The NBA All-Star GameAnd the Pitfalls of Social Media Voting

For sports fans Valentine’s Day might be completely overshadowed by another event this year, because this Sunday is also the day the NBA All-Star Game 2016 is going down. (I know, my wife has already scheduled the game in her calendar.)

I’m not a sports fan, but from what I have seen over the years, there is no sports event in this world that doesn’t involve at least a little bit of drama. Even if it’s just about the colour of the uniforms that are being worn during the Super Bowl — there’s always something fans will complain about.

For fans they sure do complain a lot gif Supernatural

With the NBA All-Star Game 2016 the source of contention is how the All-Star teams came to be. The NBA decided to let fans vote for the starting lineup via social media networks — and that’s where the proverbial shit hit the fan.

NBA All-Star Game Facts

I’d obviously heard of the All-Star Game before but, given my general ignorance when it comes to sports, I didn’t really know anything about it. So, let’s start at the beginning:

  • The first All-Star Game took place in 1951.
  • Essentially, it was conceived as a marketing ploy to bring basketball back after the CCNY point shaving scandal.
  • The All-Star Game is organised by the National Basketball Association (NBA), the United States’ men’s professional basketball league.
  • The NBA is divided into two conferences, the Eastern and the Western Conferences.
  • The All-Star Game features an encounter between two teams, each made up from the stars of the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference, respectively.
  • The All-Star Game 2016 will take place on February 14 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. It will be the first All-Star Game in the event’s 65-year history to be held outside of the United States.

NBA All-Star Game: How the Fan Ballot Works

The starting lineup for each All-Star Game team is decided by a fan ballot. Up until 2012 fans would select two guards, two forwards and one center. Starting with 2013 the system was simplified and fans now vote for three generic frontcourt players, not distinguishing between centers and forwards. The reserves are then voted in by NBA coaches of the respective conferences.

In recent years, the voting mainly took place on the NBA Website as well as SMS text. New this season was the option to vote via Google Search. Furthermore, the NBA is letting fans vote for their favourite players via social media networks as well — for instance, by posting (or reposting) a player’s first and last name, along with the hashtag #NBAVOTE, on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

Fans were allowed to vote for 10 unique players each day throughout the All-Star voting period from December 10, 2015 to January 18, 2016

Criticism #1: The Center Problem

Criticism of the NBA All-Star voting system revolves around two issues. One is the 2013 change to voting for frontcourt and backcourt only, because the centers get lumped in with the forwards, who are often the more showy and popular players.

Critics say that this leads to lesser known players standing much less of a chance, even if they do have the skills and would deserve to be on the All-Star team.

It can also lead to a complete absence of centers in the starting five — which is exactly what has happened again in 2016: Neither team features a center player in the starting lineup.

However, I had a little chat with Walls.io’s resident basketball expert Ray (who you may know from the Walls.io Support), and he explained to me that basketball has been changing a lot in recent years, with players becoming more versatile and a dedicated center not necessarily being needed on the team. Also, the All-Star Game is not just any old game:

“Classic centers like vintage Hakeem, Robinson and Shaq are a rarity nowadays, which makes it logical to merge those positions into the frontcourt.

And let’s face it: This is the All-Star Game. It’s probably the greatest basketball show after the Harlem Globetrotters. Flashy passes, ankle breaking crossovers, swishing threes and soaring high flyers coming in for ferocious dunks is what the fans want to see. And at this point in the season it’s really more about the fans than anything else.”

Criticism #2: The Social Media Problem

The second issue fans and critics have is the social media vote. They are complaining that allowing voting via social media networks was skewing the vote. I say: Fellas, that’s simply the way social media works. 😉

Christoph Waltz shrug gif

When people could only vote via NBA.com, they could do it once per day per email address. Theoretically, someone could have just set up a number of email addresses and kept voting but, in reality, that’s an effort only few people make in order to skew a ballot. However, setting multiple social media accounts with just one gmail address is easy peasy these days. (And that’s without even taking bots into account.)

Celebrity Influence

Furthermore, celebrities also influence the voting when done on social media. When someone with a lot of followers tweets their support for any one player, their followers may retweet it in droves, thus adding their own votes to the ballot. As good as no effort for the retweeters; Maximum outcome for the player.

Zaza Pachulia, a Mavericks player with (as the internet tells me) good-but-not-quite-All-Star numbers, almost booted Kawhi Leonard off the Western Conference’s starting five. The player from Georgia (the one in Europe) got that far, because people campaigned for him. For one, the president of George mobilised Pachulia’s countrymen. But, more importantly, Vine star Hayes Grier and singer Wyclef Jean also mobilised their fans.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Cavaliers asked their Filipino fans, specifically, to vote for LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Why? Because the Philippines are still considered the Social Media Capital of the world and pack an immense promotional punch.

Popularity Trumps Ability

The controversy around the NBA All-Star fan ballot ties neatly into a much broader topic. Asking for people’s opinion will, unavoidably, lead to them voicing their opinion. If you let them vote for something, you will have to accept that their vote is not that of an expert — not that those are infallible — but that of a fan. And a fan vote is always automatically a popularity vote.

By entering social media into the equation you’re obviously lowering the barriers. It takes less effort, less thinking, less circumspection to vote if all you have to do is send out a tweet or, even easier, hit the retweet button.

This kind of social media involvement is likely great for the NBA — more buzz on social media networks is good for the event and can even draw in new fans. But the fan voting can also have significant consequences for the players.

The NBA Is All About That Status

When I asked Ray why NBA players were being so whiney about something that is, essentially, a popularity contest, he said: “So much in the NBA is about status, especially among the stars. Almost everyone claims to be the best player — on his position or in general. Not making it into the starting five or into the All-Star team is a blow to their pride.”

The Office, You’ve hurt my feelings gif

And it’s not just their pride that can get hurt. Ball Don’t Lie columnist Dan Devine explains it this way: “…such heavy-handed shifting of vote totals could have very real implications for players with incentive clauses in their contracts tied to All-Star appearances.”

Simply put: The fact that All-Star teams are decided by fan voting could potentially cost players millions of dollars in contracts.

Fans Don’t Always Love Twitter Voting

The stakes aren’t always that high, but letting fans have their say on social media is nothing new, of course. “Twitter saves” have been introduced to reality TV a while back, letting fans use Twitter to vote for certain contestants or save them from the axe.

The introduction of Twitter saves — whether on The Voice, American Idol, America’s Next Top Model or So You Think You Can Dance — almost always garners criticism, although for different reasons than the NBA voting ballot.

In reality TV it’s often the fans who are unhappy about getting more of a say in the outcome of a show they are watching. While that may, at first, seem odd, it makes perfect sense if you look at the system more closely. The idea is that fans can vote live, during the show. However, that is problematic for viewers in western parts of the U.S.. When they watch the show, voting is usually already over.

The Notebook, Now it’s too late gif

For example, So You Think You Can Dance fans can use Twitter to save two of the contestants on the bottom each week. Fans on the West Coast can choose to monitor Twitter for the voting window to cast their vote, but that also means that they’ll be spoiled about the outcome of the episode — and they’re voting without even having seen the performances.

Again, this pulls the whole thing even further into “popularity” territory and away from actual dancing skill. Effectively, the “Twitter Save” ruins the experience for the fans.

However, if people in the western half of the country decide to abstain from voting on Twitter, this can tip the situation in favour of contestants from the eastern U.S., given that people are likely to vote for their hometown heroes.

Solutions to the NBA’s Popularity Vote Problem?

But back to the NBA’s specific problem: What can there be done to make fan voting work better in the future? NBA commissioner Adam Silver has already announced that the NBA will review the voting system: “As social media changes the world and is disruptive, it’s been mildly disruptive to our balloting systems as well. I know that’s something we’ll take a fresh look at.”

Other solutions have been suggested as well. Expanding the roster to 15 spots (up from 12) could level the playing field, different bonus negotiations could take the pressure off players and make their salaries less dependent on popularity and more on skill, and barriers to prevent voting misuse on social media could keep the ballot from getting skewed by social media high-profilers.

Alright, basketball fans, it’s time to sound off about how you feel about the NBA All-Star voting mechanism! Is social media voting awesome or from the devil? Tell us!