Economic Theory explained by football – Disruptive influencers


Day eight of our look back without anger at the last ten years of blog posts.  One of the most enjoyable projects I worked on was the Economic Theory explained by Football (you can read them all here) – I’ve picked one from the series that demonstrates the changing fortunes in football.

Back in 1997 DC United won the second ever MLS Cup, beating Colorado Rapids on home turf in Washington DC. Avid fan (probably) and Harvard Business School professor (definitely) Clayton Christensen was so compelled by DC United retaining their title that he sat down and and mused as to whether this could be the start of something beautiful for his side and US Soccer in general. Looking across the pond at the dominance of Manchester United plus the emergence of the Galacticos in Madrid he wondered if a new force from North America could emerge to take world football by storm. His theory on disruption theory has been called “one of the sexiest theories ever written” by The Lady magazine, high praise indeed and has since been adapted for wider economic models, but it should always be remembered that it’s humble beginnings were in the beautiful game (probably). So what’s all the fuss about?

Christensen’s theory is based around the principle that innovators with cheap solutions to a vexing market problem can unseat larger, more established rivals in the short term. So in the case of DC United’s squad, assembled at a fraction of the cost of United’s or Real’s, could their domestic dominance and momentum carry them across the pond and further in the global game? His theory was hailed as the answer to everything from making health care more efficient to reducing poverty by some of the world’s greatest thinkers, and Elton Welsby, and was the talk of the dressing and boardrooms from Rio to Rome.

Christensen wrote that disruptive innovations, such as Social Media networks, Rainbow Looms and Snoods tend to be produced by outsiders from their industry (a fact since backed up by organisations such as AirBnB, Uber and Tesla).  The business environment of market leaders does not allow them to pursue disruption when they first arise, because they are not profitable enough at first and because their development can take scarce resources away from sustaining innovations (which are needed to compete against current competition). So when FC United won their first MLS Cup back in 1996, nobody outside of North America took them seriously – it was after all a small domestic league of ageing imports and unproven domestic talent. But back to back wins, and two more final appearances in the next two seasons allowed them to pursue that disruption and potentially start eat the global giants breakfast.

Alas, DC United’s dominance didn’t last as long as that new fangled The Facebook although it did outlive the crazes of plastic bracelets made by our kids and neck scarves worn by hardy professional footballers. Christensen’s theory was debunked by some who pointed to Apple’s continued dominance in the device market, or Amazon’s in terms of online shopping and logistics. We’ve seen pretenders to the footballing global dominance throne very occasionally come forward but money talks in today’s game. There is no coincidence that the clubs with the deepest pockets in England, France, Holland, Spain, Germany and Italy walk away with the honours year after year. Despite salary caps, centralised contracts and no meritocracy structure, the US domestic game is no different today. In the US, DC United’s star briefly flickered again when Wayne Rooney arrived for a season and a bit, but no one team (or should I say, Franchise), has been able to dominate because of the false competitive environment in place in the MLS.

Christensen’s five minutes of fame may still resonate with some economic thinkers but in terms of the world of football it’s the same old story – money talks.

If…


Day six and I’m touching on my poetic side for today’s retrospective with my Lewes FC version of Rudyard Kipling’s If….

“If you can keep your cool when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming results on you,
If you can trust yourself when all fans moan at you,
But don’t slag them off for their moaning too;
If you can wait for an away win and not be tired by waiting,
Or talking your chances up but dealing in lies,
Or being hated, yet don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too smart, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream of an FA Cup run and not make that dream your master;
If you can imagine a 3rd Round home tie and not make gate receipts your aim;
If you can meet with floodlight failure and waterlogged disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by anonymous forum trolls to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the players you rely on, on the floor broken,
Whilst the poor officials obviously don’t know the rules:

If you can make one gamble with half your weekly budget
And risk it on one big name ex-Premier League midfield boss
And see him break down on his debut, and have to think again
Or smile outwardly after their mistake causes another loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To stay behind the goal in the rain long after the others have gone,
And hold on when there is no warmth left in you
Because nobody else will shout at your winger to warn him: “Man on!”

If you can stand on the Jungle and keep your pint safe,
Or talk with Codge—remembering the common touch,
If neither fanzines nor the Philcox chants can hurt you,
If all fans count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving half time break
With fifteen minutes worth of Non-League boardroom small talk,
Yours is the Dripping Pan and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be the chairman, my son”

With thanks to Kipling (Rudyard, not Mr) for the original words.

A step in the digital world of the football programme


Over the past few months, the future of the humble football programme has been front and centre after a decision was taken by the EFL clubs that it was no longer mandatory to produce one for each and every game. There can be no doubt that the original purpose of the programme to educate and inform fans about what was going on at the club, who the opposition were and a vehicle to promote commercial partners (there were more reasons than this but at its core, this was the purpose).

Today, our instant-on digital world means most of the content in the programme is out of date as soon as it is printed, with most fans attending a game having access to significantly more up-to-date information in the palm of their hands. Football fans want more today than just a memento of a game attended. On the most part they want content that is up to date and informative, adding value to their match day experience.

Further down the leagues, the question of “to publish or not” comes down to money, or more than often, the lack of it. Few clubs can say that they make money on producing and selling a programme today, unless they are simply creating the bare minimum, printing in-house on a black and white photocopier. The programme is a conundrum for clubs at the Non-League level. On one hand, it is a valuable tool to get information over to the fans, whilst on the other it is a commercial vehicle for the club to sell advertising space. Unfortunately, whilst the commercial manager may be happy at selling 20 pages of ads, the reader wants to see editorial and content not ads. So, they won’t buy it and because they don’t buy it, the appeal to the advertiser falls over time. An inverse catch 22.

From experience, we have taken great pride in our match day programme, inviting a wide breadth of writers to produce unique and varied content coupled with some excellent match images. Our style and quality of content hasn’t changed much over the past few years, yet the number of copies we sell per game has slowly reduced despite attendances rising by nearly 25% over the last three seasons.

We have traditionally sold 1 programme for every 4 attendees. On an average match-day we print 200 copies, 50 of which are used for players, management, guests and officials. The other 150, in most instances sell, at £2 a copy. Multiply that by 21 league games and the £6,300 is a very useful revenue stream. In addition, we have produced an online version, made available to anyone, 24 hours after the game. With over 700 owners living outside of the East Sussex catchment area, we have seen on average an additional 150 views of this. Of course, some of those who previously bought a programme could be now viewing the free online version, thus cannibalising our own sales but likewise, one of the appeals of the online programme is allowing those fans who cannot get to games to access the content.

In most instances a programme for a Saturday game goes to print after a thorough edit on a Thursday at the very latest, which means that two whole days of footballing news, views and scandal can break before the programme is printed. We all want to consume our news now – this is the prime reason why traditional hard-copy newspaper circulation has fallen so dramatically and a match programme often contains nothing new to the reader.

To many fans, buying a programme is seen as an essential part of going to a game. But like every other element of the game, it needs to get with the times. This is why from the start of the 2018/19 season, Lewes FC will not be publishing a match-day programme. Instead, we will be producing a ground-breaking matchday publication in the form of an e-programme. As soon as fans enter The Dripping Pan on a match-day they will be able to access the digital content, which will include the traditional elements such as a preview of our opponents, match reviews, details of forthcoming away trips and information on what is going on at the club. However, we will be mixing this text-based content with video interviews from our management team, players and the Chairman, previews recorded by visiting fans, and much more.

We know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but Lewes have always been about innovation and pushing the envelope for football clubs everywhere. We believe we will be the only club to do this in England and whilst we will be reducing some of our operational costs, we will hopefully be setting the standard for the future of the football programme.

The e-programme opens up a whole new world of opportunities, not only for the club but also for the reader. The ability to be able to add dynamic content is a huge opportunity – putting video into the programme, having a live scores feed, making adverts interact with the user (and thus making space more valuable to the advertiser), the opportunity to sponsor players whilst the game is going on and being able to access it from the palm of your hand in real time. Oh, and of course it is free of charge.

I’m not a traditionalist but likewise I understand the place for the humble football programme and those who will rally against embracing the digital age. Technology can deliver reduce costs, increased revenues and a wider readership for every club, big or small. But are we ready and brave enough to embrace it? We think so but don’t just take my word for it, have a look yourself.

Postscript – some people complained but by 8pm the e-programme had been viewed by 750 people. For our last home game in the 2017/18 season we sold 223 programmes. Just saying

What is Non-League?


A decade ago this would have been a relatively easy question to answer but today the lines are now so blurred perhaps it is time we dropped the phrase all together. Non-League used to refer to any team that was not part of the Football League but with the creation of the Premier League in 1992, the situation started to change.

It would have been unheard of to find a full-time side below the Football League but today, certainly at Step 5 or National League, most sides will be full-time and thus classed as professional players. So, another loose definition of the “amateur game” is out of date. In fact, there are teams at Step 6 who are now full-time, such has the game changed.

What brought this question to a head was the “debate” over Social Media last week between Gary Neville, one of the co-owners of Salford City and Accrington Stanley’s Chairman, Andy Holt, over the signing of Aberdeen’s Adam Rooney by Neville’s club.

Salford City’s rise through the leagues has been impressive – just over a decade ago they were playing in the North-West Counties League (Step 9). Then came the “Class of ‘92” and their billionaire friend, Peter Lim, and invested heavily into the squad and the infrastructure and the club hasn’t looked back, taking their place in the National League this season for the first time. There’s nothing new in a club getting significant investment and rising through the leagues, although in most cases it does end in tears. I’m not sure the risks of the owners walking away is anywhere near as high at Salford City, but it has caused some bitterness and rivalry from other clubs.

Salford’s signing of Rooney has certainly set a new bar though for the “Non-League” game. The Irishman swapped the promise of Europa League football with Aberdeen for the chance to play in the FA Trophy with Salford City, oh and the small matter of a reputed £4,000 per week – or in Lewes FC speak, 150% of our weekly playing budget.

Ah yes, the playing budget. Rooney’s transfer set up a war of words between Neville and Holt, with the Accrington Stanley chairman happy to reveal his annual playing budget, but when pushed, Neville wouldn’t reveal the Salford City one, saying “You think I’m going to disclose my wages on here?” (Twitter). Why not? Why can’t clubs all be transparent with their wages?

Last season we saw significant amounts of “investment” at Step 7, with Billericay Town signing players such as Jamie O’Hara, Jermaine Pennant and Paul Konchesky. Whilst the owner/manager (until he sacked himself, then re-appointed himself) claimed his wage bill was nothing like the amounts being bandied around the media, they were still eye-watering in terms of the level Billericay Town were playing at, and probably on a par with the amounts Holt claimed Accrington Stanley, now an EFL One club, paid.

This season Step 5 of the English Football Pyramid, the National League, contains 11 clubs who have played in the English Football League, plus two (Salford City and Ebbsfleet United) with significantly wealthy owners. It would be an insult to call this Non-League anymore as many of these clubs have facilities and resources that some EFL clubs could only dream of.

Money does not always buy success, but it certainly gives you a big head-start and this season few would bet against Salford City being one of the main challengers for promotion to the Football League. They will face some still opposition from the likes of Chesterfield, Barnet and Leyton Orient, all who are desperate to regain their Football League status.

Two leagues below Salford City, the Rooks will take their place back in Step 7, the Isthmian League Premier Division, after two seasons at Step 8. We led the Isthmian South division for three-quarters of the season on a budget per week of half an Adam Rooney, winning promotion with four games to spare. We’ve managed to find a modest increase in the playing budget for manager Darren Freeman and we believe we have a squad that can compete rather than struggle. But the gulf between Step 7 and Step 6 is huge in terms of finances and if we were to gain promotion, we would be ill-equipped at the moment to match any of the clubs at the National League South level. Of course, that wouldn’t stop us giving it a go!

So, should we stop referring to our game as Non-League? Whilst we all understand what we mean when we say it, we are in a structure, the ‘pyramid’, that gives us a path to promotion all the way to the Premier League (we can but dream). We aren’t grass-roots either. The recent debate about the sale of Wembley and the plan to invest millions in ‘grass-roots football’ may have got us excited that some of that cash could come our way, but grass-roots means just that – the amateur game in its purest sense where facilities today in many instances are an embarrassment to our National Game.

For now, I don’t think we have any option but to refer to ourselves as being part of the Non-League game. We all know where we stand, and even if clubs like Salford City want to think and act as if they are already in the Football League, then let them. We will still stand on the Terry Parris Terrace next season, beer in hand and marvel at the part-time players, the volunteers and the beauty of the game we call Non-League.

New National League play-off format already adding to end-of-season drama


The battle to reach the play-off finals across three National League divisions is underway, with clubs across the country striving to secure promotion to the next level in the pyramid.

There is a new format this season, with the champions going up automatically and the next six clubs in each division taking part in an extended play-off format.

Two eliminator matches take place before the semi-finals and the set-up is sure to add even more drama to the end-of-season showdowns in each section.

Read on as we take a look at the National League play-offs.

Vanarama National League

Ebbsfleet United finished a point behind Aldershot Town during the regular season, but it was the Kent side who progressed to the semi-finals after a dramatic penalty shoot-out.

United were awarded a penalty during the second-half, but top scorer Danny Kedwell was superbly denied by Lewis Ward.

The game eventually went to extra-time, it was Aldershot who finally managed to break the deadlock in the 109th minute when Nicke Kabamba headed home.

It looked as though that goal would be enough to take the Shots through, but in the last minute of extra-time, Dave Winfield headed United level to take the game to a shoot-out.

Ward saved two penalties to leave Aldershot with two chances to win it, but Lewis Kinsella and Fabien Robert fluffed their lines.

Dean Rance fired home the decisive spot kick to book United’s place in Saturday’s semi-final against Tranmere Rovers at Prenton Park.

Boreham Wood face AFC Fylde in the second elimination game on Thursday, with the winners going on to meet Sutton United in Sunday’s second semi-final.

If you’re inclined towards betting check out these football betting predictions before wagering on the outcome of the play-offs.

Vanarama National League North

League positions went out of the window in the National League North play-off elimination games on Wednesday, as Bradford Park Avenue and Chorley defeated Kidderminster Harriers and Stockport County respectively.

Kidderminster, who were beaten by Chorley in the play-off semi-finals last season, suffered more heartbreak against Park Avenue at Aggborough.

Adam Boyes bagged an early goal for the visitors after 10 minutes and although Harriers dominated for long periods they could not find an equaliser.

Oli Johnson’s goal 12 minutes from time sealed the victory and sent Bradford through to Sunday’s semi-final at Brackley Town.

Wednesday’s other eliminator between Stockport and Chorley attracted a bumper crowd of 6,230 to Edgeley Park and fans were treated to an excellent advertisement for non-league football.

Jason Walker settled the game with a fine header after 68 minutes to book Chorley’s place in the last four. Matt Jansen’s side now visit Harrogate Town on Sunday in the other semi-final.

Vanarama National League South

Sunday’s National League South play-off semi-finals will be between Chelmsford City and Hampton & Richmond Borough and Dartford and Braintree Town following Wednesday’s elimination matches.

Hampton had failed to beat Truro City in three attempts season, drawing 1-1 in both league games and losing 2-0 in the FA Cup.

Rocky Neal gave Truro an early lead, but Jack Cook’s 34th minute effort tied things up. City’s Connor Riley-Lowe had a penalty saved in the second-half, and Bradley Hudson-Odoi took full advantage in extra-time with a pair of goals to send Hampton through.

Hemel had won both of the games against Braintree during the regular season and with home advantage they began as favourites to reach the last four.

They had the better of the game in terms of possession and chances, but neither side were able to break the deadlock during 120 minutes of play.

Scott Shulton, David Moyo and Sanchez Watt all failed to convert their penalties for Hemel, while Marcel Barrington, Luke Allen and Dan Thompson scored theirs for Braintree to secure victory.

Artificial Intelligence or Pitch Perfect?


The calls for more clubs to install 3G pitches reaches fever pitch every time there is a spell of bad weather in this country but having an artificial surface is not necessarily the answer.

During the first few days of March, the ‘Beast from the East’ delivered snow and freezing temperatures to many parts of the United Kingdom that we had not seen for many years.  Public transport ground to a halt, many major roads became unpassable and unsurprisingly, sporting fixtures suffered.  At the time of writing three Championship games have already been cancelled, including Sky Sports Live game at Wolverhampton Wanderers as overnight temperatures have dropped as low as -11 in some parts.

The Non-League programme has been decimated with just four games surviving from steps 1 to 4 from a total of 140 games due to be played this Saturday.  Two of those four (Dover Athletic and Folkestone Invicta) have benefited from their coastal location whilst the other two (Grays Athletic and Worthing) both play their home games on a 3G surface.  So you could put an argument forward that 3G’s have proved their worth in this instance, with both Grays Athletic and Worthing likely to get bumper crowds due to the lack of other games in the area (many Lewes fans are heading to Worthing for instance rather than sitting at home, whilst I myself am heading to Aveley FC, where Grays Athletic play).  But that isn’t strictly true.

Many other clubs have 3G pitches and have seen their games cancelled.  Cray Wanderers, Horsham, Walton Casuals, Merthyr Town, Redditch Town and Romulus among others who use an artificial pitch have seen their games today cancelled whilst in Scotland, every professional side who uses a 3G pitch including Clyde, Alloa Athletic, Montrose and Airdrieonians has seen their games postponed too. Unfortunately, just because you replace grass with a synthetic material, you do not avoid all of the side-effects of the bad weather.

An artificial pitch is not simply a big roll of fake grass that is laid like a carpet.  There’s significant amounts of preparation work that has to happen to the ground itself before you get to that stage.  The shock-pad is like an underlay for a carpet.  That is the bit that does the hard work and like any underlay, the quality and therefore the longevity of the pitch itself is based on cost – the better shock pad used, the more expensive it is but the more wear the pitch will handle.  Once the “grass” is laid then the filler is used – in most instances rubber crumb – which keeps the blades of grass upright and also adds as an additional layer of absorption.

The issue at the moment is when snow falls and settles on a 3G you can’t simply sweep it off as you will remove the rubber crumb in the process.  No rubber crumb means you damage the top layer of the pitch when you play on it.  If the snow compacts and freezes and isn’t allowed to thaw or be removed, then playing on it will increase the pressure on the shock pad and could damage that.  Replacing that would involve completely removing the pitch first – a very expensive job.

Whilst some 3G playing surfaces may have been fit for football, the surrounding areas such as terraces, stands, walkways and car parks may not.  In the case of Cray Wanderers’s game today, at Bromley FC, this was the issue that saw their game postponed.  There’s very little a club can do to protect these areas from the freezing temperatures – again something that few people factor into their argument as to why clubs should have a 3G pitch.  I saw this first hand in December when I visited Airdrieonians for their game with Raith Rovers.  The temperatures fell well below zero and whilst the game went ahead on their frosty 3G, the car park was akin to a curling rink and was incredibly dangerous for spectators leaving the ground.

The costs in installing a 3G are prohibitive to many clubs.  Whilst there are huge benefits aside from being able to use it in bad weather, such as the opportunity to create a community facility and one that produces a regular revenue stream (and allows clubs to save costs on renting external training facilities), they have to find the initial cash to build one.  Like many things, costs can be reduced, but a decent 3G pitch will set a club back in excess of £500,000 – hardly small change.  There are some grants available from the Football Foundation and Sport England, but not every club is able to qualify for those.

And then, of course, there is the issue of the Football League rules.  Any clubs that have ambitions of moving up to the professional game in England is thwarted if they have a 3G by the rule, set by the Football League clubs themselves, that does not allow for 3G pitches to be used.  No such rule exists for the FA Cup, the Champions League, UEFA and FIFA competitions – in fact every professional league in Europe allows them (including Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales) but England doesn’t.  So for clubs like Sutton United, Bromley and Maidstone United, challenging currently for the National League Play-offs, they face a dilemma of either dropping out of contention or ripping their 3G pitch up (which in part is the revenue generator that has allowed them to rise up the leagues).  Should they do neither and qualify for the Play-offs they face demotion down to the National League South.  How is that fair in a sporting sense?

Artificial surfaces have their benefits but let’s all just remember that they aren’t always the answer to the curve-balls that Mother Nature throws at us.

 

Tough at the top, tougher down the bottom


During the Leicester City vs Manchester United game on Saturday night, commentator Alan Parry mentioned the “stresses and strains” on the Premier League players at having to play four games over the Christmas period.  “Some of these players face four games in just nine day!” Parry remarked as if this was a massive hardship for them.  That will be the same four games in nine days that virtually every club playing at Steps 7 and 8 of the footballing pyramid face over Christmas.

I hear the arguments about the stresses and strains of the Premier League, apparently the fastest league in the world (although I am not sure how that has been measured) but these players are professional.  They have the best facilities for fitness and recovery at their disposal – Pep Guardiola’s 16 man management team includes such roles as a Sports Therapist, a Head of Human Performance, a Soft Tissue Therapist and a Head of Sports Medicine.  Below them is an army of experts whose job is to ensure that Pep’s record breaking team are in peak condition when they cross the white line.  In most instances they are told what to eat and drink, when and where.

Down in the Bostik League South (as with in most other Non-Leagues), today was the first of four games Lewes played in the next nine days.  Our players and physios head home to their families tonight for Christmas and some will return to their normal jobs tomorrow and even Christmas Day before regrouping on Tuesday for the next game meaning that they cannot spend any time with the players and their rehabilitation.  We share the same concern as Guardiola that four games over the Christmas period is too much, especially with small squads and half way through the season where suspensions are starting to bite.  Today was our 33rd game of the season, and whilst our three new signings who all made their debuts today due to the growing injury list took the number of players we have used over the 30 mark, only 20 have played in more than five games, exactly the same number of players Manchester City have used in their 28 games this season.

Ultimately, the commercialisation of the Premier League game means that clubs have little control as to when games are scheduled.  Whilst other leagues across Europe have mid-Winter breaks, that simply means the Premier League can charge a higher fee to overseas broadcasters to schedule games at times attractive to foreign audiences – why else would the Leicester City game be scheduled on a Saturday night two days before Christmas?  In the Non-Leagues Christmas games bring in vital revenue, with local derbies boosting attendances although the continued lack of public transport on Boxing Day does prove problematic to many – Lewes take on Hastings United on Boxing Day despite the fact there is no public transport running between the two East Sussex towns 29 miles apart.

Commentators and members of the media often talk about Premier League players in revered terms, forgetting the hundreds of other equally committed and passionate individuals give up their time to bring joy to thousands of us who prefer our football a little less sanitised than that at the top level.

Happy Christmas to everyone who will take part in those games over the next nine days and spread the joy of the beautiful game to us all.