Leaks and Bad Decisions

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My previous blog post about self improvement in trading/betting, and Jamie Vardy, seemed quite popular, with a lot of positive feedback, so I thought I'd write again about something I've been thinking about recently - leaks and bad decisions by the decision makers in sport.

I've been watching a lot of sport this summer, in particular football (which I've been a huge fan of for many years), cricket (as I am trading it more and more) and obviously tennis, and I've noticed that it is very rare to find an efficient team or organisation.

After years of mediocrity, the one team I've watched that does perform well on a largely consistent basis is the England Cricket Team.  Granted, they're against opposition that offer little, but it is clear that on the whole, the players know their roles and they're a well drilled, dynamic unit.  

Contrast this with their opposition - a team with little direction and not much clue on who their best batsmen/bowlers are.  I watched Sri Lanka bat in all three one day internationals last week - they have an all-rounder called Seekkuge Prasanna, who is a complete hit or miss batsman.  He's great to watch from a neutral perspective - from almost ball one of his innings this guy looks to hit boundaries and isn't scared of taking the aerial route.  However, he usually comes in when there's more men on the boundary (overs 10-50) as opposed to when there are fewer (only two allowed in the first ten overs).  Given his style, he could be a much more useful asset opening the batting when he can clear the fielding ring with regularity and given the propensity for Sri Lanka to lose wickets early anyway, wouldn't be a huge risk.  He couldn't be worse than current opener Gunathilaka, who averages less than 35 in any format and looks out of depth at this level.

Sri Lankan all-rounder Seekkuge Prasanna could be risked as an opener...

It wasn't always this way for the England team - they had the likes of Cook, Trott and Bell, much less attacking batsmen than the current team, hampering the ability of the team to post scores well in excess of 300.  In short, the team was being held back by old school thinking - the captain of the test team was captain of the ODI team, consistency amongst formats, thinking that scoring 250-300 when batting first gave you a decent chance of winning the match, as opposed to putting the opposition out of the game by looking to score 350+.  It was almost like they had 'jobs for the boys'.  A concept we will look at a little later...

However, the one major inefficiency in English cricket is the scheduling.  What an absurd concept this is.  A County Championship (4 day matches) where two divisions of 9 (this changes to 8 & 10 next season) play each other twice.  16 matches lasting four days each = 64 days of cricket, plus travelling, in a format which has one man and his dog watching it, barely any vendor sales at matches, little sponsorship money and barely any live TV coverage.

Compare this to the T20 Blast.  Packed stadiums giving huge food/drink/ticket money for clubs, advertisers aplenty and TV interest. 14 matches per team before the knockout stages yield huge income for every club, yet less than 25% of matches are live on Sky Sports. 

This is completely absurd.  Every successful domestic T20 competition has every match live on TV, so why not in England?  Fans want to watch as much of the stars of the game as possible.  Chris Gayle playing in a non televised match in Taunton is a waste.  It's unlikely crowds would dwindle (most counties sell out their grounds regardless of whether the match is on Sky) so that argument is a non-starter.  

With 18 teams, the competition has more matches than IPL or the Big Bash, but it wouldn't be a logistical nightmare to have every match scheduled so it was TV friendly.  Three matches per day live on TV at weekends and bank holidays and at least one match played every night would be a good start.  It wouldn't even be necessary to cut down on the amount of teams, as has been mooted, to create franchises.  Even if clubs played some matches at more 'crowd unfriendly' times, the extra TV revenue would more than make up for that.

All that would be necessary would be to cut the amount of County Championship matches.  Just as a reminder, the County Championship is a format that produces much less income for clubs yet each team devotes 64 days of the summer to playing it.  The dictionary definition of illogical...

Whisper it quietly, but it would also be of great benefit to Betfair for all matches to be shown live.  Matches shown live on Sky have huge liquidity, turning over well in excess of £10m on a regular basis.  Non-live matches struggle to hit a matched amount running into six figures.  Commission on bigger markets would be huge for Betfair - perhaps they could be approached as a sponsor, with mutual interest...

Reform of the T20 Blast will happen eventually.  Old school thinking and purists only last for so long.

As promised, back to jobs for the boys.  It's worth spending some time looking at this, because it's apparent in every sport to a large degree.  Television commentary and 'analysis' is one area.  To be a sports analyst on TV, it's almost mandatory to have played the game.  There's a thought that you don't know anything if you haven't played the game.  When analysing football, I'd much rather listen to someone who can rely on data to back up an argument rather than Ian Wright, who when asked yesterday his thoughts after the England vs Iceland match, was lost for words.  I'd rather someone with a coherent command of the English language than Rio Ferdinand, who appears to insert the phrase 'you know' in almost every sentence.

This is also the case in tennis.  Commentating is a gravy train for ex-players, who are frequently so lazy they don't even do any research before a match, and have no chance of knowing anything about a player if they aren't, or haven't been, in the top 20.  A coach can only be a 'super coach' if they have had an illustrious playing career, as if that is a somehow a guarantee that they will be able to transform a player from also-ran to Grand Slam contender.  I'd much rather see a coach who could use data to come up with a plan to 1) improve the player under their tutelage, 2) work out a game plan to face the upcoming opponent and 3) work out a logical, positive expectation playing schedule which would be based on the player's strengths (fast/slow conditions etc) and field strength.

Points 2 and 3 are worth further consideration, in particular.  I have obviously watched a lot of tennis and it is clear that it is, in many cases, a very emotional sport where players often have no, or little game plan.  The amount of times I'm sitting there in my office and thinking 'just keep it in play, they (opponent) will choke if you give them the chance' is incredible.  This is most prevalent in the WTA, where players appear to have even less of a plan B and the coaches, at coaching breaks, have something worthwhile to say <5% of the time.  Somehow, people get paid for saying 'keep positive'?

Tournament scheduling from most players is ridiculous.  Many players have little clue about which surfaces suit them best.  I will say that some do - Bernard Tomic and Feliciano Lopez, who have realised they need as quick conditions as possible - are good examples of this.  Naomi Broady is a player who could benefit in the extreme from someone planning her schedule well, giving her as many tournaments as possible in fast conditions.

Either Feliciano Lopez, or a member of his team, has realised that the Spaniard plays best in quick conditions...

I once had a conversation with a tennis agent that represents a number of high profile players.  I tried to sell him the idea of scheduling based on strengths/statistics etc.  To his credit, he was keen on the idea himself, but he told me that it would be difficult/impossible to convince a player to go with it.  Apparently, players like to travel with their friends and play the same tournaments as them...

Football management has a similar philosophy to Tennis coaching.  You can't be a good manager unless you've played the game at a high level.  Unless you conveniently forget Jose Mourinho or Arsene Wenger, two of the most successful managers in recent times in English football.  

Inefficiencies in football management abound.  From the emotional 'appoint club legend as manager' thinking to the regurgitation of failed managers time and again, it always amazes me that football chairmen, frequently so successful in business, appoint an individual with as much right to be the manager as the tea lady.  As CEO of their various companies in business, they'd never allow such an appointment, so why is it ok in football?

Player trading has similar inefficiencies.  I spoke about Glenn Murray on Twitter last season when he signed for Bournemouth, calling it (around £5m) an absurd fee for a player of his age (almost 32) and ability (journeyman who has spent plenty of time in the Championship).  668 minutes (yes, that's less than eight combined completed matches), six starts and just three goals proved me right.  With wages, it's not unreasonable to think that Bournemouth spent £7m on a player who wouldn't even start regularly and had no or little resale value.

Compare this to Callum Wilson, the young striker that they bought from Coventry.  Wilson was very unlucky with a long term injury but it's obvious to anyone with a logical open mind that this signing has much more upside.  Age, potential to improve, lower wages and also gratitude (for having been given the chance) make this a much better signing than Murray.

Rio Ferdinand, in his last hurrah in his playing career, signing for QPR is another notable example.  High wages, no resale value, and if he was any good still, Manchester United would have kept him.  It didn't work out well.

If I was in charge of a football team, I'd look at buying players with upside only.  Young players who can improve and who are hungry for success.  I am a Spurs fan so I'm pleased to see Levy/Pochettino adhere to this strategy.

Another point regarding football transfers is the purchasing of players, usually for inflated fees or wages, who perform well at major tournaments.  Growing up, Karel Poborsky at Manchester United was a notable example.

I remember saying when West Ham bought Enner Valencia for an inflated fee after he played well for Ecuador at the 2014 World Cup that if they'd have bought him before it, it would have been at a vastly reduced price.  It amazes me that clubs do not see this. Surely the cost of even huge investment in scouting networks and analysts would be dwarfed by the amount clubs would save by buying players at more efficient prices.

This isn't even considering the fact that players, in a short term tournament, can look a lot better than they actually are.  Northern Ireland goalkeeper Michael McGovern is a good example here.  Given a lot to do in four matches, he did it well, but now it is rumoured that Premier League teams are interested in signing him!  He's almost 32 years old (again no resale value) and has spent the majority of his career at Ross County, Falkirk and Hamilton Academical, after failing to make the grade at Celtic.

If he was Premier League level, or had the potential to be, at some point in a 15 year career, someone would have picked up on it.  Furthermore, success at Scottish Premier League level roughly translates to mid-lower Championship in the UK, so if I was a Premier League club looking at McGovern as a potential signing, I'd have to be absolutely convinced that he's somehow been the most under-rated footballer in the UK for the whole of his career.

Many people say that it's very difficult to make profit running a football team.  Buying players with upside and using data and analysis to ensure you are not paying over-inflated fees gives you the best chance. 

To conclude, my opinion is that in this world, whether in sport or business, purists, emotional thinking, old school thinking and inefficiency eventually get eroded away into a more efficient product/performance.  Amongst many other areas, the amount of large high street chain shops (Woolworths, BHS, Comet etc) going bust is testament to this.  This is almost certain to be the case in sport, eventually, but it will be interesting to see how long it takes...
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