Tag Archives: soccer

Adrian the Canadian: What’s wrong with the BCS and its successor?

I’ve made my thoughts about the BCS abundantly clear, so on the eve of the college football kickoff, I’ll let Adrian the Canadian give you a more well-reasoned critique of both the old/current system and the new one:

In case you missed it while focusing on the Olympics, Euro 2012, or MLB’s new double wild card chase,  college football’s bigwigs announced that, finally, there will be a playoff in D-I, sorry, FBS college football (starting in 2014). For those interested in the details, here’s Andy Staples. In short, it’s a four team playoff with the four teams selected by the ubiquitous “selection committee.” Now, despite what I’m about to argue, I think this is an improvement over the previous system which was corrupt, illegitimate, and, ultimately, kind of dull.  Still this system fails to identify and address the real issue with college football’s championship. The problem is not that college football does a bad job of identifying and rewarding the “best” team — it arguably does that with more frequency and reliability than any other sport in America — it’s that college football does little crown a legitimate champion. Indeed, what we want from our sports in not a system that determines the best team but one that gives us a legitimate result at the end of the season. The new college football model fails to do that.

As I’m sure Tyler will tell you, the best way to figure out a league’s “best” team is to have a sufficiently connected round-robin style tournament with a large number of rounds. In plain English, have everybody play everybody else lots. Such a system minimizes luck, randomness, and fluctuations in performance, leaving us with a relatively clear idea of who the “best” team is. Most domestic European soccer leagues follow this model, as did baseball prior to the advent of playoffs. This model doesn’t work for American football for an obvious reason: the sport is too physically taxing to play enough games. And yet, college football is pretty adept at determining who the “best” team is in any given year. Compare to the NFL: surely Alabama has a better claim to being the “best” college football team than the New York Giants do to being the best “pro-football” team. Tyler can do the analysis, but I’m willing to bet that the BCS champion correlates much more highly than the Super Bowl champion to statistical measures of team quality. However, no one complains about the Super Bowl champion or demands that the NFL change its playoff system.

The reason for this is simple; we sports fans don’t want a playoff system that determines the “best” team. What we want is a system that crowns a legitimate champion. Let’s look Continue reading

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Part 2: The Return of Adrian the Canadian

Yesterday, Adrian reasserted himself on the blog with a clear proposal to reduce diving in soccer.  Today, he shows off his versatility with a response to my recent thoughts on fairness in U.S. and European professional sports leagues (written in relation to my brother Conor’s defense of talent concentration in European soccer). For a taste of the historical, economic, legal, and political, set aside 10 minutes and read on:

How long has it been? Too long, I think.  But Tyler’s recent post has compelled me to withdraw from my self-imposed hibernation and away from the stultifying process of studying for the Ontario bar exam. In short, I disagree with the capitalist/socialist, American Sports/European Sports dichotomy or, rather, I think it abstracts away from the real issue – that cartels make a heck of a lot more money than entities that exist in competition with one another. In short, the NFL and MLB are not staunch defenders of equality values; Dan Snyder and Hank Steinbrenner are not driving the train to the Finland Station.

The standard argument goes something like this: isn’t it ironic that America, land of unbridled capitalism, home of animal spirits on free and open fields, has “socialist” sports leagues that redistribute resources from winners to losers while red, socialist, pinko Europe has a free and open market for sports talent? It’s a cute argument and one that elicits a nice “hmmm…” from readers and there are certainly large elements of truth to it. American sports are, at least nominally, more redistributive, and there is a larger perception that American sports are organized more “fairly” than European sports from a competitive standpoint. Still, it’s far from clear that European sports are more aristocratic than American sports if we look at the highest levels and, more importantly, I think this distracts us from a deeper, more thorough comparison of why European sports and American sports are organized so differently.

Barcelona’s greatness is undeniable, but it’s not a greatness that has translated into a dynasty at the highest levels of competition. While Barca has been the dominant team in La Liga, it’s only won three of the last ten Champions League titles despite making each of the last ten tournaments. This means that the Champions League may not even be as “aristocratic” as the NBA:  eight different teams have won the Champions League while only six have won the NBA championship in the same span. And, unlike La Liga Continue reading

Part 1: The Return of Adrian the Canadian

It’s been awhile since we’ve heard from the real Rules Guru, Adrian the Canadian. He has a good excuse – he’s been busy studying rules that actually matter to prepare for Ontario’s bar exam. However, my recent post addressing two soccer articles by my brother Conor lulled him out of hiding. Conor’s spot-on tribute to the toughness of Carles Puyol set me off on a tangent about soccer’s worst trait: diving. In Part 1 of his return, Adrian tells FIFA how to clean up this eyesore:

I’ve been watching a lot of Euro 2012 recently. The standard of play has been high. Games have featured ample scoring, good defense, and the top teams have made it through, leaving us with two potentially excellent semi-finals and the prospect of an even better final. And yet I’m still deeply troubled by the amount of diving in the game. Every half features at least one or two incidences of notorious play acting as players, in an attempt to draw a foul, contort and moan on the grass. It’s not just inelegant, it slows down the game and interrupts potentially excellent passages of play. Worst of all, I think the problem is a tractable one, just one that football authorities have been reluctant to combat.

The biggest problem with eliminating diving is that there will always be a tremendous incentive for players to dive. As we all know, it’s very difficult to score in soccer. Having a stern penalty for fouls in the penalty area – a penalty shot and near sure goal (unless you’re England) – opens up play and increases scoring. The issue is compounded by the fact that soccer is a fast game. It’s very difficult for officials to determine whether a challenge was legitimate or not or whether a player is diving or was actually hurt by a tackle. Thus, we should avoid a rule that makes scoring more difficult or a rule that puts a greater onus on the referees – they’re in a difficult enough situation as it is.

The most intuitive solution is what the MLS does (and what the NBA is threatening to do) – it decreases the incentive to dive Continue reading

“Fairness” in sports

My brother Conor (when he’s not blogging about political theory) does some excellent writing about Barcelona’s dominant football team. A couple weeks ago, he took up the age-old topic of fairness in sports in the context of European soccer. In most European leagues, there are no salary caps, revenue sharing agreements, or redistributive drafts. Rather than coddling the worst teams, leagues bust them down a division. Conor defends the uncontrolled European league structures with a call to the benefits of an aristocratic class:

There’s no escaping it. [Barcelona’s] degree of perfection requires an unequal distribution of talent and resources. This concatenated brilliance is probably unjust when measured against nearly any standard of fairness—but it’s also as close as anyone has yet come to fulfilling that specific style of play. FC Barcelona are but one example. For instance, recent Chelsea squads have flirted with perfection of a wholly different style of play. They are no less aristocratic simply because they have refined different aspects of their squad. Their strengths may be different, but they are no less refined for that. Every coat of arms is different—the aristocratic task for each is to live up to their particular identity. Undemocratic though they are, no one will mistake them for ordinary.

For whatever else they do to The Game As A Whole (or As A Spectacle), aristocratic clubs elevate the stakes and—more often than not—the peaks of athletic achievement. If Barcelona regularly administers whippings to clubs in La Liga’s middle and lower echelons, their clásico jousts with Madrid have periodically taken both teams yet closer to the pinnacle of sport.

I find this topic endlessly interesting, especially the comparison between United States leagues and European leagues.  The United States redistributes less income proportionally than many other Continue reading

An idea for the MLS

I play for the Boston Rugby Football Club (BRFC) in the ten-team U.S. Super League (our country’s highest level of rugby, but there’s not even a website worth linking for the league). We’re in the midst of preseason conditioning in a high school gym, and I’ll pay for all my own flights to our away matches. We’ve had a different “home field” in Boston for each of the last five seasons, yet we’ve reached the league semifinals two years running.

Meanwhile, in Foxborough, MA, the New England Revolution share Gillette Stadium with the Patriots, but only draw a few thousand fans to most games. Major League Soccer is entering its 17th season. Most teams are not profitable (though the league is making progress). The MLS lags far behind the big four U.S. professional sports in gate receipts, total revenue, and media coverage.

Somewhere between these two poles, lacrosse, women’s soccer, women’s basketball, and other sports struggle for attention. All these leagues are working towards similar goals but need Continue reading

Sucking wind in La Paz – Sloan Sports Analytics Conference poster

Last year, I ran across an article analyzing whether high altitudes matter in South American international soccer. The authors run regressions with the away team’s altitude change as an explanatory variable and find that climbing but especially descending hurts the away team. Descending 2,000 meters seems to lower away team winning percentage by over 10 points. Pretty surprising finding.

However, these regressions only control for home team quality. It just so happens that Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia (i.e., the descending teams) are historically weak teams. What we have here is omitted variables bias — the naive analysis implies that descending harms performance, when in reality descending teams just aren’t very good.

On my quest for causation, Continue reading