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The Power Law of Sports Fandom

I'm going to ask you ten trivia questions about the WNBA. The answers to these questions won't be provided - for help, see your local internet.


1. Name the first team to win four WNBA championships.
2. Name the only two players to win the Most Valuable Player award in the WNBA three times.
3. Name the only player to win the MVP award as a rookie.
4. What were the two major changes made to WNBA rules in the start of the 2006 season?
5. Which team won the first WNBA game ever played?
6. Who was the first player to ever score a basket in the WNBA?
7. What player scored the most points ever in a WNBA game? (Bonus: How many points did she score?)
8. Which WNBA player born in the United States played for the Russian Olympic team in the 2008 Olympics?
9. Who is the tallest player in WNBA history?
10. After which player is the WNBA's Sportsmanship Award named?

If you feel bad that you don't know the answers to many of these questions, well...don't. My suspicion is that a lot of the attendees at WNBA basketball games couldn't answer these questions if their lives depended on it. It's not that those season ticket holders and game followers aren't interested in women's basketball - far from it - it's just that they aren't intense fans and don't see the need to immerse themselves completely in a "culture of fandom". By an "intense" fan I mean someone who is what I call an "insider" or "ensnared".... least according to a book called "The Elusive Fan" by Irving J. Rein, Philip Kotler, and Ben Shields. The three writers argue that there is a fan involvement ladder in sports fandom. (And possibly, in any fandom.) These levels of fandom are:

1. Indifferent: In the case of the women's basketball, these people have either found the women's game unsatifying, threatening (gasp!) or for whatever reason, they really don't care enough about women's basketball (or basketball) to have an opinion.
2. Eyeballers: These are probably the largest group of women's basketball fans out there, those that make up that 2.7 rating in the Connecticut-Stanford final game. They'll watch special events - the WNBA Finals, the NCAA finals, maybe an All-Star Game - but they're not going to be involved at any level beyond the "most important" events.
3. Wallets: These are the fans that will actually attend a WNBA game, and indeed, they'll socialize around the game. They'll pull up WNBA Live Access or catch regular season games - and that's when they can't economically attend the games themselves.
4. Collectors: These are fans interested in sports memorabilia.
5. Attachers: These are fans interested in receiving communication from the team/their heroes and wanting the opportunity to exchange messages.
6. Insiders: These are fans whose goal is to enter into or participate in the inner circles of women's basketball.
7. Ensnared: These are the most involved fans, because they identify personally with a team. These are involved fans, and sometimes, too involved and a little bit creepy. (Think of the Monica Seles stabbing. Seles was the #1 women's tennis player who was stabbed by a Steffi Graf stalker.) They can either be a boon or a problem to a sport.

My theory is that if one were to draw a graph of women's basketball fandom, it would be a power law graph. It would look something like a hockey stick. It would not look like a bell curve, or what is called a "normal distribution". The normal distribution assumes that most women's basketball fans/potential fans would be somewhere in the middle - perhaps "wallets" or "collectors" and involvement would trail off on both sides. The power law distribution assumes that the overwhelming majority of women's basketball fans are in that "eyeballer stage" - they'll watch the game when there's an important women's basketball event or they might be a men's basketball fan but nothing else is on TV. There are a few wallets - the attendance figures at WNBA games bear that out - and as we go up to the collectors/attachers/insiders/ensnared, the numbers decrease even further. The "ensnared" are simply the capstone on a pyramid with the "eyeballers" at the base - and the base is always wider than the apex.

So what are the implications of the power law theory? The first is that despite the fact that the wallets spend the money on the games and despite the fact that the attachers and insiders are really, really involved - the potential cash is in getting the eyeballers to attend a game. They are the potential source of future revenue. A preacher should spent his efforts on the people who are receptive to his message, and as they saying goes, one doesn't waste time preaching to the already converted.

The second implication is that we tend to look at the world through the lenses of our own particular group.

* For the indifferent, the biggest problem with the WNBA is that it exists.
* For the eyeballers, the biggest problem with the WNBA is that if you're not careful you might forget when the WNBA Finals come on TV.
* For the wallets, the biggest problem with the WNBA is in buying concessions, tickets, and paying for parking, as well as balancing going to the games versus your job.
* For the collectors, the biggest problem with the WNBA is that it isn't confident enough to sell more jerseys, banners, and WNBA collectible cards.
* For the attachers, the biggest problem with the WNBA is that you don't get enough information from the teams.
* For the insiders, the biggest problem with the WNBA is that you don't have the ears of important people in women's basketball - or if you do, that they don't listen.
* For the ensnared, the biggest problem with the WNBA is that they won't give you Becky Hammon's phone number.

The third implication is that the segment of the fandom that writes blogs and posts on message boards is heavy with the top three groups. Those groups begin to assume that they are WNBA fandom and that their voice is the only important one. The bulk of people going to WNBA games don't want to buy jerseys, nor do they need an hour-by-hour update on team transactions. They just want to have a good time at a sporting event. The eyeballers just want something good to watch on TV. Neither of those groups care about Carol Blazejowski and how she manages the Liberty.

The power law says "pay more attention to the casual fan, and less attention to the hardcore fan". My anecdotal argument comes from the early days of Monday Night Football. The "big three" announcers in the early history of the show were Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford and Don Meredith. Gifford and Meredith's approach to football announcing was the same dog-and-pony show that we're still familiar with in 2010: breathless play-by-play and the intricacies of the dime defense.

Cosell, however, knew that most football fans were casual fans, and that was his unstated aim. He wasn't going to bore you with football esoterica. He was more interested in the stories of the players than the strategy and tactics of the sport. He figured that his viewers weren't football experts, so why turn the show into a digression on coaching strategy? The hardcore fans hated Cosell, they absolutely despised him. He didn't know the game as well as Dandy Don Meredith, who was going to give you the real football knowledge.

But when Cosell was in the booth, Monday Night Football was one of the highest rated programs on TV. People related to him. They might have loved him, or they might have hated him, but they were never neutral - and they tuned in, religiously. Maybe the WNBA should follow the Cosell philosophy, and not the Madden one.