Fan Involvement in a Sports Team’s Decision Making

 Professional sports team owners and management strive to draw and retain fans by assembling a quality product in order to sell tickets and merchandise. There are numerous factors that influence how well a professional sports team draws fans: on-ice success, local economy, local sports market, demographics, to name a few. It’s crucial for teams, regardless of the external factors, to connect with fans and give them a reason to continue watching and attending events.

With the development of technology, including the rapid ascension of new interactive platforms and tools, the demand of the fans have evolved. This in turn has put the onus on sports team and leagues to adapt and accommodate to their relationship with fans. One recent study (Hyatt, C., et al, 2013) examined this new breed of fans and provided recommendations on how professional sports teams can implement new ways of drawing and retaining fans, who have evolved as a result of video games and fantasy league sports.

The authors suggest fans be given the chance to vote on managerial decisions pertaining to their hockey team. The study provides an analysis of the fan-management models employed by the Seattle Sounders FC of Major League Soccer and Ebbsfleet United soccer club to draw out the pros and cons of fan managed teams as well as the lessons learned that could be used by other teams. The study emphasizes the importance of allowing fans to participate this way and points to how fans have evolved because of the technology available to them.

The implementation of our model is a step to engage big league sport consumers in a way that will strengthen the team-fan bond, help fill the seats, and generate more revenue in an era where maintaining attendance numbers has proven to be a challenge. (Hyatt et al, p. 201).

Having an opinion on the managerial decisions of a sports team is an important, engaging part of being a fan. There never is a dull moment for fans, as the nature of professional sports is extremely volatile. As teams win and lose, as players succeed and struggle, as management makes decisions, there is constant discussion about the game. Providing fans the opportunity to have an input on how team’s are managed would be great, but unfortunately there are a few flaws in the model suggested by the authors of this study.

Producer-Consumer Relationship

The study identifies how fans are very actively engaged in the game using fantasy league sports and video games as an example. Unfortunately, the authors depict fans as consumers of the game, following the traditional model of consumption. Simply put, in the traditional model, the league and the teams produce on-ice content for the fans consumption. If teams provide a member website where fans vote, they have established their relationship with the fan as two different entities with one-way communication. If the team is looking for fan input, it needs to change the model to one that allows for open communication between both entities. Fans require more than just a voting button to feel involved as a tool that supports open dialogue needs to be implemented.

Simply allowing fans to vote on managerial decisions will not be enough to make fans feel involved. There may be ideas that fans come up with that management have not even thought of. Unfortunately, voting on decisions only taps into a small sliver of knowledge that their fans have. Instead the study’s recommendations of allowing fans to simply vote on idea’s conjured up by team management restricts new ideas from surfacing.

Knowledge Sharing

Fans may feel more involved if they’re asked by managers to explain why they feel the way they do about a team’s direction. For example, the study cites the Edmonton Oilers’ decision at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft and how fans could’ve played a role in selecting the number one pick. Rater than allowing fans to login and vote, it would be beneficial to both the team and the fans to give a proper forum for knowledge sharing and discussion. For one, fans could bring forth ideas that team managers may not have thought of. Fans would also feel more valued for their decisions. The team could also weed out the votes that could be biased in their decision making. An environment that allows open discussion regarding team management where fans and team managers can interact and share knowledge would really improve the relationship between the fan and the team.

Team Ownership

The recommendation of the study to provide fans more control of decisions is something that would need complete support from the team’s owner. Overall, it would be tough to convince an owner to let fans make key decisions that could have major financial ramifications. True, the fans who are involved in their team’s management may increase their commitment to the team, but it would be in the owner’s best interest to have qualified people making decisions. A team’s reputation may be put into question if their decisions are based on the ideas of an unproven, possibly anonymous, group.

I would suggest that rather than having any fan who pays to vote on decisions, allow fans to bring forth new, detailed ideas or recommendations for the team. This would require a much more complicated project than the study’s suggestion of an online vote, but would at least bring forth fans who can prove their decision-making value to a team.

Recommendations

The 2013 study by Hyatt, et al. does an excellent job in providing a foundation for instilling a fan-management model. The case studies of teams that have provided fans an opportunity to participate in their team’s management were fairly critiqued by the authors with some valuable lessons-learned drawn out. Using this study and applying my own communications and technology research experience, I would recommend the following steps for professional sports team interested in implementing a management model that accepts fan input.

  • Develop a program that allows fans to bring forth their ideas on how to improve the team. Not only would fans feel more engaged, but owners and team managers can validate suggestions and have more confidence on the input they have received. An example of this is the Edmonton Oilers’ Hackathon contest that provided fans with data to develop new ideas or models to implement.
  • Provide an open communication tool, open to everyone regardless of fan allegiance, that allows fans to share ideas and suggestions. By allowing everyone to participate, and not requiring any sort of membership fees, a professional sports team could utilize the key foundational concepts of successful knowledge sharing communities.
  • Develop a program to educate fans on the deeper intricacies of the game. This could be done quite easily through web tutorials or YouTube clips. For example, an NHL team could provide a general overview of how systems or tactics are used in hockey. Fans may have develop a better understanding of the decisions team managers make and could potentially point out concepts that management have overlooked. Professional sports leagues could also provide more data, in an easy-to-use format, for fans to dissect and analyze. This sort of active engagement could bring out new ideas to measure team performance.

Readings

Hyatt, C., Sutton, W., Foster, W. & McConnell, D. (2013). Fan involvement in a professional sport team’s decision making. Sport, Business and Management, 3(3), p. 189-204.

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