Opponents of pro/rel in US soccer demonstrate that they do not understand how bottom-up works

Their critical mistake is believing that strong support for soccer must precede pro/rel, as if, somehow, pro/rel would weaken support.

They don’t understand that pro/rel helps cause strong support for soccer. So, they block the very thing that can create the condition they require.

They will say, “oh, but relegation battles don’t make things that much more interesting.”

I agree. In this post, I wrote more about what really does drive the benefit, from the bottom-up, of pro/rel.

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Pro/rel would connect a lot of disconnected pieces in soccer

One thing that bugs me about soccer is how often I miss the local MLS game because I’m either busy playing soccer or had a game to coach.

It’s hard to imagine a solution. Why would adult and youth soccer teams organize their schedules around the pro team? They are all independent of each other and have no incentive to organize their schedules around each other.

What most folks miss in pro/rel is that the club becomes the organizer of the the local pro team, adult leagues and youth soccer. It connects all these up. And they have more incentive to organize their amateur youth and adult schedules around the pro team, so more people can watch the pro team, as that becomes the main event each week.

They become what is more authentically known as ‘club supporters,’ which is a marketing term in the U.S. to refer to season ticket holders.

But, it’s easy to see it has more meaning in countries where ‘supporters’ are folks that belong to a club where they play, maybe volunteer coach, and where their kids play or grew up playing.

How US Soccer impacts your pickup

A couple yokels on Twitter were poking fun at a pro/rel supporter who said US soccer is repressing soccer at all levels in the US.

“He thinks US soccer is repressing my weekly soccer pickup. Haha”

Jokes on them.

As the famous French economist pointed out in his Parable of the Broken Window, there are things that can and things that cannot be seen.

Rather than being persuasive, these yokels demonstrated that they lack knowledge for the things that cannot be seen.

What they can’t see here is how US Soccer’s policies have limited their pickup.

If US Soccer organized soccer by world standards set in the the guidelines of its charter organization, FIFA, chances are good that there would be land-based soccer clubs dotting cities and towns across the country where pickup soccer was just one of the many activities it hosted, making it easier to get games going more often with better facilities.

Some questions for critics of pro/rel

One thing I noticed about critics of pro/rel is how confident that it would never work in the U.S. These are questions I have for them:

How do you know? Has it been tried here before? When and where?

For that matter, are there places in the world where pro/rel has been tried and it ended in system failure? I often hear these critics say that someday there will be collapse in these pyramids, but that someday never seems to get closer.

Do you think that there’s anything to the phrase, “you never know until you try?” Have you ever said it yourself?

Then what makes you so sure about pro/rel in the U.S.?

Are you 100% in your predictions of what will work and what won’t? If so, why aren’t you the richest person in the world?

Why not try it? I really don’t understand the vehement distaste folks have for it in a sport.

“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), because it thinks that works.

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

Which reveals more ignorance. Have clubs failed when demoted? 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 other markets. When one restaurant fails, plenty others are there to fill the void.

I also understand that failure isn’t fun for the folks involved. 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