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Location is nothing

The Internet lets us be fans of anybody from anywhere.

Every time a pro sports team changes owners (which is frequently), local fans hear rumblings that the team may move. It starts when an owner wants to sell his team, a situation often ascribed to the inadequacy of accommodations in the area–a stadium with increased seating, a new practice facility or offices. Ultimately, all the accommodations translate into money in the form of tax breaks or property paid for by local taxpayers.

Why? Because the fans cannot stand to lose their team. Obviously, if it really were their team, the local fans would not be at risk of losing it, but their emotion usually sways public (and thus voter) sentiment. Because of this, sports is a unique entertainment business. If Mel Gibson demanded that the state of California buy him a new house, I think Golden State taxpayers would send him back to Australia. Los Angelenos cried over the loss of the Rams for years, even though the team had shown more than its share of ineptitude while there.

The logic of the emotion is a bit hard to figure out, because the links between any metropolitan area’s populace and its representative professional sports teams are increasingly tenuous. Here in Minnesota, for example, both the owner and head coach of the Vikings hail from other states. Only five (.08 percent) of the players on the current active or injured reserve roster attended high school or college in this state, and just 12 (20 percent) make their year-round homes here. Based on the residency of players and coaches, this team should be called the Texas or Florida Vikings.

Nonetheless, a person could be dropped into this area–or any other NFL city–during the season and quickly identify her location by the overwhelming number of Vikings flags on cars, or even the jerseys worn in many churches on Sunday. Fan loyalty cannot even be explained by allegiance to players, since they switch teams seasonally. There is only one connection between die-hard fans and the subject of their attention: physical proximity. As realtors and retailers like to say, location is everything. When our team wins, the fans who feel hometown pride should realize that their sole contribution was residing in an area populous enough to generate attendance and television viewership. We’re the champs!

So what does this have to do with computer users? Some of us may not even care where–or if–any of these athletes collect their multimillion-dollar salaries. However, the subject of our vocations and avocations, computers, may be the instruments that eventually change this strange tradition of unearned loyalty, as well as the outdated paradigm at its root. It may also be enough to change the way Americans elect presidents.

The NFL, NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball have all embraced the Internet as a publicity tool in the past few years, encouraging (and in some cases, ordering) their affiliate teams to build and maintain extensive Web sites. But if they were wise, they would wish the Internet away and try to sabotage cable television and cellular-phone service.

Once, the link between an area’s populace and its teams were built upon shared experience, because serious fans attended games regularly. Now, most just watch them on TV. In a poll by The Sporting News, only 31 percent of all people who identified themselves as “lifelong fans” of an NFL team had ever attended a game, and only 8 percent attended at least one game every year. Sports is for television audiences. The players know it, too. Long ago, you would hear of a player getting up for games with especially large crowds in attendance; now, they often remark about performing well when they know a game is televised nationally.

So the real reason why everyone in a city cheers for the same team is that their local television and radio stations arrange contracts to broadcast games of the local team. Local newspapers print more stories about the hometown team on a regular basis. How does it feel to be categorized by that particular word: local? A practical definition of old media could be that it was usually limited to local coverage.

Cable television has reduced that control, and people with their own satellite receivers can watch any team they like. That much changed even before the Internet and new media arrived. Now, if you’re a St. Louis Rams fan who lives in Maine and owns a PC with an Internet connection, you can read virtually every story written about the team and listen to all their games on Web radio. With increased bandwidth, you will be able to see Web television of the same. Get on the Net, and you can’t be pigeonholed as a local any more.

Location is not what it used to be. It isn’t hard to pin down, nor is it very important. A few years ago, a person’s functional location, for business purposes, was where his telephone was installed. Cell phones have changed that, of course, and wireless Internet access will soon destroy the excuse that I didn’t respond to an e-mail because I was out of the office. You are now more than your street address. Yet that is the factor that matters most in choosing a president.

Most people would probably pay for a guarantee that they will not see the words electoral college in print for a few years. We’re all glad that the Bush/Gore contest is finally settled, yet the length of the recount/no-recount process seems to have overshadowed the fact that a rare constitutional possibility occurred in the 2000 election: The winner received fewer votes than the loser. This doesn’t mean that George W. Bush was not elected properly under the rules laid down in the Constitution.

In the inevitable discussions about changing these rules in the future, however, Americans should consider the true significance of their electoral district or their state. These words are another form of location, and people should take care that they serve their needs well, and not the needs of those entrenched in unearned authority. Do states’ rights protect residents of a state, or create another level of governance and bureaucracy?

Many people share e-mail, online chat, and Internet phone calls with other people who share their interests or professions throughout the country. They may do so more than they talk to the people who happen to live in a house on the same street. The idea of grouping people into electoral districts because they have something in common is an imperfect one, but if it’s necessary, it’s as reasonable to categorize us by vocation, or employer, or even favorite sports team, as it is by region.

As the world changes to make location less and less important, our government will continue to serve us well only if we force it to change–and keep changing–to match current reality, not ancient paradigms.

Contributing Editor Joe Rudich is a network administrator with the St. Paul Companies in St. Paul, Minn.

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