« Archive for June, 2008

Image by Getty Images via DaylifeHopefully this will be my last soccer-related post for a while, but here’s Tracy Ringolsby in Friday’s Rocky Mountain News:

Oakland assistant general manager David Forst is quick to decline interview requests for GM jobs because he figures to be the head man with the Athletics as early as next season. While Billy Beane will be around, Beane has indicated he plans to put his focus on developing the pro soccer team that he is involved with, along with Athletics owner Lewis Wolf.

Predictably, the blogosphere seems to care a lot more about this than the mainstream press. We generally tend to track every word out of Beane’s mouth, let alone rumors of a potential job change. And to be honest, this is a very interesting story.

But as a pure business move, I’m not seeing the value here. The Oakland A’s are a relatively big business; the San Jose Earthquakes are not. Even if they win the MLS Cup for the next ten years in a row, they are still inherently limited by the league’s sparse popularity and revenues.

I’m not an expert on the MLS’s business, but I thought this was interesting. If the average MLS team is bringing in $12 million in revenue, that means the entire league is somewhere around $170 million. According to Forbes, the Oakland A’s were 24th in baseball with $154 in revenue, and that figure doesn’t include any money brought in from MLB Advanced Media. So the question is, why would Lew Wolf want his top executive shifting from a valuable (and potentially high-growth) asset, to one that has yet to prove it even can be significantly profitable?

I do get it from Billy’s perspective; everybody needs a new challenge once in a while, and there’s a lot more to learn about soccer at this point than there is about baseball. And we know he’s been edging in this direction for a while. But that still doesn’t change the fact that Billy is one of the most valuable assets in all of baseball, and the financial returns he could bring to the Earthquakes are still relatively limited.

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In case you missed it, Terry Bradshaw told Dan Patrick that he took steroids during his NFL career:

“The steroids I’d always taken was to speed up the healing process and that was it. It wasn’t to get bigger, stronger, faster,” Bradshaw told Dan Patrick on Patrick’s radio show.

He not did specify what kind of steroids he took.

During Bradshaw’s playing days, steroids were not banned by the NFL and were not illegal. They were approved for use by the FDA and could be readily obtained with a doctor’s prescription.

Bradshaw said players in his time in the NFL were not as medically or technologically informed as players are today.

“We were taught as athletes if you could walk and halfway talk, then you played,” noting that a doctor recently found two more broken vertebrae in his back that went undetected during his career.

This shouldn’t be such a surprise. It’s a pretty open secret that there was rampant steroid use in the NFL during the ’70s and ’80s. I’m not sure when the modern day stigma about performance enhancers came to be, but I believe it was closer to Ben Johnson’s disqualification from the 1988 Olympics.

The bigger point here is that pro athletes have been using steroids for a long time, well before Jose Canseco’s time. We just don’t hear about it that often, since it doesn’t fit well with how the media has depicted modern day baseball players.

Keep in mind, it’s been over three years since Tom House came out about his own steroid use, a story that that was brushed aside within one news cycle. He said, among other things, “I pretty much popped everything cold turkey… We were doing steroids they wouldn’t give to horses. That was the ’60s, when nobody knew. The good thing is, we know now. There’s a lot more research and understanding.”

Now, House was a former teammate of Hank Aaron (he caught Aaron’s 715th home run in the Braves’ bullpen). Did Aaron also use steroids? Probably not, but there’s about as much evidence on him as there is on Sammy Sosa (he hit lots of home runs, and other guys did it).

So why doesn’t our beloved mainstream media tell us this? Well, probably because villains make for great stories, and it’s hard to create villains when there are no good guys to compare them too.

I’ve said this a number of times already: this has been a media driven story from day one. There is a popular perception about steroids (and PEDs in general) that has gone relatively unchallenged, despite being uninformed and, at times, flat out wrong. We castigate certain players based solely on what the media tells us, despite the fact that their job is to be interesting and sell newspapers, not to inform us with well-researched journalism.

Congrats to Terry, though. He definitely has some balls. But make no mistake, if he was a baseball player with 500+ home runs, his mouth would be sealed shut.

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Thierry HenryFrom the Numbers Guy:

These systems, with names such as ProZone and Amisco, use cameras and analysts to record the movement of players and balls around the field. They measure tactical statistics such as the percentage of completed passes and number of crosses, and also quantify movement, such as the number of times each player sprints around the field. TheyÕve been adopted widely by English clubs and by other top clubs and national teams. ÒThereÕs been an explosion of all kinds of sports-science techniques,Ó Blake Wooster, head of business development for ProZone, told me.

But soccer scientists havenÕt yet identified new statistics that correlate best with winning matches. ÒTo my notice, nobodyÕs been able to come up with any answers of real substance,Ó Mr. Wooster said.

Read that last sentence again. There is, apparently, no evidence that any of these numbers actually contribute toward winning, and yet teams at the highest level of the sport are utilizing them to make decisions.

This is Bill James 101: if you want real answers, you have to start with the questions. James used to say that he got most of his ideas from hearing people (particularly broadcasters) make claims based on ideas that weren’t necessarily substantiated. Does it matter if Mike Schmidt is 10 for his last 18 with runners in scoring position? Is it worth stealing 100 bases if you’re also thrown out 40 times?

In the same sense, so what if Portugal completed 355 passes to Germany’s 236? Does completing more passes generally lead to winning the game? What’s the point in tracking this if it may not have any practical relevance?

I do understand the agencies’ motives: by putting out numbers that had never been considered before, they can sell their products to teams that are terrified of falling behind. But this is only a reliable business model until the teams get smart and start questioning the value of the new stats.

What the agencies and the teams should be doing is asking the most fundamental question: what quantifiable acts on the field lead to scoring more goals than the other team? Or, since individual matches are largely determined by chance, what quantifiable acts lead to teams being successful over the course of a full season? Completing more passes? Spending more time in the other team’s end? Winning the possession battle?

If anyone knows more about soccer than I do, and perhaps knows if any of these questions have already been answered, please speak up. I’m guessing hockey and soccer may align very well on these issues, so if you know of any similar hockey analysis that’s been done, I’d be curious to hear that too.

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It is about the money, stupid interviewed agent Matt Sosnick, who was the subject of Jerry Crasnick’s License to Deal (hat tip: Maury):

IIATMS: ThereÕs been a recent trend of locking up rookies with longer term contracts to buy out their arbitration years. How do you advise your players?
MS: ItÕs completely a risk/reward discussion. Anything can happen to a player and we do encourage players to gain a sense of financial security who are concerned about that. And those that succeed will have a chance at a big contract again anyways. We just had Freddy Sanchez and Dontrelle (Willis) sign longer term deals so the money will be there again later if they perform. And if they donÕt, they still have the benefit of the guaranteed money. Same goes for the younger guys.

Regarding Jay Bruce, weÕre open to a discussion. But heÕll still have a chance at a big money contract down the road if he continues to progress, no matter if he signs a deal now or not.

Well, we know it’s a risk/reward situation. I think it’s interesting that he specifically notes that some players are more concerned with financial security than others.

I’ve come down on both sides of this issue. For the most part, though, the teams have come out way ahead in recent months. Players get a taste of those guaranteed millions, and agree to trade their first free-agent eligible seasons for that sense of security. In Evan Longoria’s case, those years are 2015 and 2016. Given MLB’s recent growth, as well as inflation, he will be massively underpaid during those seasons (relative to market value), even if he doesn’t reach his full potential.

There is a way to structure these deals where both sides gain fairly similar value: reduce the player’s salary even further during his arb-eligible years, and ditch the club options for his FA-eligible seasons. Or the player could wait until he has accrued two to three years of service time, in order to gain a better perspective on what his services will really be worth when he hits the open market.

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Maury and co. weigh in on the state of the game. Tango responded with this:

This is the state of MLB. Its success is measured from the non-fans perspective based on how much money they can get from its customers and advertisers, and how much they can get from public financing. Unless you sell the core of the game, this kind of ÒsuccessÓ is not sustainable. Basketball, probably hockey, and soccer naturally, have a larger following (if you include human beings outside of America), even though baseball is such a beautifully perfect game. MLB is not that game yet.

I responded in the comments:


I do believe you have to look at financial success in determining the state of the game. The teams are businesses first and foremost, and only rarely pretend to be anything else (usually when Congress calls).

But there’s another dynamic in play that should be discussed, way before game-quality. To paraphrase Leonard Koppett, spectator sports are successful as businesses because fans believe the results of the games matter. I would say there is a pretty strong correlation between this perceived significance and how much money the sport makes.

In fact, I would also guess that game quality is pretty far down the list, when it comes to drawing fans to your sport. Gambling, fantasy games, and media accessibility are all likely ahead in that pecking order.

Compare this year’s Stanley Cup finals to last year’s World Series. For those of us that are interested in both, is there any doubt which was more enjoyable to watch? And yet, the NHL could never pull higher ratings than MLB, regardless of which teams were playing or how exciting the games were. The outcome simply doesn’t matter to many Americans.

Tango is one of the smartest guys around, but I think he’s looking at it from the wrong perspective. There are a lot of things MLB could do to improve its product offerings (I’ve been notoriously critical of their online strategy for months), but in the big picture, they’re getting it right.

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Thought this was interesting. The key point I took away was that the Red Sox are somewhat concerned about a potential slowdown in corporate demand. I’m not sure how other teams feel about this subject, but I’m guessing that smaller market clubs are far more concerned with individual customers, and particularly families.

Keep in mind, the Red Sox are special in the sense that their tickets are very inelastic, relative to their competitors. Fenway is tiny, and the demand for seats far exceeds the supply (at least for the time being). There are more than enough fans to sell out every game, as long as the team remains competitive.

However, corporations can still play a big role in setting ticket prices. Big companies will often spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per season on tickets, much more than almost any individual or private group could. So when corporate demand is high (logically at a time when the economy is doing well), overall demand will grow significantly, and Red Sox tickets become that much more expensive (since the supply is fixed).

I wrote in January that the slowing economy would have some effect on baseball’s 2008 revenues, even if the sport were to continue its massive growth. I doubt the Red Sox will take much of a hit, since most corporations put in their orders before the season starts. But smaller market teams likely will. In fact, even though MLB is still on pace to break many records, this does appear to be taking place.

But corporate patronage will only become more important to the industry as the Yankees and Mets open new stadiums next spring (remember, this helps all teams, since large amounts of local revenue are shared). In fact, this is something Forbes should probably take a look at next spring. We may not see the full effects of an economic downturn until 2009, but it’s certainly something to keep an eye on.

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This is great:

Swimmers wearing a new swimsuit by Speedo, called the LZR Racer, have broken 38 world records since its introduction in February. Whether that number is truly remarkable is a matter of debate, given Speedo’s commanding market share and the long history of world records getting broken in the runup to the Olympics. But the current perception of the new suit has created insecurity among swimmers sponsored by other brands…

After the records were broken, competing swimwear makers argued that such material was against the rules.

Part of the problem is the lack of clarity in the rules governing the sport, such as the question of swimsuit buoyancy. Rules indicate that swimsuits shouldn’t be made more buoyant but many swimmers believe the new swimsuits indeed feel buoyant.

The matter must be addressed immediately so as to “avert an irrecoverable loss of credibility for swimming sports, just a few months before the Olympic games,” wrote Cristiano Portas, the chief executive of Arena, in an open letter in April to the sport’s governing body, known as FINA. (Emphasis added)

Sound familiar?

There are plenty of reasons why the athletes in timed sports (i.e. swimming, track, etc.) today blow away those of twenty years ago, or thirty years ago, or fifty years ago. Evolution is not one of them. Humans today aren’t born any stronger or faster than they were in 1950.

The differences, then, are external. It could be food, exercise physiology research, weightlifting technology, performance enhancing drugs, equipment, more refined techniques, all of the above, or a whole host of others. The bottom line is that athletes perform better today than ever before, largely due to advances in their surroundings.

Here’s my favorite example. This is from Ted Kluszweski’s wikipedia entry:

Soon after the 6′-2″ (1.89 m), 240-pound (108.8 kg) Ted Kluszewski joined the Reds, he cut off the sleeves of his uniform, much to the chagrin of the Reds front office. He did it because the tight sleeves constricted his large biceps and shoulders and interfered with his swing. “They got pretty upset, but it was either that or change my swing Ñ and I wasn’t about to change my swing”, said Kluszewski.

Ted Kluszewski also became notorious for his strength. When Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher was once asked by a writer to name five of the strongest players in baseball, he complied. However, when the writer pointed out that he’d left Ted Kluszewski off the list, Durocher huffed and said: “Kluszewski? I’m talking about human beings!”

Kluszewski was a lumbering first baseman who was not exactly known for his defense. If you’re paying attention, you’ll have noticed that he was about the same size as Alex Rodriguez, a legitimate Gold Glove shortstop at his athletic peak. If Ted Kluszewski was above human, then how do we even begin to describe A-Rod?

Every record, every athletic feat, is set within a certain context. Fifty years ago, humans with the build and athletic ability of Alex Rodriguez didn’t exist, or at least they didn’t play professional baseball. This isn’t a statement about evolution; it’s a statement about how far we’ve come in creating an atmosphere in which athletes can thrive. Trying to hold back some technologies (in the above case, swimsuits) for the sake of nominal records that are bound to be broken anyway is laughable.

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Very cool. Definitely pretty impressive, if it works as well as the demo appears.

Somebody asked me yesterday whether the draft was an “efficient” system. In other words, is it the best possible way for MLB teams to sign amateur players?

My immediate answer was yes (or at least, mostly yes), but it’s actually a fairly difficult question to answer.

Consider this: for every game the Yankees win, they add $x in marginal revenue. For every game the Rays win, they add $y in marginal revenue. Even if the two teams are at the same stage in the success cycle, x will unquestionably be greater than y. Therefore, a top amateur player will almost always be worth more to the Yankees than the Rays.

Based on that alone, the draft seems like an inefficient mechanism, since the top players don’t always go to the teams where their marginal revenue product (MRP) would be maximized.

But of course, we’re trying to maximize revenues for the sport as a whole, and a pure free market for talent will rarely accomplish that. As we’ve covered before, teams need each other in order to survive. If the player market became completely unregulated, the top teams would always have the top talent and the bottom teams would be cannibalized.

Instead, what’s needed is a mostly free market, which MLB has, at least relative to the other three major American sports leagues. MLB’s draft is the only one without any strict, formal guidelines regarding the drafted players’ contracts (there are only informal slot-recommendations). This allows teams to choose how much they want to spend on amateur talent, almost regardless of their draft position.

But there’s another facet to this that I think is pretty interesting: the draft inherently changes the sport’s incentive-structure, as it rewards the league’s worst teams. In other words, if you’re not going to be good, you may as well try to be awful. Does this lower the quality of play, and therefore hurt the product? It’s very tough to say.

(On a side note, it never really paid to be mediocre, as the price of a marginal win has always been higher than the marginal revenue that would come from winning a 75th game. But there was also no real incentive to be the worst, other than the fact that it was cheap to field a horrible team.)

But overall, I think the draft accomplishes its goals. Top-tier amateur talent is distributed to the teams that need it (or value it) the most, in effect allowing bad teams to shorten their success cycles. As we’ve learned from the expanded playoff system, any mechanism that allows more teams to be competitive without shaving significant dollars off of big market teams’ top lines is generally good for the sport.

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Right to it:

  • I love Marvin Miller; I have a strong fetish for competence. And, as I’ve written before, I’m pretty much done with the Hall of Fame. But I think he’s going about this the wrong way. I can only imagine how frustrating it’s been for him, especially since the Hall generally has a solid public image. But as flawed as the institution really is, why sacrifice the chance to be honored? And maybe even more importantly, why show your hand and publicly acknowledge that it bothers you? Yes, it is ridiculous that Bowie Kuhn is in and Miller is not. And the Hall is a much better museum than it is a meritocratic honors society. But choosing this route isn’t doing Miller any favors; his legacy amongst the non-comatose has already been set anyway.
  • To nobody’s surprise (including MLBAM CEO Bob Bowman), the Supreme Court let stand the decision against MLB in the latest fantasy sports case. In reality, MLB never had a chance; the courts have determined many times in the past that statistics are part of the public domain. It was this ruling that allowed Motorola to sell the first sports pagers in the mid-1990s. I couldn’t tell you if this is the ‘right’ decision or not, but at least they’re consistent. In the long run, this is probably best for MLB anyway. Fantasy baseball is a huge marketing tool, and is worth much more to the sport than they could have made from selling licenses.
  • Even if David Ortiz is in fact out for the season, there is almost no chance Red Sox will sign Barry Bonds (he and the city haven’t always gotten along). And honestly, I’m not even sure if they should. The equation is essentially this:(Value of 300 Bonds PAs - Value of 300 Crisp/Ellsbury PAs) -
    (Value of Ellsbury in LF - Value of Manny in LF)I’m not even sure if that’s a positive number. Either way, it’s probably not worth whatever Bonds would demand in terms of salary, and that’s before we try to account for any boogeymanness.

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