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The Upstart League
The National Football League traces its roots to a 1920 meeting of starry-eyed sportsmen in a car dealer's showroom in Canton, Ohio. But it wasn't really established as a national force until television discovered it in the 1960s.
In the early decades, franchises such as the Akron Pros, Pottsville Maroons and Staten Island Stapletons paid their players by the game and formed and collapsed as fast as a line of scrimmage. Baseball was the undisputed national pastime. Boxing and horse racing also were big fan favorites. But football remained primarily a popular college game that defied repeated attempts at professional league organization.
By 1946, the NFL was still worrying about franchises going broke when a competitor, the All-American Football Conference, suddenly took the field. The new league was organized by Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward and several investors. The NFL had spurned their efforts to gain an expansion franchise, which they hoped to move to Los Angeles. The bid was defeated by the Cardinals and Bears, teams then slugging it out in Chicago, and now planning to end the cross-town competition by winning approval for the Cardinals to move to L.A. The Chicago teams instead got a third competitor: The AAFC Chicago Rockets, later to be called the Hornets.
The AAFC was stocked with former college football stars returning from the war. It consisted of eight franchises, many taking advantage of the nation's coliseum-building frenzy in the 1920s and 1930s: The Rockets played at Soldier Field; the Miami Seahawks at the Orange Bowl; the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Municipal Stadium; the San Francisco 49ers at Kezar Stadium; the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium; the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field; the Buffalo Bills at Civic Stadium and the Los Angeles Dons at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
The upstart league had an innovative form of revenue sharing that years later would be adopted by the NFL. The visiting AAFC franchise would receive the greater of $15,000 or 40 percent of the gross gate receipts. United Airlines was signed up to fly teams among the cities. NFL players took the train.
Using a tried and true strategy, the National Football League ignored the new rival. The first American Football League had expired without much fuss in 1926 after a single season. A decade later, AFL II came along and lasted just two seasons, losing money and disbanding after the NFL lured away its coveted Cleveland Rams franchise. A third AFL played in 1940 and 1941, but in smaller markets not contested by the NFL, and quickly died.
In light of this history, NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden had plenty of reason in 1946 to brush off a pair of AAFC-appointed emissaries, Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown and Chicago investor John Keeshin, who wanted to meet to talk about mutual interests.
"Let them get a ball first," Layden sneered when asked if the AAFC would ever play the NFL.
But the AAFC proved a surprising success with fans. In its second, third and fourth years, it actually out-drew the NFL in average game attendance, provoking the first true "football war" for fans and ticket sales. The inevitable bidding for players left teams in both leagues claiming they were losing money almost from the start.
Not all AAFC franchises were successful, though. Some struggled. The hapless Miami Seahawks drew an average of 7,164 fans to the Orange Bowl in the first season--the worst attendance in football and barely a third of the league's average. The team's AAFC-worst 3-11 record landed it in the basement of the Eastern Division despite a mid-season turnover of almost the entire roster. Financially, the team was awash in red ink, and its rivals had to contribute cash to keep it afloat. The league even filed charges against the franchise for violating indebtedness rules.
Days after the last game of the inaugural season, AAFC team owners met and decided they'd had enough of Miami. They expelled the franchise.
But the slot didn't stay open long. The league turned immediately to a city that had come close to getting a team the first time around: Baltimore. Baltimore had been considered for one of the charter franchises in 1944 when the league held its first organizational meeting. Investor and former heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney and league founder Ward had even gone to Baltimore and applied for use of its Municipal Stadium.
But Tunney pulled out two months later, saying he was worried that World War II would last longer than expected and the league's debut would be delayed. Other investors expressed interest, but none was able to complete the deal, and the franchise destined for Maryland was given instead to Miami.
A week after their demise, the resurrected Seahawks headed for Baltimore. The city had its first professional football team.
In its 1947 manual, the AAFC expressed high hopes for Baltimore and disdain for Miami: "Baltimore shows every indication of being one of professional football's greatest strongholds. So, in this instance, the worst has been replaced by the best."
Washingtonian Robert Ridgway Rodenberg, a 38-year-old Harvard-educated journalist turned short-movie producer turned Army spy turned sports team owner and bon vivant, took over the franchise. "Seahawks" not being a suitable name for the Maryland city, Rodenberg wanted to call the Baltimore team the Whirlaways, after the horse that had won the 1941 Kentucky Derby. But someone suggested the name was too long. A name-the-team contest was held, and the "Colts" won. Winner Charles Evans of Middle River, Md., said he thought it reflected well on the state's thoroughbred racing history, which dated back to before the American Revolution.
Still wearing Miami's silver and green, the Colts played their first game in Baltimore on Sept. 7, 1947, against the AAFC Brooklyn Dodgers, who wore bright yellow jerseys.
The game was played at Baltimore's Municipal Stadium, a structure that pre-dated Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street in the city's Waverly neighborhood. A wooden, 50,000-seat, single-deck oval, Municipal had been built in 1922 with the hope of landing the annual Army-Navy game. (It was played there only twice, and the stadium became known as "lonely acres.")
Municipal's splintery benches were built directly on sloped earthen banks using a primitive construction technique that was fast and easy but not very pretty. With no major-league team in town, however, nobody gave much thought to stadiums, pretty or otherwise. Reserved seats that season sold for $1.50 to $3.50 a game.
On hand for the franchise's debut was the AAFC's new commissioner, former Navy fullback Jonas H. Ingram, a retired four-star admiral who had been commander-in-chief of the Atlantic fleet. His acceptance of the AAFC job lent the fledgling league some badly needed credibility.
Optimism was not strong for a Colts win. The team had lost its first two exhibition games. The 27,418 fans who turned out for the regular-season debut were treated to periods of drizzle and drenching rain in the first half, and sun and mud in the second. But, it turned out to be a much better game than anyone expected.
Baltimore got lucky on the opening play. Brooklyn's Elmore Harris fielded the kickoff on his own 5-yard line and advanced to the 25, where he was hit hard and fumbled. An alert but disoriented Brooklyn Dodger guard named Harry Buffington scooped up the ball and ran, but got turned around by some tacklers and ended up darting into his own end zone. He tried to pass the ball, but it was batted down. Colts fullback Jim Castiglia jumped on it, scoring Baltimore's first touchdown--on the first play of the first game. Castiglia, out of Georgetown, became the city's first bona fide football star.
Brooklyn rebounded, however, and held a 7-6 lead when the teams retired for halftime. On the opening kick of the second half, Billy Hillenbrand, a 6-foot, 188-pound Colts halfback out of the University of Indiana via the Chicago Rockets, fixed that. He caught the ball on the 5-yard line and ran it back 95 yards for a touchdown. A 57-yard punt return by Hillenbrand cemented the Colts' 16-7 victory.
After the game, Rodenberg said, "I knew Baltimore would go for pro football in a big way. We are not promising a pennant winner ... but we'll guarantee interesting football. This is a great day for me despite miserable weather."
The next morning's newspapers showed the Colts atop the conference's Eastern division--for the first and last time.
The next week, the team lost to San Francisco, 14-7, then braced for a game in Cleveland against the mighty Browns, who had won the AAFC's first championship.
The Browns, led by quarterback Otto Graham and fullback Marion Motley, scored three touchdowns in the game's first 10 minutes. The final score of 28-0 put the Colts into third place in their four-team division. They then went on to lose to the Yankees, to tie the 49ers and to drop consecutive losses to Buffalo and Los Angeles.
The Colts' strong quarterback, Bud Schwenk, a Browns alumnus who would set several records that season, couldn't save them from some embarrassing disasters. On Oct. 26, they lost to Los Angeles, 56-0, the most lopsided score in the league's short history.
"The Dons, scoring in every period, toyed with the ineffective Colts throughout the second half," The Sun glumly reported.
The season limped to a conclusion on Dec. 7 with another debacle against Cleveland. A crowd of 20,574 turned out in Baltimore's Municipal Stadium on a cold and rainy day to see Graham throw two touchdowns in the first 11 minutes--off his earlier pace but impressive nonetheless. Two minutes into the second half, he connected for another TD pass. Graham left the game early to save his energy for a tougher opponent. The Browns went on to post a 42-0 shutout win.
The Colts won only two of 14 games that first season and ended up last in their division, matching the previous season record of the defunct Miami Seahawks. Only the Chicago Rockets' 1-13 record was worse. The Colts were outscored 377 to 167 and outrun 2,665 yards to 1,161 yards. The only bright spot was quarterback Schwenk, who managed a respectable 2,337 yards passing.
But he didn't return the next season.
At the box office, the Colts weren't much better. They drew an average crowd of 14,261, which was not big enough to earn a profit. It was also third-worst in the eight-team league. Worry over the future of football in Baltimore--something that was destined to become a municipal obsession--led Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro to convene a "Save the Colts" summit. A group of 16 civic leaders was recruited to buy the team from Rodenberg, whose post-game parties were eating into receipts.
Among those who contributed $10,000 were radio executive R.C. "Jake" Embry and McCormick Spice Co. chief Charles McCormick. A public stock offering in the spring of 1948 also raised $200,000.
The group talked the league into a "help the weak" aid plan for endangered franchises such as the Colts. In that effort, Cleveland gave Baltimore a quarterback, Y. A. Tittle. He went on the next season to post record rookie numbers, completing 55.7 percent of his passes for 2,522 yards. During one stretch, he threw 115 straight passes with no interceptions and 68 completions, for a 59-percent completion rate.
Tittle helped the team go 7-7 in 1948, winning a playoff berth. But the Colts lost in the post-season to the Buffalo Bills. Average game attendance that year hit 29,244, exceeding by a few hundred the average of both the AAFC and the rival NFL (28,691). Still, the team lost money, and there was pressure in the league to drop the franchise, which seemed to be an obstacle to merger negotiations then under way with the National Football League.
The NFL's Washington Redskins, just 40 miles to the south, were not interested in a merger that would bring a competitor so close to them. Prior to the AAFC's debut, the Redskins had played some exhibition games in Baltimore, and owner George Preston Marshall was keen on developing a following in the city.
Colts president Walter S. Driskill alluded to these troubles in the team's 1949 publicity book, commenting: "Despite the talk of Baltimore losing its franchise, despite the unfounded rumors that the All-America Football Conference could not operate in opposition to another league, and despite long weeks of doubt about our stadium, the football faithful of this city and its environs have shown that they want, and will support, the local club."
The Colts' average-game attendance fell that next season to 21,768, but was still on par with the NFL and ranked fourth-best in the AAFC. Doubts remained about the franchise's future, however, so D'Alesandro planned a "Save the Colts" exhibition game for the following August. All tickets would be sold for a princely $5, the cost of a box seat at the time. The mayor challenged Baltimore to buy 50,000 tickets to the game, and he personally vowed to move 10,000 of them.
The effort was falling well short of its goal when peace finally came between the AAFC and the NFL.
The larger league, which had resisted recognizing the AAFC for four years, finally admitted in 1950 that the rivalry was driving up player costs and driving down profits. Terms were struck to bring three AAFC teams into the NFL: the Cleveland Browns, the San Francisco 49ers and, though just barely, the Baltimore Colts.
Without question, Cleveland was the strongest AAFC franchise. The Browns had won all four league championships and gone undefeated in 1948. Their success on the field was so overwhelming that it actually hastened the demise of the league: Fans came to see the AAFC as the Browns vs. Everyone Else.
The AAFC Yankees were purchased by the NFL New York Bulldogs, and the latter franchise was canceled. (The Yankees went belly-up two seasons later, leaving the city's football fans to the Giants.)
None of the AAFC franchises invited into the NFL competed in an existing NFL market, so the merger restored the NFL's monopoly. The Colts agreed to pay Redskins owner Marshall $150,000 for "invading" his territory. He publicly predicted the Colts would not survive.
He was right. Baltimore's NFL initiation was painful from the start. Their first game was a grudge match against the Redskins, led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Sammy Baugh. The Skins won 38-14. Attendance for the game, played in Baltimore, was a respectable 26,267. That anyone showed up at all was a marvel: The Colts hadn't won a home game since 1948 and had just lost seven straight pre-season exhibitions.
Next up was Cleveland and another drubbing inflicted by Otto Graham, 31-0. Then it was the Rams' turn. They demolished the Colts, 70-27, posting the highest regular-season winning score ever recorded in the National Football League. The game's 14 touchdowns tied a record, and its 10 extra points set one. Between them, the two teams gained an astounding 989 yards, most of them by the Rams.
Predictably, the fans were turned off.
Only 12,971 fans turned out for Baltimore's next home game, against the Green Bay Packers. The Colts actually won, 41-21, recording their first, and nearly last, NFL victory. The delirious fans carried Tittle from the field. But they sobered up by the final home game: Only 12,059 watched the Detroit Lions club the Colts, 45-21.
Baltimore finished its first season in the NFL with a league-worst record of 1-11. The team was outscored by a margin of better than 2 to 1. Home game attendance averaged a scant 15,837, well shy of the 25,000 the team said it needed to break even.
But Baltimore Sun sports editor Jesse A. Linthicum, a virtual Colts cheerleader, found a bright side to even this: "The attendance was not sufficient to give the club an even break but, all things considered, the total was deemed satisfactory."
By this time, the Colts had been repeatedly shored up by the community. Rodenberg gave up control after the first season, admitting that the venture was broke. Civic leaders passed around management of the franchise like a United Way chairmanship until, in 1950, local businessman Abe Watner agreed to guarantee the team's operations for a year. Any profit was to go to charity.
Under Watner, things went from bad to worse. The team lost every game, and Watner cut expenses sharply. Finally, on Jan. 18, 1951, Watner asked the other NFL team owners, then meeting in Chicago, for help. It was a desperate act, but Watner was hoping the NFL owners would come through for the Colts like the AAFC owners had. He was wrong.
NFL owners, warned by Marshall that such a request might be made, heeded Marshall's urgings and turned Watner down.
Watner now threw in the towel. The other owners voted to pay him $50,000 for his players, who were put into a draft. The Packers bought the Colts' helmets. And the team's landlord auctioned off equipment to pay back-rent.
Marshall then announced that he was going to make Redskin fans of Baltimoreans. The city seethed at the duplicity, and the Baltimore City Council came close to passing an ordinance to bar the Washington team from Municipal Stadium. Watner, now Baltimore's Public Enemy No. 1, left for a Florida vacation.
But the game wasn't quite over.
The Colts board of directors, which wasn't notified of Watner's plans until after the fact, filed suit against him and the National Football League. Spurred into action by the litigation, the NFL started negotiations. Commissioner Bert Bell admitted that the league was wrong in allowing Watner to abandon the franchise and offered to revive the team if its debt could be cleared.
Baltimore's attorney, an aggressive litigator named William D. MacMillan, of Semmes, Bowen and Semmes, didn't think this was enough. The team would still be weak, he argued. He went ahead with the lawsuit, alleging restraint of trade, antitrust violations and anything else he could think of.
The lawsuit was the first of several that Baltimore would file to win sports teams. It was also an early whiff of smoke from a fierce battle that still rages in the NFL--the fight over antitrust.
Designed to ensure competition among large corporations, antitrust laws were not easy to apply to oddball organizations such as sports leagues. Were they single companies with dozens of branch offices? Or were they a consortium of competing companies?
The distinction is not trivial. If a league is a single company, then it is free to determine where to put its operations just as McDonalds can open and close restaurants. But if leagues are viewed as a collection of competing businesses, then they should be barred from fixing prices, driving competitors out of their markets and otherwise colluding to the disadvantage of consumers.
The notion of "antitrust" developed in the late 1800s, when the end of the Civil War brought a new industrialization to the nation's economy. It didn't take long for major manufacturers to figure out that they could make more money if they stopped competing with each other.
At first, industrial barons were content to meet in smoke-filled rooms and agree among themselves on how much kerosene, whiskey or sugar they would make and how much they would charge.
As the economy grew, so did the need for more complicated agreements. In 1881, Cleveland industrialist John D. Rockefeller, who co-owned the Standard Oil Co. of Ohio, revolutionized the trust concept. He convinced stockholders of dozens of other firms in related businesses--mostly refineries--to turn over control of their companies to a "trust," with its own board of trustees, that he would preside over.
The Standard Oil Trust quickly gained a stranglehold over competitors, who often were forced to join the trust or get out of the business. The trust demanded, and received, cut-rate prices from suppliers. It told retailers from whom to buy and what to charge. If retailers bought from the trust's competitors, their supply would be cut off. At its peak, the Standard Oil Trust controlled 95 percent of the nation's oil business.
Consumers and populist politicians soon took aim at Standard Oil and the trusts then in tight control of railroading, steel making, and other vital industries. In 1890, the U.S. Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, sponsored by Ohio Senator John Sherman, to outlaw monopolies or attempts to form monopolies. Because it was a federal law, however, the Sherman Act only applied to businesses engaged in interstate commerce. It wasn't until 1911, after some contradictory court decisions, that "trustbusting" federal lawyers succeeded in getting the U.S. Supreme Court to break up Standard Oil.
Not long after, the trustbusters caught up with professional sports. At first glance, sports leagues appeared to be monopolies: The teams share profits, set prices, decide who does and doesn't get into the business and collectively drive down the price of labor.
One of the first test cases was brought by Ned Hanlon, owner of the defunct Baltimore Terrapins: He sued baseball's National League for purposely driving the Terrapins' Federal League out of business in 1915 after only two seasons. Dissatisfied with the terms of an agreement reached in an earlier lawsuit against the Federal League, he pursued his case all the way to the Supreme Court.
There, in an eloquent 1922 decision that still reverberates, the legendary Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled that baseball is exempt from antitrust law. Putting on a baseball game for money isn't "commerce" in the strict sense of the word, he wrote. And even though the teams cross state lines to play each other, the transportation is incidental, not essential, to the business, so they really aren't engaged in interstate trade. The Sherman Antitrust Act, he decided, did not apply.
Subsequent courts have been openly skeptical of that ruling and have narrowed its scope greatly, but, because the decision still stands, it affords baseball a unique protection few other industries enjoy. The Supreme Court has since suggested that Congress settle the issue legislatively, but it has so far demurred.
For years, the NFL assumed Justice Holmes' exemption applied to it as well. It found out otherwise in 1957 when the Court decided Radovich v. National Football League.
A guard with the Detroit Lions, George Radovich left the team in 1946 to care for his sick father in Los Angeles, where he played for the Los Angeles Dons of the All-American Football Conference. After his playing career had ended, Radovich applied to be a coach with the San Francisco Clippers of the Pacific Coast League, an NFL affiliate. It was then he learned that the NFL had blacklisted him. Radovich sued, and his case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the National Football League, and every sport except baseball, had to conform to the antitrust laws.
Though that landmark decision was still a few years off when MacMillan filed the Baltimore Colts' lawsuit in 1951, the NFL had to be nervous about the unsettled nature of antitrust law and sports. The matter was heard in Baltimore, and the judge turned out to be a devout Colts fan. A number of his preliminary rulings went Baltimore's way. Had it lost, the NFL could have been forced to pay hefty damages.
Then, on Dec. 3, 1952, before the final court ruling, Commissioner Bell said that the city could have another franchise if it sold 15,000 season tickets in six weeks. That goal was reached in less than five weeks, and Baltimore was back in the NFL.
This time, though, it was assigned a franchise even weaker than the Seahawks: The Dallas Texans. The team was not only broke, but quite likely cursed. A year earlier, the Texans had been the New York Yankees. They failed in New York and almost moved to Baltimore in 1951, but chose Dallas instead. The experiment in Texas was disastrous: The Texans drew so poorly that they abandoned their hometown after just four home games and became a permanent road team based in Hershey, PA.
After the season, the franchise reverted back to the NFL, which awarded it to Baltimore. The team came to town with a big defensive end named Art Donovan and some blue and white uniforms.
Unhappy about the Colts' turn of fortune, the Redskins' Marshall took steps to see that it would never happen again. In 1953, he had this clause inserted into the NFL bylaws: "In the event the Baltimore franchise is forfeited or surrendered, or is transferred to a City other than Baltimore, all rights to the Baltimore Territory shall invest in the Washington Redskins, and the area included in the Baltimore Territory shall be reconstituted and become part of the Home Territory of the Washington Redskins."
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Meanwhile, Baltimore realized that if it wanted to play in the big leagues, it would need a big-league stadium. Its initial stadium drive took on the overtones of a full-fledged civic crusade. Community leaders saw a new sports venue as a way to anchor some of the new wealth that had come into the city during World War II. Steel factories and shipyards were still sprawling, but their size was dissipating with post-war demobilization.
Baltimore was then the nation's ninth largest city. It hit its population zenith in 1950 with 949,708. In 1945, a 78-citizen mayoral committee reported to Mayor Theodore McKeldin that "Baltimore stands today at a civic crossroad. There is no avoiding the unpleasant truth that until recently Baltimore was being outrun by a number of younger cities in the race for national and international prominence."
War, the report said, had changed that, but only temporarily. "It is for the leaders of Baltimore and Maryland to see that the reversal is permanent," it concluded.
The committee suggested a rather bold solution, one that reflected the hotbed of high-tech engineering that Baltimore had become: A 100,000-seat, circular stadium with a thin, metal roof to be supported not by vision-obscuring columns, but by air pressure. No one had ever built such a "domed" stadium. Though the basic design had been patented by a couple of New York men, committee member Glenn L. Martin, an eccentric but brilliant aviation pioneer, championed the cause in Baltimore. His company, which would later evolve into the aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, ran a factory complex to the east of the city where bombers were built, the best known being the Marauder.
Martin argued that the new stadium would draw attention and prestige to the city, and help retain its bright young people, who were then seeking success elsewhere. More pragmatic minds prevailed, however, and the air-supported dome debuted much later in more innovative cities. Instead of building a trend-setting monument, Baltimore put together a bargain-basement stadium that was obsolete almost from its first game.
Construction occurred in phases, as various funding levies were passed. The first allowed for a $3.5 million, single-deck, 20,000-seat concrete structure. Work began on that in 1949 and was completed a year later, amid optimism that the new park would not only keep the Colts happy but attract a Major League Baseball team. Baltimore was home to the International League Orioles, and there was rampant speculation that some major-league teams were looking for new homes.
The new structure went up on 33rd Street at the site of the old Municipal Stadium, which had been called "Babe Ruth Stadium" in its final years. Planners thought this location had two advantages: It was in a crowded residential neighborhood, which meant that fans could walk to the games, and it would cost less to rebuild on the same site than to build on a new one.
"Memorial Stadium was built where it was because we only had $3.5 million to spend," Robert C. "Jake" Embry, a community leader involved in the effort, recalled in 1991. "The old wooden stadium, with utilities, was already there, and the cost of bringing in new utilities to any of the other sites ... would have been $1 million."
It was obvious that the new stadium needed a second deck, but the matter was controversial. The voters soundly rejected a bonding referendum for an upper deck of the "Babe Ruth Stadium." Then someone got the bright idea to connect the project with the nation's bountiful, post-war patriotism. The stadium was renamed "Memorial Stadium," and voters were told it would be dedicated to the war dead. That did the trick. A second vote in 1953 approved $3 million for "Memorial Stadium."
Double-decked and shaped like a horseshoe, it contained almost no wood--a relief to a city that had lived through the fiery destruction of the first Oriole Park 10 years before. The new structure's exterior was a handsome mix of red brick and sandy-colored concrete. Fans walked to the upper decks on broad ramps that switched back and forth like a mountain trail. The structure easily accommodated baseball, with home plate situated in the bottom of the "U." But football was a little trickier: The dugouts had to be covered with plywood, and the stadium's open, north end needed to be filled in with temporary bleachers. Temporary seats could also be added along the sidelines.
To emphasize the patriotism of the project, an urn with dirt from overseas military cemeteries was put on display inside. And stainless steel, art-deco lettering graced the giant facade at the stadium's southern end, reading: "Time will not dim the glory of their deeds."
Despite these touches, it was obvious that some corners had been cut in the design. The upper deck, for example, was held aloft by giant, concrete pillars instead of by the "cantilever" system used in other parks. The pillars cost less, but they pushed the upper deck back from the field, thus limiting the prices that could be charged for those seats. They also left thousands of lower-deck seats with obstructed views. In addition, many of the original seats were wooden bleachers, and the stadium lacked a roof. No double-decked stadium had ever been built without a cover for the upstairs fans.