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Editorial: Fandom, analysis, and how they intersect to distort priorities

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We need to change the way we analyze sports.

Washington Capitals v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Five

Intro

Tampa is a perfect encapsulation of the spectrum of ownership in sports. For some, the NFL’s Buccaneers are unwatchable. They’ve made a player accused multiple times of sexual assault the face of the franchise. Watching a Bucs game means hearing Jameis Winston’s name at least fifty times and every time being reminded that the organization doesn’t care how having him in such a prominent position impacts their fans.

The Rays are a hedge fund disguised as a baseball team. They are the purest form of “asset management” in sports. The organization isn’t and has never been interested in doing the work to develop fandom. They win games. Lots of games in fact. But the players who win those games are never around for longer than a few years. The team revels in their ability to win while spending as little as possible and simultaneously trying to extract public funding for a new stadium.

The Lightning are currently having the most success of the three organizations. They’ve created a winning team but also recreated a fandom. They’re active in the community. They haven’t requested exorbitant public funding for their arena. They aren’t perfect but they’ve avoided any massive mistakes. Missteps will inevitably occur and how they handle those will say more about who they are than the current sunshine and rainbows era.

Getting to the point

Putting this aside for the moment, this an article about how fans and analysts (like me, I am both) are complicit in creating teams that are the very worst in sports rather than the very best.

Fans are part of a larger problem about how sports teams are built

Major sports teams are massive corporations operating in a protected market where the barrier to entry is extreme. That creates an artificial scarcity that makes them immune to consequences. Their failures are rewarded with the opportunity to acquire more talented players. They will increase in value over time no matter their competence. If they fail so spectacularly as to become unsustainable in one city, several other cities will beg for the right to throw public money at them in an effort to seduce them into relocating.

But the game is rigged. Fans have a choice of at most 30ish teams in major US pro sports. And much less if they want to be able to follow the team easily using their local media outlets. Most fandom is either learned or evolves from some initial spark. Someone early in life bakes the fandom into a young person’s growing psyche. The local team makes a run at a championship and the new fan is hooked.

That initial casual fandom grows. Now the fan is watching lots of games every season. They follow the team’s place in the standings. They want the team to win as many games as possible. They want the team to make the playoffs. They want that feeling of rooting for a good team in big moments. That’s the best part of being a fan.

That desire for team success leads to wanting “what’s best for the team.” But what is best for the team? Now the fan is analyzing management and trying to identify the optimal path that will lead to that feeling of joy that only comes from winning.

Expressing the ideas that result from that analysis comes in many forms both in the arena and online. In the arena, fans cheer, boo, and hold signs. Online, fans write on social media and on blogs.

The unifying theme is that the ultimate goal is the success of the team. That means acquiring as many good players as possible and deploying them in the most optimal way possible. Without making a conscious decision to do so, fans turn players into pawns to be manipulated by the organization in whatever way will lead to the most wins.

This has always been the case with sports fandom and analysis but becomes even more stark with the introduction of more rigorous statistical analysis. Almost all public analytics work is based on how teams can make smarter decisions. Making decisions about a player’s career is “asset management.” Artificially suppressing players’ earning potential through restricted free agency is “cost control.” Underpaying a player because their impact isn’t well-understood leaguewide is “identifying a market inefficiency.”

This path leads quickly to public fan analysis centering on how teams can get the best players for the least money. And that inevitably leads to looking for ways to take advantage of the collective bargaining agreement to suppress player pay.

Is there a better way to approach fandom and how we want to build teams?

Craig Goldstein wrote a great piece about this at Baseball Prospectus yesterday. He covered the idea of baseball teams keeping players in the minor leagues for longer than they should so that they delay the player reaching free agency.

We don’t as often talk about the downsides of cold and calculated management—about how the Mets are enacting a potential disservice to themselves, souring their relationship with a player before he even reaches the majors, and putting him in the wrong mindset for success for the benefit of a right-right, high-maintenance bodied, first baseman’s age-31 season. About how this could backfire in terms of his performance, rendering moot these attempts to gain an extra year of service time. I could talk about all of that and it would all have merit, but it also is unnecessary, because in stark terms: what the Mets are doing is wrong.

In hockey, we see this in how teams approach restricted free agency. I’ve read dozens of articles on whether teams should use bridge deals or offer long-term contracts after players graduate from their entry level contracts. I’ve never read a single article on which of those options is best for a player trying to maximize their earnings in a career that will likely be over in their early 30s.

This constant pursuit of a dehumanized model of organizational optimization is a distorted science borne of the idea that a team is a singular entity and not a collection of individuals.

A truly optimal organization is one that not only has success but treats people well. Treating people well means operating in good faith. It means paying people their worth. It means caring about their health and safety. It means striving for an environment where anyone with the ability to be successful will be successful. It means giving people the chance to find a role in the organization that fits them or in some cases, to move to a new organization where the fit will be better.

When a player becomes a free agent, how they choose to handle that is entirely at their discretion. Some players might choose to go where the money is best. And in most cases, they should. They have a short window to change the financial future of themselves and their families. To not take advantage of that would be absurd. Some players might take the second or third best financial option to put themselves in a better spot to achieve professional success. That’s their choice as well.

Players don’t owe fans anything. They owe themselves and their families to create the best life they can. They owe their coaches to play as well as they can in exchange for the salary they’re being paid.

Ownership owes fans. They owe them in exchange for the money spent on merchandise and tickets. They owe them for the public money received for arenas in almost every case. They owe them for spreading the good news to bring in new fans and caretaking the collective both as individuals and as a group

They owe them a competitive team. They owe them a team that’s fun to support. They owe them an experience that always makes them feel part of something and never excluded. They owe them excitement and an infusion of energy with as little frustration as possible.

Is there a better way to go about analyzing the sports teams we support?

Too often, sports analysis forgets who is beholden to whom. Teams are massive monolithic corporations. They don’t need fans’ help to embody more of the malformed ideals of corporate culture.

They need fans to hold them accountable for a standard of morality and ethics that they almost certainly won’t possess on their own. People with enough money to own a sports team rarely do. They need fans to show that winning isn’t the only thing that matters. Winning doesn’t mean much if the team is constantly flaunting their disregard for any sense of rightness.

Being a fan of a sports team is fun. The more deeply a person gets into that fandom, the more likely they are to start identifying with the team. Thinking about decisions through the eyes of team management. Trying to figure out how to get the most for the least.

Resisting that urge would be a healthy development. Rooting out terms like “asset management” is a start. Players are people. The goal of sports should be for the individuals to get the most they can out of it. In team sports, that requires cooperation. It doesn’t require subservience.

Cheering for standings points regardless of how they’re gained is a path to morally bankrupt analysis that encourages team owners to exploit players at every opportunity. Nikita Kucherov making half of his actual worth for three full seasons because of a collective bargaining agreement that punishes young players isn’t something to celebrate.

I’m tired of reading about new and creative ways that teams can save a few million bucks. Instead, I want to hear more about how players can earn an extra few million bucks. When we get the next inevitable lockout, I want to read analyses about how unfair the current agreement is to players. I want to read compelling quantitative cases against artificial ceilings on player earnings.

Corporations don’t need any more help exploiting labor. And I’m tired of sports analysis reading like a report from a corporate business analyst.