a good team”).
With the organization in disarray, wouldn’t it be easier for fans to find a different team to root for? The Nets are better off, as they still have 2 franchise players in Kidd and Carter. There’s a likable young team in the Orlando Magic who feature the NBA’s best young center in Dwight Howard and are attempting to become one of the Eastern powerhouses. Cleveland will be good for as long as LeBron James is wearing a Cavs jersey. For those that find Eastern rivals to be too close to home, a team like Golden State or Phoenix provides plenty of excitement. For every Knick fan, one of the 29 other teams is likely to be a better fit than their current choice.
Yet it seems that few fans are willing to leave the blue & orange despite the organization’s failures. The explanation for this irrational behavior is “commitment bias” (sometimes known as “irrational escalation of commitment”). In his book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”, Robert Cialdini details how important it is for people to look consistent with their actions. Hence when people make a small investment in something, they are more likely to stay consistent with that principle, even if that goes against their normal beliefs. Getting the tiniest commitment can cause people to “throw good money after bad.” There are hosts of examples of commitment bias from the Vietnam War to NASA’s International Space Station. There’s even a pedagogical tool called the dollar auction where you can get people to bid more than $1 for a single dollar bill.
This principle can be applied to sports fans. Growing up in an area where there is only one local team will inevitably result in a majority of its inhabitants to root for that team. This is because the inhabitants have made their investment (with their home), and wish to stay consistent with that investment by bonding with their area. So the commitment bias trickles down from your home all the way to your sports teams, forcing most people into a relationship that they cannot easily terminate. Even when people move to a new location, they tend to take their sports allegiances with them.
You have to imagine every NBA front office knows that getting people to become fans creates a nearly unbreakable bond. No wonder sport franchises are increasing in worth by the hour. And no wonder so many sports try to cater to youngsters. How many other industries can be complete failures for years and still gain the adoration of millions of people? For proof of this you only have to look at which team tops Forbes list of most valuable NBA franchises. It’s not the Spurs who have been a top tier franchise for a decade. It’s not the Mavs, Suns, or Pistons all of which have been among the league’s best over the last few years. The NBA’s most valuable franchise is the New York Knicks. The franchise that is on their way to their 7th straight losing season. The franchise that has repeatedly insulted their fan base. The current Knick regime benefits not from being a model organization, but from monopolizing one of the largest fan bases, the success of previous generations, and of course the commitment bias.