The Rise of Soccer Quants

Once again, Footiebusiness Contributor David Laidig back with a great look at an item of interest to soccer fans. Thanks to Dave for another great piece.

The use of analytics is rising in sports, and is a quiet revolution in soccer as well. Using analytics – or
quantitative based analysis – in soccer is nothing new. In fact, in the late 70’s, the manager for Dynamo
Kyiv would post targets of specific game behaviors (such as tackles, interceptions, headers on goal,
and types of passes) for his players, with the targets reflecting the style of play and tactics adopted for
that particular game.1 However, for the quantitative analyst – or Quant – obtaining this data remained
challenging and labor intensive. But in spite of this difficulty, efforts continue with the goal of applying
empirical analysis to tactics, strategies, revenue streams, and maximizing value under a salary cap
or other cost restrictions. For the fan, the last example is the first that comes to mind. Indeed, the
term Moneyball still remains a shortened definition for unearthing market inefficiencies in sports. An
attractive concept – even without Brad Pitt – for MLS teams with less purchasing power than teams in
established European leagues. But the Quants are gaining visibility and influence within the world of
soccer. And behind this trend are new technologies yielding new data and a growing class of soccer
analysts that bring their own perspective to the beautiful game.

Evidence of the Soccer Quants is undeniable. For example, MIT recently hosted the Sloan Sports
Analytics Conference where, for the second year in a row, soccer was the focus of its own session.2
There, interestingly, the biggest data-driven teams were listed as Chelsea, Everton, Fulham, and
Manchester City in England and Dortmund and Hamburg in the Bundesliga.3 And considering that
soccer is a sport that has embraced new media, it is heartening that several outlets provide a forum
for discussions of soccer analytics.4 Even twitter heralds the Quant trend as Gavin Fleig, Head of
Performance Analysis for Manchester City, recently offered to answer public questions via twitter for an
hour while on the train to a Man City fixture. And yes, I kicked myself for watching my kids instead of
my twitter feed.

Some have incorporated this trend towards analysis in innovative ways. For example, the EPL Index
allows fans, for a small subscription fee, to access a wide variety of game statistics.5 And not only is
access available, but fans are encouraged to post the results of their analyses on the site. The result
is a mix of organic social media with quantitative analysis. This not only strengthens public ties to the
league, but also advances the knowledge of the game. In the United States, such access to data is not
widely available. MLS does offer insightful chalkboards for its games, thanks to its partnership with Opta, but the aggregation of such data is time intensive and the information provided is more limited.
However, in spite of difficulties, the appetite for quantitative analysis continues unabated. A recent
example illustrates how grass roots pursuit of quantitative analysis sheds light on fundamental business
decisions.

MLS has recently published a Performance Index, sponsored by the league sponsor Castrol, summarizing
the 2011 season. This Castrol Index assigns a number for each player; a number intended to represent
that individual’s contribution to the team’s wins. Benjamin Leinwand and Chris Anderson used the
Castrol Index and player salaries in their analysis suggesting that the MLS market undervalues defensive
play, and overvalues forwards.6 Using Leinwand and Anderson’s result, teams would be justified in
second-guessing a high-priced Forward contract, and may decide to emphasize Defenders.

However, the Castrol Index is highly correlated with minutes played, especially for the group of players
with less than 1800 minutes (20 full games). The number of minutes played contributes nearly 90% of
the variability to the Castrol Index for players with less than 1800 minutes. For the players with 1800 or
more minutes in 2011, their time was not related to the Castrol Index score – suggesting that the Index
is measuring something else besides playing time for this group.

Thus, by looking at the Castrol Index from another perspective (i.e., its relationship to minutes played),
one can better utilize the information by accounting for its limitations. For example, one might target
players that over perform based on minutes played (but still fall behind the league leaders that get
regular playing time). And an analysis of market efficiency using the Castrol Index should begin by
looking at players with significant playing time, or risk losing the value of an objective performance
measure.7 And with more questions than answers, active debates and the opportunities for teams to
gain advantage will only continue in the future.

As a lawyer who negotiates contracts on a regular basis, I understand that every negotiation is tied to an
underlying assessment of value. I recommend that front office types learn the language of the Quant in
order to better support their technical staff, and make their business more efficient.8 Brad Pitt may play
you in a movie.

1 Jonathon Wilson, Inverting the Pyramid, p. 244.
2For an insightful report of the conference from a soccer perspective, and an interview with Drew Carey, Zach
Slaton’s SSAC entries at http://www.abeautifulnumbersgame.com/ are a must read.
3 Id.
4A few of my frequently checked sites include:

http://www.abeautifulnumbersgame.com/

http://www.thenumericaladvantage.com/

http://socceranalysts.com/

http://transferpriceindex.com/blog/ and
http://www.futbolforgringos.com/ (for analysis of tactics with a quantitative flavor).
5http://www.eplindex.com/
6See full article at http://www.soccerbythenumbers.com/2012/02/how-efficient-are-player-salaries-in.html
7And all of this was done by stat-loving fans looking to avoid real work.
8For reference, the mating call of the Quant is “who wants a Guinness”?

Business Blogging: NBC Broadcasts MLS

At 3:00 Eastern on Sunday, NBC kicked off its three years of MLS coverage on Sunday with a live broadcast from Frisco, Texas.  As we often do for big soccer telecasts, we prepared a business blog of the event.  Generally, the reviews of NBC’s fist broadcat were extremely positive.  Both the booth and studio teams drew high reviews and production values were first rate.

The broadcast started with a voice over promo for soccer on NBC and followed with a high production value introduction.  The live broadcast quickly moved to the field with White and Martino doing a stand-up pitchside.  The studio team was also on-site and Robbie Earle and Russel Thaler provided some good insight into some of the competitive changes facing the league in 2012.  The first set of ads came from the Marines, Dick’s, 5 Hour Energy, Panasonic and Gillette.  Both the Panasonic and Dick’s spots included MLS content.  The broadcast then came back for a quick look at starting line-ups before going to back to a set of ads for Continental Tire, KFC mycleanpc.com.

The broadcast returned with an on-field interview with Henry, an area of focus from NBC this year.  Other ads included E-Trade, Belvita, Wrath of the Titans, Subaru, Kingsford and choicehotels. Continental Tire sponsored Kyle Martino’s keys to the game. Panasonic was the first on-screen advertiser.  There was some choppiness to the broadcast in the 30th minute both we replays and some of the live footage. Arlo White announced Sleep Inn as a partner in the 32nd minute.

Halftime ads included the Marine Corps, 5 Hour Energy, mycleanpc.com, Buick, Allstate and other repeats.  Earle and Thaler were solid during the halftime show, providing good insight and a solid highlight package.  More game highlights from the night before would have been appreciated, but the analysis of the first half was solid.   The “story” focus was apparentl, as the broadcat kept coming back to the Red Bulls’ rookie goalie.

The second half continued the strong performance with the ususal suspects from the sponsors’ bench coming on screen.  Notably, FC Dallas’ new electronic signs were evident throughout and generally added to the professional atmosphere.  The postgame show was generally well done.

Overall, it was a great first effort by the league’s new media partner.  We will check back in later in the season to see how the network has changed its coverage.

The Monday After

First Kick is (almost) in the books with only a sold out Jeld-Wen Field left for Monday night.  Here is a look at the first week of attendance figures from around Major League Soccer.  The first set of games featured Colorado hosting Columbus and Vancouver hosting Montreal’s inaugural match.  21k sold out BC Place for Vancouver’s home opener while just over 14,700 were DSG for the Rapids.  Just over 16k came to RFK for United’s home opening lost to Sporting Kansas City.  In the dueling nightcaps, the Galaxy fell to RSL before a 27k sellout, while San Jose sold out their home opener before just 10,500.

On Sunday, FC Dallas newly named FC Dallas Stadium brought 21k to the MetroPlex for the first telecast on the NBCSN.  At night, Houston was hosted by Chivas USA before a reduced crowd at the HDC

No discussion of attendance would be complete without comment on the great crowds that came out midweek for the CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinals. In Seattle, more than 23,000 came to Century Link Field for the Sounders’ home win over Santos. In Toronto, TFC opened the Rogers Centre for their clash with the Beckham lead Galaxy.  The match drew a remarkable crowd of more than 47k.

In other attendance news, Chivas USA has announced that it will reduce the capacity for its home dates at the HDC. to 18,000.  The team has struggled at the gate when compared to its co-tenant.  The Goats are also said to be looking for their own stadium site in Los Angeles.

One final note about the NBC broadcast.  We will have more detail on the telecast in our next post, but first impressions were quite good.  The production was top notch, the “between the benches” gimmick was seamless and the broadcast team did a solid job throughout.

The Commissioner Speaks

Last post before the Major Soccer Season kicks off this weekend, s  Commissioner Garber held his regular pre-First Kick media conference call on Thursday.  He reiterated the great attendance success of 2011, noting 87 sellouts league wide, 5.4 million in total attendance and an average of almost 40k in Seattle.

He indicated that the league is taking control of the stadium situation in New York, finding locations, hiring consultants and researching 19 sites near the urban core.  Garber believes that a stadium ready franchise opportunity in New York City will be worth $100 million to a wide array of owners.  This is the first time the league has taken the lead in locating a stadium and the hope is that by presenting a stadium opportunity, the league will attract the most desirable ownership group.

He also confirmed that SUM sold shares to Providence Equity private equity group. Recall that last September, the Sports Business Journal reported that Providence Equity Partners was seeking to purchase 25% of SUM for $125-150 million. Finally, Garber proudly cited to an ESPN Poll that revealed that between those ages 12-24 soccer is the 2nd favorite sport. He bluntly stated that the “Statistic is empowering”.

The Commissioner also addressed a series of questions about the league’s lagging television ratings.  He admitted that the television viewership needs to increase in order to for the league to rise to the next level.  The ratings on NBC will bear watching.

Enjoy the first weekend of games and we’ll be back on Monday with a look at attendance and other stories making news over the weekend

 

 

 

A Deeper Look at NBC and MLS

On Wednesday afternoon NBC hosted a conference call to discuss its upcoming first year of Major League Soccer coverage. Footiebusiness contributor Dave Laidig was on the call and presents this summary of the event.

NBCSports starts their coverage this Sunday with FC Dallas and
NYRB , and previewed their coverage to the press on Wednesday.
NBC made it clar that MLS is a priorit, and point to their
assignment of Pierre Moosa – with his experience on NBC’s Sunday Night
Football broadcast – as an example of their commitment to having a
first class production.

Further, NBC promised there would be no gimmicks, just honest
reflection of the game.  Moosa emphasized, “the game is the most
important thing, the reason people watch, the reason people care.”
Thus, the network plans on using the standard 8-10 camera angles, to
support its philosophy of covering the basics first.

As part of the production, the network will offer a pregame, halftime,
and post-game show.  The pre-game show is intended to present game info
and present hot topics around the league with expert analysis.  The
network has worked with the league to obtain access to players for
pre-game interviews, which may be worked into the telecast.  The halftime show will
focus on the “why” of the first half.  And the post-game show will
cover analysis of the game, player interviews, and upcoming match-ups
around the league.

A key feature of the broadcast will be locating a broadcast team
member on the sideline, in this case the role goes to ex-player Kyle
Martino.  NBC presented this model (one in the booth and one on the
sidelines) as an extension of the model used in the NHL.  In its
defense, the networked pointed out that, at the time the bench
reporter was introduced in the NHL, the establishment thought it was a
dumb idea.  And now, the model is the “gold standard” in hockey.  For
his part, Martino looked forward to obtaining information that is
simply not available from a booth high above the action.  On the
sideline, he will draw not only on perceptions honed from years of
playing experience, but also from the shouted instructions from
coaches, or communications between teammates.  This insight willbe
incorporated into the broadcast, providing a more complete experience
for the fan.  The network revealed it produced two rehearsal games at
the recent Orlando tournament, and felt confident about the flow of
the game and the working relationship between Arlo and Kyle.

Also, NBC indicates it will strongly emphasize social media in its
soccer production: pointing first to its ProSoccerTalk website, and to
its plans to connect via Facebook and that it will show a Twitter
hashtag on the screen.  For its rollout, NBC plans on using the first
few games getting in the groove, and then ramping up the social media
outreach.

All in all, the excitement for the venture in the room was palpable
and we have yet another reason to look forward to the start of a new
season.

Soccer Business Bits: NBC Launches ProSoccer Talk, Colorado Rapids Women & More

NBC Sports has finally added a Pro Soccer Talk to its web page in the lead-up to the start of the Major League Soccer season.  Longtime soccer writer Steve Davis will headline the site.  Davis is a veteran of both ESPN.com and CNNSi.com and will add a respected soccer voice to NBC’s coverage of MLS.  Despite the launch, the soccer themed blog failed to make the front page of the NBC Sports website.  Hopefully that oversight will be rectified, but now one needs to access the main page in order to find Davis’ posts.  A link to the site can be found here.

With the demise (at least temporarily) of the WPS, it was important that the WLeague pick up the slack where possible.  Today it was announced that the Colorado Rapids Women will be the fourth MLS affiliated team to join the USL sponsored WLeague.  They will join the DC United Women, Seattle Sounders Women and Vancouver Whitecaps FC as WLeague teams that are partnered with a Major League Soccer franchise.  Many observers of the Womens’ game have long thought an increased MLS presence would be extremely important to the ultimate success of the sport in the United States.  Could a revitalized WPS emerge with a substantially increased MLS presence?

Finally, it was announced today that the MLS Direct Kick Package will again be available to all free of charge the first week of the season.  Direct Kick will be priced at $79 for the entire season, but faces stiff competition from the new MLS Digital package which is compatible with most mobile devices, computers and devices such as Roku.

Business Notes for the Upcoming Season

Every season the Sports Business Journal provides an excellent in-depth look at the upcoming Major League Soccer season.  A link to the excellent grouping of stories is here. The lead story is about the new relationship between NBC and MLS.

In August MLS and NBC  announced a three year television rights agreement that will put Major League Soccer on the Peacock and its affiliated sports channel from 2012-2014.  The three year deal is worth an estimated 10 million dollars per year.  SBJ reports that NBC will focus on creating “household names” that American sports fans will identify.  The network also announced that Kyle Martino will serve as Arlo White’s analyst for matches on the NBC Sports Network and NBC.  Interestingly, NBC will have Martino stationed down on the field “between the benches” to provide field-side commentary rather than analysis from the booth.  While innovative, this seems like a bad idea by the league’s new partner unless Martino offers only occasional insights from his sideline location.

Last year, for the first time, MLS teams were free to sell their own local rights in certain sponsorship categories.  Last Fall, SBJ  reported that a large number of MLS franchises have inked deals with league sponsors Pepsi and Budweiser for local rights, while seven have signed with other brewers and more than a handful have signed deals with Dr. Pepper and Coca-Cola.   In its in-depth look, SBJ notes that the deals with brewers are going for $250-$300k per year for the MLS teams.  it is interesting to note that some teams have looked to local brewers for partnerships and as a way to further promote close ties with local businesses.  One such deal was announced on Monday by Sporting Kansas City.  The team has paired with Boulevard Brewing Company, a local brewery on a season long cross promotional campaign. The agreement includes Boulevard themed tickets, product launches at Livestrong Sporting Park and more.

The Monday After

Time for the final preseason “Monday After” post of 2012.  Once the regular season starts next, the Monday After will focus on MLS attendance and a couple of major business story lines from the weekend.  We’ll start this post with a look at the tournaments that wrapped up over the weekend.  In Tucson, the final of the Desert Diamond Cup was played to a scoreless draw between the Galaxy and Revolution.  Most notably, more than 10,000 fans turned out for the final and the tournament total eclipsed 30,000.  MLS has worked hard to make its preseason an event and the evolution of the Desert Diamond Cup stands as a great example of those efforts.  This quote from the Arizona Republic bodes especially well for future Arizona based preseasons.  “According to Tucson officials, the money is there to help transform fields around Kino Stadium — the former Spring Training home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies — into first class soccer pitches, a requirement the MLS is making before it gives the go-ahead for permanent preseason training in Tucson.” Six teams have already committed to spending portions of their preseason in Tucson in 2013.

In Orlando, Vancouver defeated Toronto to claim the Pro Soccer Classic at Disney’s Wide World of Sports.  Unlike its Arizona cousin, the tournament didn’t garner significant attention in the local press.  However, Commissioner Garber’s appearance during the tournament to discuss the possibility of expanding to Orlando did rate an interview and article in the Orlando Sentinel.  The Final and consolation game were both broadcast on ESPN3. Unfortunately, the final big tournament in Charleston suffered from severe weather and the Final was never played.  With teams just one week away from the season, the game will not be replayed.

Finally, this survey from ESPN was a big topic of conversation over the weekend in soccer circles.  Among those aged 12-24, soccer is second only to the NFL in popularity, while the sport remains the most popular among Hispanics.  The impact and basis of this rising popularity is obviously a constant subject on this site, but the survey is certainly a valuable snapshot of the strides soccer is making in this country.

Business Snapshot: Television

Last week we took a look at the status of expansion on the eve of the 2012 season.  Today, with the start of the NBC/MLS relationship just days away, we thought it worth taking a quick snapshot of the American soccer broadcast relationships.  In August MLS and NBC  announced a three year television rights agreement that will put Major League Soccer on the Peacock and its affiliated sports channel from 2012-2014.  The three year deal is worth an estimated 10 million dollars per year and replaced the league’s one year $6 million + deal with FSC.  As part of the agreement, NBC and NBC Sports Network will air regular season and playoff matches from MLS and USMNT games.  Promotional efforts have already begun and the network has produced a number of high quality spots to promote the upcoming season of soccer.

MLS has timed the expiration of its newest deal to coincide with the end of the ESPN and Univision deals as well.  Conventional wisdom suggests that this is a calculated risk that will allow the league to maximize it s future tv revenue by negotiating rights deals in the glow of a World Cup year.  However, that approach puts MLS in the unenviable position of entering the negotiations with no security blanket.  If one its primary partners declines to participate in the discussions, the league will lack leverage.

The standard bearer for league television relationships is ESPN, which is a longtime partner of the league.  ESPN still holds the rights to the MLS Cup and All Star Game.  ESPN pays $8.5 million annually for MLS rights, yet that deal is part of a larger SUM/ABC/ESPN package that includes USMNT games and FIFA World Cup. In 2012, ESPN’s package is reduced to 20 games but includes a number of games on ESPN rather than ESPN2.

No discussion of league television rights would be complete without reference to the new $55 million deal with two Time Warner Regional Sports networks to televise Galaxy games.  The new networks (one in Spanish and the other in English) are fighting for content in the crowded LA Sports market and this deal guarantees live programming from March to October. The size of the deal is staggering.  NBC recently paid $30 million for 3 years of Major League Soccer on a national level and now Time Warner is offering $5.5 million per year for a team that never topped 16k viewers over the last year.

The last note applies to future World Cup broadcasts.  FOX outbid NBC and ESPN to claim the rights for approximately $450 million dollars.  The Spanish language rights were won by Telemundo for an estimated $600 million.  The combined $1 billion bids shatters FIFA records and confirms both stations as primary player in the soccer broadcast arena.  The package includes rights to the Womens’ World Cup events in intervening years and rights to various youth World Cups.  In 2005, ESPN paid $100 million for the English-language rights to the 2010 and 2014 games. Univision paid $325 million for the Spanish-language rights.  US rights are the most expensive in the world.

Business Blogging: US v. Italy

The United States National Team was in Genoa, Italy on Wednesday to take on the Azurri in an international friendly. I thought I would use the opportunity to offer a business blog of the match and its telecast on ESPN2.  The broadcast started with some background on the city of Genoa and the match courtesy of Ian Darke.  Darke’s partner in the booth was former New England Revolution forward and new MLS color man Taylor Twellman.  Gatorade sponsored a “primed to perform” moment at the outset. The first break featured a soccer specific add courtesy of Allstate.  That was followed by ads for Gatorade, Aqua Velva, Allegra and local spots.

After the break, the focus went to the studio with the excellent Bob Ley, Alexi Lalas and Steve McManaman to discuss the status of the game and the team.  After the studio bit, there were commercials from Chrysler, Lens Crafter, Gameflow.com. Prilosec OTC and ESPN spot.  There was no presenting sponsor for the studio show or for the match.  Gatorade was the first on screen advertiser during in-game action.  The ESPN2 bottom line was a constant presence during the match. AllState also purchased an on-screen spot.

In the 15th minute, Darke offered the first promo for the ESPN2 broadcast of the EPL for the coming weekend. It took until the 27th minute for Mike Piazza to make an appearance.  The first MLS promotion came in the 30th minute.  Both the Galaxy and David Beckham rated a mention in addition to the First Kick match featuring Portland.  The Algarave Cup also received attention in the 33rd minute.   Full credit to Taylor Twellman for citing to Grant Wahl’s CNNSI piece about Dempsey when discussing the midfielder.

Darke is always excellent, but one legitimate criticism is the seemingly endless references to the EPL throughout the broadcasts.  Almost every anecdote includes a Liverpool reference, an Arsenal memory or a Norwich recollection.  Darke’s reference points are obviously based in the UK, but it detracts from the broadcast when seemingly every event is referred back to some English soccer happening.

At the half, Allstate had the first spot, followed by ESPN Films, Aqua Velva, Selson Blue to Bosch. The halftime show featured the same cast of characters joined by Taylor Twellman to discuss MLS.  The Hall of Fame got a mention as did other international matches. Other spots included Lens Crafters, Duracell and Gatorade.  Local spots also got some play. Geico.

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