European Super League: Some Random Thoughts

I am surprised at how well existing European leagues, governments, commentators are articulating the benefits of the open pyramid system and maintaining sporting merit. I assumed that maybe they didn’t understand the benefits of an open competition, but it was an institutional artifact. I was wrong about that. There is real passion about open competition.

I would have loved to see that similar type of passion as folks in the U.S. appealed to FIFA to have an open pyramid in the U.S., but it was crickets from the rest of the world. I’ve always thought that FIFA, and other clubs in the world, were allowing the closed league approach as a experiment to see if parity (i.e. rigged) soccer would work.

It hasn’t come close to proving out yet, but the Super Clubs are anxious and are willing to the call the results from the NFL/MLB/NBA/NHL good enough to give it a shot.

Now those passionate supporters of open competition may pay for their silence. If FIFA tries to to stop the Super League, it’s possible that the Super League could point to FIFA’s hands-off approach with the USSF and MLS and the findings of CAS case decided about a year ago, brought by two lower tier soccer clubs in the U.S. against US Soccer to adhere to FIFA’s open pyramid rules, as precedents. That case found that FIFA has the power to allow exceptions to their own rules, if they so desire. So, now FIFA may find themselves in a pickle trying to explain their inconsistent approach with how they have allowed U.S. Soccer an exception to the open pyramid but wish to enforce it here. Here’s more on that case.

I wrote about that case in February of 2020. I wrote that soccer players around the world should be concerned about that decision, because that might open the door to such closes leagues, a key benefit of which is player salary constraints, to help make the sport more profitable on a cash flow basis to owners, not just on asset value.

I think FIFA’s inconsistent approach is easily explainable, but probably not something they want to say out loud: money.

They thought granting the exception in the U.S. wouldn’t cost much, since the pro soccer in the U.S. is still small dollars. So, I think even they were interested in giving the NFL-guys a shot to see if there was more money to be made in the NFL approach.

Whereas, allowing the exception with the European Super League could drain good amounts income from FIFA’s cash cow in Europe.

I wonder how the new Super League will get commercials in? They could be inserted into natural game breaks during injuries, VAR review, substitutions and post goals. I wonder if they will invent new ways. Perhaps a 30 second time our for a substitution? Planned water breaks?

I can see a scenario where the European Super League grows in popularity in the U.S., hurting the MLS in the process, while significantly diminishing the sport in the rest of the world that wants to watch the best soccer, not parity (or they might call it parody) soccer.

How would it hurt the MLS? American fans might naturally gravitate to the “NFL of soccer” and they may come to find their 2nd & 3rd tier talents too boring for their busy schedules.

Has anybody written the jingle for “Football Night in the World” yet? Do you think they will go for Sunday or Monday night?

Some folks will point to the desire for the Supper League as proof the MLS works, but that logic doesn’t hold, as it hasn’t yet been proven in the MLS nor has it been proven in the Super League, whereas the value of the open pyramid has been proven to produce some of the top league valuations in the world in countries with relatively small populations.

Which brings me to my last thought, can the Super League work? You never know until you try. But, given the closed league status, I think there will be a tendency for inertia to develop in the willingness to pay for talent and, as long as open leagues exist, other investors will come in and invest in that talent outside the Super League and eyeballs will naturally gravitate to watch watching the best.

If that happens, the “Super Clubs” can only bank on their name brand and history for so long. Already, even some of the clubs rumored to want to become part of the Super League, are in the position of not being the best.

IMHO, what sells in the soccer world is the best team for the buck, not parity.

Why do we stop at red lights? Part 2

This post from 10 years ago, Why do you stop at red lights?, continues to be one of this site’s most popular. I’m guessing, that’s just by accident, because I doubt many folks pontificate stopping at red lights, philosophically. They may, for example, be looking for study materials for a driving test.

On his blog, Arnold Kling wrote a similar post that I enjoyed reading, Messing with the web of social conventions.

Here’s a good slice:

“The late economist Hyman Minsky had an aphorism:

It’s easy to create money. The trick is getting it accepted

This aphorism can be adapted to other realms.

It’s easy to create a software standard (like the Internet protocols, or an operating system, or a programming language). The trick is getting it accepted.

It’s easy to create the software architecture for a social network. The trick is getting it accepted.

It’s easy to create a law. The trick is getting it accepted.

It’s easy to create a social norm. The trick is getting it accepted.

It’s easy to create a religion. The trick is getting it accepted.

It’s easy to create a credentialing system. The trick is getting it accepted.”

I can add, it was easy to create red & green lights. The trick is getting it accepted.

I recommend reading his whole post. I think it spans much of life.

I see businesses struggle with this. Creating a new product is easy. The trick is getting it accepted. That’s the hard part, that most business managers severely underestimate.

Fashion, music, food, exercise, language are some examples of this type of behavior. I still don’t know how athletes for eons got by without heavy ropes to flail and tractor tires to flip!

The sharks, on the TV show, Shark Tank, are basically trying to pick the products they think have a chance of getting accepted. They understand that it’s easy to create a product, but the hard part is getting it accepted.

As they try to decide what to invest in, they are looking for signs that it has a chance to get accepted. What are sales? Would I use this product? Why or why not? Maybe the product is almost there, but needs a tweak, will the owners be willing to pivot?

The Real Reasons Why Promotion/Relegation is Better in Soccer

Promotion/relegation advocates often point to these benefits:

  • Teams play/work harder to avoid relegation.
  • The threat of relegation makes more matches more interesting, which can improve viewership and the stakes of games of the bottom ranked teams.
  • Pro/rel attracts more investment, as investors buy 2nd or 3rd tier clubs hoping to win their way into the top division.

While I think all that can help, if I were to say soccer could be 100% better with pro/rel, I think these reasons would make up 10% of that improvement and what makes up 90% gets no attention, even from pro/rel advocates.

I also want to establish upfront that I am under no delusion that in an open pyramid, the deepest pockets would result in super teams.

American sports leagues have been successful at using legal collusion among owners to strip players of earnings power so owners can (wink, wink) protect themselves from outbidding each other for the best players to build the best teams and go along with rigging (er…evening the playing field) the competition for the sake of the ‘greater good’.

After all, nobody wants the Yankees to win every World Series, do they? Well, that’s what the owners want you and the players to believe, anyway.

They pass this argument off without much push back, even while there are plenty of counter examples of lucrative soccer leagues with perennial, deep pocket powerhouses.

I think that itself deserves some close study. You will find that many soccer fans around the world have their super club favorite that they watch on TV and their local favorite that they watch live. You will also find that a plethora of competitions have emerged to keep fans interested, even with these powerhouses, and many of these competitions have linked stakes. So, not only do you have the league standings and the relegation zone, but you also have the ability to earn your way into the Champions League or the Europa League based on your league placing. Plus each country tends to have other competitions that run concurrent, like the FA Cup in England. All the while, the players regularly go back and play for their home countries in international competitions. So, as a fan there’s a lot to look forward to.

So, I think moving to pro/rel would better enable these types of competitions to gain traction. For example, it might be more interesting to watch Seattle Sounders team, not tethered to MLS roster and salary rules, go up against clubs from Liga MX and see how they fare, rather than watch the watered down “evened playing field’ MLS pretend they are true soccer clubs and barely stand a chance (though the MLS is trying to go the other way and take over Liga MX, so they can water down that competition, too).

Anyway, I digress. This still only makes soccer in the U.S. 10% better.

So, what’s the other 90% of the benefit?

Grassroots

The pro/rel discussion rarely touches on what an open pyramid could do for grassroots soccer, but I believe that’s where 90% of the benefit would come from.

First, it would connect up parts of soccer culture that are grossly disconnected and work against each other today.

This, in turn, would provide young players and their parents with a clearer view on long-term development, which would get multiple times more players on that path much earlier than the disconnected system we have today.

An open pyramid also better propagates best practices AND new practices that work. Our current system has too many bubbles where unproductive practices can persist for too long, including the highest-level, because they get just enough results to fool people into thinking they are onto something.

Also, I think an open pyramid makes the jobs of our national coaches about 10x easier and gives them 5x better chance of success.

Finally, I think these changes at the grass roots level could substantially increase interest in the game, which ultimately is going to be the real driver to viewership of the top league.

Connect the soccer culture

In grassroots soccer we have several disconnected groups, but I will focus on two: club and school soccer.

These are disconnected and unfriendly to each other. During high school soccer seasons, for example, high school players are forbidden by their high school athletic associations from even going to their soccer club to practice or assist coaching a younger team.

To me it’s madness that have two organizations fighting over the same group of kids and splitting time with them, rather than looking for ways to work together to help these kids become the best they can be.

In countries with an open pyramid, soccer players have a more cogent experience from the time they start with the club at around age 8 and have a much clearer line of sight to what it takes to make the club’s first team in a few years.

Young American soccer players don’t get this because of the disconnect between club and school, which is a key reason American soccer players are years behind.

What is good soccer?

For too many people in the U.S. good soccer is winning soccer. It can be the Bad News Bears against the Bad News Bears (at the beginning of the movie) and people think it’s good soccer because it was a close game and neither side is aware they are Bad News Bears level.

Listen carefully and you can hear the mistaken cues of good soccer, when parents dote on their little ones. “They’ve been playing for years.” “He scored 4 goals.” “She’s playing UP an age group.” “They won their division.” “Their coach played college ball.” “They won their division/tournament.” “She’s fast/aggressive/physical.”

The following questions will be met either with blank stares or justifications on why that’s not important.

What level are they playing? How’s their touch? Can they keep possession? Can they work with their teammates to set up scoring chances or defend their goal?

It’s not their fault. It’s the system’s fault. They are stuck in their insular bubble and have not been exposed to good soccer, so they go with these cues.

An open pyramid helps because it pops these insular bubbles. In an open pyramid, you know where your club’s first team at each age level sits within the national or regional pyramid and that feedback gets clubs, coaches and parents more attentive on things that drives toward success.

Change the top

I feel sorry for the folks who run the national teams, because how they’ve structured soccer in the U.S. makes them work harder, not smarter.

In countries with open pyramids, the open pyramids do the work of sorting out the best coaches and players, through competition. Their federations just need to keep the tables and watch who rise to the top.

In the U.S., it’s like we have music labels that restrict their talent search to Julliard. That seems logical, but it misses huge swaths of talent, where other countries are running American Idol to find their best.

Increase interest?

A connected pyramid increases interest in lots of ways.

In place of high school varsity teams, you get your local club first team that competes with other nearby clubs. Rivalries build. Interest comes from the youth that have been involved in the club from a young age to adults that grew up in the club and now maybe play Sunday league there and volunteer coach a group of young ones.

As a “supporter” you are a real supporter of the club. You actually pay a club fee and get more than a season ticket to first team matches. You get access to play in the club’s leagues and attend their events. You might have kids playing in the club and you might play their yourself in an adult league. “Supporter” isn’t just a marketing gimmick the corp tricks you with to buy season tickets. It has more meaning.

Over time, you see kids move from your club to teams further up the pyramid and you watch their careers with interest.

You might develop an affinity for one of the bigger clubs in your area because you happen to know quite a few players on that club and watched them develop at your club.

You also develop an affinity for one of the super clubs in your region, well, because you just appreciate the high quality players they bring in and their desire to kick ass, or do the best they can with their budget.

Anti-Competitive Soccer in the U.S.

I saw a debate comparing soccer in the US and Europe to socialism and capitalism. It went something like this:

“Soccer in the U.S. is socialist, in Europe it’s more capitalist and works better!”

“No! Soccer in the U.S. is, by textbook definition, not socialist. It’s capitalist and is like all of capitalism — the wealthy control it.”

I find analogies to economic systems hurt a debate because it devolves into what people think of those systems, rather than the problems with US Soccer.

U.S. Soccer, in my opinion, has one overarching problem: it is deliberately anti-competitive to protect MLS owners.

As Terry Moe pointed out on an EconTalk podcast last year, “Vested interests are universal…those vested interests have a stake in protecting their institutions from change…and have absolutely nothing to do with whether the institutions are performing well.”

I believe the anti-competitive measures in the U.S. started with good intentions. US Soccer wanted to bring some stability to a soccer landscape pockmarked with league failures. They thought it would be good to have a top league that wouldn’t go bankrupt and disappear overnight. That would give US players a stable league to play in to develop and help grow interest in the game.

So, back in the 90s, they turned to other sports leagues in the U.S., and their owners, to help them develop such a model, which unsurprisingly, they based on the other successful anti-competitive pro sports leagues in the U.S.

But, since then, the good intentions have morphed into ill-intentions that actively protects MLS owners and US Soccer power brokers from competition that could be great for the game in the U.S., and that helps drive the game in other countries.

One of the anti-competitive measures is the Professional League Standards that sets a high barrier to entry to leagues that might compete with MLS and essentially gives MLS leadership the power to veto them. Imagine giving McDonald’s official veto power over anybody that wants to start a restaurant in your town. That’s essentially what we have in U.S. Soccer.

To imagine how high this barrier to entry is, consider, that I don’t believe the MLS met those standards for the first 10-15 years of its existence.

Not surprisingly, the US Soccer/MLS powers-that-be uses that power to keep out upstarts it doesn’t like (i.e. those with smaller pockets or those not aligned to the philosophy of protecting owners from high player salaries or watering down the competition to ‘keep it interesting fro the casual fan’) and uses it to direct big pocket investors to kiss their rings to be granted entry to the club.

Another recent development locks out non-MLS competition from the international market of transfer fees, training compensation and solidarity payments for players.

MLS leaders didn’t even understand these revenue streams just 3 years ago. I believe MLS owners with stakes in foreign clubs educated MLS leadership on these revenue streams. As soon as they understood it, they immediately started acting to monopolize these.

One way they did this in 2020 was limiting the top youth league participation to primarily the youth clubs of MLS teams, and a few other politically connected clubs. The effect is that top youth talent will need to get on one of these teams should they want to participate in the top league, which then locks that talent up for the MLS owners, either for their own teams or for the revenue streams that might come from a foreign transfer.

The Paradox of Pickup Soccer

I recently experienced true pickup soccer.

My previous experiences was with groups of friends where we just formed two teams and we all played the whole time.

True pickup is more of the ‘hard knuckle’ variety that I have heard described: you have to win to stay on the field.

We formed into 5-6 teams of five for a small field. Each round is 1 goal or 6 minutes, whichever comes first. The scoring team stays on the field. The nonscoring team yields to the next team up. If there is no goal after 6 minutes, both teams yield to the next two teams.

I’ve heard folks say how good true pickup is because you have to win to stay on the field, so that motivates you to bring your A game and to improve to earn your spot.

I agree.

But, after experiencing this format firsthand, I think there are benefits that don’t get mentioned.

One is that, surprisingly, you end up getting a lot of play time, even if you’re not that good!

A reason I shied away from this style of pickup is that I figured that I wasn’t good enough so I wouldn’t get much play time.

But, I was wrong. I got more play time than in organized league games.

The rotation was much faster than I thought it would be and even the teams of dominant players got tired, so that was a natural leveler. A weaker team with a full set of fresh legs could match up better to a stronger team with a full set of tired legs and often won that match up.

That’s the paradox of pickup. While you do have to earn your spot on the field, you also get more quality play time than you might in an organized game or pay-to-play leagues.

It even beats out the pickup style where everybody plays the whole time, because you get to rest. In everyone-plays-all-the-time pickup quality drops after 20-30 minutes when everybody gets tired.

Will TVs be relics 10 years from now?

Even after initial failures, smart glasses makers keep plugging away at trying to find a way to make them useful.

I wonder if they will eventually die out or if they’ve just been in their “Apple Newton” phase of development, where the tech seems promising, but the real world benefits aren’t there.

But, 10 years later that the Newton, in the form of the iPod, gained traction and changed the world eventually leading to the smartphone.

When I watch shows from 10-15 years ago, in most ways they seem fairly modern, except for one thing: their phones and how they interact with them. Just about the time I am thinking, ‘why don’t you just text him?’ or ‘just look it up on maps,’ they pull out their flip phone with low resolution display and I suddenly remember how different things were a relatively short time ago and how quickly we’ve adapted to our new digs.

That makes me wonder what will look silly when we watch today’s movies 10-15 years from now.

Could a flat screen TV date the show?

It seems to make sense that smart glasses will figure out a way to do the jobs that our TVs, computer monitors and smartphones do now.

Why have TVs in various rooms if, through your smart glasses (or similar device), you can have any size TV that you want wherever you want it? On your back patio, on a plane, in any room that doesn’t have a TV now.

A demarcation between the tech savvy and laggards now is whether you have become proficient with the dual monitor setup. Smart glasses might move that line to those who are adept with 10 monitors.

As with the Newton, it took some advancement in several tangential technologies to make it useful. Screens had to advance, both in resolution and interactivity. Wireless networks needed to advance to handle exponentially more data. Memory and batteries advanced to put a lot of data in our pockets with reasonable amount of powered on times.

5G is one advancement some think will help make smart glasses more useful. It’s tough to predict what other advancements might contribute.

In a world that’s been de-materializing for some time, it would not surprise me if smart glasses, or something else, continued that trend and turn our beloved flat screen TVs into junk.

Uh oh it’s magic

I’ve always thought it funny how folks can be fooled in magic shows but think they can’t be fooled in real life. Even so-called ‘experts’ in respective fields can’t figure out some simple magic tricks. That’s enough of an eyebrow raiser for me to ask them to show their work.

Steven Levitt recently hosted magician Joshua Jay on his podcast, People I Mostly Admire and they discuss this topic. It’s a good listen.

We should always remember how susceptible we are to being fooled. And as Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

“Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit”

I find it interesting that Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection kit (guidelines on critical thinking) is similar to my tips for productive discussion.

His kit:

  1. Where ever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
  2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  3. Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  4. Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  5. Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
  6. Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
  7. If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
  8. Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
  9. Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

She also includes a list of the 20 most common logical fallacies.

#3 reminds me of a post of mine from a few days ago on why I’m skeptical of experts.

Mountain Bike Trails, Everywhere

Bentonville, Arkansas is becoming a mecca for mountain bike trails.

Previously, I thought mountain bike trails ought to be something that you drive out to, that are built on gobs of land, so you can get a few miles of trail and get a good workout.

Bentonville said, nah, we’ll put them everywhere. Why not have a mountain bike trail right next to a paved bike path in a park? Maybe trails can be short and technical, but close to where people are so they can get to the trail more often and learn, then they will be better when they go to the longer trails out in the wilderness.

On their Masterpiece trail, they’ve even built a bridge over walking path.

Segment of Masterpiece trail in Bentonville, Arkansas

Parks & Recreation departments looking to add some pizzazz to their parks or trails, might consider taking a closer look at what’s going on in Bentonville. It might give you some ideas on where to put little pieces of fun trails in your parks.

Now, I can see lots of places trails can fit. In parks with paths, in parks that even have a hint of wooded areas, along parkways, along roads.

The disruptive yawn

I’m old enough to remember when people wondered why they just couldn’t buy the channels they wanted. Instead of streaming services, people envisioned un-bundled cable packages.

And, I remember hearing all the reasons why that couldn’t happen. Perhaps there were even podcasts with very smart people explaining why not. It seems I recall a few.

While streaming may not be exactly what folks envisioned, it’s close enough and better! And the shift has been so gradual, that instead of opening it with the anticipation of a Christmas people, most folks yawned.

DVRs may soon be another casualty of technology evolution, as people transition from ‘time shifting’ what they watch from networks by storing a recorded copy in their home, to just bringing up whatever show whenever you want it, like how digital music libraries were short-lived, as bandwidth made it possible to stream music from wherever, whenever, mostly.