Friday, March 30, 2012

Pieth FIFA Governance Report is Out

The report of the FIFA Independence Governance Committee has been released today (here in PDF) and you can watch the FIFA press conference which discusses the report here. I will post up a detailed review of the report over the weekend.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

What Does it Mean to be Number 1 in Tennis?

The Economist has an interesting commentary on debate between professional tennis players Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer over how to rank players. Nadal has just resigned from his role on the Association of Tennis Player's Council, presumably over the issue.

Rankings are important not simple because of public interest, but because they dictate seedings in tournaments. which has an impact on the quality of competition faced in then earlier rounds of a tournament.  

Here is an excerpt:
Players receive a certain share of points, used to determine rankings, depending on how well they do in tournaments. Under the current system, they must defend those points the following year. Mr Nadal failed in this task in 2011, when he lost several titles to Serbia’s Novak Djokovic along with his number one position. Under a two-year system, he would not have had to defend the points he won in 2010 until this year, and would still have been the top seed entering competitions in early 2012.

Besides Mr Nadal’s status, other rankings would be less changeable under a two-year system. That justifies Mr Federer’s description of this approach as “boring”. Although self-interest also motivates the Swiss star, who wants to be able swiftly to recapture the number one spot he last held in 2009 (he is now ranked third, behind Mr Djokovic and Mr Nadal), introducing a less dynamic scoring method is unlikely to help popularise tennis. A two-year rankings calculation would also sit incongruously with the season, which stretches over 12 months, and even puzzle or annoy spectators. Many would surely think it unfair if Mr Djokovic had remained the world number two after winning both Wimbledon and the US Open, two of the four prestigious “grand slams”.
The ATP methodology for ranking players takes up 7 pages of fine print in the ATP's rulebook (here in PDF), and is convoluted and unintuitive. Like any quantitative metric the ranking system raises a number of important questions, such as, what it the point of ranking in the first place? Like any process that turns subjective judgments into quantitative values, there are a wide range of legitimate points of debate.

If the point is to identify the world's best tennis player, then over what time period? Obviously big tournaments identify the best player over the period of that tournament, which is typically a few weeks. A ranking system that spans multiple tournaments has to assign a value to the tournament and the player's performance.

For example, winning one of the 4 Grand Slams is judged under the ATP ranking system to be twice as valuable as winning one of the 9 ATP World Tour Master's 1000 events, and losing in the finals of a Grand Slam is 20% better than winning one of the 1000 events.

How does this compare to prize money? The winner of the Western & Southern Open (an ATP 1000 event) to be held in Cincinnati in August will get $535,600 whereas the winner of last year's US Open received $1.8 million and second place got $900,000. From an economic standpoint, winning the US Open is about 3 times more important than winning the Western & Southern Open. Clearly, the economic incentives are not aligned with the points awarded.

The method of ranking might can also have other consequences. A recent analysis recently found that fewer players were taking home a greater share of prize money, during a time period when the ranking system was changed. When changes were introduced in 2009 one observer warned that it would lead to "The rich would get richer while the poor will either stay poor or get poorer."

Lo and behold, via USA Today, that is exactly what has happened:
A USA TODAY analysis of the Association of Tennis Professionals prize money from 1990-2011 shows the wealth disparity between players ranked in the top 100 has never been greater. The study, which uses a commonly accepted method of measuring income distribution called the Gini co-efficient, also demonstrates that the gap has been greater over the course of the past three years than ever since the ATP's inception in 1990.

The prize money figures also include money earned at the four majors, which are not governed by the ATP.

Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who have shared the top three ranking spots since 2007, have been more dominate in terms of prize money accumulation than any trio since the men's tour was formed more than two decades ago. They've raked in between 20% and 26% of available prize money the past five years. The only other trio ever to break 20% was Federer-Nadal-Andy Roddick in 2006.

The 20% mark had never been crossed before — not in the heydays of the Boris Becker-Stefan Edberg-Ivan Lendl or Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi-Jim Courier rivalries.
So here is my solution to the rankings issue for tennis. The convoluted and impractical points system should be retired. In its place the ATP should simply implement a ranking system based on prize money earned in ATP-sanctioned events over the past 12 month period (such that no tournament is counted twice). The ATP could seek to standardize prize money by event (impossible however for the Grand Slams as they are not run under the ATP).

Implementing such a change would lead to big differences in rankings. For women, here is how the points rankings look as of 19 March:
And here is how the money rankings look:
The top 4 are the same, but then only 2 of the next 6.

Using prize winnings as the metric of ranking clearly aligns the player's economic incentives with a measure of their professional performance. Such a metric would also allows players to weigh their participation and effort in various tournaments according to a simple, intuitive metric. When trying to turn complex and multidimensional characteristics into a single measure, sometimes the most simple and straightforward option is the best.

Countdown to the Pieth Report

Later this week Mark Pieth promises to release the report of the "Independent" Governance Committee of FIFA of which he chairs. As soon as it is out I'll have a look an post up a review. 

Meantime, at Bloomberg Businessweek Tariq Panja has an excellent article in advance of the release. Here is an excerpt:
A 13-person panel led by Swiss law professor Mark Pieth will meet with FIFA’s board tomorrow to propose changes to the the way it does business after criticism from sponsors, fans and lawmakers following the 2010 selection of World Cup hosts and Blatter’s re-election to a fourth term six months later.

Sylvia Schenk, Transparency International’s sports specialist, advised Blatter following last May’s presidential election. She said he needs to overhaul the Zurich-based organization he’s run since 1998.

“It is Blatter’s last chance,” Schenk said. “If he does not succeed, someone else will have to do it and Blatter will be remembered as the president who left FIFA in a quagmire of corruption.”
Pieth has already laid the groundwork for his exit, under a range of possible FIFA reactions:
He has said he would walk away from the project if FIFA didn’t take the need for change seriously, saying there was reputational risk associated with advising the soccer body.
A repeat of the FIFA-TI bust-up is not out of the realm of possibility. More realistically, I'd guess, whatever the Pieth report says, FIFA's institutional response to it will not be seen in the short term, allowing everyone to declare success and try to move on. But as Schenk indicates in the quotes above, there are many observers who won't simple move on.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Premier League Standings from January 1

Courtesy Opta is the image above which shows how the EPL looks in games played since January 1. By the end of the week, I'll post updates to the Least Thing season-long EPL and Bundesliga prediction contests  for the run in to season end.

Monday, March 26, 2012

NCAA Athletes, Employment and Intellectual Property

Writing in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle, Nicholas Fram and Thomas Frampton, two Berkley law students, ask a provocative question:
What if, just before tip-off for this year's Final Four, the athletes simply walked off the court?
You might ask, why in the world would college basketball players walk off the court at what is arguably the most watched, most lucrative and most celebrated college sporting event of the year? The simple reason is that college athletes participate in this process with no compensation other than tuition and associated benefits, while coaches, NCAA officials, corporations and television, among others rake in big busks that would not be possible without the athletes participating. Obviously.

What if the athletes demanded a greater slice of the pie for their efforts? Fram and Frampton explain that the legal standing of a work stoppage would fall under US federal and state labor laws:
[T]he case for college athletes' employee status is strong. Their labor and talent generate huge revenues for universities, just like the services rendered by professional athletes. School officials directly control their labor, and indeed, exercise a degree of oversight over players' lives far exceeding that of most employees. And, as opponents of paying college athletes invariably highlight, players already earn valuable compensation (in the form of scholarships) in return. Finally, nobody would assert that playing big-time college sports, like serving as a graduate teaching assistant, is a prerequisite for an academic degree.

But federal labor law only applies to private universities. College athletes at public universities would be subject to state labor law, which has traditionally been far more favorable to student-employees. In at least a dozen states, including many with major college athletics programs (e.g., Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Oregon), student-employees have long enjoyed the right to unionize. Undergraduates in several of these states have already successfully organized, forming unions of dining-hall workers, clerical assistants or dormitory advisers. If an undergraduate student assigned to answer phones in the athletics department qualifies as a union-eligible employee, why shouldn't a classmate whose scholarship requires him to compete weekly before 110,000 paying spectators?
Fram and Frampton explore the issue of unionization in more depth in a recent law review paper (available here) in which they argue:
This Article offers the first comprehensive analysis of NCAA athletics under state labor law, reaching a novel and potentially gamechanging conclusion: that Division I athletes at many top-ranked programs likely enjoy a legal right to unionize under state law.
The focus on state labor laws is what distinguish the Fram and Frampton analysis from other analyses of the labor status of college athletes which has focused on federal law (such as McCormick and McKormick).

While the prospect of unionization accompanied by a labor stoppage is dramatic, I would argue that universities are already exposed to legal action under intellectual property policies currently in place.

Consider, for instance, the case of Ohio State a finalist in this year's Final Four, which says this about intellectual property:
Intellectual property describes a wide variety of property created by musicians, authors, artists, and inventors. The law of intellectual property typically encompasses the areas of copyright, patent, and trademark law. It is designed to encourage the development of art, science, and information by granting certain property rights to all artists, which include inventors in both the arts and the sciences.
Is an athlete's name, likeness, image or other characteristics intellectual property? I'd think that a strong case can be made that it is. If such intellectual property has value, then who is allowed to benefit? Again, here is what OSU says:
Ownership of IP created through research at the University is determined by state law, federal law, University policy and by contract. Ohio Revised Code § 3345.14 provides in part that all rights to and interests in discoveries, inventions, or patents which result from research or investigation conducted in any experiment station, bureau, laboratory, research facility, or other facility of any state college or university, or by employees of any state college or university acting within the scope of their employment or with funding, equipment, or infrastructure provided by or through any state college or university, shall be the sole property of that college or university.
As is common at university's including my own, the university retains ownership rights, but what about revenues that result? OSU has a revenue sharing formula:
Under the current formula, the inventor receives one-half of the first $75,000 of gross royalties and one-third of all subsequent royalties less patenting expenses
  • The remaining portion of the royalties is shared by the Office of Research and the inventor’s college and department
  • Royalties will be split equally among OSU joint inventors unless the inventors agree to a different allocation
There are of course a number of issues involved with the notion of considering athletes under intellectual property policies. No doubt the fine details would have to be adjudicated. But given that IP protection is extended to artists and other university employees who do not perform conventional research resulting with inventions, it is at least plausible that IP from athletics, as a core university activity, would be judged to be covered by existing IP policies.

Regardless, imagine if under the OSU intellectual property policies, star player Jared Sullinger agreed to license his image to, say, Gatorade for the next week for $500,000. Under the current OSU revenue sharing formula Sullinger would get about $145,000 and OSU would get $355,000 (hey, forget about exploited athletes, what about exploited professors?! ;-). This formula is so beneficial to universities that one might wonder why universities with big time athletic programs aren't already in a rush to capitalize on the untapped value of their highly visible athletes.

Of course, once universities step on that slippery slope they would find that the athletes hold all of the negotiating power, and that formula would change in a hurry. But make no mistake, as Fram and Frampton indicate, the issue of college athletes as employees has a long history, but really, debate has only just begun.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Kuper Interviews Pieth

In the weekend FT, Simon Kuper has a lengthy interview with Mark Pieth, chair of FIFA's independent governance committee. Kuper is a wonderful writer and incisive analyst. Here is an excerpt from the piece, which is worth reading in full:
Yet when Pieth was appointed, some scoffed that Blatter expected his fellow Swiss German to deliver a whitewash. Certainly Pieth’s work on Fifa got off to a bad start. Sylvia Schenk, sports adviser to the anti-corruption body Transparency International, pulled out of the process when it emerged that Fifa had paid Pieth about SF120,000 to produce an initial “scoping report”, and after he had said he wouldn’t investigate past allegations of corruption but would only look at Fifa’s future.

Schenk grumbled to me: “As long as Fifa’s executive committee contains several people under serious accusation, right up to Mr Blatter personally, it’s hard to believe they will clean up Fifa. You can make a beautiful compliance programme. I can make one in three days. But that’s not the issue at Fifa. It’s about credibility.” Her boycott damaged Pieth. Roger Pielke Jr, a political scientist at the University of Colorado who studies Fifa, said Pieth’s process had “struggled to attain credibility”.
That is indeed me quoted in the piece. If you have arrived here after first seeing Kuper's piece and you'd like a copy of my recent paper on FIFA accountability (currently out for review with an academic journal) just send me an email and I am happy to share it.

Kuper says this about Pieth's role on the FIFA committee:
Pieth notes that he himself won’t earn a euro from his work on Fifa: “The major part of the money went to the university, and part to the institute [the Basel Institute on Governance],” he says. Yet one wonders whether Pieth the governance expert would accept the explanation of Pieth the consultant. Still, the initial uproar may have done some good. Pieth comes from a world where perceived integrity is all. Starting out under suspicion of being Blatter’s creature, he has since been almost obliged to take the toughest line possible. Certainly he now sounds more like Fifa’s scourge than its stooge.
I think this is right, especially after learning today that FIFA has not even shared the ISL dossier with Pieth or his committee.

We'll know soon enough how this episode ends as Pieth is expected to provide his committee's findings and recommendations next week. Here is what Pieth says:
[Pieth] has no idea how Fifa will react. “I’m at the moment pretty optimistic. But it’s very open. If it works out I’ll be patted on the back. If it fails I’ll be an idiot. I think we will know by mid-April whether they are serious.” And if they aren’t? “If we are unsuccessful, we would have to walk away. ‘We’ve had it, goodbye.’ This would be a dreary result. Sponsors, the media, everybody would be left with something they couldn’t really digest, and Fifa would just carry on. Who would force Fifa?”
For the answers to that question, you can see my paper ;-)

FIFA Keeps Governance Committee in the Dark

This is really remarkable. According to the Associated Press, FIFA will not even let its own committee chair investigating corruption have a look at the ISL dossier which Sepp Blatter has repeatedly promised to make public.  A Swiss court denied release of the documents today based on ongoing legal action to keep them secret.  
FIFA's anti-corruption adviser has called for swift publication of a Swiss court document revealing which football officials took millions of dollars from marketing agency ISL as kickbacks from World Cup broadcasting deals.

Mark Pieth tells the Associated Press that FIFA and its president Sepp Blatter cited legal reasons for "repeatedly'' denying his requests to see the document.
FIFA's refusal to share the ISL dossier with Pieth is not the sort of thing that adds to the credibility of his committee's efforts, and makes both FIFA and Pieth look like they are participating in a sham effort.  Perhaps Pieth might rethink the need to meet with Andrew Jennings;-)

US Congress to Look into NFL Bounties

A subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee (Chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Il, and pictured above) has announced that it will hold a hearing on the New Orleans Saints so-called bounty program. Via Politico:
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who will chair the hearing, said Thursday the committee will also investigate whether federal sports bribery laws need to be changed to include sports bounty programs. The date for the hearing has yet to be announced, but Durbin said it will occur after the Easter recess.

“We will have a hearing and put on the record what sports leagues and teams at the professional and collegiate levels are doing to make sure that there’s no place in athletics for these pay-to-main bounties,” Durbin said on the Senate floor Thursday. “I want to hear the policies and practices in each of the major sports and collegiate sports that are being put in place.”
The NFL announced severe sanctions of the New Orleans Saints for operating a bounty program (here in PDF).  Interestingly, the punishment has as much to do with the team's lying to the NFL and the running of a bonus program. The NFL states:
Payments were made for plays such as interceptions or fumble recoveries. All such payments are against league rules.
Teams are not allowed to to make payments for perfectly legal, high-quality plays. This is explained in the NFL By-Laws, where it says that (here in PDF at p. 36-37):
No member, nor any stockholder, director, officer, partner, or employee thereof, or person holding an interest therein, nor any officer or employee of the League shall ...

Offer or pay a player or coach, and no player or coach may receive any bonus, money, or thing of value, for winning any game played in the League. No club or any representative thereof, shall offer to pay,directly or indirectly, to a player, and no player shall receive,any bonus of any kind unless such bonus provision is attached to and/or incorporated in the contract of such player.
The NFL's interest in the bounty program is likely to be motivated in part by the bad PR, but also by the interest of the league in keeping a tight grip on compensation and contracts. The league already has rules governing on-field behavior and what actions are inside and outside the rules. It may face pressure to further tighten these rules, following concern about concussions.

If the US Congress starts meddling around in how the NFL governs itself, it would not be surprising to see the discussion go from issues of NFL bounties to issues of anti-trust, player compensation and other far more prosaic subjects.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Guest Post at Freakonomics

I have a guest post up over at Freakonomics on the perils of prediction, drawing on discussions from both of my blogs.

If you are a visitor here from their site, welcome!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Lex Sportiva vs. Lex Imperium: On Field Violence and the Law

Where does the law of the game stop and the law of the land begin? It is a question that I have discussed frequently which has no simple answer and involves a wide range of issues and contexts. Writing in the New York Times a few weeks ago Eldon L. Ham makes the case that the law of the land should carry more weight in sporting events. He writes:
Contact sports should not, of course, be routinely second-guessed by crowded courts. But should a vicious attack meant to severely injure or paralyze be overlooked just because it happened on the field of play and not in the locker room or parking lot? Canada doesn’t think so: In October 2000, a Canadian court convicted the Boston Bruins hockey player Marty McSorley for his brutal stick attack on an opponent’s head with just seconds left in the game.

A 2000 hockey attack in the United States did manage to produce a conviction, but only because it occurred just seconds after the game-ending buzzer. In that case, the victim, a teenager in a high school game, was blindsided and left paralyzed. The Illinois court would have been powerless, though, had the attack occurred seconds before.

Many states now have civil tort laws that immunize contact sports from the usual injury claims — but not from aberrant misconduct. Yet little criminal law applies to the same on-field mayhem. (In fact, in 1980, a proposed federal Sports Violence Act aimed at pro sports was defeated in Congress.) There is simply no reason football and other sports at pro, college and even high school levels should any longer treat malicious on-field actions as beyond criminal prosecution.
Townsend Myers, a criminal defense attorney in New Orleans, takes a different view:
Ham muddled his argument with this: “Had such behavior occurred in a school cafeteria or on the subway or in a dark alley, this is exactly what would happen. But because it was on television as part of a Sunday entertainment ritual, it may get a pass.”

Excuse me, but there are a lot of legal hits that occur on the football field that I wouldn’t accept in my child’s cafeteria. I would be the first one to call a cop if I was blindsided in a dark alley while headed to my car, but if it happens to Drew Brees on the field I’m not filling a legal brief. I’m blaming the left side of the O-line.
I tend to side with Myers here. As proscriptions against assault are already established part of legal codes in every US jurisdiction, there would seem to be little additional value in trying to provide some sort of detailed classification for sporting events. The norms of hockey are different than ping pong, meaning that just like in every other legal situation, context matters. If the actions by a player depart radically from the norms of a sporting event, then legal remedies are already available.

Of course, under existing laws there is a high bar to prove criminal behavior, as there should be. On field violence is a situation where lex sportiva (both formal rules and the norms of the game) should be the first and primary recourse, and only in the extreme or bizarre instances (and I'm thinking Tanya Harding here) should lex imperium trump.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Accuracy and Skill in Predicting Sporting Outcomes

[UPDATE 3/16: Dan Johnson replies to this post in the comments here.]

With March Madness about to tip-off and people paying attention to their bracket predictions, it seems like a good time to revisit the issue of predictive accuracy using sporting events as a laboratory for understanding.

Earlier this week I saw an article in the WSJ about some interesting research done by Daniel Johnson, an economist at Colorado College, who has developed a methodology to predict the winning of Olympic medals by nation. There is plenty of details here including data and a link to a peer reviewed paper (Johnson and Ali 2004).

Here is an excerpt from that WSJ article:
In what has become a biennial pre-Olympic event, Daniel Johnson, an economist at Colorado College, released his projections Monday with his usual caveat—his projections, which averaged a 93% success rate for overall medals from 2000-2010, pay exactly zero attention to the actual athletes who are participating in the upcoming Summer Games.
I contacted Johnson, and he was really great in answering questions and providing data (Thanks, Dan!). I was intrigued by the claims of predictive success of his methodology, such as this from Canada's National Post: "For a mathematical model compiled from freely available data, its predictive power is striking."

The metric used by Johnson to characterize predictive accuracy is a correlation between the prediction and the outcome. As I have written about on many occasions, predictions are best measured by skill, not accuracy and certainly not by correlation. Consider the useful anecdote that if you were to predict no tornadoes for, say, central Oklahoma every day, you'd have about a 99% accuracy rate and an eye-popping correlation. But you'd also provide no value added whatsoever.

To provide value added in forecasting any methodology must outperform some naive baseline expectation -- that is, a simple prediction. For Olympic medals there are a number of different metrics that one might use as a naive baseline. In this exercise using Johnson's predictions, I have used medal results from the prior Olympic Games as the basis for a naive forecast of results for the subsequent games. That is, a simple expectation for the 2004 Olympic Games medal counts would just be the results from the 2000 games, for the 2008 games the naive expectation would be the results from 2004 and so on. Any methodology purporting to have predictive skill ought to be able to improve upon this very simple naive baseline.

To evaluate a prediction against the naive baseline one can compute what is called a root mean squared error, which is simply calculated by taking the difference between the prediction (and the naive baseline) and the actual results for each country, adding them up, and then taking the square root to return to the original units.

For instance, the US had 97 total medals in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Johnson's methodology predicted 103 for the 2004 Athens games. The actual number of medals won was 103. So the RMSE for the naive forecast was 6 and for Johnson was 0, meaning that in that instance, Johnson's methodology outperformed the naive baseline.

I have repeated this calculation for the top 20 medal-winning countries for 2004 and 2008, and compared the results of the naive forecast to the contemporaneous predictions made using Johnson's methods. Here are those results in the following graph:
What this graphs shows is, unfortunately, Johnson's predictions were not able to outperform a very simple naive baseline. The black bars are smaller than the red bars for both 2004 and 2008, indicating that the predictive error of Johnson's forecasts was larger than that of the naive baseline expectation. In other words, if you went to Las Vegas to bet on Olympic outcomes, you'd fare better using the naive baseline as a predictor than the methodology proposed by Johnson.

While I haven't comprehensively evaluated Johnson's predictions (he also predicts participation and Gold medals for all participating countries), my tentative conclusion is that Johnson's work may tell us something about relationships between different characteristics of nations and Olympic outcomes, but it does not appear to provide us with a skillful way to forecast Olympic medals. To make that case, he would have to utilize conventional metrics of forecast verification to demonstrate skill versus a naive baseline. As they say, prediction is hard, especially about the future!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

David Cameron on NCAA Basketball: Very Fast

Brazilian Football Governance

Writing at Play the Game, Jens Sejer Andersen has a characteristically excellent piece on the current changes occurring in Brazilian football governance following the surprising resignation last week of Ricardo Teixeira as head of the Brazilian Football Confederation.  Here is an excerpt:
Since President Dilma Roussef took office in January 2011, distancing herself from corruption in general and Teixeira in particular, political pressure on Teixeira to leave has been mounting.

Teixeira has always been controversial, narrowly escaping sanctions after congress investigations at the beginning of the millennium, and is presently under suspicion for several cases of fraud, including one involving a national team friendly with Portugal in 2008. Why his 11-year-old daughter Antonia should receive a one million USD gift from a family friend, FC Barcelona’s President Sandro Rosell, last year also remains unclear.

Internationally, Teixeira is tainted as one of the main beneficiaries of the ISL corruption scheme by which 140 million Swiss Francs were paid out as bribes mainly to top FIFA executives in the 1990s.

Information about the ISL affair presented to the parliament by, among others, Play the Game Award winner Andrew Jennings, has contributed to the political unease over the country’s football leadership.

Politicians see Teixeira as an embarrassment to a country that is trying to boost its global reputation through the World Cup 2014 and the Olympics of Rio 2016.

Former World Cup winner Romario, who is now a congress member, celebrated Teixira’s departure by twittering: “We exterminated a cancer from Brazilian football.”
Following FIFA's embarrassing bust up with  the Brazilian government following Jerome Valcke' crude admonition, Sepp Blatter is scheduled to meet with Dilma Rousseff to discuss World Cup planning.

Meantime, leadership of the CBF has been transitioned. To whom you might ask? The video above shows the new CBF leader, who actions shown in the video above were described by the Dirty Tackle blog as follows:
But while [Teixeira] with nearly two decades of corruption scandals to his credit won't be missed, his successor, Jose Maria Marin, seems a bit less subtle in his grifting. A former footballer and politician in Sao Paulo, Marin was caught pocketing a winner's medal intended for Sao Paulo Juniors Cup winners Corinthians, leaving their goalkeeper without one back in January. Marin has denied stealing the medal. He probably also claims to be mistaken for Brad Pitt all the time.
As Andersen writes, Brazilian football governance has gone "from the frying pan and into the fire."

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Economics and Politics of Public Financing of Professional Sports

At the Freakonomics blog, Dave Berri, a professor of economics at Southern Utah University, has a piece up today on the decision by the city of Sacramento to provide a large amount of public financing for a new NBA arena for the Kings:
The Sacramento Kings will continue to exist. This week, the City Council approved a plan to finance a new home for the Kings in Sacramento. The price tag, though, is pretty steep. The arena will cost $391 million, and $255.5 million will be coming from the city of Sacramento.

Opponents of this plan – and there were just two on the nine-member Council – noted that sports arenas don’t provide much economic benefit. Furthermore, they questioned why public money should be given to a private business.

As Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy – who voted no – observed: “This city is on the verge of insolvency. As far as I know, we still technically qualify for bankruptcy under federal law.”

Proponents of this plan, though, argued that this plan will create jobs and economic benefits. And it was this argument that apparently persuaded the majority.

So we have two perspectives and one question: Do sports generate jobs and economic growth?
The short and simple answer to this question is "no." In a 2011 review of public subsidies for professional sports Baade and Matheson (here in PDF) summarize their findings:
Improving citizens quality of life is clearly an important goal for public policy makers, and there is evidence that sports are a valued amenity for local communities. Evidence of significant direct economic benefits from sporting events, franchises, and stadiums is lacking, however. While public-private partnerships can be justified on quality of life grounds, voters and public officials should not be deluded by over-optimistic predictions of a financial windfall. Sports may make a city happy, but they are unlikely to make a city rich.
There is plenty of evidence that facilities built for mega-events, like the Olympics or cup competitions, turn into "white elephants" and economists are in general agreement that public subsidies of professional sports cannot be justified on economics grounds. Despite this plethora of evidence, politicians continue to justify such subsidies on economic grounds, leading to what economist Stefan Szymanski has called "hypocrisy of the highest order."

Whenever there is an allegation of "hypocrisy of the highest order" that should direct our attention in one direction -- to politics. Public financing of professional sports continues not because it makes sense in economic terms, but because it is politically popular. At Freakonomics, Berri explains in the case of Sacramento:
I think the jobs argument is not the main issue motivating the proponents.

If we look back at this debate we see another motivation for the supporters of this arena.  A year ago, it looked like the Kings were going to depart Sacramento for the city of Anaheim.  In response, Kevin Johnson – the Mayor of Sacramento (and former NBA All-Star) – staged an immense effort to keep the Kings in Sacramento.  That effort culminated in the city of Sacramento giving $255 million to a new arena and it is important to emphasize, that money is not just coming from basketball fans.  These are funds the city could have used for other projects.  Therefore, this money is coming from people who may not even like the product sold by the Kings and the NBA.
Such a story clearly suggests that the Kings used the threat of re-location to elicit a substantial subsidy from the people of Sacramento.  Although the Kings do not have much economic impact on Sacramento, the Kings do make basketball fans happy.  And if they departed, those same people would be very unhappy with Kevin Johnson.  Consequently, the Mayor has an incentive to do what he can to keep the Kings in Sacramento (although it not entirely clear if making the non-basketball fans unhappy is good politics).
What we have here is a classic case of the politicization of expertise, in the sense that arguments grounded in values -- in this case the intangible and non-economic value to a community of a professional sports franchise -- are smuggled into a debate ostensibly about cold, hard dollars and sense. By making the arguments about economics, it is as if we believe that all of those intangibles can be somehow ignored.

Because economics is malleable enough to make pretty much any outcome sound plausible, arguments about the economic benefits of public subsidies for professional sports give an air of credibility to the debates. Ultimately however, it is the experts and democracy that suffer the consequences of such politicized debates. Changing the focus of the debates from economics to all those other things that we value may not change the outcomes of such decisions, but they would make the deliberations more consistent with the effective use of experts and a healthy democratic process of decision making.

Monday, March 12, 2012

NCAA Basketball Expense Bracket

The bracket above (click on it or here for a larger version) for the NCAA basketball tournament comes from Forbes, which has filled it out according to filings over the past three years that each school makes with the Department of Education. Forbes explains:
Including the play-in round, the team with the higher operating expenses won in 70% of the games in last year’s tournament. If you used our system to fill out your bracket, you would have correctly picked 68.3% of the games from the round of 64 up to the Final Four. For comparison’s sake, taking the favored teams in those games would have yielded a 65% rate of correct picks. That’s not a large difference in total correct picks, but operating expenses offer a significant advantage if you want to capture those late-round points: team spending correctly predicted half of the Elite Eight and Final Four, whereas picking by the favorites predicted just three of the final eight teams and none in the Final Four.
Can you out pick the prediction made by cold, hard cash? I doubt it ;-)

Friday, March 9, 2012

Regulating Bribery in Sporting Events in the United States

The corruption of sporting events via players or officials who are paid (or otherwise compensated) to influence results is in the news on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe, much attention is being paid to match-fixing in football and in the US an allegation of point-shaving has surfaced involving the Auburn University basketball team. This post addresses some fundamental issues associated with the regulation of bribery in sporting events.

Is bribery in sporting events illegal?

Remarkably, according to a Council of Europe report released this week, "only ten countries in the world have passed legislation sanctioning sports frauds" (here in PDF).  That means that in the other 200-odd countries which participate and host sporting events, the regulation of bribery in sport is left to the sporting associations and other bodies which oversee the contests. This is another good example of the varied texture around the world of lex sportiva (the governance of sport by sport) and lex imperium (the governance of sport by governments). The United States does have federal legislation governing bribery in sport.

What does the US legal regulatory environment look like?

In the US, the federal government passed a law in 1979 called the "Bribery in Sporting Contests Act" who says the following:
Whoever carries into effect, attempts to carry into effect, or conspires with any other person to carry into effect any scheme in commerce to influence, in any way, by bribery any sporting contest, with knowledge that the purpose of such scheme is to influence by bribery that contest, shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.
The Act defines a "sporting contest" as:
[A]ny contest in any sport, between individual contestants or teams of contestants (without regard to the amateur or professional status of the contestants therein), the occurrence of which is publicly announced before its occurrence;
Because bribery in sport is often closely tied to illegal gambling, there is also related legislation in that domain (e.g., see this review in PDF). The relationships between the federal government and sporting associations in the regulation of bribery is -- as far as I can see -- murky, out of the public eye, and rarely discussed in the media and virtually absent in the scholarly literature.

How do sporting associations regulate bribery in the United States?

The US professional sporting leagues only address bribery in cursory fashion.  Here is what the National Football League says that no one associated with a team or the league may (here in PDF at p. 39):
Offer, agree, conspire, or attempt to illegally influence the outcome of the member or fail to suspend immediately any officer or player or other employee of the member who shall be proven guilty of offering, agreeing, conspiring, or attempting to influence the outcome of any game or be interested in any pool or wager of any game in which a member club participates;
Similar language can be found in the Major League Baseball constitution (not available to the public but here in PDF, though the MLB focuses on self-governance and not illegality). The National Basketball Association Constitution and Bylaws are not readily available (itself interesting). It does seem that the major professional sports are perfectly willing to outsource the bribery issue to federal officials.

The NCAA does have a rigorous and public set of policies and sanctions in place for bribery among college athletes (here in PDF):
A student-athlete who engages in activities designed to influence the outcome of an intercollegiate contest or in an effort to affect win-loss margins (i.e., "point shaving") or who solicite or accepts a bet or participates in any gambling activity through a bookmaker, a parlay card or any other method employed by organized gambling that involves wagering on the student-athlete's institution shall permanently lose all remaining regular-season and postseason eligibility in all sports.
Like much that the NCAA does, its attention seems focused on the behavior of the athletes, rather than the coaches or officials.

Sources for further info: here and here

Thursday, March 8, 2012

FIFA's Red Herring on Exchange Rates

In its response to the sport governance report released yesterday by the Council of Europe, FIFA objects that the report overstates the compensation received by its staff due to exchange rate conversions.  Specifically FIFA explains:
Page 17 [101]. Salaries are paid in CHF and have for accounting reasons to be converted to USD. The strengthening of the CHF against the USD in the last years leads to an increase of costs.
Here is the CoE section 101 in full (p. 17 in this PDF):
In 2010, the total wage bill at FIFA was USD 65,280,000, distributed between 387 staff on average over the year, meaning that average pay per staff member was USD 168,682.17. The average monthly income at FIFA in 2010 was thus USD 14,056.85. FIFA's spending on salaries rose by 31.6% between 2009 and 2010 (from a total of USD 49,599,000 in 2009 to USD 65,280,000 in 2010), while the average number of staff members increased by only 7.2% over the same period. The financial report does not explain these increases and gives no information about the salaries of key management personnel.
Let's explore whether FIFA's criticism is warranted. According to the FIFA Finanacial Report 2010 (here in PDF at p. 62), it used an exchange rate of 0.9505 CHF/dollar for 2009 and 0.9079 for 2010, reflecting a strengthening of the franc against the dollar. How would the CoE section 101 read if expressed in 2009 Swiss Franc conversion rates? Here is the answer:
FACTORING OUT EXCHANGE RATE EFFECTS IN THE CoE REPORT SECTION 101: In 2010, the total wage bill at FIFA was USD 62,354,000 distributed between 387 staff on average over the year, meaning that average pay per staff member was USD 161,122.09. The average monthly income at FIFA in 2010 was thus USD 13,426.84. FIFA's spending on salaries rose by 25.7% between 2009 and 2010 (from a total of USD 49,599,000 in 2009 to USD 62,354,000 in 2010), while the average number of staff members increased by only 7.2% over the same period. The financial report does not explain these increases and gives no information about the salaries of key management personnel.
The average salary of FIFA employees changed by about 4% after taking into account exchange rate effects on the accounting, an amount which is insignificant in the context of the CoE's report. My conclusion: FIFA's complaint is a red herring.

Of course, rather than quibble about exchange rate effects in annual financial reports, FIFA could just release the details of its compensation packages. How hard would that be?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Few Reactions to the Council of Europe's Draft Report on Sports Govenance

UPDATE: FIFA is quick out of the blocks with a response to the report here.

Today, the Council of Europe released a draft report titled, Good governance and ethics in sport (PDF, and first discussed on this blog here). The report is a welcome addition to the attention being devoted to good governance in international sport. At the same time the report highlights many issues which are problematic and difficult to resolve. Here are a few reactions.

On so-called financial fair play in European football the report singles out Manchester City FC as an example of how the rules can easily be circumvented:
Care will have to be taken to prevent any circumvention of the financial fair play rules in this way. A case in point is Manchester City, which has entered into a contract estimated at £400 million (over €450 million) with the airline Etihad. Etihad belongs to the Abu Dhabi royal family, and the Abu Dhabi United Group, which is led by Suleiman Al-Fahim, owns Manchester City. In order to avoid improper transactions of this kind, UEFA should prohibit clubs from sponsoring themselves or using associated bodies to do so. There is also a need to monitor the “purchases” of sponsors, who should not overpay for the rights they acquire.
Stefan Szymanski of the University of Michigan has warned that such rules may fail if challenged under European law, as reported by the New York Times last fall:
Any attempt to nullify the sponsorship deal may fail in court, said Stefan Szymanski, a British economist and co-author of the book “Soccernomics.”

“How do you determine what is the fair value of a corporate sponsorship? In essence, it’s arbitrary,” said Szymanski, who teaches at the University of Michigan. “It comes down to what people are willing to pay.”

The financial fair-play rules may also face a legal challenge for arbitrarily restricting what is considered allowable income on team balance sheets, Szymanski said. “If a wealthy owner wants to put his own money into his own business, how is that not money devoted to football?” he said. “When I go to a game, I take my money and buy a ticket and it becomes football income. When it transfers from the bank account of an Arab sheik, why isn’t that the same thing?”
The CoE report suggests that the middle eastern sheik's with deep pockets are not the only route to avoiding the strictures of financial fair play:
This poses the question at which point competition between clubs can significantly be distorted, and some clubs enjoy an undue advantage, as a result of the financing of sports infrastructure, its sale to sports companies or placing on loan to teams, the granting of subsidies, loans, tax breaks or other financial benefits, gifts, the purchase by public authorities of advertising space or, indeed, facilities belonging to clubs, or other measures to support sports companies. For example, in the early 2000s Real Madrid was able to sell its training ground back to the city for more than €400 million.
The CoE report also weighs in on controversies involving FIFA governance, explaining:
The aim is not to condemn. But FIFA's image is deteriorating, and action is urgently needed to prevent further abuses. Furthermore, other sports are experiencing similar problems. So the question is what to do to improve governance and financial transparency in the sport sector in general. . .

If we are turning our attention to FIFA here, this is not because it has the worst governance machinery, but more because it is better-known (and also – praise should go to FIFA where it is due – because the quality of information on its official website is very high) and because that institution is incomparably more important than any other sports federation, with the exception of the IOC.
I guess one should expect that if the best thing that can be said about FIFA is that it has a nice website, then what is to follow will be hard hitting. And it is. The CoE characterizes FIFA as unaccountable, not transparent and awarding high compensation to its employees. It makes the following recommendations:
The Assembly specifically calls on the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) to take the necessary steps to cast full light on the facts underlying the various scandals which, in recent years, have tarnished its image and that of international football. The Assembly insists that FIFA, inter alia:

6.1. speed up the process of reform of its internal governance and, in this context, significantly increase the investigative powers of its Ethics Committee;
6.2. publish in full any judicial and other documents relating to the ISL/ISMM case which may be in its possession;
6.3. open an internal investigation in order to determine whether, and to what extent, during the latest campaign for the office of President, the candidates, and particularly the successful candidate, exploited their institutional positions to obtain unfair advantages for themselves or for potential voters.
While the call for FIFA to open an internal investigation is likely to garner the most attention from observers, it is a toothless recommendation, as the CoE has no authority over or control of FIFA. The best result that might occur is that FIFA's "good governance committee" takes on some of the advice of the CoE, none of which however will be new.

The bottom line is that the CoE report helps to elevate issues of sports governance and in doing so helps to focus attention to various important issues within that theme (some of which are covered in the report but not discussed here). Securing effective reform however will be a long and difficult process.

John Calipari on the NCAA

John Calipari, basketball coach at the University of Kentucky, has some string things to say about the NCCA in an interview with The Sporting News:
They’re not going to be around long. The NCAA will not. Before I retire from coaching, they will no longer oversee college athletics. They will, but it won’t be the four power conferences—they’ll be on their own. And the main thing is, do you really care about these kids? They’ll get mad that I say it. The NCAA Tournament, for example. It’s more about the selection committee getting on TV, everybody getting their tickets on the aisle, down low, all the parties they go to, the traveling. But we don’t take the parents of the participants. But they take their kids and their families.

The officials will get better hotels than some of their teams. And I know it for a fact. The decisions they make on the $2,000 (expense allowance for student-athletes)—it should have been $4,000. It’s a stipend. It’s not salary. It’s not “pay-for-play.” It’s a stipend. It’s expenses. And then schools vote against it. All this stuff piles up to where people are going to say, “Enough’s enough.”
His outrage is interesting, let's say, given that he currently has an 8-year salary package worth $36.5 million, with a chance to earn an additional $6.8 million in incentives.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

NFL Bounties: Much Ado About Very Little

The ongoing controversy centered on the New Orleans Saints about the so-called bounties being offered by NFL players as a sort of performance bonus for hard hits, including those that diminish an opponent's ability to play the game is all a bit rich for me. Let us not forget that football is an intensely physical sport in which the physical domination of the other team in an effort to score points is the main point of the game.

There is a big difference between playing dirty and providing incentives for playing well within the rules. Former New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott told the New York Times:
"Knocking someone out doesn’t mean you’re doing something dirty. It’s no different than when the Detroit Pistons played Michael Jordan and every time he went to the hole, they were physical with him. No one was literally trying to hurt him."
Former Denver Bronco Trevor Pryce said something similar:
"A big hit is different. Getting rewarded for a big hit, they do that in college. You get a sticker on your helmet.”
We can chalk that up to another instance of college players not getting proper compensation in a pseudo-professional sport, but I digress.

If a team had a bounty system was for touchdowns scored or long punt returns, we wouldn't be having this debate. It is only because the bounty systems involves defensive players doing what defensive players do -- hitting people really hard -- that there is the veneer of faux outrage coming from the commentariat.

In recent years, the NFL has cracked down on certain hard hits, especially those involving the head and which result in concussions. In doing so they are taking some of the raw brutality out of the game, which is a response to both modern sensitivities and the risks of legal liability from players exposed to serious injuries.

But make no mistake -- the game is brutal. Legendary running back Tony Dorsett explains:
"If it was me, and I'm a defensive player, and I'm playing against the Dallas Cowboys, and Tony Dorsett happens to be one of their best players, it would be to our best advantage to get him out of the game. If it's within the rules of tackling and contact, so be it. I don't think it's that big of a deal. … They're not telling a guy to mangle somebody or kill somebody. It's 'Get him out of the game.' "
The WSJ has done a nice job cutting through the rhetoric to explore what it is we are really talking about here by doing an empirical investigation of game films from the New Orleans Saints to catalog their track record of defensive hits that led to a player leave the field injured. What did they find? Well, not very much:
A Wall Street Journal review of every regular- and postseason Saints game since 2009 makes clear what the NFL report didn't: Seldom did a Saints-inflicted injury force an opponent to leave the field.

In 48 regular-season and six postseason games, such incidents occurred only 18 times. The Saints player involved in the largest number of those cases was safety Roman Harper. That number was four.
While it would be useful to compare the Saints with other teams, seeing an injured player leave once every 3 games does not seem unusual for NFL football, where on-field injuries are otherwise known as commercial breaks.  The WSJ continues:
According to the NFL, the Saints rewarded players $1,000 for knocking opponents out of the game and $1,500 if the player had to be taken off in a cart. Exactly who received what on the Saints roster isn't clear, including whether Harper received any money at all. But under that formula, the total payout during those three seasons would have been about $19,000. And of that, based on the review of those seasons, Harper could have pocketed a grand total of about $4,500—peanuts for a player earning more than $7 million a year.
Forgotten it seems is that a defensive player like Harper is paid $7 million per year because he has a rare talent in being able to physically dominate opposing players. That obscene salary is the real bounty. To think that he (or anyone else) is going to risk their base salary via suspension or the on-field wrath of his peers by playing dirty (see the trials and tribulations of Ndamukong Suh) in order to make a few thousand dollars need a primer on basic economics.

The bounty scandal is not a scandal at all. What we have here is a sport that is based on physical contact which is being administered by people who are increasingly sensitive to the images and values that are projected by the sport. Those sensitivities are a good thing and NFL football is not alone -- rugby, ice hockey, boxing (and its variants), various Olympic sports like wrestling and judo and lacrosse all involve some form of physical domination by one person of another.

The NFL would be well served by focusing attention on what really matters here, which is the rules they have in place governing the impressive spectacle that they put out on the field. Focusing attention on "bounties" is a distraction and an insult to fans and players alike.

Read more here:

Monday, March 5, 2012

Strife Around the World in National Football Leagues

Here is a round-up of various controversies, debate and strife occurring in various football leagues and associations around the world.

Switzerland, from the WSJ Europe:
Switzerland evokes images of stability, tranquillity and, well, boredom. It's rife with banks, watches and chocolates. It's where the von Trapps sought refuge, at least in the musical version, and where supposedly nothing much happens.

Nothing much, that is, unless you're a soccer fan.

As outwardly staid as the Swiss stereotype might be, the Swiss Super League has been a cauldron of controversy, bankruptcy and lawsuits. A season that began with 10 teams may well finish with just eight. Another club, Sion, which would otherwise find itself in third place, is dead last with a slightly surreal total of -1 points after it was slapped with a 36-point penalty.
Australia (oh, where to begin, how about here),
It has been the most tumultuous fortnight in Australian soccer since the game was effectively shut down after the 2004 NSL grand final as the federal government probed its future, finally releasing the Crawford Report that led to the creation of the A-League in 2005-06. Clive Palmer, the forthright billionaire owner of Gold Coast United, has emerged as a figurehead for those opposed to Football Federation Australia, while Frank Lowy and Ben Buckley are defending the FFA's legitimacy as the game's governing body.
Nigeria, Oluwashina Okeleji reports for the BBC:
The Nigeria Football Federation will not comment on remarks made within the Senate which labelled it the country's 'most corrupt government agency'.

On Wednesday, the President of the Senate, David Mark, said the corruption within the NFF was responsible for the Super Eagles' dwindling fortunes.

"The NFF is the centre of corruption in the country - there is no running away from the fact," said Mark.

The NFF told BBC Sport it does not comment on matters debated by Senate.

"We have failed woefully," said Mark, who presides over the Senate, which is the Upper House of the Nigerian Parliament.

"Corruption is not just financial corruption alone - even the way the players were brought in is another form of corruption."

"There is confusion and the government must put its foot down to get it right."

In a statement which may further worry supporters, Mark suggested that there may be a need for the government to pull Nigeria out of international football to allow for reconstruction.
Turkey, seeking to recover from a major match-fixing scandal:
The Turkish Football Federation (TFF) elected Besiktas' Yildirim Demiroren as its new chairman on Monday, setting him the task of quickly resolving a match-fixing crisis which has engulfed Turkey's domestic league this season.
Scotland, where Rangers, one of the two largest clubs faces a slew of controversies over finance, the latest from the Daily Mail:
The Scottish Football Association are set to investigate claims by former director Hugh Adam that secretive payments to Rangers players were excluded from contracts lodged with the governing body.

Sportsmail reported Adam’s claims that directors of the club were aware of the widespread use of the Employee Benefits Trust scheme.

The issue raises awkward and embarrassing questions over the role of respected SFA president Campbell Ogilvie — despite sources close to the former Rangers secretary insisting the EBTs were handled in entirety by the Murray Group at their Edinburgh HQ and that some directors were unaware of the details.
Indonesia, where its football federation is under investigation following the remarkable 10-0 scoreline in a loss to Bahrain in last week's World Cup qualifier:
Indonesian football authorities on Friday denied any foul play in the national team's 10-0 thrashing by Bahrain, after world governing body FIFA announced an inquiry and fans expressed outrage.

The Gulf side needed to win Wednesday's match in Manama by nine goals to have any hope of making the last round of Asian zone qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup, while Indonesia had already been eliminated from the tournament.

Indonesia's football association (PSSI) has long been mired in graft scandals, but the head of its disciplinary committee Bernhard Limbong told AFP there was "no way" corruption was involved in the remarkable scoreline.

"I know because I was involved in organising the match. If anyone did that, they would be a traitor to Indonesia.

"I would like to apologise to the whole nation for the defeat and for making Indonesia look like a total loser."
And what would a  round-up of global football governance be without a stop in Brazil, where Ricardo Teixeira remains as the head of the CBF, despite allegations of corruption. In other news FIFA and Brazil continue their spat over national sovereignty:
The Brazilian government is severing relations with FIFA’s top administrator after he criticized the country’s preparations for the 2014 soccer World Cup.

The organizers of sports most-watched event needed a “kick up the ass,” General Secretary Jerome Valcke said yesterday at a meeting in England. Brazilian Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo today labeled the comments as “unacceptable” and said the government will cease to recognize Valcke.
Never a dull moment in the governance of football around the world!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

My (Unproven) Theory About USA Soccer

Yesterday's 1-0 victory over Italy has USA soccer fans feeling giddy. Sure it was a friendly and against a less-than full strength Italian side, but breaking a 78 year, 10 game losing streak is worth noting. Especially when it is done on Italian soil. On Twitter Alexi Lalas, former goatee and denim wearing US international, asked what, if anything, is different about US soccer that might account for the victory.

Here is my theory: US soccer players are slowly but surely climbing the ranks of the international game, and not just keepers or individual stars, but a generation of players who give Jurgen Klinsmann a very deep bench. The team as a whole has vastly more experience at a higher level than they did just a few years ago. Consider that yesterday's US scorer Clint Dempsey is not even the same player he was last season.

The last time the US played Italy in Italy was almost exactly 10 years ago, when they lost a tight 1-0 match that featured a 19-year old Landon Donovan who clanked a shot off the post. The difference over those 10 years is a squad with vastly more experience perhaps overall quality -- recognizing that the 2002 squad was extremely strong, reaching the quarterfinals of the World Cup a few months after the loss to Italy. Perhaps most surprising about yesterday's victory in Italy is the fact that few would call it the strongest US line-up.

You can certainly point to the large number of players on that excellent 2002 squad who were playing in Europe, but few were regulars and home clubs included NAC Breda and FC Metz. But it is not enough for US players simply to be based in Europe, where the world's best football is played (in professional leagues, mind you). If the US men's national team is to excel it needs players who excel at the game's top level. Period.

So I have compiled a statistic that I think reflects the new stature of the US squad, and that is the number of goals scored in all competitions by players who are based in European clubs. Thanks to the excellent web site Yanks Abroad, for yesterday's match I come up with a total of 43 goals scored in all competitions (in the current season so far) by the US players who participated (10 starters - I'm not counting MLS-based Breck Shea - plus 4 subs). Yes, I am indeed using this crude offensive statistic as a proxy for experience across the entire game, including defense and keeper as well (no one would argue about Tim Howard's quality, and the keeper position has been a US strength for a long time). However, if there is one area of the game where the US has lacked it is in finishing.

I am hypothesizing that yesterday's squad had the most goals scored in all competitions by European based players than any squad that the US has ever put together. I don't actually know if this is the case (I have emailed the excellent guys at Opta to see what they might be able to tell me, but it is an odd request, and perhaps labor intensive) and I am willing to be corrected -- it is a theory after all.  However, if US soccer has snuck up on anyone, after yesterday's result, the days of sneaking up are probably over.