By Brian Tuohy
Sports fans have always been vocal, but have they ever had a voice? After witnessing the Philadelphia 76ers lose their 26th straight game in what many have dubbed a blatant act of game tanking, two admitted sports fanatics, Tom Rossmeissl, 29, and Drew Cohen, 28, decided it was time to act upon an idea they had been stewing over for some time. They launched the website NBArrassing, asking NBA fans of all stripes to sign a petition demanding the league eliminate game tanking by abolishing its draft lottery.
"We're not necessarily against a team for tanking," Cohen explained, "and we're not against the GMs for supporting it. But we are against a system that encourages losing. I think there are a number of proposals out there that deincentivizes a team for losing and not making the playoffs, and at the same time, makes the game better for everybody, fans included."
"I don't fault 76ers' fans for wanting their team to lose," Rossmeissl added, "that makes complete sense to me. They want what's best for their franchise in the long term. But there's clearly a problem here when diehard fans don't know if they should root for their team to win. We heard this from top to bottom -- from Bill Simmons down to my own friends -- saying, 'This is crazy.' But it's all in these scattershot tweets, angry Facebook messages, and quotes that might make SportsCenter, yet there is no way for all these people to come together and try to make a difference."
That's where NBArrassing comes in. If Rossmeissl and Cohen achieve their goal of obtaining 10,000 signatures via the website, they will travel to the NBA draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and present the petition to new NBA commissioner Adam Silver. "Ideally, we'd like to set up a meeting and be more constructive rather than ranting and raving," said Cohen.
"We're not looking for a confrontational scene," Rossmeissl assured. "We just want to create a dialog with NBA fans and the league, and to have an opportunity to have a thoughtful conversation about what can we -- the league, the teams, and most importantly, the fans -- do to make the NBA better? And not make the second half of the year a race to the bottom."
But, in many ways, NBArrassing is just the start for Rossmeissl and Cohen. Their bigger mission will take the form of another website, Fans Rising, which is slated to officially launch in the summer. What Rossmeissl, a longtime social media organizer and campaign worker, and Cohen, a lawyer with a Constitutional law focus, are attempting is to give fans leverage to improve upon the sports they love by turning those bitter tweets and Facebook rants into something more: power. By focusing and organizing sports fans into a unified whole, the pair believe fans can effect positive change.
"If you look at the issue with this NBA draft lottery, there's not a good way for these fans to come together," Rossmeissl stated. "The NBA draft lottery was a place to start to get involved, but we definitely see potential for it to go beyond this particular campaign. There's a whole host of issues from really small things like fans of a minor league team wanting a particular promotion to return all the way up to major structural issues like the NFL potentially expanding its playoff schedule. We want to create the platform that empowers the fans so that they can be heard."
"We've seen it crop up on all sorts of social media mediums," Cohen continued. "But there's a lack of an action mechanism."
To emphasize this point, the pair pointed to the Facebook-organized protest against Knicks owner James Dolan held in March. Dubbed the "Knicks Fans for Life" rally, its organizers wanted "to remind Dolan and the NBA that our voices matter. We buy the tickets, the jerseys, the NBA League Pass subscriptions. We are frustrated. We are tired. We deserve better." While the page obtained over 2,600 "likes," only a few hundred people actually showed up prior to the March 19th Pacers-Knicks game to protest. "There was no real method to carry that momentum to an actionable result," Cohen lamented. "Our hope would be that we can help bring out these issues and allow fans -- whether fanatical or moderate in their views --to be heard in unison."
But how many voices are enough to make an impression? How many signatures would make a room full of team owners take notice? Rossmeissl and Cohen are aiming for 10,000 names for their draft lottery initiative which equates to a half-full NBA arena. Can that small of a number really bring about change?
Cohen conceded that 10,000 names amount to a tiny percentage of NBA fans worldwide. "But when it's backed by an organized campaign that can garner media attention, it will have more power to it than just random emails and calls."
Rossmeissl, who has participated in similar organizational movements before, had a critical observation. "Sports fans don't sign petitions every day. So when you get 10,000 sports fans to engage on an issue, to raise their hands and say, 'Enough is enough,' that can be the sort of critical mass a league needs to listen to. If done in an organized way, it shouldn't be ignored. It should start a conversation to fix whatever problem is being presented. Ten thousand may be a small fraction of fans, but if it's an engaged, organized, and structured movement, it can start change."
In the case of game tanking, Cohen pointed out, "Fans are not going to walk away from their teams. They just want a better game. The NBA wants that, too. What we're proposing with the draft lottery is something that's been discussed by people in the NBA and outside the NBA. This just might help the idea gain additional traction and move the levers of bureaucracy. It might just be the straw that breaks the camel's back."
But to really cause owners to take notice of the fans' plight, wouldn't hitting them where it counts be more effective? If fans boycotted games, pulled their money from a league's coffers by not buying tickets and jerseys, wouldn't that really start the revolution?
"That would be an effective route, but then everyone sort of loses," Rossmeissl believed. "The 76ers fans love the team, and they want it to be a healthy and successful franchise. Removing the money is one way to go, but we think this method is better for everyone."
Like his partner, Cohen was more in favor of compromise, "This is more of a middle ground. We could've started the site to compel fans to stop watching or attending games, but that was a bit too drastic. It's outside a fan's comfort zone, and you can't make them un-love their team. If you really want to get someone's attention, a boycott does cut to the bottom line. But from a practical stand point, that's difficult to do. Doing this, signing a petition, is a pretty big step for a sports fan. This pulls people away from social media and makes them take an extra step because they are fed up with a particular issue. They are then willing to put their name on it."
"I think if we build this critical mass, NBA executives are going to ultimately understand that such a movement could affect the bottom line," Rossmeissl continued. "If fans are that upset, would the NBA really refuse to respond or engage in such a conversation? This is really the step before that. It's a constructive way for fans to be heard in mass and work with the league to come together and get a win-win."
Such campaigns have been successful in the recent past. After yet another figure skating judging controversy at the Sochi Winter Olympics, Change.org posted a petition to investigate the result. The public response was so swift it briefly crashed the website. Ultimately, the petition gathered over 1.7 million names in the matter of hours. Such a reaction should force figure skating officials to reconsider the judging process moving forward.
On a more micro level, Green Bay Packers fans -- whose loyalty can rarely be questioned -- became enraged when season ticket holders were forced to pay for tickets to two home playoff games when the team possessed a sub .500 record in 2013. The Packers told ticket holders the money would be applied to their 2014 season tickets rather than be returned should the team fail to reach the playoffs. Due to the fans' uproar, the NFL changed its policy in these regards in March.
Rossmeissl and Cohen feel that these success stories and others, hopefully including their own in regards to NBArrasssing, will build support for other campaigns associated with the yet-to-launch Fans Rising website. The pair has already received input and ideas from fans across the U.S. as well as from far flung locales such as Spain and Argentina. This is exactly what they want. "Fans Rising is not going to be about what Drew and Tom think," Rossmeissl stated, "but about issues fans care about. We do intend to curate the website to some extent. Certain things would likely be deemed unacceptable and get pulled down. But if it's merely outrageous without being offensive, we'll allow it to remain and for people to discuss it. We want it to remain as pro-fan as possible. It's meant to empower fans."
"Hopefully, Tom and I can step away from this and allow fans to start their own petitions and allow them gain traction in their own right," Cohen added.
With sports, as in politics, the power is really in the hands of the many, not the few. The perception, however, makes it feel as if it's the other way around. The bargaining table has always been described as pitting owners against players. The results of those labor discussions have cost fans one World Series and a Stanley Cup in the past, while threatening many more games. Turning those tables around, or better yet, giving fans a seat, could make the sports world better for all.
"Whether is a government issue or a business issue or a sports issue," Rossmeissl said, speaking from experience, "there's a sort of inertia that exists. It's always easier to just let something continue and not make a change. That's where this sort of platform can help fans say, 'No, we can't just keep doing this year in and year out.' It's not that these are radical ideas; they're just meant to break this inertia."
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Brian Tuohy has been called America's leading sports conspiracy theorist, but really he's just highly skeptical when it comes to what the sports leagues tell their fans. He's also one of the few writers brave enough to tackle the topic of game fixing in sports, detailing evidence of it in his books Larceny Games: Sports Gambling, Game Fixing and the FBI and The Fix Is In: The Showbiz Manipulations of the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and NASCAR. He also runs the semi-popular website thefixisin.net.