Pondering the frivolity of sports fandom

In a world beset with important problems ranging from hunger to climate change, stateless people seeking a better life for themselves and families, how is it that we can spend so much time and attention on the sheer uselessness of professional sport?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question, because I have an often uncomfortable relationship with sports fandom. People can take it too far, much like they can take anything too far. But an entire set of industries borne around an industry we don’t own, but take a modicum of ownership in, seems useless when we think about al of the ways that we could be benefitting our communities and society at large if we didn’t have so much invested in games that have become bigger than life itself.

When I first saw the tweet above, I thought “well, what separates an athlete making millions from an actor or a hedge fund manager?” Sports are games we play on our own, so it’s easy to look at someone playing a kid’s game and believe that we’re a lot closer to them than a person locked inside a windowless office staring at a computer screen for 14 hours a day. We relate to athletes in ways that we cannot with someone who willingly gets on stage and bears their soul in a song or performs dramatic works in a moving theatrical performance.

So what is it about sports? Can you both abhor the NCAA as an entity and root for the athletes and/or the universities they represent? Is it a massive contradiction to watch gridiron football, hockey or baseball when teams willingly bear caricatures on their uniforms; often with owners, management and players who have retrograde views not in lockstep with a forward-thinking society?

Or should we just be spending our time in better ways? The biggest criticism of sports fandom is how it can consume people’s lives to the detriment of all other things. I find this most offensive when considering how much time we spend in the US on youth sports, when decades ago, kids mostly played with people in their neighborhoods in unsupervised games with always needing adults to mete out the winners and losers.

We’ve surely lost something in a world of millionaire athletes, billionaire owners, subsidies for stadiums and tens of thousands of screaming people who feel entitled to a piece of people for having paid scrip to watch the circus perform. But I’m not sure that sports are the symptom or the remedy for what ails us.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means not just to be an American, but a citizen at large. Amidst this thinking is pondering precisely what responsibility comes with citizenship, how that intertwines with community and whether the collective good is something attainable and how we define what “good” is.

For me, sports are a way to connect with people I’d probably never talk to otherwise. When I find myself, a borderline teetotaler at a bar, knowing I can talk intelligently about all of the other things that interest me, as well as the historical origins of most sports — because I’ve just always been interested — is exciting to me. Sports is a vocabulary no different than my passion for shoegaze records, Star Trek or preference for coming-of-age indie films. I used to be too good for television shows, too. A winter in a rural town fixed that for me, because there were only so many things I could do on the computer.

Participating in an unequal world means making a lot of compromises in order to function day to day. Sports is just another of them. Fandom doesn’t excuse us. We should be cognizant of our complicity in the structures that inhibit progress, even unwittingly.

Why I claimed the St. Louis Rams defunct Twitter account (before it was suspended)

Yesterday afternoon around 4, I was hanging out working on a website. I took a brief break to look at Twitter when I saw someone post the new Rams switch from St. Louis to Los Angeles. My first thought, being a uniform nerd was “I wonder if they’re going to change their colors,” so I went looking to see and typed “Rams” into Google. That was it.

The first thing I saw beneath the top results were their twitter handle which had not cached changes. You can’t see it now, because they’ve asked google to remove Twitter because their old name still comes up.

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Once I saw the team hadn’t backed up their old Twitter handle (@StLouisRams) when they switched to their new one (@RamsNFL), I wondered if the old one was available. My only thought was “maybe some fan group would want it,” since the team probably had no interest in keeping it.

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Mentions streamed like crazy for a while — and still are — because people hadn’t gotten the memo that the team changed names. Especially since the now Los Angeles Rams weren’t able to convince the actual person with the name LaraMS on Twitter since it’s her name.

Maybe an hour into the experiment, Twitter put the suspension hammer on the account. Which is fine. It’s just a silly story that gives me material for a future presentation.

So what was the point, you troublemaker?

Not fame, that’s for sure.

Here’s the deal. This is really a story in thinking about your users.

Think of your twitter profile like a phone number with a forwarding number.

Whoever ran marketing point for the social media team probably had their people under a fast turnaround to get the new website up announcing the official name of the team and to switch the twitter accounts were literally the last thing on anyone’s mind, I bet. Even the Fox story that quotes me indicates my belief, “they just forgot. There’s no real precedent for this sort of thing,” because it’s not like we had Twitter when the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles in the 50s.

Most companies realize their old customers want to know where their new location is. In the case in the Rams, you’re leaving behind an entire fan base and keeping the old account to say “please follow us at @RamsNFL” might seem unnecessarily cruel and yet, it’s precisely what they needed to do.

People are still looking for them and tweeting at the old handle. That happens and will eventually stop, but the 15 extra seconds it’d have taken to do that would’ve saved the team a modest amount of embarrassment and directed new traffic to their account.

Also, if I hadn’t done there were actual fans of the team who were going to do it if I hadn’t beaten them to it.

“UX stopped being about people and started being about rounded rectangles and parallax animations” – Golden Krishna, The Best interface is no interface

The user become an ancillary part of the equation in so many of our design decisions. Whether it’s deciding how to deliver content or how we disseminate information, too much the argument is focused on a notion of duping people’s eyeballs to our content, rather than engaging their interest.

We need to create holistic customer journeys that establish and maintain loyalty. Brand loyalty is that niggling thing that your parents and grandparents demonstrated by buying the same kind of toothpaste for forty years or going to the same accountant until they died. These days, with companies sprouting and dying in short one-act plays, it’s harder to achieve that kind of relationship, especially for new-economy tools and platforms.

The sooner we think of the customer as a partner, rather than an adversary, the better our decision-making across silos will be.

The suspension is a bigger issue in ownership of accounts.

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You don’t own your social media presence. I’ve managed social media for brands (mostly universities) and one of the things you realize quickly is that investing too much of your brand equity and lead generation in a platform that doesn’t belong to you, is a very dangerous precedent.

In higher education, I remember that it was not long ago many institutions were horrifically reluctant to use tools like Facebook and certainly not Twitter. Now? You have presentations that litter conferences on the best uses of Snapchat, institutions have these platforms as integral part of their communication, marketing & recruitment strategies.

If your account is blocked, you have very little recourse unless you’re a huge advertiser with the platform. Even if you are, if you’re not a major brand, good luck finding an ordinary person who can talk to you about your problem. Is there another scenario where companies spend millions on a service where they have no control over the product they’re receiving?

The Congressional hubub over the design of the Stolen app that came and went last weekend was overblown and yet, abuse is not okay. That was a design problem that was squashed because people have become to think of their profiles as an extension of themselves (or their brands.)

In a heartbeat, your entire business model and strategy built around a platform could be laid to waste without a second notice. It’s a very risky way to work, but we’re not talking about it enough.

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In retrospect, was the 30 minutes or so between when I did this and the time it was suspended worth the trouble? Probably. I had no designs on it being anything other than a solid story. It surpassed my expectations in that regard.

I’ll think about this topic a bit more and intend to make it part of a broader presentation later this year about social media. There’s a lot to learn not so much about this specific story, but the broader implications of how brands treat customers and the UX strategy of platforms.

When the spotlight is on, be ready to shine

If you’re not a sports fan, you might not be aware of the hottest sensation in the business right now. Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks point guard who graduated from Harvard, is Asian and was unheralded, undrafted and pretty much a cinch not to be an NBA starter is in fact, doing everything people bet against him to do.

One of the few people to identify this talent’s prospects was a FedEx guy by the name of Ed Weiland. The Wall Street Journal today featured him briefly — at work, no less — after he wrote an article in advance of the 2010 draft preview for a basketball advanced statistics site that indicated Lin might be the 2nd best prospect at his position in that draft.

“Jeremy Lin is a good enough player to start in the NBA,” Weiland wrote, “and possibly star.”

Let’s distill that a bit more. There are actual people paid who identify talent in all corners of the earth. Especially throughout the United States. Jeremy Lin received exactly 0 scholarships for college after a career where he was named Northern California player of the year and led his team to a state title. He then goes to Harvard and helps lead the team to  a share of the Ivy title in his senior year. Yet, the universal message is “we didn’t see him coming. We had no idea he was this good.”

Except a guy who is amateur stat-head writing for an obscure blog on the internet and who delivers packages. Now with the kid’s ascent, the blog post in question gets crashed and surely some NBA has to wonder how they can employ Mr. Weiland’s services for their own purposes.

But this whole feel-good story made me think about how we hire people. They write cover letters and resumes which you might read/scan or otherwise parse through some source and then you pick the best ones to interview hoping your intuition will make them the best fit. Occasionally, they get auditions through spec work or samples beforehand. Especially in the web space, this is how the game gets played.

What if the whole process was wrong? Going back to the example of Lin, he’d been cut by two other teams before landing with the Knicks in late December. If it weren’t for a spate of injuries to their roster, there’s absolutely no way he’d gotten his opportunity to play. 25-minutes against a sub-par team where his team needed a boost was ultimately the difference between being out of a job for the 3rd time in a year and where he is now. The next night, he earned his first NBA start and the rest is history.

Lin’s success is borne no doubt out of the fact that he’s playing for a coach who runs a system relying on a player with his unique attributes. Yet, these attributes were never revealed to the coach during their practices or any other scenario that would have led him to believe what we’re seeing now is possible. Perhaps it’s just a confluence of unique circumstances which have brought this to light, but the takeaways for identifying talent and for people looking for jobs seems clear in this example to me:

If you’re hiring talent, it’s easy to fill positions based on what you’ve always had rather than what you actually need. This kind of self-assessment doesn’t come easy and it’s not something lots of organizations are equipped to do. If you’re looking for a job, it’s easy to look for things like salary, benefits and other things without wondering you’ll be a good fit. Questions like:

  1. Does this role fit my strengths? Can I succeed here?
  2. How do I define success in this role? What are my long-term goals?
  3. What benchmarks can I establish beyond the ones set for me internally to measure my own success?

This might seem like a lot of headwork for a job you might just have. But I’ve seen so many scenarios where people could save themselves the trouble of being in a bad-fit environment by just being more deliberate about what they’re needing at a particular point in your career. None of this matters if you fail to get an opportunity and so, there’s a difference between being discerning and holding yourself back.

Once you get a chance to shine, you need to put your best foot forward and always be preparing for the chance for when the spotlight is on you. Those opportunities don’t always manifest themselves and so, you owe it to yourself to relish them when they do. It might not yield an arena of 20,000 screaming your name or adulation a world away, but it’s still pretty nice to know what you’re made of when you have a chance to prove it.

Strategic communication in major college athletics is a critical need

Where are the crisis communicators inside big-time athletic departments? I cringe when I see players give interviews, watch coaches rant about the perils of social media and see consistent failure to understand how the mediums of communications in a digital age have evolved.

It seems most athletic marketing focuses on promotion, rather than strategic communications and it’s something that really needs to be a more visible part of the communications strategy for athletic programs at the highest levels of inter-collegiate athletics.


Big East football and why it’s important to be who you are

If you follow major college sports, you’d know there’s a great deal of shifting going on. Schools are changing conferences more than ever before, often without regard for traditional rivalries or even geography. While most of these tectonic shifts have to do with the potential for increased television revenues, it’s also about positioning yourself to be amongst the haves and the have-nots.

College football at the major college level (formerly known as Division 1-A) does not have a playoff system like other sports. This means that if schools aren’t in the right conference, they lose out on massive revenues and the exposure that comes with being associated with other schools. One of the reasons that college basketball is so popular for its March Madness is because it allows minor schools from small conferences to play on the big stage with the giants for a theoretical chance at the same national championship.

The Big East conference is at the present a sixteen-team behemoth of a basketball conference. The league was founded for basketball and has always been among the better basketball leagues in the country. Anchored by eight Catholic schools that do not play FBS/1-A football and eight that do, the league retooled when it was hit by defections from Boston College, Miami (FL) and Virginia Tech who jettisoned the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2005. The Big East responded inviting schools that allowed it form the most dominant basketball conference in college sports. The league had the record for most bids to an NCAA tournament in one year (8) in 2006, 2008 and again in 2010. Last year, they topped this netting 11 bids to the tournament. We’re talking about 16% of one conference having a shot at a national championship.

There has always been consternation between the “football” schools and the “basketball-only” schools in the league. The league is headquartered in Providence, not a football hamlet and at a school that lacks football. As the Big East faces another risk of massive defections, it is considering all kinds of options to retain its automatic qualifying status in football including inviting the U.S. Air Force Academy (in Colorado Springs), Boise State University (where it’s only east of what, Washington?) and two Texas universities among others.

The real problem? Failure to recognize a shifting marketplace and understanding how to adapt in the face of it. Leadership in the Big East were content to stand pat while other leagues were moving forward and its fractured constituents with different agendas (why would basketball-only schools care about football) and surely insider baseball that we don’t know much about; leads to a situation where the public opinion of the league falls by the day.

It doesn’t help that the Big East has continually lost its signature programs. The league could’ve been refocused itself as the best basketball league on the planet. It could’ve separated its football programs keeping a loose affiliation. It could’ve aggressively pursed merger options with the upstart Mountain West that would’ve benefited both leagues. But with automatic qualifying status, the Big East saw no reason to adapt because they were safe on the inside with the others looking outside wanting what they had. Now? They find themselves vulnerable with few options for their football league to continue with the comfort it’s had through the last decade as one of the preferred members of college football’s elite.

The lesson for you in this sports example? It’s possible to be the most dominant player on the planet and have the same relationships that benefit you in one aspect of your existence, hurt you in another. Long-term planning only goes so far. The Big East couldn’t have set aside a rainy day fund for this scenario. It was initiated by conferences with members that have more clout than the current membership. It’s not as if the league lacked assets, it’s just failed to use the advantages it had by failing to articulate a vision for itself.

Now? It’s being picked apart by other leagues. No one is knocking down the doors of lesser leagues trying to find its members and destabilize them. You can’t reign forever. At some point, your dominance will be threatened and you need to have a strategy to respond. Not crisis strategy, but a proactive that sees the landscape and assess how your organizations fits into it. At the end of the day, partnerships are voluntarily associations of people with similar goals. You need to assess those relationships.

Things change. Adapt or be left as a relic.

National signing day is a fraud

Aah yes, national signing day. Future college athletes get sized up, measured and predicted to be the next big thing for their school. What is it, you ask?

National Signing Day is always on the first Wednesday in February. It is the first day a high school senior can sign a binding National Letter of Intent for college sports.

The issues are plenty. Let’s examine them, shall we?

  1. College athletes aren’t professionals. But national signing day is treated as a star-studded event where “student-athletes” are feted over for a day. Why? The unspoken story is that national signing day is the journey that gets them one step closer to the NFL or NBA. As if there wasn’t enough hypocrisy in the salaries of college coaches at the highest levels, the television contracts and so on, this joke starts with the name of it. They’re not signing a contract for money, folks. If we really wanted to celebrate something, let’s celebrate kids talking about how great an education they’re going to receive. Of course, that’s not the priority. They’re rather talk about these kids like they’re pro prospects entering the hallowed cathedrals of their sport.
  2. How many of these students are going to graduate? It’s the big question that no one wants to ask, because see also “they’re going to the league,” but since we never see college tennis, fencing, swimming or other minor sports on ESPN deciding what cap to put on, I don’t really target them. I’m talking about the abysmal graduation rates of most major universities have in regards to their revenue sport student-athletes. (e.g. men’s basketball, football and sometimes, men’s hockey)Exalting these high school graduates that often times have a difficult time even qualifying to attend some of these schools, before they’ve stepped foot on campus causes a lot of the problems we see. These aren’t just students, they’re not just athletes. They’re someone else’s meal ticket. For teens that aren’t allowed to drink, might barely drive and have little way to make a living for themselves, that’s a heck of a lot of pressure to know that your mom, dad, coach, cousins, teammates and thousands of “fans” you’ve met in your life are all relying on you not to suck.
  3. These kids haven’t done anything yet. Ok, so they worked hard to get to college. To get recognized and sized up by a bunch of independent people. All of these issues are interrelated and all comes back to one thing — money. Everyone knows that the people who shined in high school, don’t necessarily translate well to college. Maybe that’s why this is good for them, they get a chance to secure their skills into an education at a place they might not otherwise get to go.Is this really a healthy exercise for anybody in the grand scheme of things? I mean, when everyone has congregated in the community to wish you well on your future pro career that’s still light years away, where do you go from that if you fail? How shattered would your confidence be forever? I don’t know. But it’s akin to those dudes at the party passing out their cards, telling you how their startup is going to make them billionaires soon. There are just too many variables involved in all of this and you just don’t know how it’s gonna turn out.

Look, it’s great they’re all going on to get an education. I’m sure college will be just dandy for most of them, will afford them all sorts of connections they’d otherwise not have, friends they’ll maintain for life and skills that you couldn’t buy at Wal-Mart.

But let’s not kid ourselves into believing this all about the greater good, friends. It’s about cold, hard cash. And the ones producing it, aren’t really reaping what they sow. I can’t see how this thing goes on for another ten years in the status quo.

Or will it?

Alaska-Fairbanks hockey intro

Alaska Nanooks 2010 Hockey Intro from Szymon Weglarski on Vimeo.

As if being named the Nanooks wasn’t already cool enough, they went and produced this intro video for home games. This alone should get them into the WCHA so they can play with their brethen at Alaska-Fairbanks. (You read that right, two teams in Alaska, in two different conferences.) In case you don’t follow college hockey, understand that college hockey leagues defy geography to some degree, because there are so few programs at the D1 level.

Just enjoy it. After all, it’s not everyday a university in Alaska becomes an internet sensation for anything. For that alone, I say, congrats and kudos. Go Nanooks.