Failure can be fun

March 2, 2015

For sports fans, rooting for a team having a bad year is like watching Season 6 of a TV show that hasn’t been good since Season 1: After each episode (or game), you shake your head and wonder why you waste your time. For sports reporters, covering such a team can be similarly excruciating. Take this year’s Knicks, who had the NBA’s worst record as of the All-Star break. Not only are they bad, they’re also uninteresting. They’ve provided such meager material this year that The New York Times sent the reporter usually assigned to the team to cover other basketball-related topics, like a group of old men who play at a YMCA. But sometimes terrible teams are a fun to cover. CJR asked a few journalists to recall abysmal seasons past.

Reporter: Keith Pompey, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Team: 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers

Mark of Atrocity: 26-game losing streak (tied for the longest in NBA history), spanning Jan. 31-March 29, 2014

“They call it rubbernecking whenever you see a car accident on the other side of the road and everyone wants to drive by slow and watch it. The Sixers, when they went on that losing streak, everyone wanted to check in and see if they lost. And when they lost 17 in a row to start this season, there was that negative excitement around them. And once they won, it was like, Okay, they’re just another bad team.”

Reporter: Filip Bondy, New York Daily News

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Team: 1983-88 Columbia Lions

Mark of Atrocity: 44-game losing streak, spanning five years

“It wasn’t fun. Part of that is because you see kids in college who aren’t getting paid a whole bunch of money. As a reporter, it’s a lot easier to poke fun and have fun with people who are making millions of dollars—and this is what they’re being paid to withstand—so it doesn’t feel as personal as when college kids start losing that badly.

“Jim Garrett [the head coach until 1985] is famous for saying the players were ‘drug-addicted losers,’ meaning they were addicted to losing, but it didn’t come out that way.”

Reporter: Lynn Henning, The Detroit News

Team: 2003 Detroit Tigers

Mark of Atrocity: 43-119 record, the sixth-worst winning percentage of any MLB team since 1900

“Everybody knew they were going to be awful. This became one step in them attempting to bottom out, rebuild, and revive, and so I didn’t find it to be a horribly uncomfortable time at all. The front office can be a little more receptive to your overtures as a reporter if [the team is] bad. They’re not going to hold you accountable for their frustrations because everybody from the owner down knows the circumstances.”

Reporter: George Vecsey, Newsday

Team: 1962 New York Mets

Mark of Atrocity: 40-120 record, the third-worst winng percentage of any MLB team since 1900

“What made the Mets different was [Hall of Fame manager] Casey Stengel. He was 72 years old in 1962. He wasn’t going to take bullshit from anybody. Casey would say things about umpires like, ‘They fuck us because we’re horseshit.’ If Casey thought his team was horseshit, how could you not go along with that? If Casey could have fun with it, you could have fun with it, too. [And] the Mets did stupid things. You came to expect that, and you were able to write with a sense of humor.”

Christopher Massie is a CJR contributing editor.