An Oiler fans trek through blogs, hockey analytics and academia.
Back in 2008, I decided it was time to head back to school to finish a graduate degree. Something I can do part-time, something related to my day-job, and something that would interest me enough to stay motivated. I came across the Communications and Technology program at the University of Alberta while surfing the web and decided to take the plunge.
My background was in sociology and my interests were always research methodology and group dynamics (how do groups get together to accomplish stuff). I figured a lot of the technology starting to take off was changing the way groups interact and to how much they could accomplish as a group. My main interests have always been information and knowledge management. How do we know what we know, and how do we work collectively to build new knowledge and information. That group dynamic is always intriguing since it’s been occurring for centuries, but has really accelerated because of the advancement of communication technology. The web is an obvious example, but what is it about the web and what sort of rules apply that allows it to be so critical for information development and knowledge sharing. It was pretty high level thinking at the time since I honestly had no idea where my graduate career was going to go.
Before starting the MACT program, all applicants had to submit a research idea for their final project. I had no clue what I wanted to do, so I decided to something work-related and chose electronic health records. It was a hot button topic in healthcare, so I thought some sort of research on it would be interesting. I received my acceptance letter and was to start the program in the spring of 2009.
All students were also asked to maintain a “digital portfolio” (i.e., a blog) as a way to centralize assignments and reflect on key topics. Not many students actually did one, but I figured this might be a useful way to find a supervisor for my final research paper.
Within a couple months of starting the program, getting deep into communication theory, I realized there wasn’t anything interesting about electronic health records. There had already been a ton of research on it, including the type of technology used, its adoption in various countries and the benefits of it. That realization and the fact that others in my cohort had some killer ideas, I knew right away that I needed to find another topic.
By the end of the spring session, which included a three week residency-type set up on campus to complete a two courses, I was absolutely spent. We covered a ton of material and new concepts and spent hours completing assignments and presentations. I really tried to apply my research topic of health records to everything we covered, but it just wasn’t interesting. My attitude about the program reflected it. And my grades showed it as well.
Thankfully I had a pretty great cohort and professors to talk it out with. One prof in particular, who later became my project supervisor, challenged me to think of a topic that would really interest me and perhaps think outside of work-related topics. One discussion led into sports and how sports fans have taken on new technology to interact with the game differently. Whether it’s through video games or gambling, fans really have a variety of ways to engage with sports.
I spent the next few weeks thinking more and more about how technology changed my own relationship with hockey as a fan. Growing up as an Oilers fan, I did what most fans did: play hockey with friends, collect hockey cards, read hockey-related books, beg our parents for jerseys, etc. Being a hockey fan had always been a full time thing. Watch games. Watch the morning highlights. Read about it in the paper. And with the development of the web, being a fan meant reading news online, playing fantasy league and discussing the game on message boards.
But with the development of various technologies, what it meant being a hockey fan was changing again. Not only was the broadcast technology improving to give fans a better experience of the game. But blogs and social media platforms were changing the development and distribution of information. Anyone and everyone could comment on the game on their own terms. Communities were forming. Ideas were developing. And the pace of knowledge dissemination was drastically increasing.
What really stood out was how intelligent some of the conversations were among online hockey fans. I frequently checked out blogs like Irreverent Oiler Fans, Copper and Blue and Lowetide as well as Objective NHL and mc79hockey. I used to consider these as more of supplements to the daily TSN/Sportsnet/Score content. But pretty quickly, they became must-reads especially when it came to analytics/advanced stats. The blogs really demonstrated the power fans hold because of the new technology and the impact their discussions had on other fans. These blogs really became a major influence on my final research project.
The more I thought about sports fans and the impact communication technology has had on them, the quicker my vision for a final research project developed. A lot of the concepts we learned in class were starting to click quite nicely with my topic. It was before the fall term that I hammered out a high-level plan for my research project, knowing full well that it need a lot of fine tuning and a very specific research question.
I was eager to start discussing my project with classmates and colleagues to get their ideas and feedback. But my challenge when talking about sports fans and technology was breaking the commonly held perception of fans being nothing more than loud, obnoxious, face-painting lemmings.
I quite often referred people to check out blogs to see thoughtful expression and intelligent conversation. But those unfamiliar with sports and sports fandom figured it would be mindless drivel, filled with nothing by opinion and rumor mongering, similar to what you’d find on some radio call-in shows. The world of sports fandom to many, I found, was a bizarre, fanatic-filled world that was just a good place to kill time.
Launching the SuperFan
In the fall term of 2009, I launched Oil City Market, my “digital portfolio”, to track my progress in the program, connect with other researchers and find a supervisor for my project. I had always read and commented on blogs, so I was pretty happy that I finally stared my own website.
I grew to dislike the Blogger platform and decided to re-launch (and re-brand – ha!) the website in WordPress under the name SuperFan 2.0. The idea was that the website was about modern-age hockey “super fans” who refrain from painting their faces and instead focus on participating in the development of information and knowledge. The website was, and continues to be, my way of reflecting on concepts related to my research interests in school. It’s been a great way to further my understanding of the field and connect with a pretty remarkable community.
In 2012, I went on to complete my final research project that focused on how blogs are used by online fan communities to develop new information and knowledge pertaining to the game. I applied a couple communication theories, found some relatable, scholarly, pieces of work to build off of, and came out with a way to showcase some of the contributions hockey fans have made to the game. Hockey analytics, or advanced stats, in particular was a natural discussion point on blogs as the continuous discussion and collaboration to understand the game differently was a natural fit for blogging platforms. I didn’t make analytics the focal point of my research, but the key traits of blogs that my study uncovered has supported the growth and development of hockey analytics.
The full paper, including literature review and research methodology, can be found at the University of Alberta’s Education & Research Archive.
At the time of my research study, fans were leveraging social media applications like Twitter to discuss topics, and were changing the way the game was being reported and analyzed. Bloggers were not only reporting on the game, but they were actually doing something with the content. They would either extend the content (“remix“/mashup), discuss it, or apply some sort of external theory or idea to explain an event. For instance, fans were extending publicly available stats and data to develop new ways of tracking players and teams. Today, A lot of the key concepts and stats that were developed on blogs are now a standard method of measuring team and player performance. But there weren’t many inroads for them to make a more direct impact on professional hockey. It’s hard enough to get into sports management, so the idea of fans being able to possibly influence how teams operated seemed many years away.
In March of 2014, I also arranged for a public lecture hosted by the University of Alberta focusing on hockey analytics and fans. A description of the lecture is at the MACT website. The complete lecture has been archived on Livestream.
Fast forward to 2014, and I’m starting to see a lot of what I researched lay in the background to what’s happening in hockey. A few recent events have really blown me away:
- The New Jersey Devils hired Sunny Mehta as their Director of Hockey Analytics. Along with being a professional poker player, Mehta was also an blogger over at Irreverent Oiler Fans. [Cult of Hockey]
- Eric Tulsky of Broad Street Hockey has been hired by an NHL club. Eric is one of the top analytic guys out there and has blogged for years. He’s also been a great resource for anyone with questions about analytics. [Twitter]
- Kyle Dubas, now former general manager of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, has been hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs as an assistant GM. Dubas is a young executive who has a firm understanding of hockey analytics and how to apply it as a manager. His hiring by the most popular franchise highlights the growing importance of hockey analytics in the day-to-day operations of a club. [Globe and Mail] [SB Nation]
- The NHL is also looking into using new stats-tracking technology. This might be why NHL clubs are hiring individuals who would know what to do with the increased amount of data. [Globe and Mail]
- Jim Nill, general manager of the Dallas Stars, recently praised the work of bloggers and some of the ideas being built by the online community. Nill also voiced his support for better data tracking technology. [Sporting News]
- Update (2014 August 5): Tyler Dellow of mc79hockey.com has been hired by an NHL club (reported to be the Edmonton Oilers). [CBS Sports]
It’s not that blogs alone have helped individuals progress into hockey management. They all have strong professional backgrounds and specialize in more than just analytics. It’s that a lot of the ideas and concepts that are being adopted by NHL clubs have originated from online fan communities. I’m sure the individuals who do get into hockey management for their experience with analytics will point to online discussions as being an influence. It’s been a surreal experience seeing what impact blogs and fan communities have had on the direction the game and NHL clubs are taking.
It’s especially interesting because a lot of the research I came across as a student provided similar case studies. In particular, the work of Marshall McLuhan, Clay Shirky, Henry Jenkins, Axel Bruns and Yochai Benkler really directed my research examining the relationship between groups of people (i.e., hockey fans) and technology.
I’ll continue following along the impact fans are having on the game of hockey. Fans in general are an active bunch and the technology available has changed not only how they consume the game, but also how they contribute to it. For me personally, it’s been rewarding to contribute research to a field that doesn’t really view fans anything more than passive consumers. When understanding group dynamics and information management, communication technology is typically analyzed when something fast and drastic occurs (i.e., Arab springs, large scale accidents, etc) and rightfully so. But there still hasn’t been enough done looking at how fans are contributing their knowledge and insight to professional sports. I really think more can be done to understand how knowledge is developed, especially since a perfect case study continues to develop right before our eyes.