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Just What Do These Bloggers Think They Are?

Xiane writes an unsolicited answer to The Voice of The Utah Jazz, David Locke's, remarks about the authority and position of sports bloggers.

This man has inside information.  I don't.
This man has inside information. I don't.
Bob Levey

First off let me express my condolences, and those of The Dreamshake to Craig Ackerman, voice of the Houston Rockets, and his family in a terrible and difficult time.

David Locke is a radio play-by-play announcer and voice of the Utah Jazz. He does a lot of other things as well. He has an analytics system of his own, and does a popular podcast. From what I can tell, he is generally a bright, sincere, and switched on guy when it comes to NBA basketball and improving interaction and involvement with fans.

On 3/19/13 David Locke was a guest on the Rocketscast podcast with Craig Ackerman and Jason Friedman. He's sharp,and the podcast is well worth a listen, but there are certain remarks that stayed with me. Now I've provided an entirely unsought reply to some of Mr. Locke's statements below.

At 34:30 into the podcast Mr. Locke had some interesting and pointed remarks about sports bloggers in general. He mentions our SBN sister-blog SLC Dunk by name (though in a generally positive way). I'll paraphrase what I think are certain of his interesting remarks on sports blogs. You can download the podcast and hear them for yourselves, on iTunes and here, but I think I've summarized it fairly.

The gist of his remarks on bloggers as I interpret them are:

  1. Once a blogger writing about a sports team finds an audience, even of one person, the blogger's tone changes.
  2. The blogger's tone changes, as he gains confidence from responses. He assume an air of authority, and will make remarks under the color of being an expert on the team.
  3. Such an air of authority is not justified, as the blogger generally has no connection to the team, and does not know what is going on around or inside the team.
  4. Locke and others associated with a team (in this case the Jazz) often know the reasons for decisions made by coaches, team front office, etc. The reasons are often not what outside commenters, or bloggers, think. Sometimes such conclusions are not only wrong, but unfair to an extent.
  5. Teams struggle constantly to make correct decisions, and have reasons for decisions that aren't always clear to others. No one is an idiot. Even non-sensical seeming decisions have reasons behind them. He cites the Sacramento trade of Thomas Robinson as an example.
  6. Locke states he himself would be a blogger if he wasn't now an insider. He now regrets some things he said before he gained more experience on the inside of the sports business.

First off, let me say, if the Rockets ownership, management, coaching or players wish to adopt a policy of greater, or any, communication with me at The Dreamshake, I am quite receptive. I believe that such a step will do wonders to eliminate certain inadvertent errors on my part. I will continue to breathe while waiting for such contact.

Now to Mr. Locke's points. He's right. It is also completely beside the point from my perspective.

It is true that sports bloggers make remarks, offer opinions, and assume a certain amount of authority in their writing and analysis. They do this despite having little to no inside information about the team, no access to team officials or players. Their vision only extends into what is freely available to anyone: watching games, looking at statistics, taking in press coverage.

However, it turns out that there is a massive professional world that operates in almost the exact same circumstances, though with far greater stakes. People in that world make decisions on the basis of similar crumbs of information, risking billions of dollars every day. It's called Wall Street.

Securities analysts every day take what required public disclosure is available, and what other, often highly spun, information a company has revealed to the general public, and use it to make all sorts of predictions. Again, involving billions of dollars.

Analysts evaluate the future prospects of a company and make predictions. They evaluate the past success or failure of management compared to their peers. They make recommendations that can in some cases have highly positive, or disastrous, effects on the shares of a company. A negative rating from a powerful analyst or ratings firm often leads swings of millions, sometimes billions, of dollars in market value. And if these analysts use one single piece of inside information to do any of that, they can go to prison.

Using that perspective, its not so odd to offer opinion on such low stakes (for fans anyway) topics as who a team will draft, why a trade was made, what could be the reason for certain coaching decisions. As I see it, there is plenty of information available from which to draw conclusions.

  • First of all, we have statistics. Statistics are a public record of what every single team did over 82 contests against various of 29 industry peers. And like company results, there are years of recorded statistics, and somewhere in them are keys to success and failure, if only we can interpret them correctly.
  • We have our own eyes. We can watch games every night for not too much money. We can use what knowledge we have of the sport of basketball, and of human interaction, to judge what we're seeing on the court.
  • We have the ever-growing paid and unpaid sports media. Unlike the securities business, inside information is allowed. Leaks are not rewarded by SEC investigations, but by headlines in newspapers and top billing on television, or websites, by followers on twitter.
  • We have the statements and interviews of people associated with the team, and other teams.
  • We have won-lost records, and championships. Every season may be judged subjectively for its relative success in light of various factors.Sports also offers an objective outcome to every single season. Thus we can analyze trades, draft picks, signings, and other decisions in the light of various standards, and also objective outcomes.

Of course any analyst has to use her discernment to piece through this information, to draw conclusions. But in my opinion, there is MORE information available to a person who wants to analyze and talk about an NBA team than there is to a person wishing to make an investment in a stock.

An NBA blogger needn't have inside information to come up with rational and sometimes accurate explanations, and predictions. Having a sound, well-reasoned, and hopefully accurate opinion is the standard for an analyst, and it should be for a blogger as well. Analysts everywhere are often wrong, but as long as the effort is made in good faith, what, exactly, is the harm? Unlike Wall Street, no one is asking for the reader's money.

If a blogger assumes any sort of tone of authority, (and I certainly don't feel I have any actual or virtual authority), I believe its because someone has thought they had an opinion worth reading. Over time, of course, readers can determine whose opinion has been borne out, who seems to offer reasonable explanations for what he is seeing, and of course, not seeing, with an NBA team.

But remember, there are very prominent mainstream media (and investment) figures who succeed by trolling, by churning endless arguments. Their pronouncements have no merit whatsoever. They exist to get attention for themselves (and advertisers ultimately).

Is it any surprise that the tactics that garner attention on the big money national stage, get attention on blogs, too? Reasonable analysis is often boring. It often encourages patience, not jumping to conclusions. It looks frumpy when someone else is screaming for a coach's head, or calling out a player for being bad human being for missing a jump shot, or decrying conspiracies everywhere. That sort of thing is going to find its audience, on TV, in print, and on the internet.

Histrionics aside, fan blogs can sometimes be the best source of in-depth analysis a fan of that team can get. This is sometimes due to conflicts of interests, sometimes to the demands of an audience.

Someone like Mr. Locke may know why a team made a decision, but like most employees, he's generally not at liberty to say so. Revealing inside information presents a conflict of interest with his employer.

This leaves the interested fan with statements that meet the party line from the team. I believe such carefully parsed statements from a team are worth as much as carefully parsed press releases from other companies. There is information to be had, but such statements often do not tell the whole story (to put it mildly). So where will a fans answers come from?

What about local media? I have the highest respect the members of the local media covering the Rockets. Yet they are in a position of being employees of local media companies, and they must, absolutely must, retain generally friendly relations with the local team. Blast away at a team too many times and relations can go frosty. That's not to say local media doesn't act with integrity in reporting, they do, but there are some real constraints.

It is also very important to remember that local mainstream media is generally presenting information to a much wider, and less specialized audience. There are people in Houston who are just now noticing that hey, that Harden kid, the one with the beard, is pretty good. (I know, it's tough to believe.) This guy just realized that the Rockets might make the playoffs! Those fans far outnumber our loyal readers. Thus local media has to be accessible to that fan, too, not just Dreamshakers and ClutchFans.

As for national media, most of the national media have been notable by their absence when it comes to covering the Rockets until very recently. They have a vast national audience, and from the perspective of that audience, there isn't much to say about teams 1 or 2 games above .500 (unless that team is the Lakers). Some of the national NBA specialist analysts have in fact followed the Rockets closely, and offered their insight. I have benefitted greatly from their work.

So there is a major team decision, and no answer from the team other than "We did what we thought was in the best interest of the team going forward". Can we all just presume that is true of every action the Rockets take? And so what?

So here is a blog. It is about the Houston Rockets. Anyone can set up a blog (Dave and Lee actually did), but no one has to read it. Anyone can offer an opinion, and those opinions can be vastly wrong.

Remember the stakes, though, nothing whatsoever. All that is at stake is the time the writer and reader invests in the analysis and conversation. We are not, in fact, talking billions and billions of dollars like the securities industry. We aren't talking any dollars at all to the vast majority of sports bloggers (I say this from experience).

I write about the Rockets here because I enjoy the writing, and the conversation. I like to think things through, and I think I'm correct some of the time. I am not an insider, nor do I attempt present myself that way. I am an analyst who makes a hobby of analyzing the Rockets. (It would possibly be better if I made a hobby of scaling vast mountains, yet here I am.)

I am also a fan. Obviously a passionate, and possibly deranged fan, but hopefully a thoughtful, articulate and knowledgeable one as well. Sometimes I write just as a fan, sometimes I am more of an analyst.

And always, I am not an insider.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a securities analyst. In fact by initial training I am a "Distressed, Defaulted, Special Situations and High Yield Analyst". To boil that down, I operated in situations very different from most equity analysts. Equity analysts deal with companies that want the analyst to like them, that want to tell them every good thing they legally can. In a bankruptcy situation, companies typically will only say what they are absolutely legally obligated to say to the public. I base very risky investment decisions on such information, and am not bad at it. So the amount of information I get about the Rockets seems fairly plentiful to me.