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Fans of the World Unite! A (Capitalist) Manifesto for Sports Consumers – by Stephen F. Ross and Stefan Szymanski

What better day than Election Day to talk about a book calling for an uprising of sports fans and a major reform of the four major sports leagues in the United States?

Thus we have Fans of the World Unite! by Stephen F. Ross and Stefan Szymanski, and published by Stanford University Press.

Now while this isn’t a baseball book per se, I thought I’d take a look at it for two reasons — it’s the off-season and I have a bit more time on my hands, and it does provide a pretty engaging critique of the setup of Major League Baseball and how fans are adversely affected by its structure and policies, which are ultimately intended to protect and profit the owners.

The premise of the book is fairly simple – the major professional sports (MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL) are setup in such a way that encourages and rewards monopolistic behavior while ultimately hanging fans out to dry by limiting their choice while exploiting the relationship that fans have with their favorite sports teams.

To remedy this problem, Ross and Szymanski propose a two-pronged approach that would more or less turn the current American leagues upside down.

Using NASCAR and the international soccer leagues as examples, the authors propose that the leagues be reworked with a clear separation between league orgazniers and ownership while instilling a promotion and relegation system that rewards accomplishment and punishes failure.

The first piece would require each league to have a governing body that is completely separate from the teams and owners, similar to how NASCAR is structured. It would be their responsibility to maintain the health of the league, through marketing, broadcasting, competitive balance and opportunity, scheduling and playoff management, and so forth. There would be a person ultimately accountable for the well-being of the organization who would have both ultimate responsibility and ultimate jurisdiction.

The second piece would bring merit based participation into the fold – in other words, if you want to be a Major League team, you had better play like it, otherwise you’ll be demoted to a minor league. This system is already in place in international soccer leagues, and the authors argue that it would work well in the United States as well, by providing the ultimate motivation for a team to succeed and invest in their players and coaches.

Certainly approaches to sport that, while not new in practice, would represent a major change in the way the major sports operate in the United States.

The authors argue that such a change would result would in a reduction in the power that owners have when it comes to corporate welfare. With an increase in teams and a reduction in the exclusivity of having a team that could compete at the Major League level, owners would be forced to shoulder more of the load themselves. No longer would be cries of “I’m moving this team to (fill in the blank) unless I get a new stadium paid for with tax dollars!” be tolerated because odds are that city would already have a team.

Ross and Szymanski reveal and highlight the leverage that professional sports teams have been allowed to have under the current setup, and that is where they find fans over the proverbial barrel. If you want to be a sports fan you have to play by their rules – and that means watching the teams the league has decided to put on TV, accepting blackouts of your favorite team’s games unless certain conditions are met, tolerating and even encouraging teams not to get better by rewarding poor performance, and so on.

Before I started reading Fans of the World, Unite!, I was sincerely thinking this was going to be a rallying cry along the lines of “no new taxes!” or “bring the troops home!” — something that would be able to be distilled down so much that it would fit on a button, or a 3’x5′ picket sign and would be something that would be marched in front of stadia and arenas around the country.

Would it be a chronicle on injustices brought on fans by professional sports teams? Price-gouging, baiting and switching, hoodwinking? Would I be fired up after reading it and march down to my local teams’ offices and demand change?


Rather, the authors bring a much more academic approach; Ross is a Professor of Law at Penn State and Szymanski is the MBA Dean and Professor of Economics at London’s City University. Both readily admit to writing the book from the ivory tower of academia – and while it’s not written at a level unreadable to most folks, you will definitely be invited to think and analyze the problem at hand as the authors see it. Processing the book left me feeling like I had been involved in a trial, listening to the prosecution make its case. Given that it’s Election Day and I’ve been listening to countless ads and reading propositions and ballot measures, this does fall in line with that in a certain way.

And while those ballot measures are interesting in their own way and I care about them on behalf of my civic duties, this was something that appealed to my recreational side.

At 184 pages of text, the authors keep their argument succinct, which keeps the book moving along and the reader engaged in the work. An interested reader could easily finish this in a day, while a more casual pace should allow this to be completed in a week or so.

The question that remains though, is: what now?

Assuming you read the book and agree with the changes the authors are calling for, how do we make that happen? Ross and Szymanski provide several scenarios in the final chapter, including one for fan revolt. While I could see them happening under the right conditions, I just don’t see those right conditions among us. The NFL continues to basically print money and MLB is on an upward trend, even though attendance was flat from 2007 to 2008.

The old saying of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” certainly comes to mind when thinking about the situation. It doesn’t mean it wouldn’t or couldn’t happen…I’m just thinking something will have to fall apart before it can be put back together in the way that the authors suggest. While we do live in a fast-paced society where things can happen fairly quickly, there are a lot of things that are too firmly rooted in place to make these changes feasible.

But that doesn’t mean their ideas are bad. If anything, their ideas are very good and should be read by more and more fans across all sports. The authors readily admit that the fan-driven scenario is the most hopeful, with fans demanding a political course of action and involving their elected officials. So how do we make that happen?

Maybe the authors need to launch this campaign with the tools of change – buttons,  bumper stickers, signs you can put in your window, t-shirts, and celebrity endorsements. Put someone in the spotlight – develop a website and make it easy to take fans from indecision to action. They’ve already explained the why, I wonder if Ross and Szymanski will follow up with the how?

Fans of the World, Unite might just be slightly ahead of its time, but it’s a book that merits reading and consideration, and as I’m sure the authors would hope, action on the part of the reader.


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