“Nobody will invest in the MLS if there’s a risk of relegation”

This is a common objection to pro/rel in US soccer.

To use this objection reveals ignorance on a few fairly obvious points.

That most of the rest of soccer world that uses pro/rel and has no trouble finding investors for clubs.

That even Americans have invested in clubs in these pro/rel leagues. Some folks who have invested even commentate for American soccer, like Stu Holden, who invested in FC Mallorca then in Spain’s second division and won promotion to its first division. Stu was very, very excited that day.

Might SOME investors be reluctant to invest with a threat of relegation? Sure. But that’s not ALL investors.

Likewise, some investors may be reluctant to invest in a closed league for lots of reasons One reason could be that you like to win, you think winning depends on having the best players possible, and yet central office restrains your roster choices to keep the league competitive (i.e. prevent a talent bidding war among owners).

Often, when these points are made, the critic moves the goalposts to “but, clubs fail when they are demoted.”

Which reveals more ignorance. Has it happened? Sure. Does it happen every time? Far from it.

Does it matter? It shouldn’t. Failure is common and accepted in all walks of life. Why should sports be immune to it? It matters even less if the incentives are in place to encourage more competition to quickly replace those failures.

In places with pro/rel, there is plenty of competition to fill the voids of the occasional failure, just like in most markets, there are plenty of competing restaurants to fill the voids left by failed restaurants.

I also understand that failure isn’t fun for the folks involved. I’m not callous. But, I think a landscape that allows for the occasional failure when a team isn’t working, and that has a vibrant landscape of competitors, is better than a landscape with a few players that is prone to total system failure.

But MLS is far from total system failure!

That’s the topic for the next post.

NFL Draft: The pinnacle of rigged sports

Many of my friends don’t buy my belief that much of pro sports is “rigged for ratings”.

They only hear the ‘rigged’ part and assume that I mean that it’s as phony as pro wrestling. But, that’s not what I’m saying.

I’m saying that an out-in-the-open, stated goal of many professional sports leagues to achieve ‘competitive parity’ among their teams, because they believe that makes for good ratings. They reason that close games are more interesting to watch and leagues where ‘any team can win it in any given year’ are also good for ratings.

The NFL Draft is one out-in-the-open way the NFL helps achieve parity, as the worst teams get the best draft picks to give them a better chance of improving to garner better ratings.

Is the word ‘rigged’ a bit hyperbole? Sure. Technically, ‘rigged’ means manipulated by dishonest means and the NFL Draft is manipulation right out in the open that is even celebrated by fans and accepted as normal.

I once thought it was perfectly normal, too. But, when I learned about how promotion/relegation systems work and are commonplace in the rest of the world, I saw the draft in a different light.

Basically this light: Why should billionaires’ teams get rewarded with high draft picks to prop up their ratings when they’ve done a poor job?

The real answer: they don’t want to compete with each other. The nice trick is that they’ve convinced the fans that it’s for their own good.

‘Sports doesn’t build character. It reveals it.’ -Mike Munger

I picked that quote up from this Econtalk podcast with Angela Duckworth on Character.

Host, Russ Roberts recounted it from a time he and Mike were watching Russ’s kid play a stressful baseball game and Russ said ‘at least sports builds character,’ and that was Mike’s response.

Russ thinks it does both. Maybe. I think it may reveal it much more than build it.

Promotion/Relegation: “It should just be about the soccer. I don’t know why it’s about the business.”

Host Segev Robinoviz gives one of the best and simplest descriptions of promotion/relegation I’ve heard in this Coaching Soccer Weekly podcast from about the 19 minute mark to 27 minutes.

During this segment, he discusses his thoughts on the how the Canadian Soccer Federation licenses. He says that clubs cannot play at the highest level in Ontario unless it has a National Club License.

To get to it, I have to give some of what he was discussing. Here’s my slighted edited transcription with emphasis added:

“So, you are not allowed to play with the best teams at the best league. It doesn’t matter how good your team is. …that’s why I’m not optimistic about the continuous development of Ontario soccer [which is the stated goal of the licensing].

To talk about the the National Youth Club licensing, one of the characteristics is that you need to have a facility strategy, access to advanced facilities, access to physical space as a headquarters for operations. There’s so much stuff that clubs and academies like mine that are so small just have no chance of achieving.

Meaning our players, no matter how good they are, unless they try out for these teams, cannot play at the highest level.

What upsets me the most about this, there’s a couple of things. The first thing is that Ontario Soccer talks a lot about inclusivity and how everyone should play and yet there’s a gap now that they are creating between clubs and academies to get players to play at a high level. Now they can’t do it, no matter how much a player wants to. Even if they’re good enough they may not be able to afford playing at the highest level because it’s going to cost you more if you have to rent a facility, have physios on your staff. There’s so much financial structure that’s passed down to the players because it is a pay-to-play model.

The best players that historically come from not necessarily the richest part of town, this is what we can see throughout history and all of the world, the best players didn’t start out at a fancy academy. Maybe they got to the academy by the time they were 15/16, but very rarely do they come in at U13.

The solution to this is super easy. Promotion/relegation and that’s it. It should just be about the soccer. I don’t know why it’s about the business. The business doesn’t matter.

The way that most clubs operate here is that teams are pretty much separate from each other. There aren’t a lot of clubs here where the U10’s know the U11’s.

So, to get away from the soccer part and really just talk about how you as a business must operate this way to have your players play at this level, it doesn’t make sense.

How is it at U9, U10, U11, U12 we’re not putting the emphasis on how good is your team? If your team is really good, let’s get them all together and play. If you’re at U15 and you have a fantastic team, because we’ve had teams here in Ontario who have won the Ontario Cup that were not OPDL [highest leagues] and that’s the proof. The best team for the age group didn’t play at the highest level [assuming the league and Ontario Cup are two separate competitions].

It just doesn’t make sense. If we had a promotion/relegation system, which we do at the district level and it works great, this is just a huge problem and this is what is going to continue to not allow our players to develop.”

-Segev

Yes. That’s how it is in the U.S., also. Certain elements of the business has been dictated by the Federation, rather than just letting the soccer on the field play out.

It’s a tough concept for bureaucrats to get their arms around. They have lots of reasons to justify their meddling, like ‘stability’ or ‘to make sure the athletes get the best experience’ and have no concept that their meddling works against the thing they want to achieve, because it limits, rather than encourages, competition.

Or, put another way, competition is what drives improvement and development, not advanced facilities or physios on staff.

It’s worth a listen, as is the segment on tactics on playing out of back. It takes more than just technical skill.

Why own a sports team?

Owning a major sports team is like having nearly self-funding, highly effective marketing machine.

The direct economics of the business are terrible. Players hold the cards and get most of the operating profit from the sport. What’s left on the bottom line is relatively paltry compared to the owner’s other holdings.

But, the indirect benefits of owning a team are much more valuable. It can raise an owner’s profile orders of magnitude more than any marketing spend can buy. The owner’s box is a great place to entertain business partners and ink deals.

It also give owners amazing reach within their communities as many of the well connected vie for luxury suites and season tickets for very much the same reason. These folks aren’t looking to resell these tickets for a profit. They are much more valuable of a currency to give favors, repay favors and host folks.

It’s tough discussing sports economics with folks that don’t understand this because they assume that the bottom line profit is what the owner is in it for.

That leads them to such conclusions as:

Therefore, taxpayers must fund stadiums to make the bottom line more attractive for owners.

Or, the salary caps are to help control costs (player pay) to make it more attractive for owners.

Owners don’t mind us believing that. It gives them negotiation power, which is something successful business people aren’t in the habit of giving up. Why show your cards?

It gives them negotiating power over cities, who think hosting a team is good for their economies, so owners can then pit cities against each other to get them to squeeze their taxpayers the harder.

It also gives them negotiating power over players, or really, over their fellow owners to keep them from bidding up player wages to put together the best teams and running the risk that their self-funding marketing machine won’t be self-funding anymore (i.e. they might have to dig into their own pockets to pay players).

Soccer needs more swish

Have you ever noticed that basketball players can score in lots of different ways and often, while soccer players usually have 1-2 shots and often miss what looks like should be easy goals?

Some observations:

Basketball hoops are everywhere. From Fisher Price and Nerf hoops to get kids started early learning to launch balls on the parabolic trajectory needed to send it through the net, to driveway hoops that can lowered for young kids, to every school, many churches and parks — finding a hoop to shoot on is easy.

Contrast that with soccer, where goals aren’t that readily available and where they are they are often locked up because the folks who take care of the grounds don’t want to destroy the grass in front of the goal.

When shooting hoops, it’s easy to get lots of reps. When practicing scoring in soccer you spend 75% of the time chasing the ball.

Having lots of hoops wouldn’t matter at all if nobody used them. But, we do tend to use them. From a young age, we learn lots of fun basketball games to keep anywhere from 1-10 players engaged and improving without knowing it. Games like OUT, Around the World, 1-on-1, 2-on-2, and up, 21 and so on. Every one of them has endless variation and chances are if you played them, you created your own variations that nobody knows about.

The neat trick of these games is that they get people practicing without feeling like they are practicing and gets them to do thousands upon thousands of reps, while having fun.

And, there’s something about that ‘swish’ sound the basketball makes when falling through the net that’s addictive feedback that encourages lots and lots of reps.

Hitting the back of the net in soccer is similar, but the overhead it takes to get there (finding a goal to practice on, chasing the ball, etc.) is much higher than with a basketball.

Putting all this together, it seems scoring practice in soccer happens several order of magnitudes less than in basketball, and it shows, even at the elite levels, who often send easy looking shots high and wide and then put their arms up in despair, hopefully thinking to themselves, “I should have practiced that shot at least 100,000 more times!” Because that’s what I think when I miss easy goals.

I feel like there’s a simple solution out there to graft some of these learnings about basketball practice onto soccer, but I just don’t know what it is.

I think it may entail some combination of futsal courts and walls made specifically for shooting games and practice and adapting some of those fun basketball games that gets kids shooting hoops for hours at a time, so kids will know how to use those courts and walls.

I like the fustal courts because they can encourage lots of shooting practice and can easily accommodate basketball-like games from 1 to 10 players or more with pickup rules. The court surface means its playable more of the time and no worries about destroying the grass in front of the goal.

I like the wall idea, because it can increase the shooting practice to ball chase ratio to proportions similar to basketball and increase reps by orders of magnitude.

Maybe someone can get creative and paint a goal face on the wall and point targets. Maybe 100 points for the corners and 50 points all along the edge, that could be used to play a form of 500 and around the world.

I like the basketball game ideas, because these have been proven in basketball to be effective at changing the practice experience to be fun. Instead of 5 minutes of drills feeling like 5 hours to a kid, the games can make 2 hours feel like 10 minutes.

What I can’t figure out is how to combine these. When I coached, I tried to adapt several fun games (forms of 21, around the world, 500) to soccer hoping the kids would take those home and do them. But, they didn’t, so apparently they weren’t fun or easy enough.

I also made small rebounders out of about $10 worth of lumber. I like those, but wish they could be lighter and easier to transport and easier to setup on multiple surfaces, like grass, turf and pavement.

I also quite figure out how to replicate the ‘swoosh’, that sound of addictive sound of perfection.

I feel that the answer is in there somewhere. Sometimes, it just takes an almost accidental combination of such ingredients to ignite an explosion of culture change. I mean, games like OUT and 21 in basketball started somewhere.

Also, while I think tennis is well ahead of soccer in getting parks and rec departments to put in tennis courts and rebounding walls across the country, I think it still lacks the knowledge of simple and fun games on those walls to encourage competition.

I think the result is that these games and facilities could be much more consistent and varied scoring as well as spreading skill competencies beyond the kids that happen to be a) ‘bitten by the soccer bug’ early and b) have the self-discipline to put in the work specifically in those sports to get better.

Fun games of catch, 500, 1-on-1, 21, OUT, HORSE and more, build a good skill base in a bigger chunk of the population that has had two big impacts on the elite levels.

First, it broadens the elite player pool by orders of magnitude because it won’t be limited to the small percentage of kids that have the two ingredients mentioned above. A kid might get to age 13 and be bitten by the soccer bug, but still have good enough skills where they are starting at 75% of elite, instead of 0%, so it’s easier for them to close the gap. That 13 year-old who decides to give soccer a try with 0% skills, often quits after the first practice because their skill level is so far below average they think they are awful.

Second, it means that ‘elite’ players have to compete against better competition, which makes them even better — and maybe even means a whole different set of people become elite. Instead of winning tournament trophies against teams where the kids have 0-30% of the skill base of the elite, they are competing against kids that have 75% or more of the skill base, which will push the higher level even higher, while also improving scoring.

These are the two dynamics that I think support Tom Byer’s saying, “You have to push up the bottom to push up the top.”

Swoosh

Is MLS rigged for ratings?

While watching the Sporting KC at Chicago game this weekend, the announcers said that MLS has asked refs to crack down on time wasting because ‘nobody wants to watch that,’ after a Chicago player earned a yellow card for kicking the ball away to slow down a Sporting KC throw-in.

Not much later, a ‘soft’ penalty, as the same announcers described it, was called against KC resulting in a PK and goal that put Chicago up 2-1. This was shortly after a harder penalty was not called against Chicago.

I can tell you what fans don’t want to watch even less than time wasting is penalty calls like those.

I’ve seen it enough of those in recent years go against Sporting KC to raise my eyebrows.

In some cases, these bad calls or no calls have come at pivotal moments of playoff games where it’s easy to imagine a story line where the MLS believes it would be more beneficial for he other team to advance, like that team has a higher home TV market rating.

But, in an early season game with little consequence, it doesn’t seem like there would be as much motive to be so blatant. But, then again, Chicago’s ownership changed hands recently after nearly going out of business and the new owner is trying to rebuild (or maybe just build). Maybe MLS thinks getting off to a good start this season, especially with a home game, will create some buzz and attract more interest and viewers in Chicago to help the building process. From the looks of the stands, they need all the help they can get.

But, soft calls like those, be they random or motivated by bigger goals, detract. I already have suspicions that results are massaged for what the MLS leaders think will result in more ratings. Moments like that don’t help dissuade those suspicions.

Zero Sum vs Positive Sum Soccer

Those who believe pro/rel cannot work in the U.S. have a zero sum view of soccer.

They believe that soccer has to be grown to a certain point before pro/rel can take place and that point is undefined and never quite within reach.

They don’t understand that pro/rel creates positive sum soccer that causes growth in the game. By blocking pro/rel, they are restricting soccer’s growth to the point that they will never feel like pro/rel would work.

It’s a bit like saying that I’m not going to let my toddler eat as much as an adult until he’s as big as adult, otherwise he’s just not ready. What would that do? Starve him of the very energy and nourishment he needs to become as big as an adult.

Near the beginning of organized soccer in England, which later spread around the world via FIFA, a way to organize soccer accidentally emerged that created positive sum soccer, which promotion/relegation is a big part, but not the only part.

I don’t believe there was a lot of intention for that. At the beginning, there weren’t vested interests and there was much less resistance to doing what seemed to make common sense and was fair.

As lots of clubs popped up and formed into leagues, pro/rel emerged as a common sense and fair way to smerge the leagues together so that the clubs could find their way to an appropriate level of competition.

It’s common sense because it sees the competition as between clubs or teams, where it should be.

It’s fair, because it lets teams earn their spot in the league structure by how well they play.

Pro/rel is common to youth and amateur soccer leagues across the U.S., including at the indoor facility where I play twice weekly.

The folks stuck in the zero sum box of soccer is they don’t understand that their mindset is the very thing holding the growth of the game back by keeping out the very thing that has proven around the world to grow it.

Fair question: How does it do that?

It opens up positive feedback loops that incentivizes more soccer from the top to the bottom, even at the grassroots.

Let’s start at the top. Pro/rel shifts the business unit from a league to a club, which lowers the barrier of entry by a factor of 10. Many more clubs will pop up if they don’t also have to immediately have another 10 – 12 clubs that they have to organize with to form a league.

With many more clubs popping up, US Soccer would do the job that its counterparts in other countries do, put together leagues that make sense for the clubs that want to enter, keep score and standings in a way so players, coaches, teams and clubs actually know how good they are.

Fight now, it’s really, really difficult to tell the difference between good and bad teams because there are so many disconnected leagues, tournaments and competitions.

A team from the Midwest can be division and tournament champs in their hometown and think they are tops, but would be routed by a mid-level team from Southern California.

That’s no good because it takes players and coaches in this disjointed model much too long to figure out what good is because the feedback is mostly noise.

It would be much better for the sport if that Midwest team knew that, loudly and clearly.

Having a better feel for where you rank as a player, coach and team, across the country, not just your insulated bubble, would help align everyone involved to pushing toward the right standard.

There’s more feedbacks that are important, but I will leave this post with the one that I think is most important at the grassroots.

The full positive sum soccer package includes pro/rel, transfer payments, training compensation and solidarity payments. The last three change grassroots soccer.

Grassroots soccer currently feeds off parent wallets. This results quantity over quality and little helpful feedback for the player. They will tell you how great your kid is because you write a check, don’t want to lose your check to the competing and clubs and they want to fill all their rosters to maximize their revenue.

They recruit the best players in the club to their academy teams, and use those as marketing tools to help fill the rest of their rosters. They know that by the time the parents discover that it’s 10x more about the internal motivation and interests of the kid than anything the club can do, they will have drained several years of fees from them.

Transfer payments, training comp and solidarity payments changes it to quality over quantity. These payments reward clubs for discovering and training talent. So, instead of relying solely on parents, clubs can make money by finding good players, training them, getting them under contract on a first team and trading them.

This results in more club owners sponsoring free house leagues, so the area kids have a place to play and the club has a place to see if they have any diamonds in the rough. When they find one, that kid doesn’t have to pay $2,000 a year to play, so there are more opportunities for kids of all incomes to play more soccer.

For some kids, hopping from the house league to the club’s competitive team will seem like a pretty cool goal. Those kids will become more interested in learning what it takes to hop from the house league to the competitive team that competes in US Soccer’s league and it will be in the club’s best interests to let the kids clearly know.

These are just some of the feedbacks that the FIFA positive sum soccer package creates to grow the game, but these are the biggies.

Nudge, sludge and silver bullets

I recommend this Freakonomics podcast with Richard Thaler on Nudge and sludge.

I had a few thoughts while listening.

We don’t know it before we know it

In one part, they were talking about one of the most successful outcomes of nudging, changing the choice to participate in a 401k from opt-in when you become eligible to opting out. That simple flip increased participation from something like 10% to 90%.

Host Dubner thinks its a problem that the choice to participate in a 401k shouldn’t have been designed the way it was in the first place, that it was just dumb.

I was surprised by that, because Dubner strikes me as smart enough to understand that things evolve and emerge as they are discovered. For the 401k choice to be designed better in the first place would have taken knowledge that didn’t exist yet.

I mean, it would be awesome if we all could just think of successful things from the start, but it’s really more of a trial-and-error, tinkering process.

Silver bullets

I feel like the concept of nudging became the shiny object, silver bullet, clever sounding tool du jour. It spawned “nudge” units in government and businesses, that usually fail to meet expectations.

I’d say that like most shiny objects and ‘silver bullets’ it’s because the expectations are too high. The 401k choice is the case that sells nudging, but it’s absolute best case.

Other nudge tactics aren’t nearly has successful. They might move the success rate a few points, but not from 10% to 90%, more like 25% to 29%.

I think then managers become frustrated. They thought they had a clever trick up their sleeve to expand their market penetration to 100% and it only moves it a few points and not enough to pay for the cost of employing the nudge tactics.

I think governments made the same mistake. They used nudges in pandemic messaging and politicians seemed to become frustrated because they didn’t achieve 100%, even though they never have.

Sludge

I like the idea of calling barriers that keep you from doing things, sludge, which was also discussed. That’s easier than ‘barriers.’

I’m going to use that.

Don’t overly rely on clever tactics

While I think choice architecture should be considered, it’s good to keep expectations in check. If you a running a mature company that is already well-penetrated, you may get some marginal results from playing with choice architecture, but if you want real growth, you need to innovate to find things that people value.

Innovation notes

From Luca Dellanna’s EconTalk appearance on Compulsion, Self-Deception and the Brain:

Try a lot of things and see what works, see what sticks. And, at the beginning, don’t necessarily look for effectiveness. Look for what sticks, what you keep doing. And then, only in a second step, you can look for effectiveness.

One common mistake in the startup world is to optimize before having found a product/market fit–a product that the market really wants, that they start pulling. And, only then you can think how to advertise it better, how to make it cheaper, and so on. But, if you try to optimize too early, there is just too much friction because you don’t have a good product enough. You don’t have a product that the market wants; and you push it, but the market doesn’t get it.

And, the same applies in some way to our habits. If you try to look only for the habit which is the most effective, but it’s not a habit that your brain is, like, receptive to, then you might waste a lot of effort.

I agree. I’ve been involved in a lot of idea generation sessions, one this week even, where this happened.

There’s a strong tendency for people to want to think down the road to the finished product or write-off an idea if they can’t immediately see how it can fit into the current system or if they think it will cost too much to make.

It’s often hard to reel them back to step 1. Forget about finished product, cost troubles or how it will fit in the current system. Step 1 is to figure out if you got something that works, on a really small scale.

This is another hurdle. Lots of folks still want to jump to step 3 or 4, imagining what a market test would look like.

Think smaller. What’s the minimum you would need to do for a proof of concept and very small pilot? That could be as simple as mocking up the idea on some paper and talking to 5 or 6 random friends about it.

Many think this is too small. They want fully baked market research.

Some of the tendency to jump over the early steps comes from folks who just don’t know better. In big companies with big resources, they large test is considered a gold standard.

But, I think some of the tendency also comes from another incentive. I’ve worked in companies where people got brownie for simply proposing smart sounding ideas, but had not ownership of whether the idea got tried or worked, or not. That was someone else’s job. But, they basked in the glow of of their great sounding ideas.

Talk is cheap. Have them put their money where their mouth is.

They don’t want to test the idea because they want credit for coming up with the idea. Actually giving it life, even in a small way, terrifies them because it might fail. So they try to optimize for what the final product will look like because they know that finding out is in some far out future and nobody will remember who had the idea by the time everyone finds out it’s a dud.

In one company that I worked in, field management had lots of discount ideas, many of which have been tried many times without. We had a hard time getting them to pay attention to that info as they were too busy accepting the praise for having an idea.

When field managers came to me with ideas, I started asking if they would fund a trial from their budget.

About 90% of ideas died on the spot. When faced with the prospect of paying for their idea, they became more interested in the results of previous attempts, calculated the hole that would put in their budget and refrained from spitting those ideas out in meetings for brownie points because I might ask them to fund it.

One time a field manager did have an idea that hadn’t been tried before. We asked if he’d be willing to fund it to try it.

Yes.

I was skeptical of the idea, but he was taking the risk. Also, I know I can be wrong, so I didn’t let my skepticism get in the way.

It turns out it worked, spectacularly. He never let me forget my skepticism. I never let him forget that I didn’t let that stand in the way of trying it, nor did it keep me from digging to discover why it worked.

To Luca’s point, when we tried, it wasn’t fully baked. There were lots of problems in execution. It was late getting out the door. There were systems problems.

But, there were strong signs that he was onto something. None of those early problems hurt the signal that. The signal was one of the clearest signals I’ve seen in all my years of looking for things.

Folks who haven’t seen such signs tend to get excited about 1-2% bumps. I don’t anymore. They can have those. I’ve seen too many statistically significant 1-2% bumps that evaporate into the noise of the real world when they are rolled out and they have to resort to the smart sounding, but empty defense, “just think how much worse it would have been if we hadn’t done it.”

These are the same folks that want to optimize before finding out if they have something.