Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Category: football (page 1 of 3)

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:

US-owned
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

Petro-dollar
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.

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

Euro 2016: survival of the weak

euro numbersThe Euros start today. And go on for a bit, and a bit longer, and then eventually there will be a final, I promise.

If you feel that there’s something not quite right about this edition of the quadrennial, you’d be spot on. It comes down to the numbers.

In previous editions, the Euros were contested by 16 teams. Four groups of four, top two go to the quarter finals and so on. Great. But this edition is 24 teams.

Let’s take a step back: how did we get to 24 teams?

Well, it started with 53 teams, divided into nine groups of six (and one of 5). In those groups, the top two went through, plus a third place team, and then the other eight third place teams had a playoff.

From 53 to 23 (plus the hosts) isn’t much of a cut off. To compare, the World Cup for 2018 goes from 210 to 31 teams, and the UEFA (ie European) part of that goes from 54 teams to just 13 (plus Russia as hosts).

So rather than eliminate 76 per cent of the European teams in qualifying, as the World Cup does (the overall rate is 85 per cent), the Euros eliminated just 57 per cent of the teams in qualifying.

That basically means you can be a very average team and still get through to the finals. Obviously, not the Netherlands, but that’s another story.

And then there’s the finals themselves. The Guardian have done it brilliantly: a tournament of 24 is a terrible number. To get to the knock out stages of 16 teams (rather than 8 as before), you are eliminating not half, but just a third of teams from the group stage.

In other words – 53 goes to 23 (plus host), 24 goes to 16, then it’s a knockout (with some severely complicated rules along the way).

It’s almost harder to fail than it is to progress.

 

What can Fifa learn from other voting systems?

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Everyone agrees that Fifa needs to change. But what about the tricky question of members’ votes? In general, the argument seems to go like this: Continue reading

PSG: liberty, fraternity, inequality

473809032Sport is inherently unequal. Talent and skills are not distributed fairly, and it would be a far more boring world if they were.

But when it comes to the wages that are paid to players, some leagues prefer a fairer system – especially in the US – and some are content with a less equal system. Some are downright ridiculous.

The data provided each year by Sporting Intelligence highlights the haves and have-nots by comparing average team wages in 333 teams across many major leagues. As ever, the American sports leagues are notable by their evenness. In the NFL, for example, the top paying team, the Miami Dolphins, pay an average annual salary of £1.37m per player. The lowest payers are the New York Jets, with £1.01m per player. That’s across 32 teams. The difference top to bottom is just £357,000.

Let’s look at some of the major European football leagues by way of comparison. The contrast and variation is astonishing. Continue reading

Chelsea’s lack of penalties is completely normal – here’s why

466393940Chelsea took the unusual step of publishing an official moan about their lack of penalties this season. It has been widely reported (Guardian, BBC), but without anyone really taking them to task on the data. But a little statistical digging might have shown that they have nothing to complain about.

The Chelsea article said:

It is in our 28 Premier League games this season where we have been awarded just two penalties. Both were for infringements on the league’s most-fouled player, Eden Hazard, and both were in home London derbies, against Arsenal and QPR respectively. The most recent was four-and-a-half months ago.

Historically, this figure seems abnormally low.

In the Double-winning 2009/10 campaign, when we were the country’s outstanding attacking team, we were awarded 12 league penalties.

So let’s look at the evidence. The numbers that Chelsea point to only look at their own penalties awarded. Statistically, it’s known as sampling bias, but you don’t need to know that to see that it is a bunch of numbers out of context.

What we really care about is a few things: how many penalties should a team expect over a season? Are better teams given more penalties? And how do the league winners compare? The only way to know this is to (with apologies to Peter Moores) look at the data.

Chelsea did indeed get 12 penalties in 2009-10. But this is an outlier – in fact, for all the penalties data I could get from the 1998-99 season onwards, it is the highest number given to one team in a single season.

Two other teams have also been awarded 12 penalties in one campaign. Can you guess which teams they are? Have a go. Other league winners? Nope. In fact, it was Liverpool, in 2013-14 when they finished second; and Crystal Palace, in 2004-05, finishing in 18th place!

That might give a clue as to whether league position and penalties are connected. Basically, they are not. They are very weakly correlated, by a score of -0.28. *

Over a season, the average penalties per team per season has varied between two and six. And in the 16 years of available data, the Premier League winners have had a lower penalty count than the average team five times. That leaves 11 times when it has been higher (see chart below). Yes, you would expect the league winners to play attacking football and get a more penalties than the league average, as Chelsea suggest – but for Chelsea to get less than the average this season is hardly unprecedented.

EPL penalties

Put another way: only four times in the sixteen years of data have the team winning the league also been awarded the most penalties (Arsenal 2001-02, Manchester United 2002-03, 2007-08 and Chelsea 2009-10). Penalties are not some divine right of the best team. History shows that a team can be given a lot of penalties and still finish low down the league. Just ask Palace. Or Sunderland (6 penalties, 14th place last year). Or Blackpool (8 penalties, 19th place in 2010-11). Or West Ham (9 penalties, 17th place in 2009-10).

In other words: Chelsea’s current lack of penalties is nothing strange. It’s just… football.

* A negative number should be expected here, as a better league position is a lower number. For penalties and league position to be correlated, a score closer to -1 would be needed. For those wondering, it is very weakly positively correlated to the points a team gets over a season, with a score of 0.32.

A Qatar winter World Cup is no bad thing

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Isn’t Fifa simply awful? Having awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup in less-than-savoury circumstances, now it has the brass neck to move the event to Winter to avoid the scorching heat! Shame.

A quick read of most opinion pages suggests that this is a terrible idea for a clutch of reasons: Europe’s football leagues are thrown into disarray; outdoor screenings won’t work; it will ruin Christmas; the NFL(!) will compete with US attention; it’s a summer event, dammit.

Let’s quickly dismiss a few of the frothier objections: pubs will do fine; it won’t ruin Christmas; do we seriously think the US can only watch one sport at a time? So it is supposed to be a summer event. But having given Qatar the tournament in such a dodgy way, this is hardly the biggest thing to get worked up about.

But how about those European leagues being messed about? Surely there’s something in that?

Well, there are two options. One is to suspend matches while the World Cup is on. The other is to keep playing.

For some reason, only option 1 seems to be the course of action. In which case, La Liga and the Premier League and others will have to start a few weeks early and finish a few weeks late. Hardly the end of the world, is it? The Guardian has put together how the season might look, and, to me, it doesn’t seem too bad.

But what about option 2: play on? That’s what the leagues do during the African Cup of Nations, after all. It is also what county cricket teams do when England play Tests, T20, and One-day Internationals. It’s what the rugby clubs do when the 6 Nations and Autumn internationals are on.

What would the impact be on the leagues? Well, if we take the 2014 World Cup as any guide, the breakdown of players from each league went like this:

League World Cup players
England 119
Italy 81
Germany 78
Spain 64
France 46
Russia 34
Mexico 26
Turkey 26
Portugal 23
Netherlands 20

At first glance, it’s pretty obvious that the leagues that will be most hampered in 2022 are those of England, Italy, Germany and Spain. However, In terms of the overall players, Germany’s World Cup burden is slightly higher than Italy’s, as the league has 18 teams compared to the 20 in the others. If we use the current squad sizes of all the teams in those four leagues, around 21 per cent of the Premiership’s 550-plus players would be off to the World Cup, over 15 per cent of the Bundesliga’s players, just under 15 per cent of Serie A would go, and 12 per cent of La Liga. It’s hardly an entire league – the Premiership would lose one in five players.

But of course, the burden isn’t spread equally around. In 2014 the Premiership had five clubs (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United) with 10 or more players going to the World Cup. All the other teams had 6 or fewer. In other leagues there was a similar skewing: Bayern Munich had 15 World Cup representatives, Barcelona had 13 and Real Madrid had 12. Juventus and Napoli had 12 players in Brazil 2014.

What would the solution be? If the leagues insisted in playing during the World Cup, their biggest clubs would suffer disproportionately. In the era of vastly unequal resources, that might be a rather positive outcome: in the run up to 2022, the bigger clubs would have to expand their squads with home-grown and non-international players; it might mean they become reluctant to sign a World Cup-bound player. However, this isn’t for the entire season – it’s probably for six or seven matches. It would make the league more uncertain, that’s for sure. Smaller teams such as Southampton and West Ham might well vote for it. In fact, put to an equal vote, the majority of Premiership clubs should be in favour of continuing to play during the World Cup.

However, the big clubs are never going to go along with this. For example, Chelsea, with a first team squad of 24 including 12 World Cup players, would struggle to field a team without calling up a host of reserves.

The bigger issue would be gate receipts and advertising. Shorn of the bigger star names, bar the odd exception (such as Gareth Bale), the big European clubs would face a temporary tail-off of interest. It would be a “downgraded product”. And that would never do. Competing head-on with the World Cup would only have one winner: fans want to see the best players in action.

Given that the Premiership seems utterly focused on squeezing every commercial drop it can, the idea of playing on is a non-starter. Which is a shame, as football in England and Spain could do with a rebalancing of power, however temporary.

The only other scenario in which the European leagues would play on is if they force their players to boycott the World Cup. The ramifications of that would be huge. In fact, it would be the most divisive moment in football history, and possibly spell the end of international football in its current form.

Somehow, I don’t think Fifa will let that happen.

3 reasons why the Premier League deal should be no surprise

It looks huge – a $5.1 deal, 70 per cent up on the previous one. The English Premier League certainly knows how to sell itself.

But amid all the mutterings of how the money won’t filter down to the grass roots and smaller clubs, or Alan Sugar’s lovely image of “prune juice”, here are three reasons why we shouldn’t be surprised.

1) Sky

Sky paid £4.2bn for their match packages. Sounds a lot, until you realise that in 2014, Sky made £7.6bn in revenue, and a profit before tax of £1.1bn. Also, this is a three-year deal, so for Sky it works out as £1.4bn per year. In short – the company can clearly afford it. Assuming that the advertisers are still keen, and the public keep subscribing, it could be a great deal.

Of course, the extra money won’t be squandered, from Sky’s point of view. Every big money transfer to the Premier League adds to the allure, so they aren’t just spending money on a fixed asset – they are spending on future improvements too. If English clubs can outspend Spanish rivals, it’s basically free marketing for Sky.

2) BT

BT have become a serious football broadcast player. They snapped up the Champion’s League TV rights, and have again bid up for the Premier League. Increased competition over a fixed supply means higher prices, as any economist will tell you.

3) Lessons of the NFL

It has a bigger domestic audience, obviously, but the NFL has done a very good job of squeezing the broadcasters for cash, with an annualised $5bn-plus deal with several broadcasters over eight years. While this is about double what the British broadcasters are paying (after converting dollars into sterling), there is a remarkable similarity in the increase from the previous deal.

The NFL secured a total $3.1bn TV rights deal for the 2006-13 seasons. That then went up to over $5bn for 2014-21. The Premier League had a £3bn deal for 2013-16, and now £5.1bn for 2016-19. It’s a highly similar increase: 62-plus per cent for the NFL, 70 per cent for the Premier League.

Is it such a surprise that sports broadcasters (albeit in different countries for different sports) have upped their valuation of TV rights by the same amount at a similar time?

It would be nice to see more money going to places other than players’ salaries and agents. But in a commercial world, the Premier League deal is less surprising than the wide-eyed coverage from the media who run every news snippet about football that they possibly can.

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