• Paul Rutherford


Updated: Jun 10

40 Books in 2018

Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski SOCCERNOMICS 472pp HarperSport 2014 I am not an avid football fan. In the past I have been a season ticket holder, seen ‘my team’ (Southampton FC) play in Cup finals, and religiously attended the pre-Christmas home game. But all that’s been more about four decades of friendship than worrying about three points and silverware, However, even with only a passing, nostalgic interest in soccer, this week it is difficult to escape English World Cup fever.

So in the spirit of finding out something more about ‘the beautiful game’, I’ve spent the past ten days reading Soccernomics, the football equivalent of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, and learned how statistics are reshaping thinking about the game. Soccernomics is dense with data and challenges long-held stereotypes. The following tries to synthesise parts of a very full book. I hope the following is useful for you - whether a soccer fan or a disinterested novice. FOOTBALL WAS A SMALL, BUST BUSINESS Before getting to FIFA and the World Cup, let’s start with UEFA. The Union of European Football Associations is the body that runs the game across Europe, generally keeping members - countries, associations and clubs - to the operational and financial rules. Its 2014 annual club licencing report found that the average revenue of the 235 clubs that played in UEFA competitions was €31 million. Think about that for a moment; we’re talking about some of the world’s most recognised sport brands, employing some of the world’s most famous people. And generating an average revenue of €31 million. To be transparent, top-of-the-table Manchester United generated €676m last year, Real Madrid €674m, and Barcelona €648m. But to put this all in context, last year Costa Coffee generated €1.13 billion in the UK. And Costa Coffee is just a subsidiary of leisure group Whitbread. While reading the numbers in this book, I found just as many ‘is that all?’ as there are ‘you’ve got to be kidding’. THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN! Part 1 The source of football’s income speaks volumes. Here are the base figures for Southampton (aka The Saints) - regarded by many as modest in scale, operations and results. This year, it squeaked its way to 17th place in the Premier League, the lowest place possible without being relegated to a lower division. So it feels like a contradiction to find out that in revenue terms, Southampton’s €212m makes it the 18th largest club in Europe. Unpack that number, and it further clarifies football’s economics:

  • Commercial activity (aka sponsorship) 8% €17m

  • Match day (ticket sales, fan spending) 12% €25m

  • Television rights (Sky and BT deal) 80% €170m

The Pareto Rule is not unusual for many clubs. Even with 60,000 seat stands and £1,000+ season tickets, most football is watched - and revenue generated - by TV.

For the big clubs, these revenue streams aren’t enough. As I’ll show below, exceptional managers who can make the most out of limited resources are, well… exceptional. There is more than enough data to show that success is bought, not earned or developed. THE “GREAT MAN OF HISTORY” MYTH. Statisticians can show the correlation between money spent in the transfer market, and the league position results. There is very little : 16% of their total variation in league position. A ‘buying club’ didn’t help it perform significantly better than a ‘selling club’. By contrast, spending on salaries was extremely telling. In the decade up to 2012, data for the Premier League and Championship (the top 44 English clubs) explains 92 percent of variation in their league position. Soccernomics looks at the impact that long-standing managers had on their clubs. In other words, given what could be correlated with the amount spent on players, did a club over-perform with a particular manager?

Wenger, Ferguson, Clough : three of the exceptionals

Across all four English divisions between 1974 and 2010, there were 699 managers. Acknowledging that luck plays such big role, the study only ranked managers who had worked in the game for five or more seasons. Which took 448 out of the database, saying a lot about the collective success rate. Of the 251 remaining, the survey estimates that somewhere between 40 and 70 (at best, one tenth of the observed 699 managers) made a positive difference to the results of their club. In 1992 the average manager’s tenure in English football was 3.5 years. By the summer of 2013 it was a little over a year. With such turnover, because of so much at stake, are new management appointments carefully considered? Perhaps not. Here’s the standard modus operandi: 1) A new manager is hired in a mad rush. Normal business organisations either have succession plans, or take four to five months to headhunt and hire; in football, a club usually finds a coach within a few weeks. 2) A new manager is appointed either because he has achieved good results over his career, or he is able to start immediately (often because he has just been sacked). Or both. 3) A new manager is almost always white, aged between 35 and 60, has a conservative hair cut, and is a former professional footballer. Soccernomics shows that for every over-performing manager (delivering team performance above the standard correlation expected with the team’s wages bill), a great playing career predicts neither success nor failure. Or consider it another way: 4) New managers are generally not chosen for managerial skills, but for his name, appearance and media relations skills. His persona must impress the club’s fans, players and the press.

That’s why there won’t be a woman manager for a long time to come. THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN! Part 2 Back to the Southampton example. This year, the struggling club announced the departure of manager Mauricio Pellegrino on 12 March. His successor, Mark Hughes, was announced 14 March. Hughes had been ‘let go’ from struggling Premier League club Stoke City on 6 January. During his illustrious playing career, Hughes spent two seasons playing for, guess where…?

Southampton FC. Hughes is white, 55 years old, and has luxurious silver-grey hair. As the business world used to say: “Nobody got fired for buying IBM.”

FOOTBALL ISN’T “COMING HOME”… We English have suffered from a national football virus for over 50 years. Since 1966, at the height of Beatlemania, England won the World Cup at Wembley - our national stadium - and confirmed our belief in ‘our’ national game. Subsequently, any failure to win - for football to ‘come home’ - has been a national disappointment, and immediate calls for a managerial beheading. Or at least public flogging. What Soccernomics makes very clear is: a) that mathematically it’s absurd to expect England to win the World Cup, and b) the national team’s performance is ‘perfectly decent’. Over a period of five World Cup cycles (20 years), England’s win rate is 67%. Sometimes as low as 60%, sometimes as high as 76%. Against most teams, England’s win percentage was the eighth best in the world. Soccernomics goes to great lengths to explain the statistics - especially the multiplicative probability - of why winning in 1966 was the exception, not the rule. But the ‘man in the street’, and especially the popular media, continued to believe and re-enforce the idea that being in the Top 10 isn’t good enough. And look for scapegoats: “There are too many foreign players in the Premier League” was, and still is, a believed cause. Put it another way, ‘only’ 32% of starting players in a Premier League week are English. That’s 65 to 70 players starting regularly in the world’s toughest league. That should be enough to make up a decent squad.

If anything, one might argue that as the Premier League has got even stronger, attracting more talent through the influx of billionaire money, England’s players have been playing too much. The Premier League has become all-consuming; in no other country do footballers play as many important games each season. So when English footballers play international games, they start tired. The nation became euphoric in last week’s World Cup group stage, when England beat Panama 6-1 (”well, they are an underdog, a smaller nation”). But remember that five of those goals were scored in the first half. I’m not suggesting that we should/could have scored more; perhaps the manager and team deliberately took their feet off the gas for the second 45 minutes. What the book has heightened for me is the bigger picture, the context in which England play: In the seven big tournaments played after 1998, England scored 27 of their 43 goals in the first halves of their matches. And in the tournaments from which we were eliminated, eight of their nine goals came before half-time. I’d never thought about that until reading Soccernomics. That's the sort of light that statistics can shine on long-held prejudices. STATS NOT STATEMENTS Pace and planning are qualities that a national manager can effect. There are three other factors that are outside out of his control: accumulated experience; national population; national income per head. Factors that affect the outcome: how many international games are in the collective bloodstream; how large is the talent pool the country can call on; how much is available for possible investment in sport? Using multiple regression (finding the closest statistical fit between one thing and any other collection of things), Soccernomics shows the following:

  • Home advantage is worth two-thirds of a goal a game

  • Having twice as much international experience as your opponent is worth half a goal a game

  • Impact of population and income per head depends on the size of the difference. But its marginal compared to the other two.

Taking all the variables into consideration, during the 1990-2010 period, the difference on paper would be 0.68 goals per game. England actually outscored their opponents by 0.87 goals. In short, contrary to popular opinion, England overperformed. The point of all this is not to predict the outcome of the Colombian game for a place in the last eight. Rather, it’s to give context to recent surprises and the probable shape of things to come. …IT’S GOING GLOBAL This World Cup - with or without England in the final - will be over in less than two weeks. And then start the next four year cycle, readying for Qatar 2022, the first Middle East location (below):

And do you know where the 2026 World Cup is to be hosted?

It will be shared across the northern Americas; Canada, the USA, and Mexico. A total population of 493 million. I mention that because Western Europe (UEFA’s home turf) has a population of 193 million; where’s football future growth going to come from? Then World Cup 2030: What is the next untapped market for football?

Consider a recent transaction involving Manchester City, the current Premier League Champions. Man City is owned by footballing billionaire, Mansour bin Zayed Al Mahayana, who bought it for £210m in 2008, and then sunk another £500 million on transfers. As mentioned above, success can be bought. In October 2015, China’s football-loving president, Xi Jinping, visited Manchester City’s Etihad stadium; two months later, Chinese investors bought 13% for $400m (£265m), valuing the whole at $3bn.

THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN! Part 3 To bring all this madness back home, let’s revisit The Saints. In August last year, the club was bought by Jisheng Gao, a Chinese real estate magnate, in a deal worth about £210m.

Another billionaire ego trip? Maybe: but if President Xi does have a plan for 50,000 soccer schools and 140,000 football pitches, that sounds like a property developer's dream ticket. And if you want to be in the game, you have to be seen as a player.

What a co-incidence that, as I write, Mark Hughes and his squad are pre-season training in Kunshan, east of Shanghai.

(1978 words. Thanks for reading.)

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