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