If you make it through Walter Isaacson’s tome on Steve Jobs, one thing lesson that leaps out is the attitude Apple’s former CEO had toward customers. It was a complicated one, both highly attuned and dismissive. Jobs’ entire ethos was driven by creating simple, attractive products consumers would actively want to use, yet he had little regard for other’s opinions of his devices. He never market tested a product before release. Jobs was a authoritarian servant of the consumer, believing consumers didn’t know what they wanted until he showed them.
His philosophy would fit perfectly into sports management. For the most part, fans are not good at deciding what they want. A few hours in the stands at a stadium, in the bar after a game, or interacting with fans in day-to-day life will show a vast array of bad-to-good ideas, most of which combine antiquated historical observation with the type of bias that make them good fans. It’s incomplete information pushed through an emotionally charged lens – a horrible process for making executive decisions.
The Seattle Sounders, however, made a commitment to democracy in sports when they brought Major League Soccer to Puget Sound. They committed to giving their season ticket holders a voice. Starting Oct. 7, season ticket holders will get their first chance to exercise that voice, voting on whether general manager Adrian Hanauer retains his job:
Results of the vote will be announced in December.
The idea that Hanauer could lose his job is unfathomable, and there’s almost no appetite to replace him. While Seattle’s fan base has the same ripples of discontent that appear among every team’s support, there’s no movement, no critical mass accumulating to oust Hanauer. Hanauer would have to get a thumbs down from at least 50 percent of voters, provided at least 10,000 people bother to vote.
Unfortunately for the Sounders, the people who are most likely to take note of this election – to go online or veer to a ballot box on the way to their seats at CenturyLink – are the people who are motivated to have their voice heard. Those are typically people who want to shake things up. Those who are content with the Sounders progress or don’t care either way are unlikely to prioritize voting. The process has been structured as a recall election, which will always draw a disproportionate number of people who want the recall.
As with all things Pacific Northwest soccer, you can’t help but look to the south to draw some parallels. Portland’s failed season has led to vocal discontent from fans directed at general manager and interim head coach Gavin Wilkinson. “GWOUT” signs have appeared at CenturyLink, with a corresponding hashtag gaining limited traction on Twitter. Though the angst has abated from its summer peak, Wilkinson remains a divisive figure within the Timbers Army, with detractors rarely taking into account the roles Wilkinson has played with the Timbers’ PDL team, Portland’s purchase of the WPSL Portland Rain, or his influence in bringing Oregon’s Olympic Development Program under the Timbers’ prevue. The attitude amongst the GWOUT crew casts Wilkinson as the bad guy while John Spencer’s good, an oversimplified conclusion based on very limited information.
Portland has no democratic mechanism in their organization. Fans won’t get to vote on Wilkinson’s future. If they did, it would be a very heated election. Though the GWOUT movement is small, they have the cohesion and motivation to create a heated debate, even if that motivation’s based on a limited view of Wilkinson’s contributions.
There’s been no AHOUT meme in Seattle, but the tenets remain the same. The same fan passion that’s driven mild discontent in Portland’s fanbase is being empowered to decide Adrian Hanauer’s future. But Seattle’s never missed the playoffs. They’ve identified and brought in players like Fredy Montero, Osvaldo Alonso, Mauro Rosales and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado. They picked the right man to bring in as coach. They’ve won three U.S. Open Cups and are a contender for this year’s MLS Cup.
That a process has been put in place where Hanauer may lose his job despite those accomplishments seems unfair. Then again, that’s probably not what this process is about. We’re using the wrong standard of fairness. Just because other general managers in the league don’t face the same specter doesn’t make this process unfair. Fairness, in this case, has a different reference.
Sounders FC have created a paradigm where fairness is defined by fan approval. It implicitly says there’s only one standard of success that matters: How fans feel about the team. If SSFC makes four-straight playoffs, has a roster that’s the envy of the league, and in almost all regards have assembled a first class organization, what does it matter if the fans aren’t happy?
Which brings is back around to Jobs’ maxim: Are consumers the people we want deciding how to produce a product? Even if we’re a part of that group. Do we want the people to our left, to our right deciding who gets to build the next iPhone? Or who gets to decide the future of Seattle’s key players?
Do fans know what they want before they see it?