Could you fire your GM by referendum?

March, 9, 2012
3/09/12
12:28
AM ET
By Jovan Buha/ClipperBlog
ESPN.com
Archive
Winning cures all.

It sounds simple in theory, but you can’t realistically win all of the time. Not every franchise is the Lakers or Yankees. Most teams go through lulls while rebuilding on the fly.


There’s no clear-cut way to retool, though. If you don’t luck into a franchise-altering player, chances are you’ll be stuck in no man’s land for a while. In the meantime, smart organizations exercise proper damage control and keen fiscal management while trying to maintain the interest of the customer -- the fan.

But maybe there’s a way to withdraw the pressure to constantly succeed in the win column. Maybe there’s a way everyone has overlooked. Maybe this solution comes from a comedian, actor and game show host who doubles as a minority owner of the MLS’ Seattle Sounders.

Though known more for his on-screen antics than his contributions to sports, Drew Carey stole the show during the “Franchises in Transition” panel at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference with his brutal honesty, unconventional insight and sensitivity to the fans’ interests.

For Carey, the key to being a successful franchise is appealing to fans and keeping them engaged. They’re the paying customers and need to be satisfied.

The relationship between fans and teams is arguably the most intimate in all of business. It's eerily similar to marriage. Each party invests time and money, and expects the other side to put in as much effort to make the partnership dually enjoyable.

There’s an unstated agreement between fans and their teams’ owners. Fans buy tickets, concessions and apparel, while owners do everything within their power to put together a winning, entertaining and enjoyable team.

But owners don’t always keep their side of the agreement.

“Some owners don’t care if they win or not. They’re just in it to make money,” said Carey.

In 2008, Carey’s Sounders implemented a process in which the team’s fan-based association -- made up of season-ticket holders and non season-ticket holders who pay a $125 annual fee -- votes every four years on whether or not to retain the current general manager.

If they so choose, they can have the current GM fired, and then Carey and the rest of “official” ownership will conduct a search and hire a new GM (basically fans can fire but not hire). The first referendum is set to take place in November 2012.

It's unheard of to place a general manager’s fate into the hands of fans. It's an undeniable risk that borders on insanity. The rest of the panel disagreed with the sentiment of giving that much power to the fans, but Carey affirmed his analysis.

The question is, is this a solution or a gimmick? Could an NBA franchise actually implement this system and not have near-catastrophic results? Do fans have enough credibility to influence decisions that directly involve millions of dollars?

Well, there are certainly a handful of franchises with questionable leadership in their front offices.

Maybe this process -- putting a GM's fate in the hands of the consumer -- would prevent complacent executives from playing it safe to keep their jobs. Maybe, with added pressure and scrutiny, we’d see maximum results. And maybe, if these GMs continue to underperform, teams could finally rid themselves of part of what’s holding their teams back from achieving success.

To simply blame the GM for every problem is nonsensical, though. In fact, the general manager isn't even always the person directly affecting the team’s performance (coaches, players and owners have just as much, if not more of an affect on the team).

Assigning blame to the general manager is always the easiest out. But giving fans the power to decide doesn’t guarantee anything. Want proof? Check out the results of the fan voting for recent All-Star Games (Allen Iverson, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady have been voted in despite not producing anywhere near All-Star level).

Fans may vote to fire -- or vote to not fire -- a GM, possibly costing the franchise another four years of potential growth and development. Of course, the owner can offset this by simply firing the GM, but as history shows, many GMs end up overstaying their welcome for any number of reasons.

Translating professional soccer in North America to basketball is problematic, particularly on the balance sheet. Most MLS teams don’t have television deals and deal with a much smaller budget. It’s easier for them to take risks to try and mix things up, draw in fan interest and increase revenue.

In the NBA -- as well as NFL, MLB and, to a great extent the NHL -- teams don’t need to take unnecessary risks. They’ll make their profits through revenue streams that are traditionally reliable. No matter what, hardcore NBA fans will consume the product. Some fans may waver, but for the most part, they are loyal and forgiving.

Carey’s charismatic nature and out-of-the-box thinking opened up a topic for discussion that is begging to be addressed. Whether teams acknowledge it or not, there’s a social contract between the sides. They don’t have to honor it, but it’s the right thing to do.

What’s tough -- even impossible -- is the enforcement of that contract. Fans who aren’t pleased with their favorite team’s performance, or the owner’s decisions, can just walk away and stop watching.

But they never do. And owners know this.

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