Monday, September 1, 2008

Defending the Fan Vote

In case you've missed the news and the button on the homepage, the WNBA and T-Mobile have opened voting for the league's MVP award to fans. The online vote, which runs through Sept. 15, will make up 25 percent of the final vote; traditional voting by the media will make up the remaining 75 percent.

The reaction to this revolutionary move has generally been negative, even from the fans themselves. To hear most of the commentary, fans will be tripping over themselves to vote for the most popular players in the league based on off-court factors with little regard for actual performance.

We've heard plenty about past All-Star voting. Well, quite frankly, All-Star voting is a popularity contest. You know why? Because it's designed to be a popularity contest. I've never looked at an All-Star ballot and seen any instruction to vote for the league's best players. If fans want to see a player like Swin Cash in 2005, who had the misfortune to be injured in the wrong half of the season, in the All-Star Game, what's wrong with that? Cash had certainly played at an All-Star level in the past.

During All-Star voting, fans are encouraged to stuff the ballot box. Of course they're going to vote for their team's players at each position, helping lift the totals of every player on popular teams and explaining why Kara Braxton was an All-Star starter last year.

While this is the first year fans votes have counted, it's not the first time they've picked an MVP on From 2003-06, it was an annual tradition. (I can't find anything from last year, though I vaguely recall a poll.) I went and dug up the results to shed light on fans' ability to pick an MVP. As you might imagine, the results are ... wait, they're totally rational.

In 2006, the fans and the media did disagree, with fans selecting Diana Taurasi, who finished second to Lisa Leslie in the actual voting. However, it's easy to understand why this happened. The voting took place with a couple of weeks left in the season, when it appeared possible that Phoenix could make the playoffs. The Mercury ultimately missed out, swinging the vote in Leslie's favor.

Other than that, the voting generally mirrored the final results. In 2005, all five players in the poll finished in the same order as they did in the actual voting. In 2004, the only discrepancy was similar to 2006 - Lauren Jackson vaulted past Tina Thompson into second because the Comets missed the playoffs.

Now, there are some loopholes in the way fan voting is being conducted that could keep the results from accurately reflecting fan sentiment. I understand the need to have a large window for voting, but things can change dramatically over the last two weeks of the season. Also, allowing a vote per day encourages fans of a single player to stuff the ballot box. Still, the notion that fans are incapable of voting intelligently for MVP, there's no evidence supporting that.


Q said...

Great insight on the fan vote, Kevin.

Just curious -- Is there any evidence that the WNBA might have been using those votes as a "pilot" for making the fan vote official?

Kevin Pelton said...

I would doubt that they thought about it that literally. If the results had been really weird, it might have been harder to justify using the fan vote.