Thursday, August 9, 2007

Crowdsourcing football

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

In pubs and bars around the world since time immemorial, men have gathered together to share what men share.  What cars they drive, what cars they’d like.  How the mother-in-law’s come to stay again.  How the Kings of Leon are basically Lynyrd Skynyrd (only younger).

But more than any of this, more passionately argued, more fiercely debated, is football.  The tactics and strategies around player selection, transfer, and condition.  The boardroom battles, the management politics, and how much the replica kit costs. 

Every issue that could be covered is done to death, like a global game of back-seat driving, and everyone’s an expert.

But although progress has been made in recent years, few football clubs are run like businesses and even fewer are profitable.  Many are the playthings of the super-rich, the natural accessory for the man who has everything, and their boards often comprise the great, the good and the otherwise worthy.

From Simon Jordan’s Crystal Palace to our own Chris Ingram’s Woking, they are labours of love rather than profit (although not always by choice).

But now the Trialogue is coming to football. is a website which plans to own and operate a football club.  48,000 people so far have registered their interest, and once they reach the 50,000 target the plan is to buy a club.  Each member will contribute £35 a year, in return for which they’ll get one share in the club through an industrial provident society.

After deducting £7.50 to run the website, the remaining £27.50 is made available to buy the club, fund transfers and infrastructure investment.

Members then get to discuss online their views on the club’s performance and most importantly, to vote on team selection, player transfers and club business.

I’ve written a lot recently about how some smart brands are creating valuable business by handing over control to consumers.  Trialogue brands like Nike+, Lego Mindstorms and Threadless have created a fundamentally new consumer dynamic, moving from being the creators and distributors of products to being the facilitators of consumer to consumer relationships.

Like open-source software and the copyleft movement, these brands are eschewing direct control in return for the wisdom of crowds and the power of social networking.

It is access to other consumers that makes Nike+ compelling – the value of the brand lies in the interactions it facilitates between the 37,239 people who uploaded a run in the past 24 hours.  Lego’s value lies in the combined power of people to create new uses and configurations for their product, and Threadless in the participation of individual people in the creation of their products.

James Surowiecki’s 2004 book ‘the Wisdom of Crowds’ discussed the peculiar ability of large groups of people to make judgements which when aggregated turned out to be more accurate and reliable than those of individual members of that group or even than experts.

His opening anecdote described how the crowd at a county fair had correctly estimated the butchered weight of an ox when their guesses were averaged – more accurately than the local cattle professionals, and the book goes on to draw numerous other parallels from the worlds of economics and psychology. will draw together the collective wisdom of the crowd, and deploys it to run a football team.  It creates the first trialogue sports team, taking fantasy football to a new level.  More importantly, though, it will give 50,000 people the chance to be (at least in a small way) Roman Abramovich – next time they’re talking tactics, it’ll be as a club owner.

Whether 50,000 people will make better decisions than either the professionals in football or the super-rich will be interesting.  What is certain is that they’re going to have a lot more fun trying.