Where’s the Love?

July 1, 2008

I woke up Friday morning to ESPN’s “SportsCenter” delivering the news that the Minnesota Timberwolves were involved in a blockbuster trade following Thursday night’s NBA draft – sending first-round pick O.J. Mayo and a few players with bloated salaries to Memphis for rookie Kevin Love, veteran guard Mike Miller and a couple backups.  My immediate thought?  Uh-oh.  Not because I disliked the deal, but because I suspected there would be outrage from the already fragile fan base of the Wolves. 

I knew fans would hate the idea of trading Mayo, a flashy athlete who has been labeled a potential superstar since he was in 7th grade, for Love, more of a blue-collar player who sports a beard that last worked in the early ’90s for one of the Backstreet Boys.  Of course, my hunch was right.  Although the local and national media have widely praised the move, response from fans has been overwhelmingly negative all over sports talk radio and Internet message boards.

That led me to ponder: Should public opinion play a role in sports franchises making personnel decisions?  My short answer is no – especially in this case.  That might seem odd coming from a consumer marketer, and it’s true that I’d rarely counsel a client to knowingly greenlight a decision sure to be wildly unpopular with its most important key audience. But frankly, the only thing bringing fans back to the Wolves en masse is a better product.  At this point, confidence in the Wolves’ front office is so low, people probably would’ve cried foul if Kevin McHale had pulled off a deal to swap Mayo for LeBron James. People simply expect every move to fail and the only thing that will change that is winning. 

It’s clear fans are not going to pay attention long-term just because the team employs a high-profile franchise player – just look at Kevin Garnett’s last few years with the club, when attendance dwindled and some TV broadcasts struggled to beat reruns of “Becker” in the ratings.  So, if the Wolves brass believed the Love trade would give the team the best chance to win in the long run, they had to do it – public opinion be damned.

Only time will render a final verdict on whether it was the right move.  Meantime, at least people are talking about the Wolves with some passion.  Outrage is better than apathy.