The Voice of the Fan Has Never Been Stronger--and That's a Good Thing
Do you remember when Sony released the first trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog?
Some of you probably do, but I'm willing to bet it wasn't because the trailer itself was particularly good. In fact, it garnered the amount of attention it did because it was particularly not good. It only lasted 3:08 in its original form, but the conversation around it, specifically the backlash, lasted for weeks.
See, people didn't much care for Sonic's character design--his teeth were weirdly human, and he barely resembled the video game character he was based on--and as soon as the trailer made its way onto the internet in April 2019, they let the studio know. Sonic was soon trending on Twitter in the worst way possible, and in such high volume that executives and the movie's director were forced to take notice.
Nearly five million dollars later, we had a new, fluffy, video game-ready Sonic that nerds everywhere found significantly more palatable. That's enough of a win in its own right, but the fact that a bunch of Twitter users were able to successfully change a big studio's mind seemed to point to something much more significant:
If enough people are willing to speak their minds about something, there isn't enough money in the world to ignore them.
That's the American experiment at its best, right? That's how democracy is supposed to work, and in an age where 350 million people use Twitter, we've basically got a worldwide deliberative body on our hands that can make or break decisions made by powerful people.
It should come as no surprise that this has made its way into the world of sports, too.
Just a couple of months ago, much of the debate around the European Super League was contested on Twitter, and once again, the will of the majority eventually won out. I say "eventually"--in reality, it only took a couple of days for that awful idea to get shouted down, but it certainly seemed like quite a bit longer in the moment.
In that case, the sheer number of teams that would have been affected by the Super League, as well as the near-universal detestation of the idea, meant that it was pretty easy to get everyone organized around the idea that it had to go. And if the entire body of people you're trying to sell an idea to are telling you that they all hate the idea, what choice do you have?
I mention all of this, of course, to talk about Tottenham Hotspur.
"Not again," I hear you say, but yes. Again. Because Lordy, has it been a rough couple of weeks.
Tottenham fired their manager, a Portuguese guy named Jose Mourinho, back in April, largely because he was incredibly unpopular with the fans. He was Sonic the Hedgehog levels of unpopular; after he was fired, the chairman of the club, a guy famous for rarely speaking publicly, basically came out and apologized for hiring him in the first place.
This was, to put it mildly, an overwhelmingly positive development. Like, the "ding dong, the witch is dead" kind of positive, and as long as the club didn't completely misfire again, the Mourinho-less future seemed to be full of possibilities.
That is not what has happened so far.
To make a long story short, Tottenham have stumbled from one PR disaster to another since April, including essentially leaving one coaching candidate at the altar to pursue another option that the new club director found more attractive. It was the head-turn meme in Premier League form, and while I still don't agree with that decision, it led us to the point in the story that I've been trying to get to.
When several (read: many) other managerial options didn't pan out, Tottenham's new hierarchy turned to a man named Gennaro Gattuso. If you don't know anything about Gattuso, here's a quick review of the "pros": he was an amazing player in Italy for a very long time, an Italian cup winner as a coach, and he's a favorite of new Tottenham sporting director Fabio Paratici. On paper, he wouldn't be the worst candidate in the world; he's certainly not the exciting name that most Tottenham fans would have wanted after Mourinho, but he's far from a total scrub.
Why, then, was #NoToGattuso trending on Twitter within a day or two of Tottenham talking to him?
Well, to put it mildly, Gennaro Gattuso is kind of a jerk. He's made comments in the past that were racist, sexist, and homophobic, and while his being a little rage ball was advantageous as a defensive midfielder, he also has a penchant for literally assaulting people.
Maybe it was because they didn't make enough of a fuss when Mourinho was brought in, but in this case, Tottenham Twitter acted swiftly. Like Sonic and the Super League before it, the #NoToGattuso campaign was so emphatic that it forced Tottenham's hand. Again, if the goal of an operation is to sell an idea, and that idea is rejected before it can even truly take form, the people selling it have no choice but to pull the plug. Tottenham have since moved their circus of a managerial search on to other candidates (thank God), but I think there's something more to be learned here besides how to shout something down.
It is easy to dismiss this kind of grassroots democracy as a lighter form of Cancel Culture, but I would push back against that idea. While people in power at a place like a soccer club or a university aren't required to listen to the people they represent before they make a big appointment, maybe they should be. What if every decision a team made had to be approved by a board of fans before it was finalized? The fans have supported the team for years--decades, even, and understand the DNA of the team better than any owner ever could. What if we could avoid the outrage on Twitter by simply....asking first?
Now, I know what you're thinking: that will never happen. Sports fans can be irrational idiots, and sports owners, especially American ones in closed leagues, are not the kind of people who like to cede power, especially if it means potentially having business decisions taken out of their hands. But there is one thing that will always move the needle for them: the bottom line. As fans, we have more power than we realize, and in the age of Twitter Democracy™, I think there's a chance that we will see more fan participation in big decisions. After all, we are the ones who consume the product, and owners know that. No matter how much money they have or will have, they recognize the power of a unified voice from the fans.
Will it happen soon? Maybe. All it will take will be a few more Sonics (pun intended, please put a basketball team back in Seattle) for owners to realize how outsized the consumers' voice has become.
Hopefully, when the time comes, they'll make the choice to go back and change the design, like the people behind Sonic did. It'll be a much better sports landscape if they do.