What Tebow-mania can teach us about measuring success

No person in sports today is more polarizing than Tim Tebow. Just mentioning his name awakens a reaction from the sleepy morning crowd by the coffeepot. Even football naysayers confidently offer their opinions - - especially on Monday mornings in the fall.

Many love him. Others hate him.

Some say “winner.” Others say, “He’s a good running back” – to mock his skills as a quarterback. A few openly despise the relentless media attention he receives -  even during the offseason.

So why are the verdicts so different? And why the heated debate? Everyone seems to have valid numbers to back up their opposing positions. If numbers never lie, why can’t we just make the simple “fan or foe” declaration and be done with it?

Last fall, Tebow-mania became so pervasive that by the end of the season people walked away as they muttered, “I’m tired of talking about this.” But they almost always came back for more. What is it about the Tebow situation that defies traditional NFL hometown support logic?

Just as important, is there a broader numbers story the fans and critics of Tebow can agree upon? I think there is, and I believe that business and technology leaders ignore the implications of Tebow’s story at their peril. Allow me to explain.

The Numbers Game

 In my previous blog, I laid the groundwork for this topic. Numbers, metrics, statistics and scorecards can be a blessing but can also be misleading for business and technology professionals trying to define enterprise success. We go astray when we give numbers the power of judgment that they never deserved.

On the morning of the NFL's first 2012-2013 regular season game between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys, The Washington Post's front page proclaimed, "Football is king right now." And probably no statistic in sports in America today gets more attention than Tim Tebow’s passing completion percentage. Throughout both the 2011 NFL season, TV and radio programs couldn’t stop talking about the Denver quarterback.

Over the past six months during the NFL’s offseason, ESPN held regular debates about Tebow’s passing stats and corresponding value as a football player.

Here’s a paraphrased example:  

Stephen A. Smith (ESPN expert sports analyst): “Tebow can’t throw. Numbers don’t lie. 48% He’s completes less than 48% of his passes. What part of 48% don’t you understand? “

Skip Bayless (another famous ESPN sports analyst): “Tebow is a winner. All he does is win!” He’s a winner. A gamer! He makes everyone around him better. He just scores touchdowns.

Stephen A. Smith:  “Last year he completed less than 47% of his passes. He can’t throw! He’s completed less than 48% in two seasons.”

Skip Bayless: “Did I mention the 4th quarter? He’s much better in the 4th quarter.”

Stephen A. Smith:  “Tim Tebow is a joke, a side show. He can’t play quarterback.”

By Dan Lohrmann

This type of debate has become a frequent attraction across the nation, as ESPN and other sports talk shows try to cash-in on the seemingly never-ending discussion. Indeed, Tebow-mania has become an innovative new industry of its own.  One side ridicules Tebow’s every move. The other side defends him for a long list of reasons including his un-NFL-like positive attitude, fourth quarter heroics, great work ethic, all-around athleticism and “off the charts intangibles.” Tebow is a star off the field as well, often appearing at large Christian churches as a sought-after guest speaker.

Tebow By the Numbers

Looking purely at traditional football statistics for quarterbacks, Tebow’s passing numbers doom him to failure in the NFL, say most experts.

But the venom and negative jibes go way beyond a few bad stats for a backup QB. Former New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath called the Jets acquisition of Tim Tebow a “publicity stunt.” Former NFL QB Boomer Esiason said that Tebow is not worthy of a roster spot. There is even a “Tim Tebow Haters Club” on Facebook with mocking poems and sarcastic one-liners.

Other experts disagree and ask us to look “outside the traditional box.” They point to last season, when the Broncos called 84 designed rushes for Tebow, most among quarterbacks. He averaged 4.3 yards per rush with five touchdowns on those designed plays. Tebow’s 12 rushing touchdowns also are the third-most by a QB in his first two seasons. 

Tebow also proved in 2011 that he can finish drives. In 70 red zone plays with Tebow at quarterback last season, the Broncos scored 20 touchdowns. That was the highest TD percentage (28.6) of any quarterback with as many plays over the last two seasons. 

He also played well in the 4th quarter of games last year.  Late game heroics became known as “Tebow Time” around the nation. New fans from around the country tuned in at airports and bars everywhere to watch the end of Broncos games in 2011.

Breaking the Mold – The Missing Puzzle Piece

Regardless, of your perspective on Tebow’s passing statistics or his ability as an NFL quarterback, there is one stat that everyone agrees with: Tebowmania is huge. Love him or hate him, Tebow is a top celebrity. Vanity Fair proclaimed he is more popular than the Easter bunny, and America follows Tebow’s every move.

 In a recent poll, Tebow was named America’s favorite active pro athlete.  In July, Tebow won the ESPY-award for the best moment in all sports for the past year, beating-out famous golfing and baseball superstars. Actions speak louder than words, and Tebow is a very hot topic in all sports social media discussions – especially amongst his strongest critics.

How Do You Measure Success?

Which brings us to the lesson for governments and business: Traditional measures underestimate innovative success.  Make no mistake, professional sports are big business with a bottom line. Tebow is successful because he attracts more new fans, drives TV ratings, sells T-shirts and brings attention, even to those who are sick of how much attention he gets. What's the end-result? Tebow is innovating and redefining what “success” looks like in professional sports – but most people are too busy looking at traditional measures of success to notice.

Tebow fans and Tebow “haters” are both participants in this new economy. They drive traffic to ESPN.com and any website that features the name. Regardless of whether Tebow is a remembered by sports historians as good quarterback or not twenty years from now, he is the biggest one person attraction in American sports today. ESPN knows this, which is why his name being mentioned in daily podcasts and weekly shows attracts better ratings when a “where’s Tebow” discussion is added.

Stated in another way, Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith may disagree on Tebow’s skill at quarterback, but the seemingly never-ending debates consistently attract more viewers than any other topic. Measures show that everyone has an opinion on Tim Tebow. The old “success” measurements just don’t work for him. Moving forward, Tebow only needs be good enough to stay on the field and in the conversation.

Woody Johnson, the owner of the New York Jets, recently proclaimed, “I don’t think you can ever have too much Tebow!”  This was after a horrible 0-4 preseason for the Jets. He obviously knows something others don't – and it might just be the true bottom line.

Next time, in the last blog in this series, I’ll offer pragmatic takeaways for business and technology measurements of innovation and lasting success. 

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon