Yesterday Dan Altman Tweeted this:
.@exMBB It's a serious point. Too many analysts are evaluating his new contract solely in soccer terms. The club is a multifaceted business.
— Daniel Altman (@altmandaniel) February 25, 2014
and it got me thinking about how we evaluate player signings in European football. Some people in the analytics world would ideally like clubs to see players only in terms of how they contribute to wins. IE, as cogs, variables in a spreadsheet, who can be replaced should they not perform. Not that we’re anywhere close to having the data to do this exactly, at least in the public realm. Though the idea should be that clubs, armed with as much information as possible, negotiate player contracts based solely on the value they provide on the pitch. After all, what do clubs live for except to win?
The problem with this view is that it doesn’t take into consideration a host of factors off the pitch that affect player value. One is, as Altman points out, the commercial value a player provides to the team. Rooney may not be the same Rooney in five years’ time, but his presence on the team shores up Man United’s global brand (barf puke etc.). We know who Rooney is, and we’ve known for some time, and this carries import with dumb-dumb marketers. Before you dismiss this as a bastardization of the game, remember that players who significantly improve brand visibility help foster fatter commercial deals which clubs can use to buy lesser known but superior talent down the line. This strategy is partly why MLS overpays for aging but widely recognized talent. It generates commercial revenue which gradually over time allows the league to attract better talent at younger ages.
One could make the argument that any player which wins trophies will sell t-shirts, so why not sign less-recognized but more talented players in that endeavour? That’s not exactly true though, else the world would be awash with Mandzukic Bayern replica kits. But the real reason is that the big clubs can simply afford to pay a premium for visibility. For them, the inefficiency on the pitch is counterbalanced by the leverage off it.
What does this mean? Well, I think it means that expecting the Big Clubs to play it smart in the near future is probably a waste of time. Progress in analytics comes from innovators who can’t simply buy whomever they wish in order to win (see the Oakland A’s, blah blah blah). This is probably why guys like Big Sam are proponents of analytics-driven performance on the pitch, though the real magic trick would be finding market inefficiencies in player recruitment. We like to think certain clubs do this, but it’s all hearsay.
The general point here though is that we should be careful in how we frame our criticisms of club signings. Though it’s fun and it provokes debate, not all clubs are in the market for the same reasons. And some are even willing to sacrifice the best possible outcome on the pitch in return for a better brand. That’s terrible, awful, modern football at its worst, I know. But it means that the future of progress in player analytics lies with the clubs that get the least attention.