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Who Runs This Team, Anyway?

Well, in part, the fans do. And maybe that’s why it’s winning more! A soccer club in Finland marries grassroots enthusiasm with cell-phone interactivity. The result looks to be quite a kick.

Sports is the one segment of American society where dictatorship rules. There are control-freak coaches, despotic owners, and egomaniacal players. But thanks to Finnish entrepreneur Jussi Rautavirta, there is finally an alternative to total control. His message: Power to the fans!

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Rautavirta’s directive is playing out in the Helsinki suburb of Pukinmäki, where students, postmen, and factory workers are practicing for the new soccer season. They are players on PK-35, an amateur team with a proud history. The team was founded in 1935 in Viipuri, which was part of Finland before the Soviet Union seized it in World War II.

These days, PK-35 focuses on the future — specifically on an experiment in which coach Janne Viljamaa receives instructions from 300 fans via cell-phone text messages. Skeptics who dismissed the idea have spent the winter eating their words. After finishing first in Division III, PK-35 won a promotion and will play in Division II when Finland’s season kicks off at the end of April.

Rautavirta searched hard to find a team with a coach “who was prepared to delegate some of his decisions to the fans, using the Internet and cell phones.” (And what better place to try than Finland, a country famous for its obsession with cell phones?) He found a willing partner in PK-35, a team that had suffered a dramatic fall from glory. PK-35 was a Finnish cup finalist and Premier League runner-up in 1998, when local magnate Hjallis Harkimo bought PK-35’s A team and installed it as FC Jokerit in Helsinki’s new Finnair Stadium. The remainder of PK-35 had to start from scratch at the bottom of Division III.

Rautavirta found a second backer in Makra Ltd., the agency that handles media rights for the Finnish Football Association. Makra’s portal serves as the platform for the experiment, called Club Manager.

Each week, coach Viljamaa provides between 3 and 10 questions to answer about training, team selection, and game tactics. Fans get three minutes to enter responses, and they get the results back three minutes later. (Fan-driven decisions can produce dramatic results, like the decision to bring on substitute Hannu Takala, who scored a last-minute goal against FC Lahti in an end-of-season clincher.)

Why did Viljamaa agree to share power with the fans? “Because it had never been done before, because I choose all the questions, and because it was a chance for PK-35 and me to share a little fame and income,” he says. “It has taught me to think more about activities off the field and to handle pressure from the fans.”

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When the new season kicks off later this month, Rautavirta expects more than 1,000 fans to enroll in Club Manager — and that they will have a voice in more issues, such as signing new players. Makra’s founder and CEO, Arto Vallila, sees huge potential for the concept in all kinds of sports. “Sport is about entertainment and who is paying for the show,” says Vallila. “It’s the fans, and we’ve proved that this concept engages them. Because of our high rate of cell-phone use, Finnish soccer can serve as a test bed before taking the concept to the rest of the world.”

Learn about Club Manager online (http://makra.suomifutis.net). For more on sports and business, click here.

Sidebar: Power Sharing

What goes for PK-35, the soccer team from Finland, goes for business in general: The more power you share (with customers, employees, suppliers), the more bottom-line progress you make. But as entrepreneur Jussi Rautavirta and coach Janne Viljamaa have discovered, there are smart (and not-so-smart) ways to share.

Don’t share too much. Offer a choice between just two alternatives, urges Rautavirta. That way, the majority will be happy with the final outcome. If you offer more than two options, you run the risk of pleasing only a minority.

Make the outcome clearly visible. “It’s important for fans to see their decisions being played out,” says Rautavirta — which is why he has decided against asking supporters to make decisions on complex issues like team formation. “They can’t see whether the team is playing in a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 formation. The best questions are those where the results are instant and obvious.”

Focus on team goals rather than on individual performance. “Our players display a good pioneer spirit and enjoy the publicity, but they don’t like it when decisions go against them,” admits Viljamaa. Questions about training for individual players can harm team spirit, he says. “Similarly, we realized that questions suggesting that players go down the wings or through the center don’t work, because players aren’t robots,” says Rautavirta.

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