Garbage in, garbage out: Soccer analytics and economics

Academia and sports each have a tension between number-crunchers and those who believe the numbers simply can’t capture the real world.

We in the media are ill-equipped to cover this dispute. We’re generally not good at math. Twice, I’ve had to explain to a fellow journalist that 1/4=0.25. (“Do you have a quarter in your pocket?! How many cents is it worth?!!!”)

When I say I’m farther along in math than probably 95% of journalists, I’m not bragging. I’m highlighting a problem. I did really well in AP Calculus in high school. That got me one semester of math credit at Duke, and I took a second semester of calculus. (In which I did not do really well, though in my defense, my teacher wasn’t so good at communication.)

In retrospect, I would’ve taken a statistics course. Or two or three. That’s about all anyone can take without taking linear algebra, for which that second semester of calculus is a prerequisite. (Yeah, I passed, but I wouldn’t have been very comfortable.)

There’s an app for that.

I’ve actually enrolled in a series of Data Science courses from Johns Hopkins via Coursera. So far, I’ve learned how to download the programs that I can use to do data science.


So I am not capable of saying much about this analysis of the MLS Audi Player Index by sports analytics student Kevin Shank other than to say I wholeheartedly agree with a saying mentioned herein that I always heard in my computer science class (now otherwise totally outdated) and other endeavors involving numbers and programming:

Garbage in, garbage out.

A lot of soccer journalists would go farther than that and say numbers can never, ever fully describe the impact of a soccer player. They might lack the mathematical background to critique anyone’s linear algebra and mathematical modeling, but they’re not necessarily wrong.

To give another college story, I was in a class called Symbolic Logic, which I took because (A) I was a philosophy major, and this was a philosophy class and (B) I had done so well in Logic. But the way it was taught at Duke at the time, this was no philosophy class. This was an advanced math class. The professor was startled to learn that a couple of us hadn’t done mathematical induction before. To which I was tempted to reply, “Then make the relevant math class a freaking prerequisite so we won’t sign up for this thing and torpedo our GPAs with a class that will take all of our efforts just to pass.”

I mention it because the professor did mention that Immanuel Kant was skeptical of some of the tools we were learning. So it was awfully tempting to sit down for the final exam and write “Kant was right,” then get on with the rest of my exams.

So a lot of journalists would say the equivalent of “Kant was right.” And with good reason. We can argue how well or how poorly numbers can tell the story of a soccer player’s success. One school of thought insists that the amount a soccer player runs in a game, a new metric you’ll see on sophisticated broadcasts, is less of a measure of a player’s work ethic and more a measure of tactical naivete. In other words, maybe that player is running so much because he/she doesn’t know how to play the danged position and is always in the wrong spot.

I would say analytics are useful — to a point. I don’t get too excited about the Audi Player Index because I have no idea what it’s supposed to measure. Telling me a player completed only 50% of her passes from midfield — OK, that I can understand. And yet that player may still be valuable for reasons that can only be described subjectively. Until someone can quantify the impact of Abby Wambach dropping the f-bomb in the locker room (new stat idea: Carli Lloyd goals per Wambach curse words), we’re going to face limits to what numbers can describe.

And that brings us to a field I have long disparaged: Sports economics.

It’s not that economists have nothing to offer the sports world. Frankly, someone should’ve sat down with the people who bought the UFC and explained to them what will happen to TV rights fees as ESPN, Fox Sports and company try to adapt to cord-cutting.

But we’re more likely to hear from sports economists in the context of players wanting more money. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but these economists tend to rely on the same assumptions as the players.

Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner had the classic retort as he watched an economist testify in the MLS players’ lawsuit at the turn of the millennium: “For an entire session, this totally fictitious exercise dragged on, as the good Professor Zimbalist revealed charts and calculations to ‘prove’ what must have happened had a whole series of improbable conditions existed. They never did exist.” (See the original column as a PDF, which also features MLS players absurdly testifying that they don’t know whether the “First Division” in England was the equal of the Premier League, and check out a free excerpt of my book in which this quote plays a key role.)

Gardner, to my knowledge, has no economics degree. But he had significantly less faith in the APSL’s ability to rev up a price war with MLS than Andrew Zimbalist had. And Gardner knew quite a bit more about the APSL than Zimbalist did.

“History simply trumps economics” is an argument I’ve made before. I made it in a discussion with Soccernomics’ Stefan Szymanski a couple of years ago. I appreciate his willingness to engage on the topic, but I stand by my objections. The tools he’s using to analyze U.S. soccer’s growth and potential are simply insufficient, no matter how sound the math may be. (Example: He argues that U.S. soccer resources will not grow much faster than Belgium’s because the U.S. economy won’t grow much faster than Belgium’s. But Belgium is a mature soccer nation and the USA is not. And the USA has a unique capacity to lure players — I can’t quantify the numbers that lead a Giovinco, a Bradley or a David Villa to play in North America instead of Europe, but lo and behold, they’re here.)

But the Soccernomics folks have a lot to add to our soccer discourse in this country, and this week, their blog offered up a terrific piece: “US Soccer and Conflicts of Interest.” And I’m not just saying that because it coincides with my deep dive into U.S. Soccer Federation governance.

Colorado academic Roger Pielke raises some good questions. The soccer community at large won’t spend much time discussing whether the “Risk, Audit and Compliance Committee” can suffice as an “Ethics Committee.” But we have plenty of talk on this one: Should U.S. Soccer’s officers and board members have fewer ties to Soccer United Marketing, the MLS-affiliated company that has rights to so many soccer broadcast properties, both domestic and foreign?

Here’s the part that tripped me up: “The business and non-profit functions currently under the umbrella of US Soccer should be clearly separated into completely separate organizations.”

I initially read this as suggesting USSF should split into separate federations, one business and one non-profit. I can’t imagine how that would work, and I think FIFA’s reaction would be a multilingual “Huh?” But another way to look at it is simply separating SUM from USSF as much as possible. I don’t think you could do it entirely — I can’t imagine the USSF board operating with no MLS representation, and MLS representation means having an implicit tie to SUM. Yet some sort of firewall, like the one newspapers traditionally have between its business and news operations, might make sense. The devil would be in the details.

Pielke says USSF president Sunil Gulati and others with the federation have been receptive to his ideas. That’s good. Because I’m going to have a lot of follow-up questions.

Featured image is from Kevin Stark’s Tableau page. I have little idea what that means, but I hope I’ll know in a few months.

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Beau Dure

The guy who wrote a bunch of soccer books and now runs a Gen X-themed podcast while substitute teaching and continuing to write freelance stuff.

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