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.

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).

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.

Sports-entertainment spectrum

Where does your favorite sport fall on the sports-entertainment spectrum?

In my view, the sports-entertainment spectrum on one side is sports that is based on merit of play or performance. On the other side, merit takes a back seat to entertainment.

For example, track is pretty close to sports based on merit. Ultimately, the fastest runners tend to win. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t have a big enough following to make it a lucrative sport to cover.

The WWE is a good example of sports entertainment. While the participants are good athletes, there’s no doubt that it is fake and purely for entertainment purposes.

I get involved in a lot of discussions that compare American pro sports leagues to European soccer. One mistake I see folks make is to see them as the same thing.

That is, they see leagues, teams, managers, coaches, uniforms, standings and a sport being played and assume they are roughly the same types of things.

But, I see American sports more on the sports entertainment side of the spectrum, while European soccer is more on the sports side.

Why? In European soccer, hundreds, if not thousands, of independent clubs compete for their spot on the ‘pyramid’ of leagues and their place is determined by their performance on the field.

In the U.S., competition is limited to the teams within the franchise, which means it’s open for manipulation to do what the owners believe will be good for ratings (whether they are right or not). To get a franchise, you have to buy your way in. Your team can suck balls, but if you have the money and connections, you’re good to go.

Some of what they do for the ratings is right out in the open and sports nuts even like to get into the weeds of it. Two examples are salary caps and the draft. These exist purely because there is a belief that more people will watch games that are more evenly matched, i.e. ratings.

It seems fair to folks. Otherwise, how could a small market team ever hope to compete against larger market teams that can afford to pay for better players?

The NFL draft has become a huge event. They are making money on one of the key ways they rig their sport for ratings. I find it pretty fascinating.

I have no qualms with it. It seems to work for those leagues. Enough folks watch to keep companies buying ads in their time slots and keep the sport entertainment going.

I just don’t kid myself that that it is actually sport. It’s sports entertainment, maybe slightly less fake than the WWE, but still fake enough to not get too worked up about.

Interesting podcast on youth soccer in Spain vs. U.S.

In this episode of Coaching Soccer Weekly, host Tom Mura speaks with coach Mario Zuniga about a range of topics, including the difference between youth soccer in the U.S. and Spain.

I recommend listening to it. Here are some of differences that I can remember…


According to Mario, youth soccer in Spain is much simpler. Mario said it took him two years to learn about all the different organizations and associations in the U.S. and how to navigate them.

In Spain, everything is under one FIFA umbrella and all teams, at all age levels, are connected through the pyramid. You could be a small club in Barcelona and if your U16 team is good enough, it will play Barcelona’s U16 team. There isn’t a separate league or association for them.

Mura characterized this as “more centralized” than the U.S. I think a better term is more competitively connected.

I don’t get a sense that the umbrella Mario refers to makes heavy handed, politically-based decisions like a centralized authority (though maybe they do) so much as it acts like a central bank ensuring the currency used by its citizens has credibility. But, in this case its citizens are clubs and players and the currency is on-the-field results.

Maybe those in-charge of such a system are open to the idea that they don’t have all the answers to what is a good team and what is a good player and the absolute best test, by a long shot, for getting those answers is opening up the competition, rather than carving it off. You just never know what coach, club or player is going to break through, so they maintain a system that lets them.


It’s a lot cheaper for kids to join a club. But, it’s not a big money maker for coaches, which is one reason Mario came to the U.S., where he could make more money coaching.

A follow-up question I wish Tom had asked, what motivates so many coaches to do it, then? Is it purely love for the game? Are there other incentives, like hoping to move up the ladder to more responsibility?


Mario says that there isn’t a person playing soccer in Spain who hasn’t played futsal. For him, futsal was interchangeable with pickup soccer.

I may have over interpreted, but it sounds like futsal is a key developer of skill through pickup games at young ages, but clubs also start kids in futsal before they make it onto a soccer team to develop their skills.

Mario mentioned a couple times, “I just played futsal with my friends,” but we don’t really call it futsal. It’s football. It’s about the same. We just can’t always get 22. There are some differences, but those differences help you get better. Learning the control the ball on a different surface is good.

Part of that reminds me of something I told a parent once. Her son was practicing on their driveway. She was worried he’d get used to that and wouldn’t be any good in grass. I pointed out that any practice is good and multiple surfaces is good. We play basketball on several different types of surfaces, too. The ball bounces a little different, our shoes grip a little different, but we learn to adjust and that’s good.

The season and pace

Mario said the season runs from September through May and kids have one game each weekend. The weather helps, as they play outside the whole year in most parts of Spain.

I have a hunch that that more consistent and steady pace leads better learning and less burnout and maybe even more desire for kids to play pickup on their own.

U.S. Soccer’s fragile system for finding talent vs. the world’s anti-fragile system

In his book, Antifragile, part of his five book Incerto series, Nassim Taleb describes systems that are fragile and the opposite of fragile, which, for lack of a better term, he coined, “anti-fragile.”

A good example he gives to illustrate his point is that of a flame.

A candle flame is fragile. It can easily be extinguished by a breeze.

A wildfire is the opposite, or anti-fragile. A breeze makes it stronger.

The same stressors that can put out the fragile flame, can invigorate the anti-fragile wildfire.

A fragile system doesn’t like randomness, variability and shocks. These things make anti-fragile systems stronger.

The under performing U.S. soccer system under performs because it is a fragile system.

It’s fragile because folks who run U.S. Soccer think that creating talent is a linear process that they can manage, like a project, and it looks something like:

Rec soccer –> Club soccer –> Development Academy –> College/MLS/USL –> National Teams

That seems to work good on the women’s side, often the counterpoint to criticism about U.S. Soccer. But, looks can be deceiving.

The success of women’s side can be traced to Title IX, which made soccer more popular among females in the U.S. than in other countries. This create a more anti-fragile system for women’s talent in the U.S. than in other countries. Those countries are trying to catch up doing on their women’s side what we do on our men’s side (see linear process above).

So, U.S. Soccer’s linear process is not responsible for the success of the women’s side.

It’s also true that top talent on the men’s side aren’t necessarily products of U.S. Soccer’s system.

Pulisic and Sargent are two good examples. Both played in clubs in the U.S., but dig into their stories and other things pop out, like the fact that both have high-level soccer-playing parents, who likely introduced them to developing key skills early (probably not intentionally, for fun). Pulisic spent a year early on in England that took his interest in the game to a new level. And, both are extremely self-motivated and hard working.

I think it’s pretty darned incredible that a couple of kids that spent hours playing with the ball in their backyard have gone so far. Imagine if they had also played lots of pickup against really good talent everyday, too, like most of the players they go against in their respective leagues.

Most folks think the purpose of the soccer system is to develop talent. It’s not. It’s to discover it.

Talent is an extremely random variable. There’s no sure-fire recipe for developing it.

Even the world’s top and best funded development academies rely more on finding talent than they do on developing it. This is reflected in the high percentage of players that exit those programs below the top-level.

They try to find the world’s best players and make them a little better, but even most of those attempts fail.

Messi, for example, was already good when he came to Barcelona. In fact, he had to be eye-opening good for them to agree to pay for his growth hormone treatments. He was also already good when he joined his local club in Argentina as a boy. The club didn’t make him good. It just discovered him.

When you dig into the U.S. Soccer system structure, it’s easy to see how talented individuals may never make it onto the radar screen.

The current gatekeepers may be looking for the wrong players. In the U.S. we favor athleticism and treat ball skill as secondary, yet ball skill is pretty clearly what beats us on the world stage against top-tier countries.

Or, it may be too difficult for players to jump through the hoops to get on a development team to get recognized. Maybe it’s too far away from home, too expensive to move or they don’t even know about it.

Or, their families may not want to pay the for their kids to be on a club team, especially when they see the players in the club as inferior. Their kids get better competition in their backyard for free, why pay for lesser competition? I’ve seen this happen.

I also recall manager of a Mexican restaurant told me he had tried out and made the Chicago Fire in the early days of the MLS, but decided to stick with restaurants because it paid more and he couldn’t afford to take the lower wages of pro soccer.

After that, I remember thinking that many of the Americans I see playing in the MLS are people whose families could afford for them to play in club soccer and afford for their kid to pass on higher wages of other jobs to play pro soccer.

It made me wonder how many better players are out there and not in the MLS and USL simply because they can’t afford to be.

Those are just a few places people fall through the cracks.

Since talent is such a random variable, the best way to discover it is by casting as wide of a net as possible.

What that means is getting as many people as possible involved in trying to find that talent.

FIFA has created an anti-fragile system for doing just that, which includes promotion/relegation in a country’s soccer leagues and incentives for clubs to find talent.

These incentives have worked amazingly well around the world to get talent in the system and get them recognized by getting them to as high of a level as possible.

It’s like trying to find a $10 million diamond buried in your big field. How long will it take you to find that diamond on your own? Long-time, if ever. How long if you tell people you will offer a reward of $200,000? Faster.

It’s possible for you to find it on your own. You may get lucky.

But, if you incentivize others correctly, you don’t have to hope to get lucky.

Currently, U.S. Soccer wants to find those diamonds on its own and cut everyone else out of the deal. It hasn’t worked out well.

That’s because the U.S.’s fragile system that doesn’t handle the randomness of talent discovery well is up against the world’s anti-fragile system that thrives on randomness.

U.S. Soccer is penny-wise and pound foolish. They don’t want to adopt the world’s anti-fragile system, because they want to save that $200,000 for their preferred partners, MLS owners, not realizing how many $10 million diamonds they may be missing.

Yes. Free Play Soccer.

I enjoyed this 3Four3 podcast with Ted Kroeten.

He talks about what he has discovered with free play and soccer for kids, through his Joy of the People, that organizes free play with kids.

Here are some quotables from the pod:

“Play early, learn late.” Sums up that young kids learn more playing with each other than having coaches direct them.

In terms of learning the sport: “The best soccer is closest to home. Playing in your basement is better than your backyard. Play in your backyard is better than your local park. Play in your local park is better than your local club. Play your local club is better than a travel team.”

“I cannot teach better than free play can deliver at the young ages.”

“Some of the things we discovered from free play. Feedback is inappropriate. Feedback between kids on the field is totally appropriate. Feedback from coaches is not. Telling kids to work on things, their weaknesses, is not appropriate. Letting kids understand what they can and cannot do from each other is totally appropriate.

While listening to this last quote, I thought back to the times where I could have been quiet. What kept me from being quiet? Parents expected me to coach, not be quiet. There were games where I was quiet and it wouldn’t be long before I’d hear that I wasn’t coaching.

Ted has thought about free play deeply and sees the complexities of the learning, copying from each other, and subtle forms for feedback that simply can’t be replicated in team practice.

In one spot he mentioned how a kid might learn that if he doesn’t pass to a player, then that player may not put in as much effort on defense later.

Or, when he was left behind on his local hockey team when his buddies moved to a travel team and he selfishly taught the others how to play better hockey so he could have some challenging competition.

The host, John Pranjic, recalled a time at a similar free play experiment that 3Four3 ran where the kids couldn’t solve the simplest things like picking teams or setting out cones because they were so used to adults doing all that for them.

I’ve had similar experiences coaching soccer. I recall a time warming up before a game when we told the players to get into 4v1’s. In one group, every kid had a ball. In another group, nobody had a ball.

Neither group was making any headway to get to one ball.

All stood waiting for us to tell them what to do. The other coach said, “Guys, if we have to tell you how to get one ball per group, we’re in trouble. Solve the problem!”

It wasn’t that these kids couldn’t solve such problems. They just didn’t have the free play experience in soccer and we’re use to doing what adults told them.

Around the same time, I watched these same kids organize free play in baseball, basketball and football. They could pick balanced teams, set up the field or court, and make other equalizing adjustments that selfishly kept everyone playing longer without any adult intervention, all learned from free play in those sports.

High School soccer stunts passing of soccer culture to the next generation

This is a continuation of my previous post on how high school soccer hurts soccer culture in U.S.

First, I want to say that I have nothing against high school soccer.In the U.S., school sports is all we know.

It’s just that it’s worth pointing out that one result of the club/high school structure is that it keeps youth players from forming connections to teenage players, and those connections are vital in soccer-playing countries to help pass on soccer culture.

Clubs in soccer-playing countries foster these connections.

High school age players play for the club’s senior teams, they practice on the same grounds as younger youth and often coach the younger players (which also keeps costs down).

Kids in these clubs get to know these players, want to watch them play on the weekend and emulate them. Their senior team heroes provide a vision of players the kids want to become someday.

Younger players in the U.S. don’t have this long-term vision to guide them because they don’t have close connections to the equivalent of these club senior teams in the U.S.: high school varsity teams.

Kids in the U.S. just have their team’s current results. Since competition is grouped by age and skill, those results give youth players a false sense of competency. Why bother trying to get better? Our games are close enough.

This hit home with me when one of my players ran into the local pro indoor team practicing at a field that we often practiced on, by accident. We moved practice that day, but that player’s Dad didn’t get the email.

We had attended a few of that team’s games to help spark an interest in kids, so my player knew of the team and was surprised and excited to see them practicing there.

The player’s Dad introduced him to the pro GK. That GK ended up giving him goalie gloves and became that kid’s hero. His Dad bought season tickets and took every chance to see the GK again at fan events and training camps the team offered.

At the time, that player was one of the 4 who played GK. They were all about the same level of ability at that time and were content with that. They had not concept of what better looked like.

Over the next year, that player excelled. His vision shifted from being good for our team to wanting to play like his hero. That made a world of difference.

I remember the first time he made a diving save, thinking how much he looked like his favorite goalkeeper. He was learning.

When I took the team to high school, college and pro matches hoping to spark an interest in soccer beyond what we did in practice, the kids complained about how boring it was.

They had no connection to the players.

The kid described above showed me how important that connection was.

Imagine if all the kids could make that kind of connection.

Consider how far it sets us back that our system doesn’t foster such connections, while countries with strong soccer cultures do.

Pro/rel doesn’t scare owners away

One argument against pro/rel in US soccer is that “rel” would scare away owners who have been bought a team in the top league.

Yet, I’ve never heard thoughts from the actual owners about this.

My guess is that owners are not nearly as concerned with pro/rel as critics of pro/rel say they are.

How do I know?

Because there are many pro/rel leagues around the world and they don’t have trouble finding owners. Some of those owners are even American who also own teams in non-pro/rel leagues.

American Stan Kroenke, for example, owns teams in the non-pro/rel MLS (Colorado Rapids) and pro/rel English Premier League (EPL) (Arsenal).

American-owned Fenway Sports Group owns a team in a non-pro/rel league MLB (Boston Red Sox) and pro/rel EPL (Liverpool).

As does the American Glazer family who own a team in a non-pro/rel league NFL (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and pro/rel EPL (Manchester United).