Tuesday, February 4, 2014

New U.S. Soccer Magazines, the Pele Effect, and Leggy Data Points

I’m British by birth and have kicked something ever since I could walk. And I have been waiting since coming to America as a teenager for soccer to become mainstream in this country.  While in the Navy in Asia, I looked forward to traveling to Hong Kong because the folks there at least knew what to do with their feet.  I stayed in the hunt, starting a soccer team at a small state college in Pennsylvania.  My brother was the first player signed for the fledgling University of Wisconsin-Green Bay soccer team.  My daughter played varsity for the University of Pittsburgh.  We’ve all done our share of coaching.

U.S. women’s soccer, led by the brilliant Mia Hamm and a strong contingent of female college and professional soccer players, captured the imagination of America and the world during the last decade of the 20th century and early in the 21st.   This represented massive, community-level enthusiasm in the very best sense of the words.  I loved attending these events with my daughter and her friends.  I loved this muscular expression of the feminine. 

Our collective hopes for English football, American-style, were raised when Brazil’s Pele’ came out of retirement in 1975 to play for the New York Cosmos for three years.  Even at thirty-five, Pele was a wonder to watch and helped soccer for a period attract national television and celebrity coverage, but the top down approach didn’t work either.  It would be another twenty years before the country was ready for the sport.  The North American Soccer League celebrates its 19th anniversary in 2014, a longer tenure than any other U.S. soccer league.

The New York Times noted that NBC has paid a record $250 million for broadcast rights to every English Premier League game for the next three years.  The Times also notes that soccer journalism lags its foreign peers with only one magazine, Soccer America, in business since the 1970's.  Now two soccer quarterlies, Eight by Eight and Howler, have joined the fray.  A third called XI is said to be experiencing financial difficulties.

I think that most special-interest magazines in America have come into being when there were rising consumer and business interests in the sector.  Certainly this was true of Runner’s World in the 1970's and Bicycling Magazine, where I served as editor and publisher during the relaunch in the 1980's and 1990's.  Growing interest in health and fitness was matched by upscale consumer products from Nike, Trek and others and a boom was born.  We’ve seen this happen in America before, such as a generation earlier when returning GI’s who had learned a little about mountain skiing in combat brought their experience and enthusiasm back to the states.  Ski and Skiing magazines were a by-product of these World War II activities.

So the historical parallels for the growth of soccer magazines in American are well-known.  As noted, youth soccer has been flowering for a generation as has collegiate soccer.  Television—and that means major advertisers in tow—have embraced the sport.  NBC is providing delicious, understated coverage of the best Premier League Soccer games.  Fox, a little more chatty, provides the best of the European leagues. The general optimism about the sport, worldwide, is partly fueled by the fact that the World Cup is being held in Brazil in June of this year.  Billions are expected to watch this extravaganza in part because Brazil is considered the spiritual home of the beautiful game.  This is a bit of a fantasy because Brazilian players are often overrated.  But so are the New York Yankees.

The new soccer magazines, though currently exhibiting modest plans, are run by management with deep experience in publishing, including at Esquire, National Geographic, and GQ.  The NYT piece reveals that Howler “got its start with $69,000 from Kickstarter and ‘pretty sizable’ support through advertising by Nike and beIN Sport, the Al Jazeera-affiliated sports network.”

These magazines share a common theme:  that US soccer has been largely ignored by US print media and that is true enough.  Given the long slog soccer in the states has undergone, I wonder whether fine journalism and splashy layouts are enough to draw in the finicky American crowd.  After all, soccer is not three yards and a cloud of dust.  It is about finesse, the ability to run on average a 10-12K race each game, and more than a little understanding of geometry.

I’m currently reading Soccernomics, a splendid, NYT best-selling book that examines soccer from an empirical standpoint, relying on data rather than truisms and old world utterances offered by aging white coaches about a game they apparently don’t know that well.  The authors’ opening salvo makes the point.  Researchers at a large club looked at more than four hundred corner kicks and concluded that “the most dangerous corner was the ‘inswinger’ to the near post.”  They took this finding to the club’s manager, who was an ex-player who knew from his field experience that an ‘outswinger’ was more effective.  End of story!  This represents the book in miniature.

Authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski see English and European football, with some exceptions, as a century-old game that has changed little in the way owners and managers view the sport.  So clubs continue to overvalue older players, certain nationalities, and high school stars.  And they frequently prefer to hire blondes, another mistake.  The authors suggest that teams might be better off if managers were hired through the wisdom of the crowds or perhaps not at all.  They offer a ton of data to support this thesis.

English and European football are undergoing changes that the Brad Pitt movie Moneyball captured about the 2002 Oakland Athletics.  Hamstrung with a tight budget in a small market, the owner decided to rely on data rather than the intuition and experience of coaches.  The rest is history, more or less.

The authors note that it is a little surprising that soccer has been so adverse to studying data because the sport, like baseball and football, is all about the numbers.  We’ve heard the lament before.  Why sully a beautiful game, any beautiful game, with attention to cold, hard numbers.  The authors suggest that when England loses a penalty shootout in a World Cup quarterfinal, instead of throwing beer glasses at the TV, fans might temper their disappointment by reflecting on the nature of the binomial probability theory.   

The big clubs in particular are relying less on gut and more on data.  The authors report that AC Milan’s in-house medical team, by studying the data, could predict with 70% accuracy whether a player would get injured.  The joke is that this lab has discovered the secret of eternal youth.  Not quite, but they seem to have a pretty good idea when a player is ripe for the transfer window.  For me, one of the most interesting chapters was on game theory and the penalty kick.  The best soccer players have internalized a form of game theory and on their run-up to the penalty kick they still don’t know whether the ball is going to the left or right of the goalie.  Talk about a random sequence.

If I was editing a new magazine for the burgeoning soccer crowd in the U.S., I would start with great journalism and splendid graphics, but I wouldn’t forget the numbers and the data that feeds hardcore, passionate fans.  Or the discussion of the soccer psychology, mythology, economics, and yes, theology, found in this precious book that turns conventional soccer wisdom on its head.

The authors of Soccernomics write that “Until very recently, soccer has escaped the Enlightenment.”

Now that’s a story with legs.

(This post is dedicated to my brother Desi McCullagh, recently deceased.  He was a life-long soccer enthusiast and coach who played for various amateur clubs, during stints in the Army and Marines, and for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.  He was my soccer confidant.)

1 comment:

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