Good discussion about true competition on the 3Four3 podcast

Guest Ben Fast and host John Pranjic have a great discussion about the nature true competition that is lacking in soccer in the U.S. and the role of governance in this 3Four3 podcast.

It would make Austrian and George Mason University economists proud.

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Winning doesn’t mean much if you aren’t any good…

…and a big problem with soccer in the U.S. is that there are many ways to win without being any good.

That’s true from top to bottom.

The MLS limits the number of good players on a team to even out the competition. It thinks close games attracts more fans.

Youth are separated into age and like skill groups where they can feel successful. The thinking is that winning keeps more kids interested longer.

The downside is that too many people win without being any good. That doesn’t help them get better because it isn’t clear that they need to get better.

Imagine watching a basketball game where players dribble the ball high and away from their body and turn the ball over frequently. Most of the passes they make get intercepted, and they can’t catch a pass. Players with the ball dribble past them easily.

This is what soccer in the U.S. looks like to me: too many players don’t even have the basics. I think a reason is that there’s a lot of winning and incentive to learn the basics.

The point of sports should be to win. But, it should be about winning by being good, not by watering down the competition.

One small example of this is juggling. Players and coaches alike have pleaded their case to me that practicing juggling is unnecessary. “It’s just for show,” they say, because you don’t use it in a game. “Work on the stuff that you actually use,” they say.

It is true that you don’t need to practice juggling, if you only play against others who also don’t know how to juggle.

But, when a juggler and non-juggler go into a 1v1 or 50/50, I’ll put my money on the juggler coming away with the ball.

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).

Pro/Rel vs. Solidarity Payments: What’s Holding Soccer Back in the US?

Switching gears away from politics, here’s another hot button issue to discuss following the US Men’s National Soccer Team’s 2-1 loss to Mexico on Friday evening.

These guys think the lack of promotion/relegation at the top level (MLS) is the one thing holding soccer back in the U.S.

This guy thinks the lack of solidarity payments is the reason.

Promotion/relegation is how pro and amateur soccer works nearly everywhere, except in US pro soccer. That is, the bottom teams in a league are relegated to the next lowest league and the best teams from that league are promoted up to the best league.

Even the indoor soccer facility I play at uses pro/reg. The best teams from my ‘rec’ division are promoted to the ‘competitive’ division each session, while the worst teams from that division are relegated to my division.

In England, for example, the pro/rel structure for soccer goes at least 9 leagues deep, the top 4 leagues are what most people look at it.

They believe this structure, like free market capitalism, allows the best to rise to the top. Without it, there’s just too many biases holding them back.

Solidarity payments are payments made to clubs from pro teams when they sign contracts with players the clubs have trained.

In other parts of the world, many clubs have formed their business model around training future soccer stars and they get paid when one of their stars makes it big.

This changes the incentives for clubs quite a bit.

US clubs operate on the ‘pay-for-play’ model. That is, their profits come from the pockets of parents paying fees for their kids to get professionally trained.

Clubs in other countries, that can be rewarded handsomely when their players go pro, organize leagues and training that is often free to players. Their incentive is to get as many players as possible playing the game, so they can find the diamonds in the rough that can be turned into pro prospects.

The result in the U.S. is that suburban, ‘pay-for-play’ 12-year-old club soccer players have about the same level of technical ability as a 6-year-old from soccer-culture communities in the U.S. who grow up playing unorganized soccer with friends and family, because they can’t afford to pay the club fees or are not interested in playing against kids who can barely control the ball. That’s no fun for them.

Personally, I think both of these contribute. I put more weight in the latter argument, though. If clubs could earn solidarity payments, I think they would be more focused on getting more kids playing, instead of just finding the kids who have parents with deep enough wallets to pay their fees.

Both viewpoints believe there are enough people who are in love with soccer in the U.S., it’s just the system isn’t kind to them.

I disagree with that. I agree there are a lot of people involved in soccer.

But, until I see just as many kids playing soccer in their driveways, yards, schoolyards and parks without adults leading the activity, as I do other sports, I don’t think we are there yet.

Until I see American kids, on a widespread scale, become obsessed with learning to juggle a soccer ball or adopt good soccer technique of their favorite pro players, I don’t think we are there yet.

With popular sports in the U.S., kids learn a good deal of good technique outside of organized teams simply through basic games that build lots of repetition, like playing catch or driveway basketball.

With soccer, an inordinate amount of time in practice is dedicated to teaching the basics, because they haven’t learned them elsewhere.