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Business - Written by on Tuesday, March 10, 2009 8:38 - 5 Comments

The Wisdom of Fans and the Uniquely Qualified Athlete

In the age of Wikinomics, one of the things that frustrates me most about being an avid sports fan is that it is still very difficult for fans to have any direct say in what their favourite players and teams do on, and off, the playing surface (i.e. who plays? who stays? who goes?)

As I watched the film Us Now last week, I was reminded of the British football club Ebbsfleet United and the MyFootballClub story, (see a clip here) where fans ultimately had enough of being armchair critics and put their money where their heart (and often discontent) was, and actually purchased a Club.

Bringing the story to a more personal level, I have been to quite a few of my favourite athletic club, the Toronto Raptors’, games this year and I have left the Air Canada Centre more often than I would like wishing there were some recourse that I, as a fan, had to have my displeasure heard.  I am completely aware that loss is an important part of sport, but to leave a match feeling as if the players did not leave it all on the court, or that the coach drew up a bad play, is not a great feeling as a supporter.

Now I know what you’re saying – does everyone give 100% all the time? Obviously not, but in the world of elite professional athletics, my threshold for forgiveness is admittedly lowered.

If there were a more immediate, constructive, and tangible way to give timely feedback, rather than voting with my feet, I would be all for it.

Now there are great online tools, such as Protrade The Sports Stock Market, that harness the power of prediction markets by allowing for the “purchase and sale” of  athletes, in order to earn some pretty great rewards and dominate fantasy pools, but the ultimate effect of these actions on the actual team remains unclear (presumably minimal).

One potential participatory experiment could be to gauge fans’ expectations vs. actual outcomes to mine the wisdom of the fans for added insight (kudos to Alex). For example, if the Raptors were playing the Kings, I would expect a solid victory, with CB4 putting up some big numbers, along with Jose Calderon dominating the assists column.  Now if the Raps were playing the Celtics, I would hope for a victory, but rather expect a big game from Chris Bosh, Jose Calderon, Andrea Bargnani and co., but would be well-prepared to chalk one up in the L category.

If, using sliding scale, I could input my predictions, along with the 000,000s of other NBA fans, then technically, the wisdom of the crowd should be pretty good at predicting ultimate outcomes (and managing expectations), and could hopefully improve the quality of game play (and fan engagement) if predictions were able to influence (pre)game-time decisions.  I respect many coaches’ expertise, but I am also a firm believer that none of us is as smart as all of us.

I suppose some of my frustrations this year have been driven by a few of the decidedly bizarre moves undertaken by a number of teams in the NBA, in light of salary cap considerations and decreased expected future earnings owing to economic pressure on ticket sales. Some of these decisions have resulted in what analysts have called a blatant disrespect of fans.  Always entertaining Bill Simmons goes so far as saying ”I’d say the Grizzlies hurled a flaming bag of dog feces at their fans, but they don’t have any fans” in reference to a three-way trade involving Houston, Orlando and Memphis, in February. In another complementary statement, Simmons also laments that “we [team leadership] finally crossed the imaginary line between “building a good team while being fiscally responsible” and “being fiscally responsible and not giving a crap about anything else.”

If fans begin to feel bored, or worse disrespected by questionable ownership/leadership  moves, then a fear of empty seats will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In an economy where entertainment dollars are growing harder and harder to capture, particularly the big ticket item sales – season tickets and luxury boxes – perhaps mechanisms that create deeper fan engagement must be among the tools used to help keep teams afloat - give the fans a greater say.

Now most of this post has been focused on the NBA, the league I would argue is best set up to weather the storm, due to its high-level of fan interaction and loyalty, but I dread to think of the situation that is imminent for many MLB and NHL teams (a league that is having trouble securing player buy-in and excitement for the fan favourite All-Star game).

Challenges aside, let’s be idealistic for a moment – wouldn’t it be great if a pro team were willing to give fans the extent of control that the Ebbsfleet United fans have, without surrendering formal ownership rights?

Any disenchanted sports fans out there looking to join in a myfootballclub-like adventure? We’ll call it mybasketballclub just to be original.


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Alex Marshall
Mar 10, 2009 13:22

Given that owners have the ultimate say in management decisions (see: Steinbrenner, George), a collaborative fan base taking over a team would be a great experiment. What we need is another Mark Cuban-type millionaire who sees the value in this experiment.

The Wisdom of Fans and the Uniquely Qualified Athlete | Futures Trading Info
Mar 11, 2009 1:17

[...] See the rest here: The Wisdom of Fans and the Uniquely Qualified Athlete [...]

Mar 12, 2009 18:47

Your proposal is interesting, but it fails to consider one factor: Fans are usually not objective in analysing their favourite teams.

Wayne Clingman
Mar 15, 2009 10:20

A crowd is like a single woman as the French say

Linden Head
Apr 17, 2009 10:15

I would argue that the phrase ‘none of us is as smart as all of us’ is only true when all other things are held equal. Given asymmetrical information between parties it could very well be that one person is smarter than all of us. Whereby, a coach or GM with superior information would make better long and short-run decisions than the cumulative input of the fans.

I too find myself wondering about decisions and hypothesizing what I would have done as a GM/coach. However, when I am truly perplexed by a move I often can’t help but think that there is something missing that I fundamentally don’t understand (probably due to imperfect information).

Take for example the blockbuster trade that occurred in December 2005 – the Boston bruins traded away one of the league’s best players (Joe Thorton) to the San Jose Sharks for three players (Marco Strum, Wayne Primeau, Brad Stuart). At the time, Boston fans were outraged – as you would expect them to be. However, the medium term outcome (April 2009) is that currently both Boston and San Jose won their conferences and are expected to meet in the Stanley Cup finals. If fans’ opinions had more weight this trade would have perhaps never gone through and these two teams may never have experienced the success they have seen recently.

In order to be effective the input that fans would be generating would need to be complemented by increased transparency and information sharing from players (player blogs), team management (financial information) and coaches (long and short-run coaching strategies). This would ensure more meaningful fan input. Then the question would become: is the value added from this input offset by the potentially reduced competitiveness of revealing this type of information?

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