It’s the daily struggle that defines a free-spirited capitalist society. It’s a struggle defined by the subconscious mental track of a surrounding system of consumer judges. It’s the struggle to be relevant. In a sporting context, relevance is a figurative cross between historical and modern contexts.
For example, the Philadelphia 76ers are a mediocre NBA franchise. They have no front-line superstar and they’re lucky if they fill half the arena against an average opponent. But the Sixers have also left an indelible stamp on the history of the NBA. Wilt Chamberlain redefined the center position as a Sixer. Julius Erving introduced the concept of playing “above the rim” as a Sixer. Philadelphia’s two championship teams (1966-67, 1982-83) are two of the most legendary single season forces in NBA history. So even though they haven’t won a playoff series in seven years, the Sixers will never be in the bottom tier of teams that come to mind when you think of the NBA.
An even better example are the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates have suffered a modern sporting record of 18 consecutive losing seasons. Postseason baseball is about as foreign to a Pirates fan as sobriety and motorcycle helmets are to Ben Roethlisberger. But their streak is so epically futile that Pittsburgh has become impossible to ignore. Sports Illustrated dedicated a five-page article last August to the current state of the franchise. That’s more pages then the eventual World Series champion Giants got all season.
As the Pirates and Sixers represent, it’s harder to stay irrelevant than to become relevant. You can be a historical juggernaut, a current champion or a talented title contender. You can have the No. 1 draft pick, get caught in a controversy or be mired in an epic title drought. Once you’re relevant, you’ll hang onto that point of relevance as a historical reference point. The challenge is pinpointing the irrelevant teams.
Even in an era where relevance can stretch as far as a gunfight in the locker room (Washington Wizards) or a century-long title drought inspired by a mythical Billy goat (Chicago Cubs), these teams are never quite important enough to push themselves to a subconscious forefront. But I’m going to do it anyway.