Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Category: Sport (page 1 of 24)

How (not) to think about the ESL

The European Super League is a bust. As the 6 English clubs pulled out, there was no way it would work.

The mistake that most commentators are making is this: the clubs that made up the 12 initial members are NOT one and the same. They don’t have the same goals, ownership structures or ethos. It was remarkable that they even got together at all.

You can think of the 12 clubs in the following five categories: US-owned; Petro-dollar; Poor Euro royalty; Faceless business; Family business

Of the 12, they fall into the following categories like this:

US-owned: Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United, AC Milan

Petro-dollar: Manchester City, Chelsea

Poor Euro royalty: Barcelona, Real Madrid

Family Business: Altletico Madrid, Juventus

Faceless business: Tottenham, Inter Milan

Each has their own interests, but they are most closely aligned in those groupings. In detail:

The US-owned clubs have owners who see nothing wrong with closed leagues. Most US leagues work perfectly well in this way – but that’s because they have levelers – the draft, salary caps and so on. The US owners want to maximise revenue, guarantee glamour match-ups, and cut the dross. This is business, after all. Plus, the US sees no issue with long-distance rivaliries. Seattle – Miami is four times further than London – Milan. They totally misjudged the backlash. Whoops.
Upshot: The Super League makes sense structurally and financially to the US business mind

You can chuck PSG in the mix here as a counterpart. Why do these owners own these clubs? To launder their reputations and oil money. Manchester City want to be benevolent owners. They have invested heavily in the local area, and want to be seen to care. Roman Abramovich wants to be welcome in London – Putin’s Russia is a risky place to be. They have money – so why do they need to rock the boat? The only real motivation is for glory – if there’s a big tournament going on with your rivals, you want a piece of the action. The calculus was that the fans would go along with it. They didn’t. PSG saw the ESL for what it was: a poorly-thought out half-idea, and ran a mile.
Upshot: Never that committed

Poor Euro royalty
Barca and Real are both in a financial mess with big debts. Owned by supporters but somehow controlled by horrible chairmen, the ESL made total sense. Big payday, cut the matches with the minnows, keep the gravy train rolling.
Upshot: The Super League makes total sense financially

Family business
Hard to say what the motivation is here. Super League money would be nice, but these clubs are doing OK overall. Why rock the boat? Not being left behind is one motivation, added to a bonanza payday, but the ire of the fanbase was a big risk.
Upshot: Poor call – should have seen the backlash coming

Faceless business
Money isn’t an issue; nor is reputation. Again, the motivation to not be left out is strong; the profit motive always a nice-to-have. Ultimately, these clubs don’t have quite the same history as their bigger local rivals and need to move with the times. If that meant Super League, so be it
Upshot: can take it or leave it, just want to be part of the gang

The one chart you need to understanding the European Super League (and why it’s not going to work)

Is this:

Read the full analysis on my new substack account here.

Tom Brady: winner, passer, extinct?

As Tom Brady works out which finger to put his seventh Super Bowl ring on, there are plenty of ways to admire his performance and achievements. As a friend (Leo in HK) put it to me today, he’s a statistician’s dream.

But there’s one statistic for me that stands out for Tom Brady, 2021 edition. In the regular season, he rushed for a total of six yards.

Six. Yards.

That’s not a lot for a quarterback in a single game. For a whole season?

OK, so Brady is 43, which means I’m going to cut him some slack. He’s not there to scamper about and pick up yardage with his legs. He’s there to pass in the pocket and run the game like the old pro he is, still the best around.

However, his rushing yards mark him out as a dying breed. Here’s why.

The NFL is a constantly evolving league in terms of tactics. Some are inspired by rule changes. Some rules are coach and stats-led – for example, more teams are now willing to gamble on 4th down and risk giving the ball back to the opposition, rather than punt the ball away. And some tactics evolve given the personnel at teams’ disposal. For example: the running quarterback.

Traditionally, the quarterback passes the ball from the “pocket” – an area where he is protected by his linesmen. Some quarterbacks are more mobile than others, making passes as the pocket breaks down and being able to pass on the run (Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rogers are amazing at this). Others have been known as scrambling quarterbacks – able to run the ball when pass options downfield were covered by the defence. But scrambling was a last resort, when-things-break-down move.

Now, some quarterbacks are now such good runners as well as throwers of the ball that plays are being designed for them to run straight away. Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens and Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals are the two brightest examples in the league. More will follow.

This presents defences with a nightmare. Normally, a defence has to guess what the opposing offence is up to: will they try to run the ball, or pass it? And the formation of the offence gives away a lot: you can sometimes see by how players are positioned whether the offence set up to run or pass. If there is no running back and four or more wide receivers on the field, that would mean it’s a passing play. But if a team has Lamar Jackson, that might be misdirection – he could be ready to run.

And Jackson is running – a lot. In both of the past two season he has rushed for over 1,000 yards, a mark that is usually only attained by specialist running backs. Murray rushed for over 800 yards in 2020.

Overall, the total yards rushed by quarterbacks has risen over the last few seasons. In 2020, it was over 9,000 – the highest ever.

Click for full size

Not only that, quarterbacks are rushing at crucial moments – rushing touchdowns by quarterbacks have leaped up – in 2020, there were 126, a record. That’s 40 more than in 2019, and double the number from only five seasons ago. Quarterbacks now account for around a quarter of rushing touchdowns. A decade ago it was about one in ten.

click for full size

The rushing quarterback might also be changing other stats. The recently-completed 2020 season saw the fewest interceptions (on a per game basis) ever. The defence caught opposition throws on only 395 occasions – the first time under 400 since 1982 (a strike-shortened year). Why is that? It could be that quarterbacks are more accurate, or there are softer defences. But it is also noticeable that in crucial moments when a team needs yards to keep a drive going, quarterbacks are trusting themselves to run for it rather than throwing risky passes.

So how will this evolve? There are a current crop of young quarterbacks who are comfortable running if needed – Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen for example – as well as out-and-out runners like Jackson and Murray. And some of the less mobile old guard will retire soon – Tom Brady and Drew Brees, both two of the all time greats, are over 40. Even some of the longer- established quarterbacks are good scramblers – Russel Wilson and Aaron Rogers pick up crucial first downs on the run.

Into the league will come talented players such as Trevor Lawrence, a college player soon to be drafted in the first round and touted as a potential great. Lawrence’s passing ability is hugely exciting, but he can run too. The role of the quarterback is evolving, and defences will have to keep up.


Tiger Woods and the Ryder Cup: why wild cards matter

The sense of anticipation for the 2018 Ryder Cup was always high before the US team picked Tiger Woods.

But with the former world number one – and arguably best-known sporting figure on the planet – winning the last big event, the Tour Championship, just before the teams headed for France, part of a career resurgence that is utterly improbable, the cup had a great PR boost.

Interestingly, Tiger Woods has a poor reputation at Ryder Cup golf. Too often he has seemed aloof or uncomfortable with the team spirit of the tournament. This is despite having a decent Ryder Cup record: his total points (pre-2018) is 14.5, which is 9th in the all time US list. However, his points percentage of 44 is the lowest in that list, and fairly middling compared to his peers.

However, his selection as a Captain’s choice – a wild card – is highly significant.

The Ryder Cup works differently to other national team sports. Where team managers can select whomever they like to play for the US soccer team, for the Ryder Cup there is an automatic selection for most of the team, based on a qualifying points system.

However, Ryder Cup captains, who are the equivalent of managers, have some discretion – they get three (in for European team) or four (for the US) selections. And these wild card picks have proved to be disproportionately good.

For the 32 teams that have played Ryder Cup with a captain’s pick, only two have seen those selected players underperform. If we look at the percentage of matches that the wild cards play in each event (not all players can be selected for each round, and each player can play between 1 and 5 matches), and then the percentage of the team’s points that they win, they are a net benefit almost every time.

Source: Ryder Cup

Sometimes it’s extraordinary – in 2010, the US team’s wild cards played 32% of the matches, and won 63% of the points.

I’ll admit, this isn’t a perfect analysis: players are paired up for 16 of the 28 matches, so in some cases a wild card may well have been carried to victory by their non-wild card partner. Equally, the wild card may well have done the heavy lifting in winning a match.

Overall, for all the Ryder Cups where wild cards have been used, the average difference between the percentage points won and matches played is +12. Given their outperformance compared to their teammates, a wild card is probably the most important decision a captain can make.

Whether Woods and the other three US wild cards return the vote of confidence with enough points to win is another matter: the recent European dominance in Ryder Cups may have been reversed in 2016 and the USA team is heavily favoured this time, but Europe have home advantage. The US haven’t won on European soil since 1993.

Parsing the Forbes sports rich list

I always enjoy the Forbes Sports Rich list. It formed the basis for a chapter in my book, and tells you a lot about sport once you dig into the figures.

For instance, looking at this year’s list, here are a few observations.

  • Roger Federer is a sponsorship machine. $65m in endorsements puts him $13m higher than LeBron James in second place.
  • American football players don’t get marketing dollars. The highest-sponsored is Drew Brees, and he’s on $13m in endorsements, which is less than his salary.
  • Boxer Floyd Mayweather still rakes it in – his $275m in pay is three times more than any one else. It pays to punch, with Conor McGregor fourth in the overall list.
  • Basketball pays overall – 40 of the top 100 represent that sport.
  • There are zero women on the list. That’s not good. In previous years, at least a few female tennis players made it. We seem to be regressing, either in who we value in terms of marketing or how we pay sports stars.

The most interesting way of ordering the list, in my view, is by the ratio of endorsements to pay.

This naturally shows up individual sports where some players have had poor seasons but are trading on reputation – Tiger Woods, Novak Djokovic. There are sports people where the sport pays (relatively) poorly, but profile is high – Usain Bolt, Virat Kohli.

But it also shows how some stars are not making the most of their winning seasons. For instance, golfer Justin Thomas won $21m in prize money, but netted just $5m in sponsorship. Surely he’s going up? And if Lewis Hamilton can get $9m in sponsorship, how is Sebastian Vettel getting only $300k? They get the same pay, according to Forbes.

Here’s my Endorsements / Salary list – for those where Endorsements are higher than Salary.

Overall Rank Name Pay $m Salary/Winnings $m Endorsements $m Sport E/S
16 Tiger Woods 43.3 1.3 42 Golf 32.3
45 Usain Bolt 31 1 30 Track 30.0
35 Kei Nishikori 34.6 1.6 33 Tennis 20.6
86 Novak Djokovic 23.5 1.5 22 Tennis 14.7
26 Rory McIlroy 37.7 3.7 34 Golf 9.2
22 Phil Mickelson 41.3 4.3 37 Golf 8.6
7 Roger Federer 77.2 12.2 65 Tennis 5.3
83 Virat Kohli 24 4 20 Cricket 5.0
23 Jordan Spieth 41.2 11.2 30 Golf 2.7
20 Rafael Nadal 41.4 14.4 27 Tennis 1.9
6 LeBron James 85.5 33.5 52 Basketball 1.6
11 Kevin Durant 57.3 25.3 32 Basketball 1.3
8 Stephen Curry 76.9 34.9 42 Basketball 1.2

And here’s the sports list.

Basketball 40
American Football 18
Baseball 14
Soccer 9
Golf 5
Boxing 4
Tennis 4
Auto Racing 3
Cricket 1
Mixed Martial Arts 1
Track 1

Lastly, here’s the forbes rich sports list as an Excel file.

Titles make great players, not the other way round


I was at the ATP Finals at the O2 on Sunday, for the excellent Goffin – Dimitrov final. As good as the match was, there was a feeling that the understudies were taking centre stage. No Rafa, no Roger. No Murray or Djokovic.

The lack of “Big 4” players at the end of year finale was acute, made real by their selling power. Djokovic was omnipresent at North Greenwich tube, fronting a Lacoste ad. Inside the 02, the merchandise stall was selling flags – but only the Swiss and Spanish. No Belgium or Bulgaria, the nationalities of the finalists.

Men’s tennis has become complacent. In the year-end tour finals, six of the last 10 years have been exclusively between the Big 4. Their dominance in the Grand Slams is well documented, but as a reminder, since 2006, it’s been only Wawrinka (x3), Cilic and Del Potro that have broken through the hegemony.

Perhaps complacency is harsh – the men’s game has been lucky, blessed even. So when injury and upset take out the big guns, it’s hardly the fault of the men left that they lack gravitas. As several people pointed out, it was the first ATP tour final between two non-grand slam winners.

Ironically, that had become more likely by the dominance of a few players in the slams. What did we expect? Federer and Nadal to go on for ever?

We have entered an unprecedented stage in tennis. With Federer and Nadal on 19 and 16 majors respectively, and Djokovic on 12, they have transcended the prestige of the events themselves. A final without any of the big 4 (or 5 if you want to count Wawrinka) is somehow diminished. It’s easy to be dismissive. The 2014 US Open final between Cilic and Nishikori? A blip. The ATP Finals with Goffin and Dimitrov? Interesting, but so what?

If Dimitrov lands a major or two in the next few years, it will be tempting to post-rationalise the final just gone as a watershed moment; equally, if he doesn’t, it’s just another of the occasional outliers.

As fans and writers, we need to remind ourselves that it is the title that confers greatness on the players, not the other way around. We do get one-off winners of major titles, and it is legitimate to say that they are not a truly great player until they deliver on the big stage again. But we should be careful not to diminish the achievements of yet-to-be-great players along the way. As much fun as 2017’s greatest hits has been with Federer and Nadal ruling the roost, I would love to see the majors go to a few new winners.

The Olympics needs a new hosting blueprint. Here’s one.

Paris Olympics, earlier

The latest round of Olympic bidding has highlighted what has been known for ages: that hosting the Games is a BAD IDEA.

Paris and LA have been awarded the 2024 and 2028 events. No other cities were in the running, after several, including Rome, Boston and Hamburg dropped out.

The Winter Games bidding for 2022 was a similarly feeble contest, with Almaty and Beijing the last two standing. Beijing – a city with no snow – won.

Why has the Olympics become so toxic?

The main reason is cost. Who can sell the idea of spending anything from $10bn – $50bn to a population that is feeling the pinch? Even populist dictators might baulk at the expense.

But costs are OK if there are benefits. Clearly, the benefits have been exposed as a bit of a con. Soft power? There are cheaper ways. Tourism? It actually drops. Infrastructure boost? Do it anyway, if it’s worth it. Happy population? Not necessarily.

So what would be a better way of hosting the Games? Here are a few ideas that are frequently put forward, and my thoughts on their strengths.

Idea #1: pare it down

The Olympics is too big as it is. If you want to make hosting affordable, get rid of sports that don’t need to be there. Football, tennis, golf – there are bigger prizes in those sports. Politically tricky, but doable.

Problem is, that still leaves a lot of events, and in any case, the main costs always seems to be the centrepiece athletics stadium, the athletes village, and the infrastructure. Cutting out a few events won’t help here.

Idea #2: joint cities

This has a certain appeal. Joint city hosting would spread the cost, surely? Not quite. The only example of joint hosting of a recent major event is the World Cup of 2002 between Korea and Japan. That was not a great success, with both countries building expensive stadiums and infrastructure. Rather than splitting the cost, it merely added to it.

For the Olympics, it would present a tricky branding challenge – every Games is “City year” eg London 2012. I guess you could have Rome-Madrid 2036 or whatever, but it’s less appealing. The city backdrop is part of the experience – think Rio’s beach or Sydney harbour. While the World Cup hops from stadium to stadium, an Olympics has a ‘village’ and a base. Two bases would be odd.

Further, where do you have the opening and closing ceremonies? The 100m final? It would be fine to divvy up some events, but the location of the showpiece athletics would naturally make the Games forever associated with that host, not the other.

Idea #3: spread far and wide

An Olympics with events around the globe sounds inclusive and idealistic, but it would have all the problems of idea #2 and more. One of the main ideas is that spectators can visit the city and see a range of sports, not just one. There would be no cohesive experience which would annoy lots of fans. Broadcasters would hate it – it would be far more expensive and hard to cover.

The experience of the Euro 2020 will be interesting in this regard – it’s taking part in 12 cities. If it somehow works (big if), spreading the Olympics *might* become an idea that takes off. Unlikely.

Idea #4: permanent hosts

Some have suggested a single permanent Summer and Winter host. I think that’s a bad idea, for several reasons. One, monotony. Two – it places quite a burden on the host city. Instead, the IOC should pick five cities that rotate the Games. Each would represent their continent, and the IOC would be have the extra incentive to invest some of the broadcast revenue in keeping the infrastructure maintained.

This has a lot of appeal – theoretically no more white elephant stadiums, crumbling facilities or overspending.

There are downsides: with a gap of 20 years, it’s possible that things fall apart anyway. The Olympic roster changes, which means new facilities would always be needed; stadiums will still be unused (or underused) for two decades.

However, picking the right hosts would mitigate those downsides. Cities that are big enough to cope with the set-aside of facilities could easily be found – London, Tokyo, LA would be great candidates.

The downside is regional jealousy. China would want to be a permanent host, for sure. As would the US. That might annoy Canada or Japan. But given that there is a dearth of cities with the current system, it might be a better plan.

The other positives to a permanent city plan is that it would kill off the expensive bidding process, which also would stop the bribery and backhanders. The IOC would have to reform from a princely tour of spoilt delegates to a proper administrative commission – a far better outcome. Cities would have far longer to plan, meaning cost overruns should be a thing of the past, or at least less likely. Hosts wouldn’t have to cut corners to get the Games ready. In any case, it would be a question of upgrading facilities, not a rush job of building from scratch in 7 years.

The benefit of putting on an Olympics is pretty small. Tourism suffers, rather than getting a boost. Countries that want to boost their profile have any other number of ways to do it – host a world championships, finance a Grand Prix, host an expo or something. The Olympics is too big to be used as a political tool anyway.

The other upside of permanent hosts is that it is also closer to the original Olympic ethos, which was to have the Games in the same location each time. Evolving that into five Olympic hosts – one for each of the rings, which could be a nice marketing touch – makes sense.

Anyway. Don’t hold your breath.


Sport Geek #75: the case for legalising drugs in sport

This week, a polemic. I’ve been thinking about Maria Sharapova’s return to the circuit, the plan to wipe world records in athletics, and drugs generally in sports. The truth is, I can’t see a way out, and I don’t think I’m alone. The road goes nowhere. So the conclusion I keep coming to is: make performance enhancing drugs legal.

This is clearly not a popular view. But let’s try it out for a moment. I’m going to look at the main objections and try and unpack this. Bear with me.

Testing doesn’t work

Of course testing works on a basic level, but the big picture is testing clearly doesn’t work. We have a situation where retrospective testing has caught a whole bunch of athletes from London 2012 and Beijing 2008 years later. Is that good? Not really. The clean athletes have missed their moment of glory, the public has moved on, and the history books just look messy.

Also, as pointed out elsewhere, most major drug scandals are due to whistleblowers, not testing: Russia, Lance Armstrong, Balco. Even Ben Jonson was (probably) set up (he got busted on a drug he wasn’t taking, apparently).

Added to that, testing catches about 1 per cent of athletes. Whereas most estimates put non-approved drug use at around 30 to 40 per cent. It’s woeful. Even if we got to catching a third of athletes, there are generations that got away with it. The war was lost a long time ago. And in the future? Continue reading

In (partial) defence of Fifa’s 48-team World Cup plan

The format of 32 has proven to be the perfect formula from all perspectives…

So said the EFA. But not quite all perspectives, and certainly not the one which counts most: Fifa’s.

The World Cup has been 32 teams since 1998. It starts with 8 groups of 4, top two go to the knockout round. It’s mathematically ideal and beautiful in every way.

So why change it? You can read good summaries on the BBC, Guardian, and also the Mail on typical jingoistic form (Burkina Faso but not Scotland!). The best analysis is here on the Economist. But aside from the politics and possible extra cash, is it so awful to destroy the perfect 32-game Cup?

Yes and no. Yes, for all the reasons linked to above. Yes because it makes the structure far less neat. No, because more teams from smaller nations is an admirable motive. So let’s look at the structure.

Fifa is suggesting 16 groups of 3, top two to knock out. That means two group games for each team, rather than three; and five knock out matches rather than four through to the final.

The initial negative reaction is based on three unavoidable things: fewer big teams will meet at the group stage; three in a group means final group matches might result in boring draws if both teams are through to the next stage; and fewer group matches means 16 teams get only two matches before heading home, rather than the current minimum of three.

Let’s unpick each one. Continue reading

Sport Geek #64: The goalkeeper and the three bullies

Football pundits, eh? Say what you like about them… actually, you can’t.

Not if you are a struggling goalkeeper at Liverpool. Loris Karius has overstepped the mark, it seems, in defending himself – rather than his goal – against Gary Neville.

Stay with me on this one. It’s a he said, Neville-said story. Continue reading

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