Pro/rel should emerge from an open system

As Ted Lasso gets more folks on the promotion/relegation bandwagon for American sports, I think there’s an important point to be made.

The real juice of those systems is their openness. By openness, I mean anybody can start a sports club and enter a team from that club somewhere on the open pyramid. They don’t have to get approval from the other owners of a closed league to do so.

Promotion/relegation then should emerge as the way to slot those clubs into a competitive structure that makes sense based on how good they are, not necessarily how many tickets they sell or how many people watch them on TV in their home market.

I see American soccer moving toward a closed promotion/relegation structure, where there will be promotion/relegation between the closed leagues that still require approval from the other team owners in those leagues to gain entry.

What I predict will happen is that might make things 10-20% more interesting, but it isn’t going to quintuple or 10x support for soccer and then detractors will say, “See, pro/rel doesn’t work!”

But, pro/rel without the openness is like Disneyland without Mickey Mouse, it’s just another blah amusement park to make for an easy weekend get away for the locals, but it isn’t going to draw much beyond that.

Why is openness so important?

Because it encourages competition and trials. It will also result in a fair amount of failures, which opponents of open systems point to as a bug. But, I think it’s a feature. It’s the same feature that helps open markets work.

From those failures, we learn some valuable things, like what doesn’t work. As Edison said for each failed attempt to find a filament material for the light bulb, that was just one more thing they tried that didn’t work. Now they know.

I know that provides no comfort to the players and employees of clubs that fail, but I fail to understand why they should have any more guarantees to their job as the rest of us who work for companies that can and do fail.

On the flip side, allowing such openness also occasionally generates some unexpected successes that you would never discover under a closed system that assumes things like ‘you need at least a market of a million in population to support one team.’

For example, you might discover that a market of a million might be able to support multiple teams and spawn some huge crosstown rivalries. Or, you might find that there’s a few dozen small markets that really, really love the sport that can produce clubs that are wildly successful beyond what the experts thought was too small to work.

Premature solicitation and onerous survey gripes

When I visit your website that I never heard of before for the first time because I followed a link and you foist a ‘sign up’ pop-up on me before I read a single word, I leave. Maybe data shows that’s a good thing to do to increase your subscriptions, but an even better thing is to create good content to keep me coming back.

Also, companies, I don’t want to take a 5 minute survey after every single interaction I have with your company. Here’s a tip: If I return, I was happy. If I don’t, I wasn’t. You should have a good idea of what constitutes good service without me having to take my time to tell you. If not, maybe you shouldn’t be running things.

“Every flaw in consumers is worse in voters”

Economist and professor Mike Munger said this on this Econtalk podcast, recently.

Good point.

I know folks who think that voting is better than markets. They fail to realize the same folks (you and me) make the choices in both, just with different incentives.

Think about what incentives you face when you buy a food at the grocery store or a restaurant, or go on vacation, pay someone to mow your lawn, remodel your house or buy a streaming service.

Now think about the incentives you face when you vote.

What’s different? What’s the same?

It’s good to keep in mind that whatever you might think the flaws are in markets and consumers is worse in voters and to understand why.

Ted Lasso effect

As a card carrying member of the tinfoil hat “pro/rel” soccer club, it’s been interesting to see the impact the TV show Ted Lasso has had on the discussion. It’s a good example of how narrative matters.

For years, I’ve been in the wilderness with about 50 people in the U.S. using abstract terms like promotion/relegation, sporting merit and open pyramids to no persuasive avail. “That’ll never work in the U.S.!” is the most common retort.

But the TV show Ted Lasso comes along and presents the concept in narrative form to viewers, which brings them inside what it means, and gives tangible life to those abstract terms.

Suddenly, “sporting merit” makes more sense to Ted Lasso fans, as they come to understand that it means that how well your team does determines their fate. Not only might they win a trophy, but they might also win their way into the next level of competition and a bigger stage.

Suddenly, I’m seeing more folks say, “That would make soccer and other sports in the U.S. a lot more interesting.”

Owners beware.

Did the US Men’s National Team find a goal scorer in the game against Honduras?

I’ve long noticed that American soccer players aren’t necessarily known for their scoring abilities. This is true in the adult leagues I play in and at the pro level.

I wrote about it here when the top scoring American in the MLS was #12.

It hasn’t changed much since then, but the top American comes in at #5 now and that American is the same one that either scored or helped create all of the US goals against Honduras, in his first appearance with the National Team, Ricardo Pepi. The next American in MLS appears at #10.

Now, granted, folks like Christian Pulisic and Josh Sargent don’t play in the MLS, but…

…they haven’t produced consistent goals for the U.S. Men’s team, either. That is their job.

While they have a good touch, can control the ball and can create some separation, their finishing looks like most American attempts at scoring — wooden, predictable and fairly easy to cover by goalies.

Pepi made it look easy. He has creativity — which means he’s a bit more unpredictable — and can use multiple parts of his body to direct the ball.

I just think it’s strange, but it’s not surprising. We don’t emphasize creative goal scoring in the U.S. We don’t have places for kids to practice it. We ban them from shooting practice before their games and while fields aren’t being used, because we want to protect the precious grass!

Breakeven Frontier

Many mature businesses are stuck on what I call the Breakeven Frontier and their managers don’t know it.

What is the Breakeven Frontier?

It’s also called saturation. Their products are available to nearly all the folks who naturally value them and the cost to increase sales is roughly equal to (or more) than the value of those extra sales.

So, the company might spend $10 million on advertising and see sales rise, but only enough to add $10 million or less to the bottom line.

Marketing isn’t the only breakeven investment for a mature business. Most investments they make to increase sales or reduce costs are also breakeven, at best, which is why I call it a frontier.

They might try to cut costs by putting fewer chips in the bag. Their supply chain will brag about the cost savings. But, customers notice and end up buying fewer bags of chips. A move that might save $10 million a year on potatoes can easily cost that much in sales.

What can businesses do when they’re stuck on the breakeven frontier?

A couple of simple things. They should be investing some of the earnings from their mature product in innovation to create new products that can find their own growth curves.

On the cost side, they should be looking at making cost reductions that do not actually lower the quality of the product. Taking chips out of the bag is not a good idea. Getting a better deal on the oil you use to make the chips, might work better.

I enjoyed the MLS All-Star Game Skills Challenge

I must admit, I enjoyed the skills competition at the MLS All-Star game.

I think it’s interesting to see the level of skills some of these guys have that do not as apparently surface during games and it was fun.

I think it would be fun to see youth tournaments incorporate similar skills competitions. That might give some kids some extra motivation to work on their skills to maybe capture an individual medal or trophy.

The All-Star game had a challenge for touch, crossing/volleys, shooting, crossbar and passing.

I might add events for dribbling and defending. For dribbling by itself, you could have a freestyle obstacle course to dribble around, nutmeg, wall passes, etc and judge it like a skateboard freestyle — mix of creativity, how they use the course, level of difficulty and execution.

Also, I think it would be fun to have a 1v1 challenge where you have some of the best attackers face off against some of the best defenders. Attacker gets a point for getting past the defender, the defender gets the point by taking the ball. Or something like that.

Or, you could also have a giant battle royal of sharks and minnows and crown the last person standing as the Sharks and Minnows Champ!

More fun with soccer numbers, also why open systems work

The U.S. has about 26,000 high schools. I presume a high portion of those have soccer teams.

The U.S. also has about 1,400 colleges with soccer teams.

These are invisible to most folks when they wonder if there’s enough support for an open soccer pyramid.

My guess as to what would happen in an open pyramid is that the teams from these schools would eventually migrate to the first teams of clubs at various levels of the pyramid.

Within a stone’s throw of my house, there’s about 15 high schools and 4 college teams.

I’ve only been to a few of these games. I have no real reason to go, unless my kid was on one of these teams.

The folks who wonder where support for soccer will come from, seem to expect that my love of soccer alone should cause me to want to attend these matches just to watch soccer. But, I really have no clue who the players are and they are from all over. There’s no connection.

They miss that there’s something deeper in the support, a connection beyond just the sport itself.

For example, what if those 19 teams were replaced with about 7 clubs with a few on the 6th tier of the country’s pyramid and a couple on the 5th tier? What if my kids started playing soccer with those clubs as age 5 or 6? What if I volunteered and helped out at the club? What if I played Sunday adult pickup or league at the club, maybe sometimes against some of the first teamers?

What if, over time, I knew kids that moved up through the club to our first team, then onto higher first teams and eventually to top level? I’m be more interested in watching.

Then I would have more connections. I would be part of the club, not just a spectator. In Europe, that’s called being a ‘supporter’. In the U.S., we confuse the term ‘supporter’ with season ticket holder. We want people just to show up for the superficial entertainment aspect without understanding the connections that go with it.

We already have a lot of the elements. I play Sunday soccer at one place. I coached kids at another. They then played at school which was a whole other thing. An open system can combine all these things into one.

We demand there be the support before moving to the very model that causes there be support, and don’t even realize it.

So, talk of simply adding pro/rel to the USL or the MLS, while it might make things slightly more interesting, but misses the true magic elixir of how an open system builds support from the grassroots up.

An open system has pro/rel. It has the ability for any club to join in somewhere on the pyramid. It has a pyramid that is connected, so comparing results across competitions and levels is more meaningful. It has competitions across those levels, to help level set on the differences.

An open system has incentives for clubs to invite players in that can’t afford pay and incentives for clubs to get these players recognized so they can move up the pyramid, even if the club does not. Heck, it has the incentives for coaches to scout the playgrounds and streets for players.

It also has incentives for supporters to pay attention, because rather than just being a spectator of the sport that buys merch and hot dogs, they are a participant, a true member.

At least that’s what I see when I dive in to what makes open systems in other countries tick.

Fun with soccer numbers

London and LA have similar sized populations in their respective metro areas (~13-14 million).

London has 6 professional football teams in the Premier League.

LA has 2 soccer teams in the MLS.

What if an open pyramid helps grow support for a sport? Could LA have 6 D1 teams?

What if we are waiting for support to grow, while at the same time preventing the very thing that grows support?

Soccer starts at home, exhibit 321

I saw something similar, except it was those who played on their own are still playing. Those who didn’t, aren’t. Even those with who had seemingly ‘natural ability’ and played and practiced as much club ball as they could, aren’t.