(How) Have Technological Shifts Changed Being a Sports Fan?

a dialogue between Mel Stanfill and Rayvon Fouché

(This is the second of Culture Digitally’s “dialogues.”)

Mel Stanfill

Two ways to interpret this question come immediately to mind. First, and perhaps most evidently, there is the question of how the practice of sports fandom is different as social, interactive, and/or data-rich media technologies become more widely used. This is an important question, to be sure, one that many smart researchers are seeking to answer at this time.

However, there is also a second question, which tends to be overlooked but is actually vital to the first: In what ways have technological shifts changed the cultural common sense of what it means to be a sports fan? What does that conceptual construct look like as the aforementioned technologies are made available? This latter is the question that most interests me and which has spurred my research.

Though the concept of affordance has gotten something of a bad rep at Culture Digitally of late, I’m going to hang onto it because I think it enables a certain kind of thinking that I find valuable for this work.  This is to contend that, in producing a particular interface (and not another), and affording certain actions and uses (and not others), media technologies are rendering certain types of fandom (and not others) official or legitimized.

This is to take the affordances of technologies as sites at which productive power operates. The interface of the official website of a sports franchise, for example, produces an idea of a proper fan through what it is it allows its users to do. In my research thus far, I’ve found that one thing sports websites tend to construct as fundamental to and inextricable from fandom is consumption. Stuff to buy is always easy to find and often explicitly labeled as for fans; this, then, implicitly makes an argument that fans should consume.

Importantly, this does not require evil plotting designers out to hurt or exploit or manipulate innocent sports fans. Instead, we should take seriously Ian Bogost’s point that “On the one hand, designers know they are authoring a system, at least. But on the other hand, they often don’t realize the assumptions they are making.” Both of these things are true at the same time. To remix Marx, people make technology, but they make it in conditions not of their own making.

Intent, then, is actually a separate question than what the design itself produces. It’s also an important question, of course, but intent and effect operate with some independence from each other. What I’m interested in with looking at these new media technologies is uncovering those assumptions that designers are making and tracing out their implications.


Rayvon Fouché

Mel Stanfill prods us to think about how technology will shape and reshape what it means to be a sports fan.  As the final NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments came to a close, I have, in a sense, lived the digital sport fan life.  But it is only a partial experience because I was as interested in the women’s games as the men’s games.  But sadly the madness in “March Madness” is only about the men’s game.

If you wanted to remotely watch the games from your chosen mobile device, you had to purchase that privilege.  Last year this digital fandom was free, but this year my $3.99 gave me access to all 67 men’s games, but not any of the women’s.  I assume somewhere within the caverns of the NCAA and Turner Sports Interactive financial analysts determined that someone like me (male/African American/under 45) would only be willing to pay to watch the play of men.

This get’s to Stanfill’s question about how the stream of media fabricates and dictates the lines of consumption.  Yes, I am fully aware that I have agency as a college basketball fan and can consume as I please, but part of digital sports fandom is the ease at which stats, data, commentary, rumors, and a panoply of video can be consumed.

Unfortunately, it is getting harder to consume outside of the major global sporting arenas.  I find this to be tremendously sad because Baylor, in going undefeated to win the women’s championship, became the only team in NCAA history–men’s or women’s–to win 40 games in a season.

Part of being a fan is clearly emotional.  As a former elite athlete, what I love about watching the sport is that it takes me back to a place that my body can no longer access, but my senses can remember–the moments of unexpected triumphs and soul-crushing defeats.  This is a world that it is very difficult for sport analytics to grasp.

As sport culture is produced and created within digital space, please do not narrow or manipulate the experiential lens.  The most impressive player in both men’s and women’s tournaments was Brittany Griner.   Her two-handed dunk against Georgia Tech was the highlight of both tournaments.    We need to think about how to manage the seductive power and authority of the next sports data mashup or infographic, and champion moving experiences that make the hair on the back of one’s neck stand up.


What’s fascinating about Ray’s examples of the narrowing of the concept of the sports fan is the way that such decisions both respond to a sense of sports fans already in existence and work to construct that common sense.

That is, the powers that be, possibly as the result of market research, believe that

  1. People are only interested in college basketball men’s games, and
  2.  What people want is more data

Accordingly, they provide mobile content only for men’s NCAA tournament games and the kind of content they provide is statistics, infographics, highlights, and other forms that are disarticulated from the affective experience of the game.

This mode of fandom then generates subscriptions and makes them money, confirming their sense that this is what fans really want and encouraging them to continue to produce such digital content for future events, even though, Herman and Chomksy argued in Manufacturing Consent, “customers have no means of registering their demand for products that are not offered to them” (p. 14, n. 40).

At the same time, and perhaps more insidiously, fans who might go looking for women’s games or a more affective experience can’t find it. What’s pitched at fans is men’s games and data, which then implicitly argues that if you want to be a fan that’s what you have to care about. This then produces and reinforces a particular definition of fandom.

It’s vital, then, that we pay attention to the ways that what seem to be purely economic decisions—the search for maximum quantities of paying eyeballs—are actually deeply implicated other structures. It’s based in, but also reinforces, gendered processes devaluing women’s sports. It’s based in, but also reinforces, the reduction of sports fandom to only number-crunching. We, as scholars, have got to take this seriously.



Don’t get me wrong I do love sport data and a good infographic.  The emerging configurations of sport analytics are ripe for this kind of treatment.  This series [embedded below] done by Todd Detwiler for the April 16 edition of ESPN The Magazine are particularly nice.  But my 9-year-old son posed a key question while looking over my shoulder at these images.  He asked: who won the game?  It often takes youthful clarity to get to the heart of the matter.

But his question does make me wonder, what is all this data for?  I fully understand that these infographics were constructed from estimates created by the ESPN’s Sport Science team from the Bulls/Magic game of January 9, 2012 to add “interest” to the page.

But my son’s question is also about the presentation of information and its contexts.  Conceivably if you are reading the magazine you probably already know who won and lost, but these infographics do not seem to shed any light onto why Miami won.  They function as statements about the machine-like physical outputs of LeBron James, Carlos Boozer, and Mario Chalmers and not necessarily about their play during the game.  There is text built around the infographics, but that text is not related to or referenced in the data.

Several years ago while talking to Carolyn de la Peña about Science & Technology Studies, she commented that STS needed to move beyond thinking about race as “sprinkles on a cupcake.”  That is intellectual candy, but not really central or the “cake” of investigation.  Lately, I have begun to see sport infographics this way.  They are either sprinkles, or even worse, being consumed as the cake.

For me this raises the question: is fandom becoming more about data and less about sport?  I guess we are continuing to slide toward a world where sport is an entertainment product and not necessarily about victories and losses.  Just look at the New York Knicks.  It was the most profitable NBA team last year.

I want the drive to analytics to tell us more about the game and the way it is played and less about the next tool, algorithm, or formula that will allow one to dominate a fantasy sports league, a coach to get the right package on the court, or management to draft the talented, but undiscovered, player.  There is an important place for this work, but it would be nice to see more creative energy spent thinking about the ways digital tools can enhance my sensory experiences of the game in a way that excel sheets and exquisitely designed infographics cannot even imagine.



Mel Stanfill is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Stanfill’s work examines the changing relationship between media companies and their fans in the Internet era, considering both cult media fans and sports fans through representations of fans, the design of official websites for media properties (television shows, sports franchises, etc.), and interviews with media industry practitioners.

Rayvon Fouché is an associate professor of history and an associate professor at the Information Trust Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Fouché’s current book project examines the relationships between sport, science, and technology with an eye toward understanding what is at stake for sporting cultures when they define themselves by and against new and emerging scientific knowledge and technological artifacts.

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