Doping is to Cycling as Poor Officiating is to Soccer

This is a post on marketing as much as sports.  Here’s my logic:

  • If you want to maximize the audience for your sport, and ergo maximize potential revenues, then outcomes need to be fair.  Professional wrestling excepted (which Wikipedia refers to as “a form of sporting theater”), who wants to watch a sport where the outcome is either random, predetermined, or meaningless?
  • Cycling has been ruined as a sport by doping.  Who wants to invest twenty-something days watching the Tour de France, see Floyd Landis win it, and then get stripped of his title a few days later for doping?  It ruins the fun when people are cheating, and as long as people are cheating the results are meaningless.  Who wants to watch sports where the outcomes are meaningless?  Some people, but not me — I haven’t really followed the Tour since 2006 — and not lots of others.  Ergo, the potential audience is not maximized.
  • Long before yesterday’s goal scandal, I have argued that soccer suffers from serious problems with officiating which, among other problems, limits its ability to succeed as a major sport in the USA.  Soccer is a low scoring sport so the impact of blown calls is much larger than in higher-scoring sports.  One blown foul call in a basketball game that ends 110-100 makes little impact.  One blown call in a soccer match that ends 2-2 makes the difference between the USA automatically qualifying for the next round and (basically) being in a win-or-go-home situation on its next match.

The real problem here is FIFA which stubbornly refuses to use technology to solve this problem.  Video replays and ball-sensors are obvious solutions to the problem.  (I’d also argue that soccer should add a fifth referee simply to manage the pushing and shoving in the box on set pieces, much as years ago hockey added a fourth one just to look after nastiness off the play.)  Yet FIFA somehow insists that such things are not in the culture of soccer, which is frankly an idiotic excuse for not fixing the problem.  As a friend once said about presentations — why is the presenter the only person in the room who can’t see the tweetstream? — why is the center referee the only person on the planet who can’t see the video replay?

Back to marketing, if FIFA won’t fix the problem, then over time I think Adam Smith will.  People will gradually lose interest in a sport that every day becomes more and more out of touch with both technology and consumer expectations.  Yes soccer has a huge worldwide audience today, but if such injustices continue, worldwide interest will erode over time, and in America, soccer — from an audience size perspective — will continue to be a C-tier sport.

19 responses to “Doping is to Cycling as Poor Officiating is to Soccer

  1. FIFA does not fix the officiating issue because the referee is a mean to influence match outcomes. It was clear in the world cup qualify round, when France was allowed to do practically anything against Ireland because a world cup without France was far less interesting to main sponsors.

    The lack of credibility is not an issue. The average football fan does not demand a fair game, she demands more political influence so to steer officiating to her own side.

    Myself, I gave up soccer after a betting scandal in Italy; but I’m practically the only one.

  2. I see what you did there…

    It would take more than a free market to take away people’s love for world football. It might not always be so dominant, but it’s too emotionally entrenched to change any time soon.

  3. For the rest of the world, I’m not arguing that anything’s going to happen soon, but that it will happen. (Frankly, my guess is it will take 5 more years but FIFA will finally adopt technology.)

    For the USA market, as mentioned, this is just another important reason why soccer won’t take off. Unlike rest of world, American are now used to sports that use technology in various ways to improve calls (e.g., tennis, hockey, football, …)

  4. Thanks Stray … corruption for the most part was an issue I wasn’t even considering. But technology helps can help cure that too — e.g., challenges and video replays.

  5. I am sure that improvements like video replays will be used by the FIFA in years to come. It is a conservative, slow-moving organisation, but these improvements have the tendency to force itself through in the long run. Take for example the use of artificial turf and the 4th official.

    I can understand soccer still isn’t a very popular viewer sport in the States because of the ‘defects’ you point out. What I wonder about is why popular American sports like American football, baseball and to a lesser extent basketball don’t reach the same popularity outside of the States. Might it be that the commercialism/marketability works against those sports outside of the States?

    I have lived in Canada for a year in the nineties and never could get used to the 10 minutes of content 5 minutes of commercial breaks regime of American television. I think most non-US viewers would stop watching soccer if it turned to that regime.

  6. Berend,

    Thanks for your comment. Have no worries, you won’t find me defending the TV timeout!

  7. Hi Dave,

    My personal feeling is that introducing instant replays for the ref would turn soccer into little more than another platform for TV advertising that would change the game far more than a few bad decisions.

    If you look over a season, decisions tend to even themselves out, for example, for every penalty / offside a team is denied, there is usually one they get they did not deserve.

    When it comes to USA v Slovenia and Ireland v France as recent examples, there is a huge case for bringing in technology for the major decisions, but as soon as it is brought in for the major calls, I think it will be used to validate or question every call in the game.

    Questioning calls will be used as a tactic. If your team is under immense pressure, instead of having to work harder, tweak the formation or bring on a new player, a player / captain / manager will be able to question a call, force a replay (cut to commercial) and give their team a break and kill the momentum of the other team.

    The Italian teams of the 80’s and 90’s were notorious for diving and breaking the momentum of the other team, which made the Italian team and league terrible to watch.

    Soccer as a game of 2 halves of 45 minutes is watched and loved by millions around the world. TV Networks selling advertising will love a soccer game that stops every two minutes …it will not result in more goals, it won’t make America love soccer and it will not help Ireland win the World Cup.

    … and anyway, blaming the ref for a split second call when your team had 90 minutes to win the game fairly and squarely and putting it down to a “the ref / whole world is against us” conspiracy theory is a huge part of being a soccer fan!

  8. Thanks for your views Philip and the “it all comes out in the wash” argument is basically the one made by the soccer establishment.

    I’m not arguing for TV timeouts in soccer (though the lack of easy advertising opportunity is definitely an impediment, though worked around with on-jersey ads, the lighted displays around the field, etc.)

    But, in the end, I cannot understand why you’d want results like (1) France going to the cup instead of Ireland, (2) Kaka getting red-carded for doing nothing, (far as I can tell it was simulation retribution for Brasil’s — but not Kaka’s theatrics –, (3) the USA not having a lock on going through when they did score three goals, etc.

    If a little technology can get the true result, I don’t know why you wouldn’t want it. Did the ball cross the line? Was there contact off the ball? Was person X offside — one of the hardest calls to make in all sports in my estimation. These are easily answered questions with some technology.

    By the way, if you’re worried about constant questioning you can have a challenge system where each coach gets 2-3 challenges per game. Or you can make the reviews done at FIFA’s discretion with a ref in the sky.

  9. I have to admit to being a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to football, I still don’t like being told how much injury time there is going to be.

    My main concern is when you open the door to replays, you stop the game, you break the natural flow and then TV time outs are inevitable.

    I do think that they should introduce technology into post match appeals where video replays can be used, so there would be no repeat of Laurent Blanc missing the final of the World Cup because of a cheat.

    I also think that they should make referees full time and professional as I think that that would attract more people to the position and raise the standard.

    When it comes to on field action though, I’m happy to leave it pretty much as is, I would include a sensor that lets you know when a ball has crossed the goal line, but that is about it, I like the drama and the potential for error in the game.

    Having said that if Scotland had had that goal disallowed in a World Cup, I would probably be suggesting that you rig up a stadium with more cameras than the Pentagon and have an army of reviewers and lawyers on stand-by!

  10. Brian Baillod

    I was discussing your post with a friend and she made the following point which I thought was worth sharing:

    I agree about the replays, we should use the technology we have. I don’t agrees that “worldwide interest in soccer will erode over time if technology is not used to greater extent”.

    One has to remember that worldwide interest comes from all walks of life, including a large extent from blue collar, rural or developing country backgrounds.
    They do not value, rely on, or desire technology nearly as much as us comparatively few western, white collar folks.
    Their interest, developed as kids playing with a homemade ball when they can’t get a real one means that their love for the sport will not erode. This is their sport and their dream, their folk heroes, technology or not.

  11. Soccer isn’t popular in the US because it’s a flawed game? I’m not convinced this post is meant to be serious, but assuming it is…

    The idea that there is such a serious flaw in a game that has thrived globally for over one hundred years and that you have the answer – technology, is amusing in it’s simplistic naivety. The actual flaw here is your premise that soccer isn’t (and will never be) popular in the US. More Americans are playing and watching soccer than ever before. The quality of the domestic leagues and national team is higher than ever before.

    The US has always been highly isolationist and your views here just echo that US-centric mentality.

  12. William,

    Not sure what planet you live on but soccer is worse off in terms of audience and revenues than baseball, football, basketball, and probably hockey. The women’s soccer league basically shut down. An average MLS player makes $120K per year or such.

    The sport, and make no mistake I love it, is nowhere. As far as your isolationist accusation, while the odds are generally in your favor, you picked the wrong guy. Au revoir.

  13. Brian,

    I agree with you and I think that’s the best single argument. As Americans we are *used to* the application of technology to sport and find it tragicomical when it’s not applied in a sport such as soccer.

    In the vast rest of world, soccer is the sport and it doesn’t use technology so people have no such reference point and ergo instead of actually *fixing* the problem they will go on and on about “culture” and “it all comes out in the wash” — all the things you *must* say when you see no other option and feel out of control.

    (Much as folks said, men have to die from heart attacks in their 50s before knowing about cholesterol.)

    To pick the most recent example, some will say the soccer gods got revenge on France for Henry’s handball that got them in and knocked Ireland out … but wouldn’t a fairer outcome have been to let the Irish lads experience the World Cup (rather than sit in pubs that are supposedly giving out free pizzas for every French goal conceded?)

  14. Brian,

    One more thought — just because you don’t grow up with application of technology in the schoolyard game doesn’t mean you can’t use it at the big league level.

    My kids all play tennis at a level where you make your own calls. But that doesn’t mean you can use technology at the highest level. That is, I don’t buy an all-or-nothing, if you can’t use it on the sandlot you shouldn’t use it in the majors argument.

  15. You’re correct, the US has plenty of popular long-established sports ahead of soccer, but the point is soccer is consistently growing in terms of both audience and ad revenues.

    e.g. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/08/sports/soccer/08sandomir.html

  16. I think most of the UK are with you on your comments and observations here Dave… 4-2 would have been slightly more bearable than 4-1… slightly….

  17. There aren’t too many points on which I agree with Sepp Blatter, but the “human failure is part of the sport” is one of them.

    I’m not a luddite – I think cricket has mostly benefited from the introduction of technology over the last few years – but my biggest concern is that every single decision is decided by technology, and thus an immediate 15 second ad-break.

    I think most of the offside decisions during the World Cup have been outstanding (Argentina’s goal yesterday being an exception).

    I think the England goal yesterday would have been given if there had been a goal line referee (I’d be all for that, although I agree with Jon – we played badly and didn’t deserve to win).

    Many German newspapers today are saying the England goal yesterday is retribution for the 1966 Hurst goal – that a bad decision can last 44 years is testament to the fact that they are as much a part of football as goals, red cards and inventive terrace chanting.

    I believe there’s also a whole other discussion about whether football needs to be successful in the US. I would argue that there’s already too much money in the sport, and certainly wouldn’t consider changing the rules just to make it popular there.

  18. Hi Dave,

    Looks like Paul Armstrong from CNN agrees with you (as do I) and has some details on different technologies that could be used by the sport.

    http://www.cnn.com/2010/SPORT/football/06/28/football.goal.line.technology/index.html?hpt=C2

  19. John Cleese has an opinion on the matter as well. Well, at least on the differences between soccer and american football: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sD_8prYOxo

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