Thursday, March 29, 2012

Statistics as Providers of Context

This morning I posted a blog entry that discussed the odds of various EPL team's qualifying for Europe.  I spent much of the post providing statistics on PPM streaks, odds of finishing in various table positions, and even R-squared values to communicate the relative consistency of slumping clubs. In all, the statistics provided a quantification of some of the qualitative observations some have already made elsewhere in the media.  I felt I added value to the conversation because quantitative information doesn't just tell us how poorly or how well a club is playing, but it also allows us to make relative comparisons between clubs and within clubs throughout the whole season.  As an example, that's why I went out of my way to single out Arsenal's mid-season slump actually being worse than the one that they had at the start of the season.  Some may have found that conclusion counter intuitive given the prevailing narrative about Arsenal's season.  If so, my goal was accomplished.  If not, then kudos to the reader because they're already let numbers be one of the ways they form their perceptions of the club.

Ultimately the post focused on the Champions League positions, and I concluded it with the following questions (emphasis mine for the purposes of illustration within this post).
"No matter what the odds say, the last eight matches of the season will provide for some compelling soccer. Will Manchester City win their first ever Premier League title or will United fend off yet another challenge to their long-term supremacy within the league? Which of the two bitter North London rivals will gain automatic entry to the Premier League? Will Chelsea be able to slip into Champions League qualification, or might they even fall out of the Europa League qualifying spot? Might they even pull off the unlikely feat of winning the Champions League, thus fulfilling one of Abramovich's long held goals and denying the fourth table position entry into the competition? Will Liverpool stumble to their worst finish since the 1993/94 season? Only the final eight matches will tell. It's going to be an exciting end to the season!"
I emphasize the bolded section because it offers another opportunity for the use of statistics: providing perspective on a statement.  I purposefully didn't belabor the point much more in the post, because I know and you know there is a very slim chance of this happening.  Thus, even without statistics I provided perspective by not emphasizing it within the larger context of the post.

However, others have run with this scenario and provided none of the context I would expect of a "completely told story".  I have worked with the Untold Arsenal staff in the past, and as a Gooner I enjoy some of their material as their depth of coverage is very good.  Their RefWatch pieces are extremely interesting, and I regularly praise DogFace's work in that regard.  Today, however, I had to take issue with the story that headlined with, "The team that finishes fourth could be put into the Europa League".  The blog post explained the scenario where Chelsea wins the Champions League and can't finish higher than fourth, so only the top three EPL clubs would get into next year's competition under that scenario.  Next thing you know EPL Talk saw the post, created a Stumble Upon link, and sent it out to their Twitter feed and its 8,000+ followers.  Add that to the 3,000+ followers on the Untold Arsenal Twitter account that also sent out the link, and you now have 11,000 readers of the article.

Is the headline wrong?  No.  Is the message in the body of the text wrong, which is Arsenal better take the run-in seriously if they want to secure a Champions League spot? No.  So why am I irritated?  Because there's zero discussion within the blog post as to how likely a scenario this is for Chelsea.  The reality is that just such a scenario has less than a 2% chance of happening according to the EuroClubIndex.  Stating as much would have helped provide a ton of context for readers of the blog post.  Heck, it might have even meant a separate blog post wouldn't have been written on the topic given the remote possibility, and instead would have maybe shown up as a one liner just like it did in my post.  By not providing context within an article the author does not communicate to readers this bit of information - the scenario of Chelsea winning Champions League - should fit into the wider story to watch for as we close out the season.  In the inverse, imagine how powerful watching a Chelsea championship within Europe's premier club competition becomes if we all know now what their likelihood of success is?  Either way the odds of the outcome are an extremely piece of information left out of the story, and they make the story far more complete when they're included.

I know the guys from Untold Arsenal, so I won't assign any ulterior motives to why the story was written the way it was.  I think it was an honest attempt to provide perspective to the Gooner faithful.  I don't know the team at EPL Talk, so I can't speak about them either.  What I can say is that this incident reminds me of how in any journalistic medium, catchy headlines, rumors, speculation, and controversial statements sell copy and drive clicks.  They're red meat to a public all too willing to get into emotional debates about things that often are the minuscule trees within the wider forest at which we should be paying far more attention.

I am not asking that everyone writing about soccer build Markov chain models to explain a team's success or failure.  I've even mentioned how the growing discipline of soccer analytics has led to a blossoming field were far too many analysts outstrip my analysis capabilities and free time available for such study.  Thus, I have chosen to stay at a certain depth of analysis and instead use numbers as a way to tell bigger stories.  I've also written and heard plenty about how soccer analytics data is far more proprietary in nature than data from other sports.  I'm not asking for much.  I'm just asking for a little bit of Googling to find some publicly available macro-level data to help provide readers some context about the rare scenarios that are under discussion.  It helps provides perspective, both in assigning the proper attention due to the rarity of the event and a deeper appreciation if the unlikely becomes reality.  We should all aspire to tell such great, complete stories.  In the process we all gain a greater appreciation as to why no matter the numbers say we still play and watch the beautiful game because of its randomness and intricate outcomes.

A Statistical Look at the Race for European Qualification in the EPL

There are only eight matches left in the Premier League this season. The clubs from Manchester turned the race for the EPL championship into a two-horse affair long ago, so outside of the fan bases for those two clubs much of the league has been focused on the race for table positions three through five. Those are the coveted positions that gain a club entry to Europe, with the third and fourth positions guaranteeing a shot at Champions League glory next season and all of the money that comes with it. There are five clubs competing for those three positions - Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Newcastle, and Tottenham. Only three will find a seat at the European competition table when the music stops in May.

Of late, Arsenal has been streaking. Tottenham and Liverpool have been slumping. Newcastle and Chelsea have been plodding along.  Sitting on the outside looking in at a Champions League spot was too much for Roman Abramovich to stand and thus Andres Villas-Boas got the sack a month ago. Liverpool has been slowly fading as of late.  All of these are general observations deserve a bit more of a numerical examination to understand exactly what's been going on during one of the more volatile Premier League seasons in memory. Such an analysis cuts through the weekly "who's getting sacked" rumor mill and the volatility of match-to-match data that fails to see the forest from the trees.

In taking such a numerical view of the league, three measures of team performance are examined below.
  1. Cumulative Points Per Match - Total points accumulated divided by the number of matches played. This metric gives an idea as to the pace a team is on for PPM at the end of the season.
  2. Points Per Match (4 Match Running Average) - The average points accumulated per match over the previous four matches. This gives a running tally of the previous month's worth of matches, and can help highlight or quantify long term declines or rises.
  3. Table Position (4 Match Running Average) - The average table position per match over the previous four matches. This erases the volatility of weekly table position swaps and takes a bit of a longer term view of how a club's previous month's performance is translating to the their ultimate position in the table.
One gets an idea of how the season has played out when each of the metrics are plotted against match number. Graphs are presented individually below, with commentary attached to each and a forecast as to odds of how each team will finish the season.

Cumulative Points Per Match (PPM)

From the graph above (click to enlarge), we can draw the following conclusions:
  • Three of the five clubs reached their PPM peak by match 10. This isn't surprising, as a few wins to start the season can be a bit distorting to the PPM tally that settles out as sample size increases. What is interesting is that only one of these clubs - Newcastle - has been able to stop the inevitable decline and settle around a PPM of 1.6 +/- 0.1 points. If trend lines were drawn for Liverpool and Chelsea they would continue downward even at this late stage of the season.
  • Tottenham clearly had the best start to the season in terms of sustained form. They peaked by Week 13, and their peak PPM was only second to Chelsea. They too have seen a steady decline since then, but their long, sustained build of points should see them through to at least the fifth table position at season's end.
  • Arsenal's oft-chronicled slow start to the season is readily displayed in the graph. Even their mid-season slump can be viewed with the PPM drop from march 19 until match 23. However, taken in whole. it's clear that starting at match 10 the Gunners have been cycling between a PPM of 1.5 and 2. That suggests they've been in the thick of European competition since match 10 given the current PPMs of the other four teams. The start of the season was certainly a crisis in confidence for the club, but looking back it might be suggested that the righting of the ship took place much earlier than we all thought.
Points Per Match (4 Match Running Average)

While the graph (click to enlarge) above is a bit... messy, it does provide some additional insights into the streaks we've seen throughout the season. Here are some observations drawn from the graph:
  • On a monthly basis, Arsenal's early season form wasn't its nadir. Instead, it is found during a string of matches right after the mid-point in the season. Losses to Fulham, Swansea, and Manchester United and a 0-0 draw against Bolton at the Emirates lead to a month long average PPM of 0.25. Arsenal would begin their now-seven match winning streak in their next Premier League tie (a 7-1 win against Blackburn), although the beginnings of their improved league form were overshadowed by their 4-0 dismantling by AC Milan the San Siro two weeks after the Bolton draw. It should now come as no surprise that the Gunners came up one goal short of a historic turnaround two weeks later at the Champions League return leg at the Emirates, as we now understand Arsenal has been in top form for the last seven league matches.
  • If one looks closely at the graph they can see just how precipitous Tottenham's decline has been (yellow line). They reached their 4-match running average PPM peak of 3 points per match by the 13th match of the season. Since then, they've been on a steady decline for the next 17 matches, with only a brief spike around match 20 slowing the decline. In fact, it's remarkable how consistent the decline has been with an R-squared value of 0.724. Spurs have been losing a consistent 0.11 points per match from their 4-match running average since there December 3rd win against Bolton.
  • In an equal steep, but less consistent, decline is Liverpool. There latest peak 4-match running average was later than Tottenham's. Starting at Match 19 they've been on similar decline at an average clip of 0.09 points per match, although at a less consistent rate given an R-squared value of 0.60. The problem for Liverpool is that they started at a much lower peak value (2.0) and starting table position than Tottenham, and thus have fallen further in the table than Spurs. This performance has led many in the press to call for Kenny Dalglish's sacking, with perhaps his role of reversing the rot at Liverpool complete.
  • The graph clearly demonstrates the volatility of Newcastle's season.  What it also demonstrates is the painful drop in form at about the one-third mark of the season.  While their latest stumbles haven't helped, that earlier season drop in form is what has cost them dearly in table position.  It's a position from which the club has not been able to recover.
  • What must be most frustrating to Abramovich has been Chelsea's inconsistency throughout the season. The Blues dropped below the 1.0 point per match threshold - no better than a draw on average - three times during Andres Villas-Boas' tenure. The third time was the charm for Abramovich, sacking AVB only two matches after crossing this threshold for the third time. There's been a modest rebound in their play since his sacking, but it's a far cry from the level or performance required to squeeze into the fourth spot to get a Champions League play-in.
Table Position (4 Match Running Average)

The results of the previous two graphs are found in the graph above (click to enlarge) that looks at the 4-match running average of table position by club. One's perspective must be reversed compared to previous graphs - a line being lower on the graph is better for the club because it indicates a lower numerical/high position in the table. The table also demonstrates the deceiving nature of the table throughout the season, and why looking at running averages of PPM may be an earlier indicator of trouble or opportunity for a club.
  • The effect of both Chelsea's and Newcastle's hot starts and slow declines on table position are clearly seen in the graph.  Reflective of earlier comments regarding Newcastle's stabilization on a PPM basis, they've been a consistent fifth or sixth in the table for the last seven matches.
  • It appears Liverpool's never really been in serious contention for a Champions League spot, being no better than fifth the entire season on a 4-match running average basis.  Early season success was fleeting, and they've been on a steady decline since then at a rate of 0.07 places match.
  • Tottenham and Arsenal both demonstrate that it doesn't matter how a club starts the race, but rather how one finishes it.  A 38 match season is a long affair, and as much as Tottenham started the season hot, Arsenal seems to be poised to finish it even hotter.  How frustrating might it be for Tottenham and their supporters to see such a glorious start to the season possibly end in fourth to a club that didn't make it halfway up the table until a quarter of the way through the season and into the top 25% of the table until the season was nearly half complete?
  • Here's a statistic to put Arsenal's steady climb into third into perspective.  Since the Gunners crossed the 7th position barrier on 4-match running basis at match 12, they've moved up the table at a 0.13 position clip per match.  That's a table position every 8 matches.  Slow, but steady, wins the day.
Outlook for the Rest of the Season

So how will the season turn out?  I don't have such prognostication skills (yet), but there are multiple options for forecasts via the web.  One of my favorites comes from Sports Club Stats.  Their website not only provides the odds of a team winning the next match or the Premiership, but also the odds of finishing in any table position given their current point total and the opposition they face the rest of the season.  If one clicks on a team of interest they'll find even more details, like the odds a club finishes in different table positions given their final point total, and the odds for each table position given the multiple win/draw/loss combinations that can add up to the corresponding final point total.  It's quite a neat site.

Given that the site is updated at the conclusion of each match weekend I have grabbed this week's data and compiled it in the table below.  Each club's odds of finishing in 3rd through 7th or outside of 7th are shown within the table.

A few conclusions can be drawn from the table:
  • Arsenal appears poised to maintain their streak of Champions League qualifications, making it into the competition for the 15th straight year.  With an 8 point lead over Chelsea with only 8 matches to go, Chelsea would have to earn more than a point per match more than Arsenal the rest of the way.  That is something they've only done three times so far this season (on a 4-match running average basis).
  • Tottenham are close behind Arsenal, with a less than 15% chance of not making it into next year's competition.  There be a small bit of a crisis of confidence if the late-season swoon gives Arsenal the third position and Tottenham must play-in to the tournament, but one would suspect it's something the players could get over and secure England a fourth entrant into the group play stage of next season's Champions League group play stage.
  • Barring further decline by Tottenham, Chelsea will be on the outside looking in when it comes to Champions League qualification.  They only have a 15% chance of making it into the tournament, and a nearly 30% chance of not even qualifying for the Europa League.  Will Abramovich's club take UEFA's second tier competition seriously next year, or choose instead to focus their efforts on the league to secure a Champion's League berth for 2013-24?  This off season will be very odd at Stamford Bridge - perhaps no trophies, no Champions League next season, and a club that anyone would agree is in decline in the two short years.
  • Newcastle United will be able to hold their head high, likely finishing 6th or better only a season after finishing 12th.  Things will be looking up at St. James Park in the off season, having worked their way steadily up from promotion to the Premier League only two seasons ago.  They may even get lucky, with a 31% chance of pipping the likes of Chelsea for 5th position or higher and a spot in Europa League.
  • Things at Anfield are not good.  The Reds have a greater-than-even odds of not even finishing in the Top 7, a step backwards from last season on a table basis and the performance in 2009-10 that got Rafael Benitez sacked.  In fact, it would be their worst finish in terms of table position since 1993/94.  There is no doubting the turnaround Kenny Dalglish led at Liverpool when they had reached the nadir of what was effectively the Hicks/Gillette regime.  However, one can't help but the feel the magic has worn off and the honeymoon is over when a comparison is made between this season's performance and the one in the second half of last season.  There are few excuses to be had.  Liverpool is under performing, and one must wonder how long King Kenny will keep his job.
No matter what the odds say, the last eight matches of the season will provide for some compelling soccer.  Will Manchester City win their first ever Premier League title or will United fend off yet another challenge to their long-term supremacy within the league? Which of the two bitter North London rivals will gain automatic entry to the Premier League?  Will Chelsea be able to slip into Champions League qualification, or might they even fall out of the Europa League qualifying spot?  Might they even pull off the unlikely feat of winning the Champions League, thus fulfilling one of Abramovich's long held goals and denying the fourth table position entry into the competition?  Will Liverpool stumble to their worst finish since the 1993/94 season?  Only the final eight matches will tell.  It's going to be an exciting end to the season!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Interview at Ruffneck Scarves Blog

A few weeks ago I sent out a request for old-school Sounders fans so that I could provide first person accounts within an article I was writing about the history of the club. One of the many responses I received was from Frank MacDonald, who grew up a Sounders fan and ended up working in the front office for the MLS incarnation of the club. Frank now works at Ruffneck Scarves as their Director of Communications. RuffNeck makes a variety of scarves for MLS and a number of clubs in European leagues, and I would be lying if I didn't pount out that my Sounders scarf of choice is Ruffneck's classic bar scarf.

Frank has nearly forty years exepreince in the game both locally and internationally, and he and I spent nearly an hour on the phone interviewing each other. He has a wealth of knowledge in both the history of the game in the area and how the MLS Sounders approached the Seattle fan base.

After 40 minutes of talking about the Sounders it was time for Frank to interview me. The questions he asked focused on my personal relationship with the game, why I focused on soccer analytics when getting into the game, and the role that analytics can play within the game going forward. It was a fun 15 minute conversation that culminated in this post at the Ruffneck Scarves blog. Head on over to the blog if you want to learn more about why I write about the world of soccer analytics and my view on its future, and while you're there see if one of their scarves strikes a fancy.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Alexi Lalas - The SSAC Interview (Part 2)

The first half of the interview focused on analytics, both in Alexi's personal career and in producing high value soccer coverage at ESPN.  The second half pivoted to US Men's National Team and MLS prognostication, and closed out with some lighthearted questions on hair products and ginger traits.  Herewith is the second half of my interview with Alexi Lalas as part of my coverage of SSAC for the Howler.

Zach Slaton: On the US Men's team.  There's a lot of people who feel we missed a huge opportunity in the last World Cup given where we were in the bracket and the competition we saw.  Nonetheless, we're now a perennial knockout round contender.  What does the national team need to do in the next ten to twenty years to really be a perennial quarterfinal or semifinal threat?

Alexi Lalas: When you talk about the game against Ghana, that is an incredible opportunity that was ultimately wasted.  You're not playing an elite team in the world.  You're playing a good team. Don't get me wrong, but you're not playing an elite team.  That pathway that opened up, that's what Jurgen Klinsmann has been hired to do.  It will come down to that one game for Jurgen Klinsmann.  He's not been hired to qualify the team for the World Cup.

Now how he goes about doing that, so that when that moment comes when you are playing a Ghana in a Round of 16 to then go on and play Uruguay and take advantage of it.  How he goes about doing that and preparing the team for that moment is up to him.  The jury's out as to what that is going to look like.  We saw that the other day.  That's really what his job is.

Your question is how do we get there so that we're doing it consistently?  You got to do it once, first, in order to be consistent at anything!  When I am assessing Jurgen Klinsmann it's easy to do it just on the game that day, but really where he's going to be assessed is when it gets to the World Cup.  And to a certain extent what he's doing behind the scenes to have that next generation that he might not be around to see come to fruition.  That's a little harder to do when you're just seeing the game like the other day against Italy.

ZS: I don't want to put down guys like Bob Bradley, because we're growing the sport and the national team.  What I'm hearing you kind of say is that you've gotta have a system, you've got to have an overall manager of the system that's of the caliber of someone like Klinsmann.  And let that system work because we don't know what the system looks like.  It's the caliber of the national team coach you have in place, and let him implement the system he feels he needs because he has a track record of success competing at those levels.

AL: Jurgen is very honest and up front.  He will point to what he did with Germany in the past and how it's kind of come to fruition now.  That's all fine and well.

The other day we played Italy.  We beat Italy.  Historic? Without a doubt. To be celebrated? Absolutely, without a doubt.  But he promised a complete change in the way the team was going to play and the mentality it had.  To use his words, "a much more proactive approach in terms of pressuring other teams and keeping possession of the ball."  And then you go out and beat Italy in what amounts to the exact same style and way that this US team has been playing for years.  My job is not to be a cheerleader.  My job is to provide perspective and to be honest and to say, "Don't call that a different style!"

So nothing has really changed.  That's not a bad thing.  Maybe Jurgen Klinsmann's job ultimately is to find a way to manage the tools he already has and to make them play this much better [narrows pinch of thumb and pointer finger].  Not to completely change the system because he might come to the realization, and maybe the game the other day helps him come to this realization, that he doesn't have the players to play the way that he wants to.  That pragmatism might come in to play.  I don't think that that's a bad thing.

The man to lead the USMNT to the World Cup semifinals?

ZS:  Who are the three players in this upcoming MLS season that you're really looking forward to?

AL: I am excited to see the return of David Ferreira because I thought he was so dynamic and different from what the league has had in the past.  He obviously suffered a season-ending injury, and Dallas completely morphed and changed into a different type of team.  A pretty successful team without him.  And now he comes back into the fold.  So how they integrate him back in, and whether or not they'll change back or if they've moved on and he needs to integrate back in to a different team.  That's going to be fascinating for me to see.

Edson Buddle.  I had Edson Buddle at the Galaxy, and I traded for him, I think, twice.  I traded for him in New York and in LA.  So I have a track record of loving him as a player, but I am also interested to see how he integrates back into a team that's already been to the pinnacle.

ZS: It's almost like he left at the exact wrong time.

AL: It was the worst timing for him, and yet would they have done it with him?  Now we're going to see.  In MLS you start taking one little piece out of these teams and very quickly it starts to crumble.  That's just the nature of Major League Soccer.

On the other side of the country, I like a guy like Thierry Henry because he's coming off a successful stint in England and I think he's playing very well so far in pre-season.  A year on having understood what it means now.  We saw David Beckham go through this process where it took him a while to figure out what it means to play in MLS on and off the field.  It takes a while for people to adjust, and especially for big stars who are coming from Spanish football in both cases.  I'll be interested to see now if he's... not rejuvenated, but much more engaged in what's going on.

ZS: Frankly, he had a very combative personality [his first few years in the league].  You could see it with him motioning to the fans.

AL: And he still scored a bunch of goals, and still played very well last year!  It just shows that if he's engaged and he does take full ownership of that team he could be a force by himself.  More importantly, the Red Bulls could be a force.

ZS: I'm not going to put down the league, because I love it.  But the biggest adjustment for him was that clearly it takes more than one guy to score a goal and for his two-hundred-plus goals at Arsenal he had a certain style and quality of player he was used to.  As you said, for a lot of these guys that come over from other leagues it's not just the physicality of MLS , but also the quality of the setup and the pass.  Is it actually a couple of yards in front of you, or is it going to be where you were two yards ago on a sprint?

AL: Sometimes you have to lower your expectations of play.  That's difficult for players to do.  It's gearing down, and sometimes when you've been in fifth gear the whole time it's hard to go back down.

If the first match was any indication, this may be another
frustrating season for Thierry Henry.

ZS: Let's finish up with some lighthearted questions.

AL: Sure!

ZS: It's no secret that you've got some ginger competition over at NBC. [Alexi laughs] [As someone who lives in Seattle,] Arlo took a little while to get used to... he talks a WHOLE lot in the broadcast booth.  More so than a lot of other broadcasters.

AL: Because he has no one to interrupt him!

ZS: True.  He has no color commentator.  And even if they did have someone in the booth I don't think they would get a word in anyways.  "Um, excuse me Arlo..."

AL: [in faux British accent] "No, sit down!" 

ZS: Exactly.  So settle something for me.  Which one of you has the better ginger powers when it comes to analysis and broadcasting, and explain why?

AL: I would say that when it comes to actual gingerness, I am much more ginger.  Certainly outwardly.  Look, ginger is ultimately on the inside so he is one of my brothers in the mutant gene category.  When it comes to actual gingerness on the outside and especially on camera there is absolutely no debate.  I... am... the... most... ginger.

Now when it comes to actually doing our jobs, the good thing is that I don't have to compete with him because we do very different things.

ZS: Any chance we pair you guys up?

AL: At some point it would be incredible to have two gingers in the booth!

ZS: When the camera... when they did the cutaway?

AL: The camera would explode.  It could be dangerous, but it could be delightfully dangerous. It could be combustible in the most awesome sense.  So at some point that might happen.

You know when gingers meet sometimes there is friction from being trod upon for so many years.  When you finally meet one of your brethren there's still...

ZS: Especially in a successful role?

AL: Exactly!

ZS: I have a friend, the one who designed my business cards.  We affectionately refer to her husband as  a "crafty ginger."

AL: Well, aren't we all?

ZS: Is that just a natural trait?

AL: I have two children, and I am pleased to tell you that the mutant gene is alive and well in both of them.  I am doing my part, because each year whether I see it or not it comes out that we're a dying breed.  In 50 years we'll be gone.  I and my wife are doing our part to make sure that we last as long as possible.  I explain to them that this is a very special gift you have been given.  At times it will be very difficult to deal with.  This is the burden that we have.

ZS: So you're crafty even in procreation.

AL: Oh yeah!  Oh yeah!

ZS: I did have one friend request that I ask this question.  He's been following the national team for years.  Back in the day when you had the epic beard and hair, we haven't had a duo since then like you and Cobi Jones.

AL: Yeah, we had me, Cobi, 'Celo.  There was some good hair back then.  It's so disappointing now.

ZS: Did you guys actually share hippy hair products, or was it strictly "hands off" and you each had your own supply?

AL: [a hearty laugh comes out of Alexi] I get more questions about the hair, and I completely understand why.  It was awesome.  Let's be honest, we were friggin' awesome when it came to hair!

ZS: It was an image, along with the faux denim uniforms at the 1994 World Cup.

AL: Without a doubt, but I will say this.  It takes an incredible amount of time and energy and money to look like you just rolled out of bed.  Whether it's split ends or scrunchies or hot oil treatments there was a tremendous amount of maintenance that went on in the US National Team locker room before, at halftime, and post-game.  Let me tell you...

ZS: So it's a lot easier now?

AL: It's a WHOLE lot easier. In my old age I look back wistfully at the past.  I don't think people recognize the value of hair in soccer  enough.  Certainly this generation doesn't recognize it.  Which is why I see a guy like Brek Shea I do a personal little clap and say, "Alright, this kid gets it."  This is part of our sport.  We don't wear helmets. We don't have masks.  We don't have anything like that.

ZS: You've got to have some sense of style on the pitch.

AL: Exactly.  Be memorable!

Everyone remembers the hairstyles of Alexi and Cobi,
but what about some love for Marcelo?
ZS: Final question.  It's still hair related.  My wife will not let me shave my beard.

AL: Really?

ZS: I am a little concerned that there might be some commentary going on there about the rest of my face. [Alexi laughs]  I read the interview you did with Free Beer Movement, and you described how you lost a bet and that's why you had to shave.  So I am curious as to what was the bet, and what's it going to take to get the hair to come back even if it's for a one-off appearance on ESPN.

AL: I met my wife when I was ten years old, and we went our separate ways for many, many years.  When we finally got back together, many years on we had gone on with our lives.  She caught me at the tail end of my career, and she likes to constantly remind me that she missed the glory years.  I was working for NBC in the Olympics back in 2000, and we were in Sydney.  At that point she was my girlfriend.  We had an epic night out... a lot of stories start with that!  When we got back to the beautiful hotel room in Sydney it dawned on me that I needed to do something monumental.  And to this day she will deny that she had anything to do with it, but I do know that now that I am clean shaven...

ZS: So one night you go home from the broadcast...

AL: The Olympics were done.  So now we're out partying, having a great time, and celebrating.  We come back to the hotel room, and I've had a wonderful night as I said.  I say, "This is what I need to do!"  I think deep down she was ecstatic that I had brought this up, and did nothing in the least to stop me.

ZS: It's like Sampson.  She can't be the one to suggest it and have you lose...

AL: Exactly. I went in, and I shaved it.  I woke up the next morning and I was like, "WHAT THE HELL?!?!"

ZS: There's a lot worse things you could do after an epic night.

AL: Exactly.  Ultimately I stayed shaven, and I married the girl, too.

ZS: Any chance it ever comes back? 

AL: Like I said, it's a lot of maintenance, man.  It gets stuff caught in it, you're constantly having to trim it.  When my kids see pictures they have an understanding now of what I used to look like and they laugh and laugh and laugh.  I think at some point, just for nostalgia and so I can say I did it, I will grow it out because it does grow fast.  Maybe at some point when I have a period of time where I can just go away I will work on it and then bring it back in full force as a retro thing. [one more laugh from Alexi for good measure]

ZS: I am sure that the hits on your Twitter account and Google Image searches would go through the roof if you do.  You search for those images, and I show people your Twitter icon...

AL: The before and after

ZS: Yeah, the before and after.  They recognize you with the beard. "Oh yeah! I recognize him!  I remember him!" if they're not big soccer fans.  

AL: It's amazing.  I say all the time, "Never has so much been done with a modicum of talent, crazy facial hair, and a guitar." So I'll take it, man!

ZS: Alexi, thank you very much.

This concludes my coverage of the 2012 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.  I must thank the staff of the conference for all of their assistance, including finding me a copy of the Grantland book that I needed to get signed as a gift for my wife.  Thank you to Alexi Lalas and Drew Carey for granting me a good bit of their time for interviews.  And most of all, thank you to the Howler for providing me a media outlet in which I can write about the conference.  Look for my writeup in an upcoming issue of the magazine, and stay up to date on their launch plans by signing up for the mailing list at their website linked above.

Finally, if you're interested in more Alexi Lalas material from SSAC you can head over to Forza Futbol and download the audio from their interview with him.  This may be of special interest to those who follow the Spanish game.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Alexi Lalas: The SSAC Interview (Part 1)

Alexi Lalas was kind enough to sit down at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and give me a half hour interview.  The first half of the interview is presented in this post, and focuses on the role of analytics in Lalas' own career and how they're being used at ESPN during live soccer matches.  The interview was on the Friday night of the conference, which was a day ahead of the soccer analytics panel in which he participated.  It was after the Thursday night Soccer Analysts meet up that he also attended.  At that meet up I got about a half hour of his time, during which we talked about our backgrounds and he quizzed me on some of my statistical theories.  At one point during our meal he put me on the spot regarding the odds of Arsenal winning at Anfield that Saturday.  I put the odds around 20% to 30% based upon TPI numbers.  Simon Gleave was also at the table, and Infostrada's Euro Club Index had the odds of an Arsenal win at 24%.  Given the even play in the match and the late winner by Arsenal, we probably weren't too far off.  Regardless, Alexi's direct questioning served as a good reference point to the challenges that management will make towards analysts when they claim to have the data needed to predict outcomes.  It's a point Alexi and I would return to during the interview.

Herewith is the first half of my interview with Alexi Lalas for the Howler.

Zach Slaton: Since we're here at the conference, I wanted to understand what kinds of soccer analytics or statistics material are you watching or reading? Blogs, magazines, TV?

Alex Lalas: My introduction to analytics has basically occurred my post-executive career. It's been much more involved at ESPN and how I can apply it to my current job.

But I am also constantly recollecting times with different teams as a general manager when I feel it could have come in handy. That's the long way of saying that right now we have incredible statistician and analytics folks in-house at ESPN and they are constantly feeding us information. My job is to sort through all of it and make sure that I pull out the pertinent ones from an entertainment perspective. There's plenty of stats out there, whether you're on or off air, but they might not lead you to a decision.

When I put my GM hat back on and think of opportunities that either weren't there just because of the timing or I probably didn't recognize at the time were there, I think, to be fair, was probably a wasted opportunity. That's okay, that's the nature of the business and how time changes things.

ZS: Kinda like the evolution of the sport here?

AL: Without a doubt. Without a doubt...

ZS: You mention not having the stats when you were a GM, but you also have a lot of player experience. You've been competing at the top level of the game in various roles for 20-plus years now. How has player evaluation changed throughout your career? What are some of the benefits you see today, and where are some of the areas it's total overkill?

AL: When I look back at my career there's the traditional stats. You know... the 40 yeard dash, the Cooper test, all the physical fitness type tests you did. Once those were done, we'd say "soccer is a little different" because of the stops and starts, and the change of direction. So it became much more about agility and beep tests and those types of things. That's used to measure physical type of stuff, and once you get those stats back you'd say, "Okay, that guy's good at running, but can he trap the ball and cross the ball?". There wasn't a whole lot of that.

I am going to give away a lot of the stuff I am going to talk about tomorrow, but I will say that in a very rudimentary form I recognized very early how stats could be beneficial to me individually. From an early age, once I began watching myself and being able to watch myself on video, and to be able to watch games and go back and replay things visually I started keeping track. Especially as a defender, where the times that you lose the ball should be very minimal if you're doing your job. From an early point in my career I started tracking the loss of possession that I had. I'm not talking about a 50/50 tackle where I save a goal line ball and I kick it up in the stands. I'm talking about when I made a decision when I had possession of the ball to make a certain pass within that I lost the ball. I knew within each half that it it was more than one, maybe two, I knew something was wrong. Regardless of who we were playing.

When I got to a point later in my career I would co-opt rookies and have them sit on the sideline and stat it out for me. At halftime I would ask them, "How many times did I lose it?" I wouldn't know in my mind, but I would always check it. I didn't know it was called analytics, and it was a very basic statistic but I recognized the value then.

Fast forward to later in my career. It was never presented as, "Hey, this is what you're doing and this is how it's affecting you." Now was it being done behind scenes? Very minimal. Rarely if at all. We were never presented as players with a ratio. Now it's changed over the years, and I haven't played since the early 2000's.

As a GM my task was two fold. One was the product on the field, and one was the product off the field... the business off the field. Ironically, I immersed myself in the business, and that's where I came in contact with analytics. I knew everything about everyone in my front office. What they were selling. Their trends. What they had done before, what I predicted they would do next, and how that reflected their continued involvement with our team. All of that stuff. I knew trends from other teams and what they were doing. Season tickets, sponsorship, everything that was involved.

What I didn't do was recognize or obtain the ability to transfer that to the on-the-field product. When I look back I was a real young GM. I made up a lot of it and had to go through that process. When I go back I can see certain mistakes that I made where I was going to make those mistakes anyways, but it would have been nice to have that tool at my disposal. Because we all know that there's limitations to analytics. They shouldn't just be used completely. You have to use your intuition, you have to use your experience, but if I could have then brought in that part of the equation in regards to the on-the-field product I think I would have had a much more valuable opportunity to make a decision.

I don't think this is the kind of trapping that Alexi was talking about.

ZS: I think the point you're making is really key. There were a lot of panels this [Friday] morning on the business aspect, and because you're getting sales and you know where people are coming from it makes it a lot easier to quantify the business aspects.

The point you made regarding possession was really interesting. There are critiques where people pay way too much attention to time of possession in soccer, but what you talked about is what we often emphasize in engineering. It's really easy to design a product, but it's much more difficult to design a product that doesn't fail. To go back to the possession analogy you made, the analytics come in trying to understand how do I avoid buying and selling players who introduce certain failure modes when they're on the pitch. They end up impacting things like time of possession, which allows you to potentially have more opportunities to score. I can really relate to the self analysis that to make yourself a better player is more about not making the same mistakes over and over again. Using very basic stats, just tick marks.

AL: Yeah, but it all came about because of video.  There was a whole generation before me who
didn't have that at their disposal.

ZS: Do you think video coming along at that time was critical to your self analysis?

AL: It was crucial. The VCR... talk about innovation and evolution!  The ability to actually watch yourself doing something was huge in terms of the development of the team aspect and from my development.  I have every VCR tape from every one of the games I played, and I would watch them obsessively to find out what I did wrong and what I did well.

We're athletes, and we tend to be revisionists as athletes.  We look back and say, "I did this, and I did this because..."  When you actually see it in reality... what actually happened... it's amazing to actually present that to a player and ask, "What were you doing here, and why did you do it?"  For a long time it was very difficult to do with reel-to-reel tapes, but the VCR and the ability to see it changed everything.  Now with the ability to isolate individual plays and to have them in rapid succession, you can tell a player "You made this move six times in this half and these are the decisions that you made."  The ability to look back on this stuff is what's lead to the analytical part, where you can actually track and use the data and information as a valuable tool.

Once again, it's just a tool to then reach that ultimate decision.

ZS: Almost like you've got a tool belt with many tools, and analytics are just one of the tools.

AL: Without a doubt.

ZS: You're emphasizing the fact that you did this to improve your own game, but you can't always count on a player to do that.  You also talked of confronting players who have somewhat of a revisionist mindset.  We hear a lot at these conferences about how it's tough to get the GM's  and get the front office to buy into it, because they've got this network of scouts and that's how they've always done it.  Do you also thing there's some resistance from the players, because it can be an uncomfortable situation to view yourself?

AL: Oh, sure.  Even more so in soccer.  Soccer is free flowing, so it lends itself to anomalies.  You don't have a start and stop.  All of the variables constantly change throughout the game.  I think that there is an idea, and some truth to it, that analytics aren't necessarily going to apply.  Becuase there are so many different options in any given moment, as opposed to other sports there's a start and stop, you're pitching from the mound, and a bunch of other stuff that stays constant.  And soccer doesn't.

Having looked back on it, I know probably as a player if someone had put these things in front of me and said, "This is why we're trading you," or "This is why we need you to do more of this, or this is where you need to work on [your game]," I think that there would be some pushback and some resentment.  I still think that it exists.

Look, you guys are ultimately selling something.  At a certain point you're going to have to walk into an office of a sports team and say, "This is how I can make you do your job better.  This is how I can be of value to this team."  You're going to have to sell it.  You're going to have to get over the initial question of, "Well, who should I buy?  Am I going to win this year?"

ZS: Or what's the odds of Arsenal winning at Anfield tomorrow? [we both laugh at the reference from the previous night's dinner]

AL: Right. Because they're going to want that quick fix.  That's just human nature, because it challenges their background, their perspective, their experience, and their tradition that for so long has been used to make decisions.  What I think everyone here has to be able to do is go in there and say, "This is just a tool.  And at times it's going to confirm that instinct that you had, and make you look even smarter.  At times it might get you to think twice,"

Once again, when I look back on being a GM there are times when I acted where had I had more patience and time to assess and evaluate what was going on, I might have made a different decision.  Maybe that data would have enabled me to take a step back.  I could have said, "I believe this, but this data maybe is pointing me in a different direction.  Let's take a step back and really assess it more."  When all things point to one answer that's all fine and well, but when they point different directions maybe there is a problem.  Either on one side or the other.

ZS: It's never going to be a clear cut answer or decision, it's just a guide of where you might want to look.

AL: Look, you're hedging these big decisions.  I think why this is crucial in MLS is that you don't have a lot of money to spend.  If you make a mistake it can be incredibly detrimental.  So you need all guns blazing and all the bullets in your belt, and if this is just one thing that you can spend a little money on that's going to make you have a more valuable and more informed decision it's a no brainer.

ESPN will look to build upon their 2010 World Cup coverage via
increased use of analytics and data-driven graphics at Euro 2012.

ZS:  So I want to finish up with one more stats question before we move on to more laid back questions.  You guys have the Five Aside blog, you have some great analysts at ESPN that I'm trying to meet here this week.  How much are you engaging the analytics side when determining what makes it on the TV?  A lot of the analytics right now are going through the web outlets, so how much of this is creeping into your guys' coverage?

AL: For example, this summer we have the European Championships coming up, and I've already received emails from our stats folks and our graphics folks on how they can make it work.  From a TV perspective it's very different because you have to integrate it in with what you're covering.  It has to be entertaining, it has to be graphically pleasing, and it has to be quick.  You can't take a long time to explain it.  God forbid it is confusing to the viewer.  I'm not saying the viewer is dumb.  I'm just saying when you start talking some of these numbers it can at times get heavy, and at times it can get confusing.  So the ability to distill it down to its most basic forms so that everyone can understand it, it's quick, and we can put it up on TV.  That's the trick.

That's why time of possession is so easy to put up on TV.  But what's time of possession? Italy had incredible time of possession [against the US] the other day, and they lost the game.

ZS:  Arsenal has this.  They just back-pass and side-pass until the cows come home and have high time of possession, but it doesn't matter.

AL:  Exactly.  If we can start putting that time of possession in context and say, "This is where they had possession.  This is where they found joy."  And heat maps.  That starts to become more valuable, especially for me.  When I come back at halftime, I want to be able to give people something to look forward to.  "This is what I would like you to look forward to.  This is what happened good or bad in the first half, and this is why this change or that change may affect the second half."

ZS: So you guys are crunching numbers on the first half.  You might have your stats guys running numbers as the first half is going along, and then you pick a couple of key things to highlight at half time.

AL: Sometimes they'll ask me ahead of time, "What do you want to see?" The other day I wanted to see how many times [Andrea] Pirlo gets the ball.  A lot of times he was literally taking the ball off the foot of the centerback.  So where's his starting position in a heat map?  But we all know he's far more dangerous when he's another ten yards ahead.

These are the types of things at halftime that I am going to say. "Yes, Pirlo had incredible possession, but if you look at this heat map this is where he's getting that possession.  If I'm in the locker room, I'm going to say, 'You know what? This is where he's getting it, but I already know he's much more effective if he's getting it ten yards up the field.' So I am going to say, 'Andrea, when you get that ball make sure you're another ten yards upfield.' And I am going to talk to my centerbacks and say, 'Don't give him that ball at his feet for three yards.  Force him to get that ten yards, because it's going to be better for him and better for our team.' "

ZS: So it will be something to look forward to on Euro 2012 coverage?

AL: It's up to me to work with those guys and integrate it.  They're incredible, the data that they have.  We only hit the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the stuff actually on the air.  We should try and do a better job without forcing it.

ZS: Is there a way to roll it out supplementary, like things you don't get to?  Kind of like Bill Maher, who does an "Overtime" segment.  Is their any value in that for you guys?

AL: There might be.  I don't know if people are ultimately interested in it once the score is there.  How many people want to dive down and find out why?

ZS: You guys have people like [Michael Cox of] Zonal Marking that are writing these great things for the website.  I don't know what the production value is versus the cost to produce it.

AL: Exactly. I don't know either...

So the first half to the interview, which was focused on analytics, was finished.  The second half focused on a few US Men's National Team and MLS questions, and finished with a few light hearted questions about hair products and ginger traits.  I'll post the second half of the interview later this week.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Perspectives on Greatness

I just completed what may be one of the best sporting weekends of my life. As has been copiously documented here, I spent the weekend in Boston covering the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. I was able to interview two great individuals, hang out with many like-minded soccer nerds, watch my Gunners win at Anfield in dramatic fashion, and come back to find Issue 4 of The Blizzard waiting for me to pick up on Monday morning.


While I would say that the great experience of the weekend didn't necessarily end with yesterday's loss by Arsenal on aggregate goals in the Champions League, I would be lying if I said the Gunner's spirited 3-0 win made up for another year without trophies. The sole motivating factor over the next two-and-half months shall be the campaign to secure the third or fourth table position to qualify for next year's Champions League competition. Just like in year's past, this all feels like an exercise in futility - qualifying for a tournament we have little hopes of winning just so we can keep desperately needed revenue coming into the club to keep making profits. Such an outlook can be a bit depressing when that becomes one's focus as a supporter.

Thus, I could relate to Jonathan Wilson's Editor's Note in the latest issue of the Blizzard. Recounting the sordid affairs of the current European professional game, Wilson recounts how the recently completed Africa Cup of Nations and the current issue's focus on Barcelona reminds us why we fall in love with the game in the first place: the practice and perfection of the beautiful game on the pitch.

The first article in this fourth issue is by Graham Hunter, and it is an excerpt from his recently released book entitled Barca - Making the Greatest Team in the World. I suspect from what I have read that the emphasis of the book is on the word "making", which stands opposed to the idea of "buying" that many other teams take to team building. There is no doubt that Barcelona's operation requires a large amount of money to run and greatly benefits from the financial rewards granted by their La Liga duopoly with Real Madrid. However, the role player development plays in their current string of successes cannot be discounted.

The excerpt of the book found in the Blizzard focuses on Barcelona's prized midfielder, Xavi Hernandez. It's an excellent recounting of how Xavi's early challenges at Barcelona were critical to developing him into the player he is today. Always a Gooner in the back of my mind, I read the following passage on Xavi's development under Luis van Gaal and commiserate with the empty feeling that must have been present in the man, the club, and the supporters.

"Which is not to ignore [Xavi's] misfortune. Louis van Gaal was his first important senior coach. The Dutchman had the courage to promote the saturnine, intense youngster. The dog days of van Gaal's reign, though, were so flawed that Barcelona would enter a fallow period of five years without a trophy and with a badly structured salary system and debilitating debts."

I would never argue that the debt taken on to build Arsenal's home at the Emirates is debilitating, but it is undoubtedly consuming money that could be otherwise used in player salaries, transfer fees, and development. As for the other two elements of Graham Hunter's recounting, I suspect most Gooners can relate.

We look at Barcelona today, and we see what appears to be the results of obvious investments in players and player development that guarranteed success. In reality, Barcelona is probably just the biggest success story of many clubs who have tried and failed similar strategies to build up their club into a relentless chapionship-winning team. They're an anamoly that can't be easily replicated elsewhere. Hunter's piece is a useful reminder of the potential pitfalls along the way - how getting the right managers at the club was critical, how Xavi almost left the club - and how this outcome wasn't always so obvious. Making a club like Barcelona takes a lot of effort, a lot of money, and a lot of luck. Their one-time Champions League competitors in London have been trying to do the same thing. Arsene Wenger may be delivering great value for the money he's chosen, or been allowed, to spend. Nonetheless, his success in the "youth project" has been nowhere near as great as Barcelona's golden generation of La Masia products. In fact, it sounds much more reminiscent of the "dog days of van Gaal."

We should always try and view things as they happened, not as how we view them in retrospect. Historical writing is always tainted with hindsight, but good authors can often minimize such bias. If the excerpt of Graham Hunter's book is any indication, he may just have achieved such an outlook when writing this book. I've already added it to my Amazon wishlist. You should make a point to put it on your "to-read" list as well. In the meantime, be sure to support great soccer writing by ordering a copy of the Blizzard.


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

SSAC in Pictures

This post is part of my ongoing coverage of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference for Howler Magazine.

The following is a compilation of pictures that I took while at the conference.  I didn't bring my wife's SLR as I didn't have the time to be properly trained in its operation, so all of these pictures are my iPhone's finest work.

A fine little sports bar located right across the street from the conference and owned by the bassist of the Dropkick Murphys. I ate dinner there every night as it facilitated many good conversations, including a great dinner picking Alexi Lalas' brain.

Please allow me this little kid moment - my first set of media credentials.

Welcome indeed!

The "Franchises in Transition" panel at the conclusion of their hour long discussion.  See my recap from Day Two regarding the discussion on this panel.  From left to right: Drew Carey, co-owner of Seattle Sounders FC; Rita Benson LeBlanc, owner of the New Orleans Saints; George Postolos, CEO of the Houston Astros, Tony Riali, moderator and hos of Around the Horn; Daryl Morey, GM of the Houston Rockets; and Parag Marathe, COO of the San Francisco 49ers.

The "Business of Sports: Winning off the Field" panel at the conclusion of their hour long discussion.  See my recap from Day One regarding the discussion on this panel.  From Left to right: Scott O'Neil, President of Madison Square Garden Sports; Steve Pagliuca, co-owner of the Boston Celtics; Jeanie Buss, Vice President of Business Operations for the Los Angeles Lakers; moderator Jessica Gelman; David Gill, Manchester United CEO; and Neil glat, Senior VP Corporate Development for the NFL.

I guess I should have been a little closer when taking this picture of the soccer analytics panel.  It's blurry enough to not even try and identify who is in each seat.  You can see a recap of the panel in my Day Two review.

Mark Cuban posing for a picture with the SSAC staff at the end of the conference.

A picture with Alexi Lalas after our half hour interview.

I always wanted a silhouette picture with Drew Carey!

Turns out I am horrible at self portraits, but I had to capture a picture with Mark Cuban. It was great to see him be himself for an hour long interview with Bill Simmons. You can find my recap of said interview at the end of my Day Two recap.

Everyone who attended the conference got a copy of Grantland Quarterly, Volume 1.  I needed a gift for my wife, and she's a huge Bill Simmons fan.  The book was free, and getting it personalized and signed by Bill Simmons was free.  My wife loves it, and all of this really means I have a cool wife who loves sports as much as I do.

That's it for the pictures.  I will do one more post on SSAC, which will be my half hour interview with Alexi Lalas.  It likely won't come until the weekend or next Monday given the time required to transcribe it and my limited free time between now and then.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Drew Carey: The SSAC Interview

I always wanted a silhouette with Drew Carey at SSAC. This picture had
absolutely nothing to do with me forgetting about the windows behind us.

I was able to catch up with Drew Carey, co-owner of Seattle Sounders FC, as part of my ongoing coverage of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference for Howler Magazine.  He was gracious enough to give me five minutes of his time to ask him a few questions about the Sounders' strategy that has generated so much fan interest.  Parts of this interview will be going into a bigger article I am writing on the cultural significance within the Seattle sports market of the Sounders and their success.

Zach Slaton: First of all, thank you very much for the interview.  I know you're a very busy guy.

Drew Carey: Yeah, no problem.

ZS: You always talk about the Sonics departure being one of the biggest blessings for the Sounders.  My family has lived in Seattle since 1994, so I understand what it meant to lose them.  Beyond the loss of that organization, what other things have you guys learned to NOT do?  You know, other than don't move the Sounders to another city?

DC:  Right away it was all about contact with the fans, contact with the fans, contact with the fans.  So a lot of our initial marketing was through all the fan message boards, and the people who were already Sounders fans through the USL.  Going through them and spreading the word through all the different soccer clubs.  That was part of our plan from the very beginning.  You could throw up a bunch of billboards, I guess... put ads in the paper.  But that doesn't pay off.  We're really about using high value communication.  The better way to spread your message without spending a lot of money is through the fan groups.  It just so happens that's the most important thing you should do anyway, so it all worked out for us.

ZS: I'll send you a paper after this interview, because it goes into that exact thing.  It's a little bit academic, but it looks at the things you guys did both initially and going forward in terms oftrying to attract new fans.  It might be of value, it may not be.

DC: Yeah, sure!

ZS: You've been extremely successful these last three years. You've got the Hawk's Nest open, we're talking about 38,000 to 40,000 people...

DC: Yeah! [with a trademark Drew Carey grin]

ZS: It's going to be an awesome environment.  So you've got all that success under your belt.  What do the next three years look like?  If you had to define success, what does that mean to you?

DC: Winning the MLS Cup.  That's it.  We have to win the MLS Cup.  We're happy about everything.  We're glad we're making money, but if we don't win the MLS Cup I don't know what we're doing.

ZS: You live in Southern California and film the Price is Right there.  You're from Cleveland originally.  We've actually exchange Pittsburgh yinzer speak tweets [another Carey grin].  You've been all around the world in your career.  Besides the team being in Seattle, what about the city do you really enjoy when you're up there?

DC: I love the city!  It's got a really vibrant downtown.  It's a really good sports town because of the fans.  Game day everyone is wearing their gear and their scarves. It's soooo much better than Southern California.  I think every place is better than LA.  They have really nice people in Seattle.  I can't say enough great things about the city.

ZS: Well thank you!  We enjoy your leadership very much and the fact that you're out in front at matches.  I think you serve as a great model for owners.  Can I ask you one more quick question?

DC: Sure.

ZS: Can the Sounders' success be replicated elsewhere? Is it really just a matter of you guys doing a lot of hard work, or do you think it's something cultural in Seattle?

DC: A lot of things were just right up there.  We were able to have the Seahawks front office in place already.  So as far as season ticket sales and luxury box sales, things like that were already connected for us.  They were able to contact people and already knew the market.  We have a downtown stadium to play in, which I think is really important.  And so does Joe Roth.  Having a downtown stadium is crucial.  A lot of MLS stadiums don't do as well because frankly they're built out in the sticks and it takes an hour to get to them.

ZS: And we are seeing that learning curve right, because Houston is building theirs downtown.

DC: Yeah. Right. But these things were already there for us.  We kinda lucked out.

ZS: But if MLS is looking to expand again, they could look to partner with established respected organizations similar to the Seahawks, right?

DC: Yeah, they could.  Joe Roth and Adrian did such a good job of putting together these opportunities and took advantage of them.  They brought me on when all that stuff was already established.  I was brought in as the celebrity face, which is another good idea other ownership groups should look at [laughs].  You should honestly talk with Joe, he was the guy behind all of this.

ZS: I would certainly like to work my way towards that interview.  Thank you very much, Drew!

DC: Thank you.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Thoughts From SSAC Day Two

This post is part of my ongoing coverage of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference for Howler Magazine.

The Sloan Sports Analytics Conference has now wrapped up - a tornado of 20 hours of stats, networking, two live BS Reports from Bill Simmons, and a whole lot of one liners from guys like Drew Carey and Mark Cuban.  The second day lived up to the hyped billing in my book, and served as a great capstone for another great conference.

Starting the day off on the right... er, left foot.
My day didn't start at the conference.  The first panels of the day were of minimal interest to me, so I decided to head over to Lir to grab some breakfast and watch the Arsenal/Liverpool match.  By now everyone knows about the epic finish to the match, but the experience was even more powerful at Lir as that is where the Boston Gooners meet up for every match.  I love my local club more than anything else in soccer, but there's nothing like showing up in any major city in America and being able to find fellow supporters of one of the best clubs in the history of the game.  The explosion at the bar after Van Persie's goal was overwhelming, and after a very rough season it warmed my heart to hear the Boston Gooners sing to him as if they were at Anfield.  I know the odds in Tuesday's match against Milan are long, and I know the Gunners are only three points clear of Chelsea for fourth in the Premiership.  Those statistical realities didn't matter in that moment.  All that mattered was we won, and we won because of or captain's phenomenal form.  There was probably only one other Seattle Gooner having a better time than me yesterday morning, and few had a better view of the winning goal than him.

Post-match it was time to head over to the Hynes Center for my first SSAC panel of the morning: "Franchises in Transition".  It was intended to highlight franchises that were either rebuilding or had rebuilt themselves after some sort of traumatic on- or off-field event.  Brian Burke from the Toronto Maple Leaf's was scheduled to be on the panel, but business needs required him to leave the conference on Friday night.  Seattle Sounders co-owner Drew Carey was Burke's replacement, and it can't be understated how big of an upgrade Drew was to the panel based upon Burke's surly performances on Friday.

2012 SSAC "Franchises in Transition" Panel

The panel itself was interesting in its undertones regarding fan relationships.  Several of the franchise representatives came across with statements that made it seem like fans were more to be managed than engaged, or at least engagement was simply one way to manage fans with the underlying goal being profitability.  Two panelists stood out as diametrically opposed to this concept, with their attitudes being shaped by events off the field of play.

Rita Benson LeBlanc, owner of the New Orleans Saints, talked of how the Saints become a rallying point for the city after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.  This responsibility was recognized by the Saints organization, and impacted the way they recruited players.  LeBlanc talked of how family was very important to the organization and the city. While Drew Brees showed great upside coming off an injury prior to joining the Saints, it was the intangible asset of him placing a similar priority on family and feeling at home with the Saints from the first workout that sealed the deal for the organization.  The family atmosphere you see during Saint's pre-game huddles and in the stands is not fake.  It is ingrained in the team's culture, which one could readily see when LeBlanc teared up at the end of her explanation of raising a banner for the fans after a particularly successful season.

The eye opening moment for many attendees listening to the "Franchises in Transition" panel came when Drew Carey explained the Sounder's business model in relation to the fans.  Recognizing the city was traumatized by the departure of the Sonics, Carey was the driving force behind the team's fan-centric creation and bylaws.  In a nod to elections of club leadership at clubs like Barcelona, Carey got club leadership to buy into the idea that season ticket holders would be able to vote out the team's general manager every four years if they didn't like his or her performance.  Carey pushed for regular interaction with season ticket holders, recounted how a fan vote was what determined the name of the club, and how the focus of the team was to engage fans in their local environs - pubs, message boards, blogs - before a single game had been played.  Such interactions set a culture of fan engagement that continues today.  Carey's view that fans who have an ownership and management stake in a club are more like to stay committed during rough times resonated with the panelists who may not have known about the Sounders' approach prior to the panel.  Their reactions indicated the continued value in having MLS and EPL participation in the conference, as these representatives can provide very different perspectives on team management philosophies than major US sports leagues.

Carey's frankness and lack of political correctness on the panel was refreshing.  In explaining why fans should be empowered to judge the GM's performance, he pointed out that we're asked to vote for judges in elections, and nobody really knows why they should vote for one candidate or the other.  The clear implication is that season ticket holders often know way more about their club than local judges, so why shouldn't we trust the wisdom of crowds in helping to run our clubs?  Carey bluntly explained that the lack of parity of some leagues can be chalked up to a number of owners caring more about making money than actually spending what it takes to win and give the fans the championships they deserve.  His response to those types of owners is, "I'm glad they're there, because it means we can beat them all the time."  When questioned if winning games was enough to make money in sports, he quipped, "I could sell cocaine and make money, but I want to sleep at night." After the laughter in the room died down, he went on to explain that establishing a culture of common ownership in a club was key to being financially successful through the ups and downs.  Every time Carey made a one liner he got a hearty laugh out of the crowd, which was a great break from the "don't rock the boat" approach taken by many of the other panelists throughout the weekend.

Tony Riali of Around the Horn fame was the panel moderator, so the end of the session inevitably turned into a "Buy or Sell" segment.  Thankfully Riali didn't play it safe and asked about promotion and relegation first thing.  All of the panelists sold on the concept (or rejected it for those who don't watch Around the Horn).  Each gave reasons having to do with economics, but Carey was the only one who gave a nuanced answer in the slightest.  He sold the concept in the near term, but expressed his appreciation for the European business model and hoped that sometime in the next 50 years MLS would adopt promotion and relegation once it becomes financially possible to do so.

Daryl Morey's role as one of the GM's who passed on Jeremy Lin became the focus of the player analytics discussion in the panel.  Morey was able to make the only overt reference to a statistical term I heard from the major panels all weekend, describing missing out on Jeremy Lin as a Type II error.  Morey claimed there are actually 20 to 25 Lins in every draft, and the likelihood of a team missing them is high.  This is due to the fact that the real enabler to Lin's success is the randomness of playing time opportunity due to player injuries.  It wasn't until Lin had the opportunity to play due to the injuries of more traditional starters that he was able to display his capabilities and seized the most of the moment.  There is very little stats can do for a club if the player isn't given the opportunity to generate them, especially if most of their non-game performances appear similar to other players who normally ride the bench.

The concept of opportunity came up again when the panel was asked when it was appropriate to make a short term deal and pay more for a player at the expense of the club's long-term goals.  The clear answer from the panel was that such a move should only be considered when the club only needs one or two pieces to make the leap to a championship caliber team that season.  Morey pointed out that analytics help the team determine when they're at that point, and protect against a coach or GM who believes they're perennially close to a championship and thus willing to continually sacrifice the team's long term health.  While Carey pointed out that MLS's limited resources prevents many teams from pursuing such an approach, I can't help but feel that the Sounders' deal for Eddie Johnson was born out of such a belief that he's the final piece of their offensive puzzle needed to win an MLS Cup.  Drew Carey closed the panel with a recitation of the reasons for the Sounders success, and then all of the panelists posed for pictures.

There was a one-and-a-half hour break for me until the Soccer Analytics panel, so I grabbed some lunch and spoke with a few of the soccer analysts at the conference.  I was also lucky enough to secure an interview with Drew Carey later in the day, so I used the break to prepare questions.

The soccer analytics panel kicked off at 1 PM.  All of the panelists were new for this year except for Steven Houston, although even Houston had switched clubs (from Chelsea to Hamburg FC in the Bundesliga).  Mark Steyn reprised his role as moderator.

To be honest, the panel discussed many of the same themes as the 2011 panel (you can read my review of the 2011 panel here).  The challenge with public discussion of soccer analytics lies in the economics of the game.  Given that European clubs are run like independent businesses, they're loathe to publicly disclose any of the details of the models or analytics they're using.  MLS's analytics are still in the nascent stage given their limited economic means.  This means that a panel that was populated with club representatives and one TV analyst (Alexi Lalas) was very light on discussion of actual analytics.  This stands in stark contrast to many other presentations at the conference, and will limit the interest in future soccer analytics panels until the issue is resolved.  I spoke to a number of SSAC representatives after the panel and recommended that in future years they include at least one, if not two, representatives not tied to clubs.  Such panelists should be people doing highly public analysis that they're free and willing to openly discuss.  While their analysis may not be as advanced as some of the work being done by the clubs who have access to far more detailed data, there is value in someone being on the panel who can discuss actual analyses and numbers that will be largely right in their conclusions.  If nothing else it will force the club representatives to respond and open up a bit more by either agreeing with the points being brought up or disagree with some data.  They could always disagree without citing any data, but then it would just make them look like their hiding something.

Given the panel's lightness in terms of actual analytics, there were some more general observations made in their impact on the game that had value.  Steven Houston posited that the lower player movement and emphasis on short term loans over the last year bodes well for the use of data, because it will force players to perform to the terms of a short term contract rather than the security of a longer-term one.  Everton, Fulham, Chelsea, and Manchester City in the EPL and Dortmund and Hamburg in the Bundesliga were singled out as the biggest users of data in those two leagues.  Drew Carey emphasized the fact that the Sounders being located in Seattle and the number of technical/software companies in the city helps the team build a culture around data analysis.  Alexi Lalas provided some good personal stories of how his career intersecting with the boom in VHS tape use provided him with analysis capabilities to improve his own game.  This is a topic that will be explored in more depth when I post my interview of Lalas later this week.

The consistent message from the panel was that analytics were just one element of the total team management model, and that to gain acceptance they need to be sold to club management by experienced individuals.  Younger analysts who may believe numbers provide the complete answer can set the application of soccer analytics back if management perceives recommendations to be coming from inexperienced practitioners.  The European representatives on the panel emphasized their greatest use of analytics is in screening the 10,000+ players available on the worldwide market, enabling more targeted use of limited scouting resources.  The panelists were in agreement that the use of tactical analytics was rather limited compared to player evaluation.  Emphasizing the idea of knowledge networks leading to continuous improvement, Carey talked of the Sounders' utilization of friendlies as a way to learn about how bigger clubs use analytics.  We also learned from the panel that while application of analytics to youth teams is almost non-existent in the UK due concerns about publicly available data on underage players, there is an emerging set of rules in the FA that will require academies keep such data.  The overall goal is to improve the evaluation of youth players, especially in a Financial Fair Play constrained world.

As the panel closed I was lucky enough to get a five minute interview with Drew Carey for an article I am writing on the Sounders.  After the Carey interview I took some time to organize my notes and talk with a few more soccer analysts, biding my time until the live BS Report with Bill Simmons and Mark Cuban.
Mark Cuban, post-BS Report with the SSAC Staff
Cuban didn't disappoint in his hour-long discussion with Bill Simmons.  He called the new CBA "bullshit", and pointed out that it radically changed the Maverick's business model.  Under the old CBA his 2010/11 team was liable for approximately $15M in luxury tax to the league, which was a sum his team could afford to pay for the success it experienced on the court.  Under the new CBA, he was staring at a $65M luxury tax if no changes were made to his team's roster.  He set about learning the ins and outs of the new CBA and reshaping the team himself rather than delegating the responsibility to someone else.  Given the NBA's large-scale economic issues that were to be addressed in the CBA, there was less of an emphasis on analytics in the negotiations and a greater emphasis on large scale economic change.  Given the stakes, Cuban said the NBA had to bring in so many attorneys that it he said the league's acronym should stand for "Nothing But Attorneys."  This was just the start of Cuban being Cuban.

He went on to claim "the commissioner doesn't know what he's doing."  He told a room full of MBA students, many of which I would assume are specializing in sports management, that "sports management is the new rocks for jocks".  He refuses to hire people with sports management degrees unless they can demonstrate truly unique ideas in that field.  Maverick employees who start the wave are liable to be fired, and when it comes to trades only he, Don Nelson, and coach Rick Carlisle are in the know so as to prevent leaks.  Cuban explained that he's not selling basketball, but rather unique fan experiences based upon collective participation.  As he explained, his arena is the only place where a random fan will be able to high five a guy like him after a great play when everyone knows that fan wouldn't get the owner's attention if they passed each other on the street.  It's this desire for collective fan engagement throughout the game that leads Cuban to not install WiFi in the Maverick's Arena.  His concern is a fan absorbed in their phone or iPad is one less fan yelling, screaming, and high fiving.  The Maverick's strategy in last year's NBA Finals was discussed, with emphasis placed on the confidence that was built in the team by showing the players instant analytical assessments of what they were doing right in the early games of the series.  Cuban closed with an excellent discussion on why the future of TV is bright.  If SSAC ever posts a video of the chat I will post a link and will highly recommend you check it out.

The end of the BS session also marked the end of the conference.  The Hynes Center emptied rather quickly, with the stragglers being the people interested in getting a picture with Mark Cuban (confession: I was one of those people).  The ending seemed to come abruptly.  After 48 hours of organized activities and a regimented SSAC schedule there was suddenly freedom to do whatever I liked.  I ended the evening where I started the weekend.  Listening to some good punk rock, I consumed a few beers and chili dogs at McGreevy's while soaking up the insights of Matt Booher.  Matt and I had only met on Friday, but we had a great hour long conversation about the game of soccer, analytics, our own lives, and his love for Aston Villa.  After panels and meet ups full of people, it was very refreshing to have a deeper conversation with a single person.  It provided a great balance and ending to a very fun weekend.  At one point I paused for a moment and thought that I was the luckiest sports fan on earth based upon my experiences at and around the conference.  I think 2199 other individuals may be thinking the same thing right now.