I’ve read a few stories during the shutdown about what is called the attention economy. The concept is not directly about sports, but it is about many things in the world that have changed in the 21st century, which includes sports.
The attention economy was first described in 1971, then the phrase was used in the 1990s and early 2000s to describe the economic period that followed, in succession, the agricultural economy, the industrial economy, and the information economy. In 2007, the year Facebook introduced its News Feed and Apple debuted the first smart phone, everything accelerated.
According to proponents of the attention-economy concept, human attention has become the scarcest resource amid the swirl of information constantly bombarding consumers.
In an opinion piece in the New York Times Feb. 4 headlined, The Internet Rewired Our Brains, Charlie Warzel wrote, “Attention has always been currency, but as we’ve begun to live our lives increasingly online, it’s now the currency. Any discussion of power is now, ultimately, a conversation about attention and how we extract it, wield it, waste it, abuse it, sell it, lose it and profit from it.
“Advertising is part of the attention economy. So are journalism and politics and the streaming business and all the social media platforms.”
Warzel interviewed Michael Goldhaber, a retired theoretical physicist, who saw this coming in the 1980s and has been writing about it steadily since.
“Every single action we take — calling our grandparents, cleaning up the kitchen or, today, scrolling through our phones — is a transaction,” Goldhaber told Wenzel. “We are taking what precious little attention we have and diverting it toward something. This is a zero-sum proposition — when you pay attention to one thing, you ignore something else.”
Warzel wrote that there is “a universal truth about the attention economy: Those who can collectively commandeer enough attention can accumulate a staggering amount of power quickly. And it’s never been easier to do than it is right now.”
Which gets me to Russell Wilson.
An exchange on Twitter between current Wilson teammate LB K.J. Wright, and retired teammate FB Michael Robinson (h/t Danny O’Neil, ESPN 710 radio) illuminated two responses to the Seahawks quarterback’s airing of grievances, unique for him, that’s consuming Seattle sports and a good bit of the national sports oxygen.
Wright was persuaded that there’s no way Wilson would force his way out of Seattle when has been so successful, adored and supported. Robinson, who’s a friend of Wilson’s and from his hometown of Richmond, VA., suggested perhaps too much damage already has been done.
Love big homie @KJ_WRIGHT34!! But how does #RussellWilson walk back into a locker room where he is saying the Oline stinks and he has no weapons?? The @Seahawks brass has literally given the team to Russ. AND he has been paid…twice! What else does he want? 🤷🏾♂️ https://t.co/8X5m8XBg1S
— Michael Robinson (@RealMikeRob) February 26, 2021
To answer Robinson’s question, Wilson wants attention.
Please don’t misunderstand: This is the not the attention sought by a four-year-old at a dinner table full of parents and older siblings. Nor is the attention gathered by the Kardashians (“famous for being famous”).
Certainly it isn’t the sort of attention Seattle saw recently with Mariners president Kevin Mather. In his time atop the Mariners, he’s actively run away from attention, yet he let the ravenous beast find him and consume his baseball career.
Not saying he deserves any sympathy, but the process was notable for its tornado-like power. His Feb. 5 talk with the Bellevue Rotary went unnoticed on YouTube for two weeks until a Mariners fan found the video and posted it on Twitter Feb. 20. In less than 48 hours, Mather’s foolish disclosures and denigrations went global, making him a self-immolating casualty in the attention economy, a national scandal for which no apology can douse the flames.
We saw how seductive the attention economy can be on Jan. 6, when thousands, incited by lies from President Trump, became insurrectionists and stormed the U.S. Capitol, shocking America and the world with death and destruction.
Nearly as shocking, to me anyway, was that many of the rioters recorded their own bare-faced selves taking up arms against the Constitution, and their fellow Americans, while seemingly oblivious to the fact they were domestic terrorists giving law enforcement the means to find, arrest and jail them.
They were more interested in attention than consequences.
As Goldhaber put it, “Not being able to share your encounters with anyone would soon become torture.” He wrote that in 1997, 10 years before Facebook.
The part of the attention economy that intrigues Wilson is more benign. The space is already occupied by at least two esteemed figures: LeBron James and Tom Brady. They are athletes of great talent, success and charisma who can bend franchises to their wills and draw other renowned athletes to them.
Their successes create great attention, from which grows power, as Wenzel and Goldhaber described in the greater world.
In his media tour (which even included a stop on the Ellen DeGeneres show) after the 30-20 playoff loss to the Rams that ended the season with a clumsy thud, Wilson made clear that he felt he had both the grounds and the power to call out Carroll (although, you may have noticed, never by name) over their differing approaches.
Near the apex of his eventual Hall of Fame career that earned him in 2019 a four-year, $140 million extension, then the largest in NFL history, it was time to explore busting a move, even if three years remained on the contract.
He understands that the more games, titles and awards he wins (such as the 2020 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, a truly big deal), the more attention he gets, the more power he wields.
He will always believe otherwise, but his agent, Mark Rodgers, knows Wilson entering his age-33 season may never be at this point of leverage again.
Wilson is assessing the likelihood that the Seahawks, low on draft picks and cap space after going all in on 2020 and getting to 12-4 to win the NFL’s toughest division, will be better in 2021. Particularly in view of Carroll’s post-Rams-debacle declaration that part of the Seahawks’ solution will be “to run the ball more.”
The 5-0 start and the MVP talk seemed to tell Wilson that it was possible to win his way, even prevailing despite the league’s then-worst defense. After losses in three of the next four, Carroll dialed things back.
The division was won. A Super Bowl was not. The power battle is the consequence.
We still don’t know who said what to whom, and which fingers pointed where. But the fallout of the playoff failure impelled Wilson to consider a change to a team that could win championships his way. The way James and Brady did it.
Some will doubt he’s at that level. Wilson is not among them.
Already the attention created with his grievances has given him power. Without publicly asking for a trade, Wilson publicly has cut the Seahawks’ trade options from 31 to four. I think it’s a ploy, but hey, the Seahawks agreed to the no-trade clause, likely not thinking they would be backpedaling on defense after one season and one bad loss.
What else Wilson intends to do in the attention economy with his power, I can only guess.
He did, after all, nickname himself “Mr. Unlimited.”
We just didn’t know what it meant.