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Why Fans Are Now More Into Free-Agent Negotiations Than Games

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - MARCH 03: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers prepares to play against the New Jersey Nets at the Izod Center on March 3, 2010 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Photo: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

At halftime of game two of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals in May, ESPN analyst Bill Simmons voiced a strange theory about why LeBron James, the best player in the NBA, had played poorly in the first half. LeBron’s Heat were down 1-0 in the series to the Pacers, and even though Miami led at halftime, LeBron had struggled, looking lifeless and distracted. Simmons, who, like the rest of us, had been watching the NBA draft lottery before the game (in which LeBron’s former team, Cleveland, had secured the No. 1 pick), had a guess as to why.

“LeBron came out kind of strange,” Simmons said. “I was almost wondering, Did someone tell him Cleveland won the lottery? Was he thinking about that?

Now, it is probably worth pointing out that this makes no sense. LeBron James was going for his third consecutive NBA title, his team was behind in a critical series, and he had to carry aging, injured teammates on his back. Of all the things on his mind at that moment, a Ping-Pong ball coming up Cleveland was rather far behind I am thirsty from all this running around and jumping (if anyone had even told him in the first place). The notion that something so profoundly beside the point would somehow affect James’s game—the thing he is better at than anything else in the world—was absurd. If LeBron James really were distracted by such silliness, he would spend most of his time on the court tripping over his own feet.

And yet: I got what Simmons was saying. Because I had been thinking the same thing. And that’s because I wasn’t thinking like a professional athlete; I was thinking like a fan. I can’t comprehend what it’s like to play in the NBA Finals, or to have to memorize thousands of inbounds plays, or to find the open man on the fast break, or to dunk. (Or even to dribble without falling.) Those things are beyond my imagination. What I can grasp is what happens off the court. Draft lotteries. Salary-cap maneuvering. Free-agent negotiations. Roster construction. And not only grasp: Like just about every other sports fan in America, I’ve been doing all of those things in fantasy sports for two decades. Also like just about every other sports fan in America, I’ve started to think I’m pretty good at it. We all have. Which has made the action on the court, or the field, feel somehow like the subplot.

This phenomenon only got more pronounced in the NBA Finals, when people seemed to stop paying attention to the games entirely. LeBron James was, with an undermanned army of teammates, fighting for a championship against a historically entertaining San Antonio Spurs team, but no one wanted to talk about that. They wanted to talk about the offseason. They wanted to talk about where LeBron was going to go next. And with good reason: The weeks after the Finals—as LeBron, along with Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, decided where he would be taking his ­talents—were more entertaining than the Finals themselves. We were tracking flights online, peeking in LeBron’s windows, interviewing random people in golf carts outside LeBron’s house to see if they knew anything. We broke down cap sheets, studied up on the mid-level extension, wondered which team would have to trade whom to free up space for LeBron.

The games? The games were simply results, fungible, prone to the whims of luck and chance and human unpredictability. Since Moneyball, the sports world has gone wonky; all that matters now is what you can control, the process. It used to be that talk and analysis were the pregame, the preparation for game action. Suddenly, it’s the other way around.

Professional sports, like most human endeavors, has two types of people: insiders and outsiders. The insiders are the ones who play the game, or coach the game, or scout the game. The outsiders are the rest of us. Fans. Executives. Fantasy-sports players. Journalists. For decades, we have watched that inner circle of “experts” with envy and relied on it to mete out bits of information and insight. But in the last decade that inner circle has become more closed. Athletes have sealed themselves off from media, and fans, and anyone who isn’t a family member or corporate sponsor. This has made them unknowable. Here’s a thought project: What do you know about Carmelo Anthony? Can you give me one personality detail of the man? We’ve been watching Carmelo every night for years, and all we know is that he likes to shoot.

But the flip side of being made to feel so much like outsiders is the creeping suspicion that you may actually be more expert than the experts, less clouded by their traditions and reflexive delusions. As fans, we may have perspective they can never have; they’re fish who don’t know they’re in water. Thanks to much more widely available statistical information, the fantasy-­sports era has transformed the average fan into a much more sophisticated connoisseur of what really makes teams win than even general managers might have been a decade or two ago; after all, we have access to more information than they ever did. So we concentrate on what we know, on transactions, and salary caps, and trades, and free agents, and draft lotteries. We concentrate on statistics and advanced statistics, and we publish big books of data to predict what’s coming next, and we present them at huge wonky stats conferences held at prestigious universities. Which means the actual analysis of the game—what play was run, what the player was thinking when he took that shot—has moved into the background. I may not be able to diagram a play, but I sure as heck can diagram a strategy to sign Alexey Shved to the mid-level exception. (Did you see his P.E.R. last year?) We’re all the Jonah Hill character in Moneyball: We really do know better than they do.

But this can sometimes make the games themselves a little less fun to watch, and it’s our own fault. As we become more obsessed with data downloads, some of the greatest sports moments start to seem less like feats of heroism and more like statistical outliers. (After all, in the long run, everything is a small sample size.) Those last-­second shots we once turned immediately into legends can feel, in a data-driven age, like discardable statistical anomalies without predictive power—which seems to be the power fans care more and more about. The hyperbole that crusty sportswriters have fed us for years has been overblown and full of hot gas … but it was exciting. No one ever used to imagine themselves making a breakthrough salary-cap dump; we imagined ourselves hitting the game-­winning homer. The outdated, inflated way the old sportswriting described sports may have been factually wrong but emotionally ­correct: It expressed the way we actually experienced the games, before we got coolheaded about what determined their outcomes.

And the imperious data geeks among us are only getting more power. As in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street, the success of data-driven executives, like the Houston Rockets’ Daryl Morey and the Chicago Cubs’ Theo Epstein, has given us a cult of the general manager to replace, or at least supplement, the hero worship of players.

Thus: The central event of the basketball calendar became not the NBA Finals that LeBron James lost but the free-agency sweepstakes that the Cleveland Cavaliers won. And it’s true in other sports, too: It’s been years since the Super Bowl felt as significant as the draft—even when we didn’t have a Johnny Manziel bad-boy drama to chew over. The anticipation of what is going to happen is becoming more fun than what is actually happening. Speaking of: LeBron can opt out of his Cavaliers contract in two years. I’m ready to do all this again. Aren’t you?

*This article appears in the July 28, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Why Fans Care More About Free Agents Than Games