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Not their cup of tea

Southland fans don't seem to be caught up in the excitement of the Ducks' run to the finals, their second in four seasons

May 27, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

To say that Southern California has Cup fever might be an overstatement.

Call it the Stanley sniffles. Mild aches and pains with a chance of becoming something stronger.

So far, the Ducks are heading into the NHL's Stanley Cup finals against the Ottawa Senators on Monday with far less buzz than would accompany a team from a traditional hockey town or, for that matter, a championship run by the Angels, Dodgers or Lakers.

No preponderance of flags waving from cars or wall-to-wall jabber on sports talk radio. No fans naming their first-born Teemu in a desperate attempt to win tickets.

On a recent evening at various sports bars around the Honda Center in Anaheim, patrons wore baseball caps and basketball jerseys. There wasn't a Ducks hat or shirt in sight.

"The Angels are much more popular ... even now," said David Robertson, sitting at the bar.

His friend, Mark Bushik, a self-proclaimed hockey aficionado, mused: "The general population doesn't care."

It is a curious predicament for a team that has reached the Stanley Cup finals in two of the last four seasons -- not counting a lockout-obliterated year -- and has sold out 31 consecutive games.

Tickets for Game 1 are going for upward of $1,500, with thousands of fans who cannot get into the arena expected to gather around big-screen televisions at bars from Burbank to Irvine.

But this hard-core following has not translated into conspicuous and widespread displays of public affection, not even in Orange County, which intrigues Tom Boyd, an associate marketing professor at Cal State Fullerton.

The Detroit native recently visited his hometown and noticed Red Wings fans everywhere, all those shirts and hats and car flags. Upon returning to the Southland, even as the Ducks defeated his boyhood team in the Western Conference finals, he saw nothing.

"Very little evidence of excitement," he said.

Boyd understands that hockey remains something of an oddity here. He knows the Ducks must compete for attention among other teams in the region and a host of leisure activities that range from beaches to amusement parks.

In image-conscious Southern California, he sees another element. It involves "psychosocial consequences."

People behave as ardent fans partly because of how they think it will make them look in the eyes of others, the associate professor said.

Are they linking themselves to a prestigious group? Are they connecting with a history of success or, in the case of the Chicago Cubs, a sense of loyalty in the face of long suffering?

This might not be an entirely conscious thought, but it often plays a role in consumer behavior, researchers believe. And it could be especially critical in a part of the world where the camera pans to celebrities in the crowd.

"It has to do with value systems," Boyd said. "The way the world sees you and how you want to be perceived."

Teams such as the Lakers and Dodgers have spent decades building social cachet. When those teams go on a championship run, the casual or "situational" fan is more likely to jump on the bandwagon and fly the colors.

Brandon Ellisor, a 37-year-old Brea resident, remembers seeing everyone in Angel red during the 2002 World Series. Baseball dominated office talk and was plainly visible on the streets.

"That was intense," he said.

The Ducks simply don't enjoy that kind of status, Boyd said. Taking this notion a step further, he mentions that before a recent switch to black, gold and orange, the team's uniforms were eggplant and jade.

"Unfortunate colors," he said. "People who were image-conscious were going to say, 'I'll look stupid in these colors.' "

To some degree, fan reaction to the Ducks is merely timing, the team arriving in Anaheim as an expansion franchise only 13 years ago.

At a neighborhood park in Santa Ana, Mario Guillen stood beside a ball field where he is president of the local Little League and recalled his childhood.

"Here it's all baseball because that's what we grew up with," he said. "We have Angels and Dodgers fans, about half and half."

When the Kings reached the Stanley Cup finals and captured Los Angeles' attention in 1993, they had been around more than a quarter-century and benefited from a crossover star in Wayne Gretzky.

If buzz over the Ducks has been lukewarm in Orange County, it has been almost nonexistent in Los Angeles. Hawking sports merchandise from a stand on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Oisin O'Shaughnessy stocks hats and trinkets with the logos of local teams, Mexican soccer and various NFL franchises.

But no Ducks.

"In the months I've been here," O'Shaughnessy said, "maybe two or three people have asked for them."

The team hasn't had long enough to build a network of fans in a region that covers all or parts of five counties with more than 18 million inhabitants, said David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute.

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