On June 19, the Cleveland Cavaliers won their first NBA Championship, marking the first time a Cleveland sports team has won a professional sports title in 52 years. Though it was a bitter pill to swallow for Golden State Warriors fans, who’d been prepped for a title repeat all season long, many sports fans and even casual observers seemed to think it was a good thing. Clevelanders, after all, had spent generations feeling like losers, and this win felt good. It felt right. It felt, to quote LeBron James, “earned.”
That is, of course, unless you’re one of those people who just doesn’t care about sports. Anyone who’s on social media has heard from those people at one point or another over the course of year, be it on Super Bowl Sunday or during Game 7 of the NBA Finals. You know the tweets.
While everyone’s entitled to their own likes and dislikes—Star Wars, the Oscars, sports, whatever—the #sportsball trend does more harm than good. It’s pure assholery masquerading as hipper-than-thou elitism, and it ignores the fact that, for all their concussion-driven faults, sports really do have the power to change entire cities for the better. Just ask Cleveland.
Cleveland’s riding high right now, and it’s due in part to sports. Say what you will about the nature of modern athletics, but LeBron James and the Cavaliers have, alongside the Indians and Browns, become a rising tide that is helping to lift a whole town’s long-struggling boats. There’s optimism in Cleveland again, and while it’s a bit of an odd feeling for most longtime residents—the emotional equivalent of a gifted cashmere sweater you could never have afforded on your own—it’s also remarkably refreshing.
Take, for instance, the massive attendance at the Cavaliers’ championship parade last week. After Mayor Frank Jackson declared last Wednesday a local holiday, 1.3 million Clevelanders poured onto the city’s streets, making the parade route almost impassible for even the smallest floats at points. Thousands of Clevelanders were in tears most of the day, including some of the Cavs, who seemed overwhelmed by the outpouring of pure emotion. Ivan Schwarz, president of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission, put it best when he told The A.V. Club, “You’ve got 1.3 million people coming out for a parade when there are only 1.2 million people in Cuyahoga County and 11 million people in the state. That’s 10 percent of the state just in Cleveland. That’s the kind of pride you really don’t see in other places. Everybody’s proud of their city, but in Cleveland it just seems more special. It just means so much to the city and to its sense of pride.”
That kind of positivity could make a big difference for a city so noted for its pessimism. David Gilbert, president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission and Destination Cleveland, says the Cavs’ win “could mean more [to Cleveland] than any other sports championship in any other city.” Though he says the city has “suffered from such a ‘woe is us’ can’t-do attitude as a community for a couple of generations,” Gilbert thinks the Cavs’ victory, coupled with the upcoming Republican National Convention, may help flip the switch for Clevelanders in terms of civic self-confidence and self-image.
“When you go into anything in life thinking that you’re not going to win, you’re not going to win,” Gilbert says, noting that, “That has largely been Cleveland’s M.O.” As recently as three years ago, Gilbert says that Clevelanders were “far, far, far” less likely to recommend their own community to visiting family and friends. Now, that tide has turned, with Clevelanders both recommending their town to others and moving back into the downtown metropolitan region. About 97 percent of downtown housing is full, with around 60 percent of those residents identifying as millennials, all of whom have cash to burn and Cleveland pride to spare.
That positivity has spilled over onto local businesses, who are raking in those pro-Cleveland bucks. When the Cavs, Indians, or Browns are winning, Cleveland’s bars, restaurants, hotels, and T-shirt manufacturers are winning as well. Take, for instance, The Westin Cleveland Downtown, which says it did record business on the day of the Cavs parade. According to Bob Megazzini, the hotel’s general manager, “The bar was open at 7 a.m. By 8 a.m., people were five deep at the bar. More than half our sales that day were from beverage alone.” Consider that data point alongside the fact that the hotel—along with every other hotel in downtown Cleveland—was at capacity, and it’s an impressive economic indicator.
Tom Caito, VP of sales for Beverage Distributors, Inc., a company that delivers Miller products and craft beer all over Cleveland, says that his company has noticed a marked increase in its sales since the Cavs got into the playoffs, a trend that he thinks will only continue. “People are in a better mood,” Caito says, “and people drink more when they’re happy.” Sam McNulty, owner of Ohio City bar Nano Brew, told a local Cleveland news station that bar owners he knows call it the “LeBron effect,” saying that when Clevelanders are excited about a big win, it can help boost sales for an entire weekend. That kind of momentum even applies to other less successful Cleveland sports teams, with Tony Madalone, owner of Cleveland T-shirt company Fresh Brewed Tees, telling The A.V. Club that “even a Browns win on Sunday will increase sales for that next week. We may be 4-8, but if they win, the next week’s sales will be up.”
Clevelanders, it seems, want to support their town. They want something to be proud of, and now they have it. Sports—and #sports, and #sportsball, and all those other derogatory takes on the word—matter in Cleveland, whether the internet’s biggest smartasses and whiners like it or not.