How to Win Without Winning

When it comes to sports, the mantra is simple: you play to win the game. Think of the most successful franchises, and teams that have won several championships come to mind—the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Lakers, the New England Patriots.

If you’re from Sacramento, California, you are not used to winning. The Sacramento Kings of the National Basketball Association, currently the 26th best out of 30 teams in the league, stopped trying to beat their opponents months ago. They haven’t reached the playoffs since the middle of George W. Bush’s second term, and just last year, they traded away DeMarcus Cousins, their sole all-star and only shot at making the playoffs.

At the beginning of this NBA season, their fans had a speck of hope. The Kings had signed some veterans and drafted two promising rookies. It was possible that the franchise would have a non-embarrassing season for the first time in a while. Then power forward Zach Randolph, who stands at six-foot-nine and weighs 290 pounds, was caught with two pounds of weed. He was released from prison on $20,000 bail, but not before Sacramento basketball fans cremated their hopes for the season.

Like the Kings, the Sacramento River Cats—a minor league baseball team in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League—stink. Last year, the team finished with 64 wins and 77 losses, 15 and a half games behind the first-place Reno Aces out of Nevada. The team’s best hitter, Christian Arroyo, broke his hand, and they didn’t even make the playoffs. When the season ended, almost everyone in Sacramento stopped caring about them altogether.

Still, the River Cats are the most successful team in all of minor league baseball. They’re valued at $49 million, more than any other team, and attract 8,000 fans a game. The secret is, in minor league baseball, success does not depend on winning or losing.

“When our fans leave at the end of the night, a huge majority of them do not know who won the game,” said River Cats President Jeff Savage, sitting with me along the first base side of a River Cats night game. “And I like that. That’s great, because we can’t control the product on the field. We don’t pay the players, or the coaches, or have anything to do with what happens on the field. We have no say, and so, it’s out of our control.”

The Sacramento River Cats play in Raley Field—a stadium named after a local supermarket chain. The team’s mascot, an anthropomorphic river cat named Dinger, is not even based on a real species of animal. The Sacramento River is the largest river in the state, which explains the “river” part, but there is no connection between the city and cats. Fans just liked the sound of it, and voted for River Cats in a “Name the Team” contest in ‘99-2000 offseason.

 

The Sacramento River Cats are an affiliate of the San Francisco Giants in the level of minor league baseball closest to the major leagues. Among the affiliate-Giants teams, they rank above the Richmond Flying Squirrels, San Jose Giants, Augusta GreenJackets, and Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. When the Sacramento Giants draft a player, he is sent to one of the affiliate teams. Top prospects typically go from the lowest level, single-A, to the highest, triple-A, before being called up for the major leagues. Transcendent stars can move through the process quicker, but more often than not, players get stuck in single or double-A and retire young. Exceptional River Cats don’t stay exceptional River Cats for long. If the Giants want you, you are plucked away.

The River Cats do not have the luxury of knowing what their roster will look like throughout the season. If a Giant gets injured, the River Cats loan a player. If a Giant is not performing well, they’ll send him to the River Cats to gain confidence against weaker competition. Sustaining any sort of culture of winning is next to impossible.

Savage wants to keep his fans happy, but he can’t bank on the team winning to make that happen. A victory won’t even make the fans considerably happier. The Savage family, who own the franchise, invest not in players who will win them a championship, but the physical stadium itself. It is the best way to keep fans coming back. A few years ago, they added the Western Health Advantage Legacy Club—a program that provides free food, drinks and a clubhouse lounge to paying members. Last year, the Savages added a 120-foot L.E.D board in left field to complement the one in right field. This year, the team revamped all their concession stands.

“We decided to up our game,” Savage said to The Sacramento Bee, where I worked last summer. He was not talking about team performance. “Hot dogs and popcorn are always going to be around, but we added new flavors and options to each [food] spot.”

The organization had turned a bunch of competing catering services into an in-house dining service called River City Concessions, essentially opening seven brand-new restaurants and three large catering services in one swoop. Raley Field’s new concessions earned a 500-word article in the Bee. The article that previewed the team’s season featured little more than some players’ names. To the Bee’s credit, the River Cats’ culinary revolution was probably more noteworthy.

You won’t come home from a River Cats game raving about the efficiency of their concession stands and the professionalism of the staff, because no one raves about efficiency and professionalism, but you won’t come home with anything worth complaining about. All the employees, from the ushers who check your tickets, to the staff who direct you to your seat, are preternaturally friendly. Once an usher asked me what I was taking notes for. I explained to him that I was in Sacramento for an internship and was interested in the River Cats. He recognized me two months later, asked how my internship was going, and wished me luck as I headed back to Yale. I did not remember his name or face. This warmth is contagious. Once the mother of an opposing Albuquerque Isotopes pitcher asked me if I wanted an Italian ice. When I said no, she re-phrased the question, asking me if, hypothetically, I would eat an Italian ice if it were presented to me. I said yes and got an orange Italian ice.

 

Although I was born in New York, one of the sports capitals of the United States, I was sucked into rooting for the wrong teams: the Mets, the Jets, and the Knicks. The last time any of these teams won a professional championship was in 1986, when the Mets beat the Boston Red Sox in a series they should have lost. Last year the Mets looked good, and then all their pitchers spontaneously tore arm ligaments. The Knicks have barely won anything since I was born in 1996. Somehow, the Jets manage to be even more disappointing. Two years ago, their starting quarterback, Geno Smith, missed the whole season after another Jet punched him in the face. It is unclear why my family does not root for the New York Giants, who have won two championships in my lifetime, or the New York Yankees, who have won 27 World Series in their team history, and five since I was born. I guess we just like suffering.

If you’re a Yankee fan, you can let your mood shift depending on how your team is doing. Chances are, you’ll win and be happy. If I let the way my teams play dictate how I felt, I would need heavy doses of Prozac. So I don’t. Turns out, this made me a perfect River Cats fan. I didn’t have to adjust to rooting for a team despite their losing performance –– I had been doing it for so long, it was second-nature.

Sports have always provided me with a sense of comfort and familiarity. When I was alone in Dallas over the summer of 2016, I paid much more attention to the NBA playoffs than I would have at home. I didn’t have many friends in Texas, but I could still participate in a spectacle that stretched around the country. When LeBron James came from behind and swatted Andre Iguadola’s lay-up from behind, I got texts from all my friends who had been watching. When I’m isolating myself to do work at school, sports radio often hums in the background. Even when they’re talking about topics I don’t care much about, like hockey, I know there are at least a few thousand people who I’m on the same page with.

A River Cats game is all the comfort of sports without the pent-up aggression that one can sense at most professional stadiums. At a Mets game, the crowd is always in limbo. When the team is winning, fans cling desperately to the lead, and when the team is losing, the crowd is noticeably less excited. If the team loses, a sense of sadness pervades the departing masses. When the team wins, drunk Mets fans pick fights with disgruntled fans of the opposing team. There is serious pride on the line.

To enter the River Cats stadium is to tap into an aura of unencumbered happiness. It’s families with their children, young adults on casual dates, and retirees sitting back, enjoying chicken tenders, fries, and a beer. I never once arrived at the stadium with a ticket in hand. Before games, I would stand outside the stadium near the ticket booth, looking slightly confused. Usually someone would hand me an extra ticket they didn’t need. There was no use scalping it. The cheapest tickets, which gave you a lawn seat behind the right-field wall, were just ten dollars.

River Cats game are happily predictable. The ushers, who wear Hawaiian shirts, khaki shorts, and straw hats, are nearly always stationed in the same areas. They all wear name tags that display both their first and last names, and have the same affect as proud grandparents. Jeff Savage found that ushers who are stationed at the same spot every game build better rapport with customers.

“We’ve realized that the guest experience has nothing to do with me or our general manager,” Savage said. “It’s all about the interaction with the employee in the parking lot and it’s all about the interaction when they’re getting their bags searched and the usher that’s taking their ticket and the person that shows them where their seat is.”

Everything has the vibe of a family business, which, it turns out, is accurate. The River Cats were purchased by Art Savage, Jeff’s father, in 1999. When he passed away in 2009, Jeff’s mother, Susan, took the lead. While she remains CEO of the River Cats, it is now Jeff who handles most of the day-to-day operations.

The owners of the Sacramento Kings have not shared this success. Last summer, ESPN ranked all 122 franchises of the four major pro sports leagues. The Kings came in 113thplace, ranking in the bottom five in categories such as “demonstrate a commitment to winning” and “have players that give their best effort.” The Kings were well below average in “have honest ownership,” and out of every franchise in the four major pro sports, ranked second-to-last on “Title Track,” meaning that their fans were second least likely to expect their team to win a championship during their lifetime. Fan relations were fifth worst.

While Vivek Ranadive, the team’s owner, managed to keep the Kings in Sacramento, the team’s minority ownership has tried overthrow him anyway. According to Kevin Arnovitz at ESPN, “he appears to have been emboldened, rather than humbled, by seeing so many of his decisions fail.”

It’s different with the River Cats. Jeff Savage seems to have an innate sense of everything happening in the stadium. During our conversation, several things stole his attention—fly balls heading into the stands, slight commotions in the crowd, especially nice on-field plays. These things would cause him to focus silently for a few moments, starting distantly at whatever was happening. While being interviewed, he arranged for the repair of a busted concession stand beer nozzle.

During games, Savage walks around the stadium, making sure everything is running smoothly. For people to keep coming back, the River Cats have to be an efficient machine. River Cats don’t compete with local sports—they compete against all other forms of entertainment, including staying at home and doing nothing.

“We’re competing against the zoo. We’re competing against the movies,” the River Cats marketing director, Emily Williams told me. “How do we convince people the River Cats and Raley Field are where they should spend their money?”

At MLB games, some people relish in the idea that they can yell insults at players and have them hear them. People don’t do that with the River Cats. In a stadium that holds around 14,000 rather than 40,000, you actually feel like the players are people and not just some characters with huge salaries. When Pablo Sandoval, an MLB player doing a rehab stint on the River Cats, hit a long fly ball to center field that was caught, the crowd cheered him back to the dugout. This was a batter who was hitting .154 with the triple-A team—no one would cheer for a similar sub-mediocre performance in the MLB.

Sacramento is not really a city of champions. Rent is getting more expensive, and the White House seems intent on bringing California’s state government to court. The Kings, as always, are bad. But it’s not the Kings who are the soul of the city, and it’s definitely not the state government. It’s the River Cats.

By the time the last firework goes off after a Saturday night game, most fans at Raley Field have probably forgotten the score. By the time they get home, most have probably forgotten who won. It’s not a memory problem; you tend to forget what you don’t care about. The River Cats don’t care about winning, and still, they seem like they’re worth celebrating.

Jacob Sweet is a senior from Carmel, NY, home to the largest indoor Buddha statue in the Western Hemisphere. He has never once visited this statue, and he doesn’t know why. Say hi at jacob.sweet@yale.edu.

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