One of the most interesting things about what happened on Rocky Top Sunday concerns the shift in the balance of power in collegiate athletic programs. While some Vols fans were celebrating having “taken back their program,” most national sports media pundits were decrying John Currie’s “spineless” abdication of his decision-making authority to the fans. I heard the latter so many times yesterday that I lost track of everyone who said it. One representative example of the national criticism is a piece from Yahoo’s Pete Thamel saying that Tennessee has now “decided to let their fans dictate their coaching search “American-Idol”-style.
In case you’re wondering, that is not a compliment. Thamel is not alone, either, as that sentiment has been a recurring theme among the national media the last 36 hours. I’ve seen only one exception, from SI.com’s Andy Staples.
The profound lack of nuance is clouding up the real issue. Regardless of their words, fans don’t really mean that they’re in control of the program, and national media folks don’t really mean that Tennessee has opened the phone lines to take votes on who is going to be the next head coach.
No, fans are not saying that the administration should do everything they want and media is not saying that they should ignore fans completely. At least I hope not. When everyone’s over the top, everyone’s wrong.
The real question is this: How much weight should the administration give to the opinions of fans?
The answer, of course, is some. Sunday was about fans feeling that “none” had finally become “some,” and they had finally found their collective voice as strong as that of big money boosters.
Always listen, sometimes act
It’s a tricky question, how much to listen to your customers.
Back in 2011, I opened a store to sell licensed apparel and accessories to sports fans. Before we opened, we did all of the requisite market research and brought in the product we thought best at the time.
When we opened the doors, we started getting real feedback from real customers, and at first we listened to every one of them and bent over backwards to give them what they desired. If a customer wanted something we didn’t have, we’d get it for them.
Acting on that feedback turned out to be a huge mistake. We soon learned that one customer really passionate about the one thing you don’t have doesn’t justify meeting that desire. We also learned that a customer who loudly complains about not having something often won’t buy it when you do anyway. Votes with wallets count more than votes with voices.
Over time, we got better at listening to the right customers and politely ignoring others. If only a small handful of people requested something we didn’t have, we knew better than to invest in it. But if enough people told us they wanted something, we would try it. And then, when we brought something new in, if it sold, we got more of it. If it didn’t sell, we politely ignored requests to stock it.
Bottom line, you have to listen to the feedback of your customers or you might never discover what they actually want, but you also have to make your own decisions about whether to act on that feedback or not.
When and how much should Tennessee act on fan feedback?
If anyone in the national media actually means it when they say that Tennessee or any other NCAA football program shouldn’t listen to its fans at all, they are just wrong or being lazy with their words.
Tennessee absolutely should listen to its audience, of that there can be no doubt. A football program, much like a business, is a symbiotic institution. The team is the product. The fans are the audience, the customers. The administration manages the details of the institution. Each of those things depends on the other. For instance, the administration needs the fans to continue buying tickets, concessions, and merchandise and, if they aren’t at the stadium, to at least remain interested in the team so that the school can continue to sell its customers’ attention to advertisers. Without customers financially engaged, the entire enterprise crumbles.
Yes, it would be unwise for the administration to grant the fan base any part of the decision-making process. But it would be equally unwise to utterly ignore the feedback they’re getting from them.
Sunday afternoon, Tennessee fans learned that athletic director John Currie was marching down the aisle on his way to the altar and an expensive long-term commitment to Greg Schiano. And then the preacher asked the loved ones in attendance to speak now or forever hold their peace, and the Tennessee fan base spoke up.
There were multiple reasons given for the objection. Some were uncomfortable about the Penn State stuff in the Washington Post article. Some were alarmed that Tennessee would choose a guy that had submarined a team in Tampa by losing the trust of his players, a situation much too similar to what had just happened in Knoxville with the guy they had just fired. Some didn’t like Schiano’s reported tendency to tick off people known for being nice (same link), including Tennessee’s favorite son, Peyton Manning. There were other reasons, as well, and some of these reasons were all mixed in together.
Some, like me, were especially alarmed at the sheer volume of fans headed for the exits in droves, regardless of the reason. These were folks ready to finally throw in the towel after a decade of waiting for the University to deliver on a promise to give them something worth cheering. It was too much to ask of too many, and the stands were emptying before our eyes. If my humble little fan shop in Kingsport, Tennessee is concerned about the sudden disappearance of customers, I cannot fathom why or how the Tennessee athletics administration could care less.
The customers were being ignored, again, and they were leaving.
The $100M dollar donor vs. an army of thousand dollar donors
The funny thing is, Tennessee actually has been listening to some of its customers for years, which is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be precisely the problem.
We peasant fans have little to no idea what goes on behind the curtain on The Hill. But one would have to be extremely naïve to believe that big money boosters aren’t involved and don’t have too much influence over the athletic department.
And that’s the irony of this entire story: The national media is criticizing the school for acting on the opinion of thousands of fans while ignoring the very real possibility that it’s been acting on the influence of a handful of big money boosters for a decade or more.
Let me go back to my business for a second. We have some customers that come in regularly and spend much, much more than others. They’re our best customers. We love them. We will give them special attention because we appreciate them. Thankfully, none of them have ever done this, but if one of them ever asked us to do something that would have a negative impact on our ability to also serve our regular customers, we’d be in a real dilemma: Lose our best customer or lose most of our regular customers?
That’s the dilemma in which Currie found himself on Sunday. What does he do when his one $100M donor wants one thing and an army of $1,000 donors want something else?
Back in the day, only the big money booster had the athletic director’s ear. Now, the thousand dollar donors have a voice, too. Collectively, they have always been as important as the big money guys, they just didn’t have a way to aggregate their influence to provide a counter-weight to the rich dude with the AD’s personal cell number. Now they do.
That’s the story. That’s what’s new. It’s not that the school has suddenly decided to cede control to its fans. It’s not even that they’ve suddenly decided to start listening to their fans. They’ve been doing that for years, and it’s resulted in a decade of debacles.
What was unique about Sunday was that the athletic department finally started listening to common fans, too, and not just the one guy who’s written the biggest check.