New Englanders ponder new status: Are we winners?

In October, the Red Sox shattered the "Curse of the Bambino."

Three months later, the Patriots have been christened the first football dynasty of the new millennium, winning their third Super Bowl in four years. And in an uncharacteristic burst of hubris, some New Englanders are proclaiming their home the sports capital of the world.

In a place where many residents are more familiar with suffering than superlatives, the Patriots' 2005 victory parade drew thousands of fans reveling in the city's new embarrassment of riches.

Even after the ticker tape is swept away, when the sports world moves on to March Madness and spring training, this "city of champs" will probably be left with more than just an engraved trophy. The record-tying 11 catches by Deion Branch, who emerged as Super Bowl MVP, and the heroics of David Ortiz, whose homers buoyed the Red Sox in their historic comeback against the Yankees, will be etched into the public memory. They could help forge a sense of community that may not boost the city's coffers, but should foster a renewed sense of civic engagement.

"There are not that many events during the course of our lives in which the identity of our community is reaffirmed," says Andrew Zimbalist, a sports historian and economist at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. "As unintended as it might be, [a championship] has an important galvanizing effect."

Now New England, with its stiff upper lip, has been admitted into the top tier of sports winners, along with such cities as Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Dallas, and - yes - archrival New York. As grand as this prospect sounds, it's a reality that has some fans questioning what comes next.

"The Patriots used to be heartbreakers, like the Red Sox," says Betty Soave, a lifelong fan of both teams, as she waits for a city bus in Cambridge, Mass. She's lived through so many near misses and painful interceptions that she doesn't quite know what to do with this newfound bounty: "I didn't think it was going to happen."

Not that victory isn't sweet. Boasting rights might be the most immediate benefit. "Everyone in the world's a Patriots fan, right?" asks Ms. Soave, deadpan.

And in this age of free agents and salary caps, it is remarkable for a team to remain as consistently on top as the Patriots have. "We don't see that type of continuity anymore," says Pete Fierle, information services manager at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. "That's why people are marveling at what the Patriots have done."

Such streaks can be a boon to certain businesses, too. Like the local souvenir shop that sells out of its freshly minted "championship" T-shirts. Or the local sports bar filled to capacity during playoff season. But when the swirl of media hype settles, economists say championships provide little net gain to their home bases. Those who may invest in a new Patriots sweatshirt, for example, are likely to forgo the new fleece at the Gap.

"No one is going to travel or relocate to Boston because the Patriots won," says Dr. Zimbalist.

In the end, the bigger boost tends to be to a community's collective sense of pride and purpose. "It makes people want to support other positives things within their community," says Edward Hirt, a professor of social psychology at Indiana University in Bloomington. That includes any number of civic fundraisers, beautifying efforts, or other social initiatives, he says.

As Boston revels in its good fortune, fans elsewhere are remembering their own winning days with a touch of nostalgia. Mercedes Taylor, a member of the San Francisco Boosters Club for some 25 years, remembers the buzz in the city in 1995 as the 49ers clinched their fifth Super Bowl win in 13 years. It drowned out the drone of buses and the ring of cash registers. "Whenever you were in a public place, that's all anyone would be talking about.... And you always wore your 49er clothes. I wore mine to work."

And "everybody who was anybody" was involved in the parade, she recalls.

But there are limits to pride, says one economist - at least when money is involved. Bruce Johnson, a professor at Centre College in Danville, Ky., attempted to put a price tag on civic optimism - those immeasurables like excited banter with friends, the barrage of sports talk shows, any number of victory parties. With a colleague, he studied the hypothetical willingness of Pittsburgh residents to pay higher taxes to keep the Penguins, the city's ice-hockey team. That willingness fell between $17 million and $48 million, a number he says is not high in the context of a metropolitan economy: "That is a drop in the bucket."

And fans can be a fickle bunch. Victory can bring more devotees into the fold, but it also raises the bar for the followers. "The expectations go through the roof," says Dr. Hirt.

Look at the Yankees, he says. "If they don't win it's, 'What's wrong with the Yankees?' "

Boston fans haven't matured that much yet, but there are signs of change. At The Fours, a Boston pub recently rated the No. 1 sports bar in the country by Sports Illustrated, one of the owners, Peter Colton, says that the electricity in the bar as the Red Sox emerged as World Series champs was distinct. The Pats still garner enthusiasm at the bar, which sits across the street from the FleetCenter, but the fervor wasn't as great as other Super Bowl years.

"People are spoiled by the Pats right now," says this lifelong sports fan, sitting in his veritable museum of photographed sports moments and collectibles. "They kind of expect it now."

Christa Case contributed to this report.

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