The New England Patriots will go down as one of the greatest dynasties the sports world has ever seen. Fourteen playoff appearances in 16 years, four Super Bowl wins, six Super Bowl appearances, 11 AFC championship games and a few inches from completing an undefeated season that would have ranked them as the greatest team in the history of sports. And yet, there's something missing from the Pats dynasty -- something that's been a part of every dynasty in the past.
Fans. The New England Patriots are the first sports dynasty that hasn't developed a national fanbase.
Oh, the Patriots have plenty of local fans. There were the few die-hards who followed the team for years and were rewarded with the most prolific run in NFL history. Then there are the folks who jumped on the bandwagon in 2001, when the area remembered it had a football franchise and turned a forgotten team in a city with the Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins into a source of civic pride. And then -- that's it. Nationally, the Pats are almost exclusively hated and rarely loved, unheard of for a great team in a country that loves to root for a winner.
Mark J. RebilasMark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Think back to all the great sports franchises of the past: The Steelers and Cowboys of the '70s, plus the 49ers of the '80s, built national fanbases that remain today. Every elementary school in America had at least one kid with Michael Jordan or Bulls gear. And then there are the kings -- the New York Yankees -- who've won over three different generations with their greatness in the '20s, '60s and '90s. Grandfathers passed on the love to fathers who passed on the love to sons, and it happened everywhere from the New York suburbs to across the country. There are always fans who want to root for a winner -- just not the Patriots. They seem to exclusively bring out the haters.
That's part of the dynastic tradition too, of course. The Steelers, Cowboys, 49ers, Bulls, Celtics, Lakers and Yankees all had/have just as many haters as lovers. It's only natural -- sports neutrality doesn't exist, and when you see a bunch of people rooting for a team you don't like you quickly find yourself rooting against that team. For every fan action, there's an opposite reaction. Winning breeds contempt. It's just that the contempt usually it comes in tandem with bandwagons and adoration. The Patriots never received the second part.
Why? What's kept New England's fanbase largely within a 100-mile radius of Boston or those who once lived within a 100-mile radius of Boston? Why aren't there more people who love the Pats?
It's not just for the reason you think - although, yeah, it's that, too.
Mark J. RebilasMark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
1. Different eras
When the Cowboys and Steelers came to power it was a different time. Monday Night Football was new, in-market home games were just starting to be aired on television (except when there wasn't a sellout, which was common in the '70s) and football was exploding to a new audience. There were four or five channels on your TV and, given that Dallas and Pittsburgh were the two best teams, they were on more than anyone else. In the '80s, the 49ers temporarily became America's Team thanks to their consistent greatness and the movie-star looks and All-American image of Joe Montana. (It didn't hurt that Montana was already famous before getting drafted by Bill Walsh. He played in college for the ultimate football dynasty - Notre Dame.)
Before the proliferation of cable and way before Sunday Ticket, RedZone and the Internet, you only had access to so many teams. Now it's a fragmented audience.
From 1970-80, the Cowboys or Steelers were in seven Super Bowls and played each other twice in the NFL's championship. Throw in all the playoff games and the nationally televised games and of course there were people young and old jumping on the bandwagon. It didn't hurt that the NFL, while 40 years old at that point, was just becoming the NFL, surpassing baseball, boxing, horse racing and other sports to become the real national past time. If you were apathetic and just getting into the sport, gravitating toward the best team was easy.
USA TODAY SportsRobert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
2. Fantasy football
Fantasy football has changed the way football is consumed. Rather than keeping up on a specific franchise, the fantasy owner can follow specific players -- tracking their stats, injuries or deflation-related suspensions. You can now watch the sport without rooting for a team. (There have always been football agnostics, but they weren't joining a bandwagon anyway.)
3. They're just really, really, really unlikable
Nobody loves the Pats because it's almost impossible to like the Pats.
Bil Belichick acts like a jerk, treats the press like a bunch of 3-year-olds, dresses like a slob and makes no effort to be likable because he's there to win football games, not care what you think about him. Tom Brady pulled a Brad Pitt on his pregnant actress girlfriend and upgraded to a supermodel. He tries to act too cool for the room until you see him in magazines holding goats, promoting Uggs and paying somebody to give him a personality on a Facebook page. Brady desperately cares what you think about him, even more so after he was fingered as a cheat.
Speaking of that, the Pats were the subjects of Spygate, Defeflategate and rumors of malfeasance so underhanded you open the team media guide expecting to see G. Gordon Liddy listed somewhere.
New England's first playoff game of the Belichick era was won because of a since-deleted technicality in the NFL rulebook. The team won its first two Super Bowls on last-second field goals, took its third when Donovan McNabb ran a final drive with the urgency of a hungover Sunday afternoon stroll and won the fourth after Russell Wilson gift-wrapped a goal-line interception. All told, their four rings are by a combined 13 points, a margin of victory that has been exceeded in half of all the other Super Bowls.
That led to the sense, at least early on, that the team was more lucky than good. You got the feeling that the football karma would eventually even out and the Pats would come back to earth. And it kind of did -- the team didn't win a Super Bowl for a decade and was caught up twice in major scandals with the feeling that just as many weren't discovered. But as that was happening, the Patriots were making it clear they weren't some sort of historical fluke. They were among the best teams ever and, probably when it's all said and done, the greatest. Thus, they became hatable for an entirely different reason.
Getty ImagesGetty Images
4. Jealousy and envy
Call it the resentment of greatness. Once the Pats started to be taken seriously and put up an insane 16-0 season, the bandwagon time had passed. You'd already made up your mind that you didn't like them, so the only way to react was to root against them. Vigorously. If that perfect season had come first, maybe the national opinion of New England would be different. (The Golden State Warriors are a good comparison.) Instead, there will be 95 percecnt of the country rooting for the Falcons next Sunday and, despite their desperation to be accepted, Pats fans will embrace this because they have the same mentality as the team: us against them.
Bill Belichick informs everything about the aura of the New England Patriots. The team takes a page from his surly book. It never wanted or needed to be loved outside of Boston. The Patriots are not here to make friends, just win titles.