Soccernomics: A Chat with Simon Kuper

Back in 2009 we had a brief chat with Soccernomics author Simon Kuper.  The book was first published in October, 2009 and continues to cited in soccer circles.    Soccernomics combines economics and soccer to provide an interesting look into the use of data in sports and takes direct aim at some of the longest held beliefs of fans and soccer managers about the evaluation of players.  The book also looks at a number of financial “myths” that surround the game, including the financial benefits of hosting big soccer events and the profitability of sports franchises.   Mr. Kuper is a sports columnist for the Financial Time sand his book, “Football Against the Enemy” won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award in 1994.  Given the recent excellent guest post from Dave Laidig about Opta, we thought that Kuper’s thoughts on stats in soccer were especially interesting.  Here are some excerpts from that interview. You make a compelling case that big sporting events (e.g. the World Cup), do not provide the financial benefits that are so often touted when efforts are made to secure financing for such events.  Does that analysis change when the U.S. is the prospective host country?  Given the size of U.S. stadiums (and thus larger crowds), and the existence of sufficient infrastructure, do American communities have a better chance of deriving a financial benefit from hosting such a big event?

Simon Kuper: I think the financial benefit would not be very big in any case. I mean, with tourists, conferences and business travelers, the main American cities get a lot of custom most of the time. A world cup probably wouldn’t boost their numbers hugely. Also, during a world cup “normal” travel usually falls off, as business people and tourists don’t go to the country for fear of higher hotel prices and of soccer hooligans (there’s always lots of publicity about soccer hooligans, even though they tend not to appear much in reality at big tournaments). So I think the boost would be limited.

But it is true that because the US already has the infrastructure and the stadiums, its cost would be minimal too. It wouldn’t have to build loads of new stadiums with expensive hotels and access roads etc, like Japan did in 2002 or Germany and South Africa since. That’s a big advantage. I suspect the world cup 1994 cost very little and boosted the US economy by very little. It wouldn’t be a bonanza for any American town, but it probably wouldn’t hurt. In South Africa, by contrast, taxpayers are paying billions desperately needed for other things to build world cup stadiums that after 2010 will be empty almost forever.

FB: The book discusses the increased use of statistical data among managers/scouts in the game of soccer and in addition to figures such as Arsene Wenger, you reference familiar baseball names such as Bill James and Billy Beane.  Statistics and numbers are integral to the enjoyment of many baseball fans.  Does soccer lend itself to a similar “numbers culture”?  Are there statistics that casual soccer fans can embrace as a way to further understand and enjoy the game?

SK: There are fewer stats in soccer than in baseball or cricket, but the number of stats is growing. In the past we only really had goals. Now companies like Opta and Prozone produce measures for each game of how many kilometers each player ran, how many tackles and passes he made, etc. This info is proprietary and they sell it for lots of money, but sometimes newspapers buy it so fans get to see it. There’s interesting stuff there, even though those stats don’t tell you much about a player’s worth. Clubs have been trying to mine these stats for knowledge, and as far as I can see, they have discovered that running more kms than the opposition does not correlate with winning matches, possession doesn’t correlate with winning matches, tackles are not a good indicator of a good defender as e.g. Paolo Maldini rarely made any tackles, and so on. Some data are useful: e.g. how many of a striker’s shots are on target is very telling (I think Eto’o does best on this measure) and if your team sprints greater distances than an opponent during a match, that does correlate with winning.

But definitely soccer stats are at an early stage. There’s nothing like in baseball or cricket. What we found very interesting in our book was the off-the-field stats: e.g. correlating players’ wages with league position, and finding that wages explained almost entirely where a club finishes in the league. In other words: high wages win matches; the rest is just noise. By contrast, a club’s transfer spending doesn’t predict where it will finish in the league, because so many transfers go wrong. That was fascinating to me. This was data that Stefan, my co-writer, had assembled. I loved it because as you know, in soccer people generally just talk and spout opinions, but nobody has data. Stefan does.

FB: You effectively argue that owning a professional sports franchise is not a profit making enterprise.  Do team owners make money through appreciation value?  If they hold their teams for a number of years, can they make money?

SK: I think the best analogy is with the art market. Buying a soccer club is like buying a painting. It gives you status among your rich peers, and though it won’t give you an annual return, there’s a fair chance that after a few years you’ll be able to sell it at a profit to another rich man in search of status. That’s the best business model in soccer, because the model of annual profits hasn’t worked for anyone except Man United. Of course you’re betting on the price of soccer clubs rising like the price of art, but in both cases that has largely happened as both markets go global: just as there are more Indian and Russian billionaires buying art now, there are more Arab and Russian billionaires buying soccer clubs. (OK, the art market took a massive hit last year, but leaving that aside for the moment.)

FB: Finally, given the amount of money brought in through television rights, has match attendance stopped being a primary revenue source for teams?

SK: You’d have to look at the numbers, and it differs per club and per league, but I think that for many clubs that is now true. I think Barcelona and Real Madrid each get somewhere over $200 million a year from selling TV rights. I very much doubt that they get that from match attendance, despite their giant stadiums. And it’s easier to grow the TV market than the live attendance market, because in TV your potential audience is the world – people in LA or Shanghai watching on the sofa or in bars – whereas there’s a limit to the amount of people you can pack into a stadium. More than about 100,000, and the people in the top tiers can’t really see anything. So the future of profit growth in soccer is most probably TV. But our book isn’t so much about profits, because the vast majority of clubs don’t make any. What interests us is what data can tell you about the game itself, and the silly decisions that clubs make.

Thanks to Simon Kuper for some great insight and responses.  While we don’t agree with everything in the book, we do believe it makes for a great read and great gift for soccer fans and fans of all sports.  For more about the book, click here for an interview that Mr. Kuper did with the New York Times.

3 Responses

  1. Thanks for the article Ben. I would be curious to hear Simon’s reasoning of why countries spend millions of dollars trying to woo FIFA to get the World Cup if it is such a money loser. I think that countries crave the World Cup because of the status but in turn it does a number of things well after the tournament is over such as tourism, showing a country in good light, league growth in that country, providing money to local business during and after, 30 day ad for that country all over the world, etc… that may not show up in the final financial numbers for the tourney but are important nonetheless.

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