Tag Archives: ESPN

The Impact of First Impressions in Sports

One night last week, I was in the car with my Dad and we had the radio on, listening to some guys call-in show on the New York ESPN radio affiliate. The first couple of hours we had to listen to this guy talk about his New York Jets, and I was performing my usual routine of making snide comments between his points to make my Dad laugh. Eventually, for the last thirty minutes, he got to talking about the New York Giants, who, as you probably know, my family has had season tickets with for 50 years (that’s not even an exaggeration: my Grandfather’s first year as a season ticket holder was in 1963, back when the Giants played in Yankee Stadium). The host stated his belief that the main obstacle standing between the Giants and a playoff appearance was the running backs, and asked his callers a simple question: “Do you think that Andre Brown and David Wilson would be good enough to carry the load for the Giants for an entire season?”

Just so we’re clear, my answer to that question is a resounding YES, but I have doubts about the offensive line. But that’s not the reason why I bring this up. The callers all started calling in and talking about how they thought Wilson was an explosive running back, but the main concern is his fumbling problem. The host, after hearing around five callers bring up David Wilson’s “fumbling problem,” asked one of the callers how many fumbles he thought David Wilson had last season. I immediately yelled out “ONE” while listening in the car, fully aware of his stats from the previous season. The caller thought about it for five seconds, and then said “seven to ten.” The answer? One.

That begged me to ask myself the question: Why do Giants fans believe that David Wilson has a fumbling problem? After thinking about it for a minute, the answer is really simple: the only fumble that he’s lost all season took place on his debut against the Dallas Cowboys, and it left a lasting impression on the minds of Giants fans. The fumble turned the tide of the game (which the Giants lost), and has not been forgotten since. He got 70 carries last season, averaged 5 yards per carry, scored 7 TDs and returned kickoffs better than any Giant I’ve ever seen (except maybe Ron Dixon), but has been unable to shake off that label that he can’t hold on to the ball.

Flash forward to last weekend, as I’m up early watching Liverpool-Stoke City in the opening English Premier League match of the season. Liverpool are 1-0 up in the closing minutes of the game, when Daniel Agger conceded a very stupid penalty, putting his arm up in the box when he had no need to and making contact with the ball. Jonathan Walters stepped up to take the penalty for Stoke City, facing the newly-bought Belgian keeper Simon Mignolet, who was making his competitive debut for Liverpool. Walters shot it to the Mignolet’s right hand side… and Simon saved it! The ball was loose, Kenwyne Jones ran up and fired another shot at the net, which Mignolet also saved, as it scrambled out for a corner, with the Anfield faithful going absolutely ballistic. The players all jumped on Mignolet to congratulate/thank him, before he pushed them off and made them get in position as Stoke were trying to take the corner quickly. Liverpool held on for a 1-0 win, and Mignolet made a really tremendous first impression on the Liverpool fans watching, not only in the ground, but on TV sets all over the world.

Online afterward, I noticed that many, many fans were praising Mignolet for his penalty save, and seemingly were willing to forget all of the rage they felt after the club loaned out Pepe Reina (remember him?!) in order for Mignolet to start. I remembered how David Wilson’s fumble in his first game forever imprinted negative thoughts on the minds of Giants fans, and really do wonder how Mignolet’s crucial penalty save on his debut will be felt by fans in the long term. This also made me ask myself a deeper question: how much stock do we, as sports fans, put on a first impression we get from a player? In addition, how much should we get out of our first impressions of a player?

I’ve been watching sports for as long as I can remember. I’ve honestly lost count on the number of games I’ve attended, and to remember every debut I’ve seen both in person and on TV would be rather ridiculous. But there are some first impressions I’ve gotten from watching games that do stand out in my mind.

I remember watching Hideki Matsui’s Yankee Stadium debut back on Opening Day in 2003, when he hit a Grand Slam against Minnesota into right field. He ended up being a mainstay in the Yankee lineup for around seven years. On the contrary, I remember Kazuo Matsui’s MLB debut (not related to the aforementioned Hideki), where he hit the first pitch he’d ever seen out of the park in Atlanta. Kazuo ended up hitting .256 as a Met over the next two years before he was traded to Colorado, never truly living up to the hype the Mets had set for him, and that he had set for himself with that first pitch homer.

And with that, we find one of the factors that goes into a first impression: the hype beforehand. In American sports, when a player is selected as a first round pick, there is a certain amount of hype that goes with that player. He’s tabbed as a future starter, an impact player, someone who can improve the team in the short term and be the answer to a problem for the long term. David Wilson was a first round pick, and that’s another reason why his first impression was so damning. The Giants felt confident enough to select him in the opening round as a replacement for Brandon Jacobs, the franchise’s all-time leader in rushing TDs.

In the modern age, YouTube has helped fans come up with first impressions without even seeing a player come on the pitch for their side yet. The problem with YouTube, however, is that the video creators can really edit any film enough to make you think that someone is a star if they have enough footage. Milan Jovanovic looked like a star on YouTube, as did Christian Poulsen—neither one lasted more than a season at Liverpool. College football fans remember all too well about Sam McGuffie’s YouTube video, which was 10 minutes of him running around and jumping over high school players like he was in a video game on cheat mode, only to discover that his athleticism didn’t transfer to the college level when he played at Michigan under Rich Rodriguez (McGuffie is currently in training camp with the Oakland Raiders, but I highly doubt he’ll make the team after the preseason is over).

While I remembered Luis Suarez making a splash onto the scene in South Africa in 2010 with his handball against Ghana, I’d honestly forgotten about him until Liverpool started chasing him six months later during the January 2011 window. I remembered watching his YouTube compilations, in addition to his not-so-endearing highlights, such as the handball in South Africa and his celebrating after Asamoah Gyan missed, his diving, and his biting of PSV player Otman Bakkal on the shoulder. I put all of the negative stuff to the side and focused on the fact that he was a good striker who could answer a problem that Liverpool needed to address, and really didn’t think too much about the fact that he was clearly a troubled player.

From this, we do find the answer to the first question: “What do we get out of a first impression as sports fans?” The answer? Whatever we’re willing to get out of it. Honestly, if you don’t try to get much out of watching something, you won’t, and if you are trying to get something out of it, you will. It’s a ridiculously simple answer, but it is true. The only real exception is when something so extraordinary happens that you can’t help but ignore it, such as when Suarez cheats on Global TV in a World Cup Quarterfinal. If you were a cynic, you’d say he was a cheat, but you could also view it as somebody willing to do whatever it takes to win. As sports fans, we’re willing and able to take any sporting moment, view it in a vacuum, and assign it to whatever agenda we’re pushing, even if it’s just a call-in to ESPN radio.

Follow Greg Visone on Twitter @njny

Who Knew That Sports Fans Could Take It This Far?

Sports fandom has been revolutionized. We’ve come a long way from just watching the games, scanning the box scores, and arguing who should be hitting clean-up over a water cooler. I’d estimate that 98% of our fandom is now expressed online—the actual act of being a fan (supporting, following, watching, buying merchandise, discussion) is done through forums, Twitter, Facebook, and whatever other means of social networking fans use to get it off our chests.

With a massive change in how we digest information and express our sporting loyalties, there’s also been revolution in the type of information we have access to. Fans can dig beneath the surface of the games themselves to see analytics behind how efficient Wayne Rooney is with his shots; sabermetrics can tell you what Justin Verlander’s real ERA is (that simple “ERA” stat you see on his ESPN.com Player Card isn’t the whole truth); I even know that Jeremy Lin is a better pick-and-roll shooter than Raymond Felton. Thanks to Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball,” and the underground statistical community that it exposed within sport, fan-driven thirst for relevant knowledge has developed. Don’t tell me what Derek Jeter’s RBI numbers are—what’s his WAR?

Besides the bevy of advanced metrics that has made anyone with a keyboard and internet access a make-shift blogger, there are sites that are totally dedicated to keeping track of player contracts, salaries, and wages. ESPN employs sports lawyers and accountants full-time to give concise and easy to understand industry insight on every labor union dispute, contract signed, and NFL player arrest. We’ve been given enough information to make any sensible person well-spoken on just about every sports story. Bill Simmons touched on this in his column on the Red Sox payroll dump last month: “You could click on the 25th-best NBA blog and probably read an educated, smartly considered take on the Knicks’ decision to allow Jeremy Lin to leave.” Simmons is correct: JLBSports.tv is probably the 100,000,000th most popular sports website, but my breakdown of the Lin situation could probably match whatever ESPN.com’s columnists filed. I’m not touting myself up, but professional sports writers and I had the same information—it just depends on whether readers preferred my writing style and framing to Ian Begley’s.

Modern fans are smart enough that some of them really belong on a team’s payroll. Why a soccer club hasn’t hired away my friend Zach Slaton to run numbers for them yet is beyond me (although I’m sure he’s comfortable with his gig at Forbes.com for now). Fans turned industry professionals are commonplace now. Bill James and Voros McCraken were once simple fans of baseball—the former is now in the Red Sox’s front office, with the latter having worked in the same front office from 2003-2005. Bloggers with serious analytics on economics, statistics, and accounting are being hired away by organizations, because they’ve got the models and algorithms that can translate into wins. These independent bloggers and writers have the tools to peel back the curtain, and show fans what’s really going on.

More and more often, however, the best bloggers are being hired away, leaving serious gaps in analysis that fans can access. There aren’t any killer basketball or soccer sabermetrics like baseball has, but teams like the Houston Rockets and Manchester City are fully immersed in them—it’s just that the Rockets keep that information to themselves to stave off competition, and City isn’t telling us which numbers translate into wins (they have, however, opened up their data to independent interpretation).

With Darren Rovell tweeting every bit of irrelevant sports business information, and Baseball Prospectus pumping out their annual Holy Bible, there’s an illusion that fans truly know everything that’s to be known, and they don’t. We’re at a weird point in sports fandom where fans know so much about the statistics and finances—crucial “insider” knowledge—of their teams, and that knowledge causes them to over-analyze and assume way too much. More often than not, we simply don’t know better. Just because you have an ESPN.com Insider account, it doesn’t mean you’re actually keeping up with the inside.

It’s weird for a sports blogger to plead ignorance (as I am right now—aren’t we supposed to be know-it-alls?), but when we don’t, it muddles debate and hurts the teams. For the past month, the biggest story in baseball has been Stephen Strasburg, and whether he should or should not be shut down after reaching his innings limit, which was predetermined last winter. His Washington Nationals boast the best record in baseball, and going into October without their ace will undoubtedly hurt their World Series hopes. The Nationals shut him down anyway, wanting to protect his arm (equipped with a newly reconstructed elbow from Tommy John surgery in 2010) from future harm.

Every baseball fan with a pulse has an opinion on the matter, and many disagreed with the Nationals’ decision. Tommy John, for one, totally second-guessed the Nationals: “I would hope the general manager has a degree in orthopedic surgery, or at least kinesiology or physiology, and I don’t think [Nationals General Manager] Mike Rizzo has any of that… But you know what? The golden ring only comes around on the merry go round maybe one time.” I’m sure Rizzo doesn’t have any medical degrees, but I can guarantee that he’s hired a crack-team of people who do. We don’t know what the Nationals doctors know, and even what their stat nerds know about pitcher’s innings limits, age, and injuries. It wasn’t until this week that Rany Jazayerli wrote about why the Nationals made a mistake, but he used over twenty years of statistical research to compile his argument, and even then, I’m sure the Nationals have their own metrics to counter Jazayerli’s research.

Fans thinking they know more than they actually do doesn’t only apply to statistics, but also to their team’s finances. I watched the English Premier League’s transfer Deadline Day unfold, and with every passing hour, everyone on my Twitter timeline suddenly became accountants. Liverpool fans questioned why their team didn’t step up their £3.5 million offer for Fulham striker Clint Dempsey to meet Fulham’s £6 million asking price. To them, a £2.5 million difference was negligible for a rich team that badly needed a striker. That difference would just be made up in shirt sales. He’s vital to cracking the American market. Once again, Liverpool fans should assume ignorance over facts in the matter. I’m sure that internally, Liverpool could prove that paying an extra £2.5 million for a 29 year old striker with an abysmal chance conversion rate was simply not worth it in terms of pound to performance value. We make think that Liverpool and the public share the same information—Demspey’s 17 league goals last season, a $100 jersey price, and a serious need for a new striker seem to equate to an easy, logical buy for the club. If it was that simple, however, Liverpool would’ve pulled the trigger. It wasn’t though, and for reasons that will never be made public, no transfer was completed.

As much as we would like to think otherwise, we’re not as smart as the teams we support. There are some genuine head-scratchers, like the Knicks and Jeremy Lin (really just James Dolan across the board), the Magic’s package for Dwight Howard, the entire Cleveland Browns franchise, and Albert Pujols’ contract, but by-in-large, teams are making the right choices based on an even deeper well of knowledge than fans have access to. It’s not just fans who got smarter—teams did too.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49