“At the team hotel, the Westin Crown Center in Kansas City, the offensive players were greeted at the 11 a.m. meeting with the news that eight new plays were being installed for the game. … They walked through the plays in a hotel ballroom, then ran four or five of them during the game—all for positive yards.” (Peter King)
“I don’t really believe that they have wide receivers or running backs. They just take a bunch of guys that they think are football players and they move them all over the place to get match ups. Their running backs, sometimes they look like wide receivers. Their wide receivers, sometimes they look like running backs. Edelman. Wes Welker, James White, they all kind of look the same playing different positions.”
The Bill Belichick disruption (and what we can learn from it)
(This post was originally published on Medium two days ago. It is reproduced here with light editing only.)
How do they do it? How do the New England Patriots win so much?
Yes, Belichick is a genius. Yes, this system is the beneficiary of continuities at owner, coach, quarterback and players other teams can only dream of.
There are lots of answers. Every football fan has pondered them.
But here’s one I hadn’t heard of.
On Get Up (ESPN), Dan Orlovsky said this about the Pats offense.
“I don’t really believe that they have wide receivers or running backs.
They just take a bunch of guys [who are] football players and they move them all over the place to get match ups. Their running backs, sometimes they look like wide receivers. Their wide receivers, sometimes they look like running backs. Edelman, Wes Welker, James White, they all kind of look the same, playing different positions.”
This Belichick innovation is something more than a clever adaptation. It’s exactly the kind of thinking we prize these days. It rises above the architecture of thought and solves a problem in a new way. This is a classic disruption, a veritable black swan. The opposition can’t see it coming until there it is on the field.
Other coaches are prisoners of convention. They start with the positions specified by the age-old architecture of football. They find the players that fit these slots. And only then do they begin the work of strategy and execution.
Belichick’s innovation says, in effect,
“We don’t have positions to fill. We have problems to solve. We have plays to run. We will ask our players to conform to the play…instead of asking the play to conform to conventional thinking. Luckily, we have players so talented they can change their stripes from play to play.”
Has Belichick been reading Complexity theory? It’s possible.
What does the Belichick disruption mean to the rest of us?
Most organizations are slaves to convention. There’s the hierarchy that distributes power. There’s the division of labor that tells people what to do. We ask our personnel to conform to these conventions. Instead of turning them loose to solve the problem at hand.
Why can’t we be more like the Pats?
The photo is public domain.
Fantasy Football as cultural alchemy
Fantasy Football now entertains 27 million people, playing an average of 9 hours a week, in an industry valued at around $800 million. (All numbers are pretty much surmise. See references below.)
It reminds me of the Dole plantation story. Apparently, Dole would create a lot of juice while canning pineapples, and then just throw the juice into the ocean. Someone had the wit to say, "er, could I have that?" Mixed drinks and the International House of Pancakes would never be the same.
Professional football was throwing off lots of numbers. At the end of any given Sunday, it was possible to discover not just the points scored by every team, but the yards gained by every back, the number of interceptions thrown by every quarterback, the number of sacks recorded by every defensive end. (In American sports, everything gets counted.)
These numbers were being tossed into the ocean, as it were. Someone (Bob Winkenbach, to be precise) said, "could I have those numbers?" and he turned one real league into a virtual league…and an industry worth $800 million.
Fantasy football fractures league play into individual player stats and these are welded into new bundles to be "owned" and managed by the sports fan. It is a little like an exercise in string theory. It asks what if these 30 players played not for their respective teams but together on one of these limitless Fantasy teams. There are many, many thousands of teams in Fantasy football. There are many alternate realities there. We are effectively testing the alternate Sundays of a Randy Moss or a Brett Favre.
This is how ferociously inventive our culture is. We can recycle the "waste products" of existing cultural productions into the stuff of entirely new cultural productions. (Thus did Eugene Pack and Dayle Reyfel make theater out of people reading the autobiographies of celebrities.) We know practice a kind of cultural alchemy, creating one thing from another, and extracting new value in the process.
We know that this is driven by a deeper culture trend, our wish, in this case, not merely to be passive sports fan but actually to act as owners and managers. Ours is an expansionary individualism. Now province of experience can be denied us. Nothing we find curious or engaging anyhow. And we get the usual tensions as noted in the Fringe post of a couple of days ago. Fans now find themselves torn between rooting for Favre as a Viking and against him because he is owned by a Fantasy league competitor.
It’s astounding that Winkenbach thought of Fantasy football. To fracture one reality and to build many other realities out of the pieces. Genius, really.
Anonymous. n.d., Fantasy Football. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantasy_football_(American)
Bulmash, Greg. 2010. Fantasy Sports: The original social network. A Powerpoint deck on Slideshare. Aug. 19. http://www.slideshare.net/mobile/rtc123/fantasy-sports-the-original-social-network.
McCracken, Grant. 2010. Something out of nothing. The Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. May 17. http://cultureby.com/2010/05/something-out-of-nothing-cultural-alchemy-in-a-celebrity-culture.html
Shontell, Alyson. 2010. “Fantasy Football Is An $800 Million Industry, But Who’s Profiting?.” Business Insider. http://www.businessinsider.com/fantasy-football-is-an-800-million-industry-but-whos-profiting-2010-9 (Accessed October 18, 2010).