SBJ/Aug. 12-18, 2013/Opinion

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  • Turning up the heat in Qatar: Can FIFA, Blatter overcome?

    The fact that FIFA finds itself embroiled in controversy because of which country was selected to host a World Cup is nothing new. Allegations of political misdeed accompanied the 1986, 2002 and 2006 votes. But the selection of Qatar in 2022 has backed FIFA into a corner without an escape route.

    There seems to be a consensus that this tournament cannot be staged in the summer because temperatures in Qatar can rise to 120 degrees. There was talk of air-conditioned outdoor stadiums and air-conditioned outdoor places where fans could congregate, but as FIFA President Sepp Blatter conceded, you “can’t cool down the whole country.” So now the executive committee will meet in October with the apparent aim of moving the World Cup to winter.

    Sounds simple, but the problem with moving it to January or November, the two alternatives that have been floated, is that doing so would wreak havoc on the European soccer calendar. Roughly speaking, European leagues, such as the English Premier League, run from August into May. That leaves about three or four weeks for countries to prepare their teams between the end of the season and the start of a World Cup and about four or five weeks between the end of a World Cup and the beginning of the next domestic season.

    Will choosing Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup prove to be a critical misstep for FIFA and its president, Sepp Blatter?
    Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
    If FIFA opts for the middle of January, leagues would stop play a week before Christmas and resume mid-March. Players in most leagues break for Christmas and there is going to be a lot of very public complaining if they can’t go home to their families. This may be the reason that November is now being trial ballooned. This would mean that the domestic leagues would come to a halt in mid-to-late October and resume in late January.

    There are a number of problems that apply to both proposed calendars. With either, there is going to be a 12-week gap, which would have to be made up for by starting the season at the beginning of July and ending it late the following June. That would also force adjustments in both the previous and the following season’s calendars before scheduling normalcy was restored. The lower-tier domestic leagues, which often struggle to remain solvent, would be reluctant to make similar adjustments, but World Cup TV ratings would be hurt if their domestic governing bodies allowed them to continue to operate as normal.

    The weather in Qatar is a lot milder in the winter, but would fans be willing or able to travel there that time of year? The pre-Christmas period seems out of the question for most North Americans, Europeans and South Americans. The January dates look a lot more promising, but most Europeans and North Americans are used to taking their vacations in the summer and family commitments would make it difficult for many people to travel during the school year.

    This brings us to the last constituents that will struggle to get their heads around this proposed change: the TV networks, especially in the U.S. Fox Sports cannot be terribly pleased about the prospect of showing World Cup matches during the middle of football season or, even worse, the NFL playoffs. One suspects that Rupert Murdoch would ask to renegotiate. The prospect of airing World Cup matches during the winter, especially January, might be appealing to the European rights holders, but the leagues are likely to be worried about how much their ratings will decline because more matches would have to be aired during summertime when people are able to go outdoors a lot more.

    In sum, the only thing worse than moving a World Cup to winter is choosing to hold it in Qatar in the first place. FIFA should apologize and revote. But that would require them to admit that they got it badly wrong, and, even worse, explain how they got it badly wrong. In a 2011 private email, FIFA Secretary General Jérôme Valcke said that Qatar had “bought” the World Cup. He later explained he meant Qatar was using its “financial strength” to lobby for backing, not unethical practices, but his clarification begs the question: How exactly did Qatar use its financial strength? Despite all the scandals, FIFA has never been known for expressing sincere regret or publicly exposing its decision-making process, so it probably won’t do that even though it is facing a crisis.

    And by crisis, I mean a showdown for control of soccer. FIFA has all the procedural power. It can force this calendar change, which appears to be its intention. But the European leagues and the TV networks, who ultimately have the financial power, as well as the players and the fans, who figure to be overwhelmingly against this, might very well seek to abolish the organization, or at least topple the leadership.

    It has famously been alleged that Blatter “has 50 ideas a day, 51 of them bad.” However, even his harshest critics concede that he is politically astute. He has always managed to appease or vanquish his foes while, if anything, increasing his power. But in this case, it is very hard to see how he can accommodate, or ignore, the key stakeholders. Awarding a World Cup to Qatar may prove to be one bad idea too many for him and his embattled governing body.

    Ken Pendleton (kpendleton@sportconflict.org) is a senior researcher and project designer of the Sports Conflict Institute in Eugene, Ore. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy, and, even though he should know better, he has misspent his adulthood studying the major American sports and international soccer.

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  • Industry standouts lead sports into new era of decision-making

    More than 20 years ago when working with a client, I used a regression analysis to explain why certain giveaway items were not driving attendance the way the team thought they were. (This team had more than 72 such promotions in an 81-game schedule). After I showed the analysis and implied that there were other factors at play, the marketing executive took me to his office where he had a white board listing comparative dates from the previous year and the weather for those date.

    “This is all you need to know,” he explained. “What we did last year on this date and what the weather was like.” Despite evidence to the contrary, I lost that argument, but my bewilderment regarding the lack of openness to research, along with the perception that I was just an academic, stayed with me for some time.

    I was determined to change that perception. I left academics for a time to work at DelWilber & Associates, a sports marketing firm where we developed a computerized data-collection system in the early 1990s called RAPS — the Rapid Audience Profile System. The system allowed us to analyze the data on-site immediately after the day’s activities had ended. For our client Mazda, we were able to show that the demographic composition of the audience at a golf or tennis event varies significantly depending upon the day of the week. Thus, we convinced them to change the car displays each night to have more age-, gender- and household income-appropriate models in place for the next day, instead of the same display. It was a big step because it demonstrated the value in collecting data and using it to make business decisions.
     
    Morey brought analytics to the court and boardroom.
    Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
    But that was then and this is now. I decided to seek out someone who, along with “Moneyball” author Michael Lewis, has caused sports executives to rethink the role of research and analytics on both the player performance and business performance side. That person is Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets. Previously, he used analytics to help the Boston Celtics with on-court analysis as well as business performance metrics and growth strategies. According to Morey, one of the underlying factors in this move to more data-driven decision-making was that, “More sophisticated owners were paying bigger sums in ownership groups and coming from more advanced management backgrounds, which necessitated a change to also bring in people with more advanced and sophisticated management experiences.”

    Morey added, “The overwhelming success of analytics to improve decision-making in financial services, consumer products, etc., is finally being applied to sports. Sports are late to this party. Baseball proved the model, and success in basketball will likely be next.”

    An MIT graduate and adjunct professor, Morey also is the co-founder of the annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at MIT. This conference has grown dramatically and serves as the nexus point for academics, students and practitioners to come together, learn new approaches and possibilities and share best practices. It is without question the best interaction and sharing between the real world and academics and their research that I’ve seen.

    Anthony Perez (far left) leads Orlando’s research team.
    Photo by: ORLANDO MAGIC
    The NBA through its team management and business operations division has been preaching this gospel for the past five years. It started with a philosophical move from the “art of marketing” to a combined approach featuring the science of marketing, which has led to a strategic business focus on data-driven decision-making. The Orlando Magic ranks near the top of NBA teams with its approach and corresponding investment in research and analytics. Anthony Perez, vice president, business strategy, has a team of seven researchers, data miners and analysts charged with weaving an analytic thread through all Magic business areas, including digital and most recently basketball operations.

    According to Perez, “Our primary objective is to help the organization make strategic, data-driven decisions that maximize business performance and efficiency. We work with every department to do that, from corporate partnerships to ticket sales to marketing. This requires thinking about how we can enhance the customer experience. How do we deliver a more personalized, relevant experience to every customer? We use data and analytics to help us understand that challenge, and a variety of technologies to help us deliver on it.”

    Data-driven decision-making: The way forward

    Include analytics, data mining in sports management curriculum.

    Invest in data analysis at the team level.

    Seek out best practices.

    Marry art and science of doing business.

    Anther individual who has been hugely responsible for the growth of sports analytics is researcher, author and consultant Rich Luker. He created the ESPN Sports Poll in 1994 as the first dedicated intelligence service reporting on American consumers’ interests and activities and economic trends related to the impact of sports in our culture. Luker gives meaning to research and statistics that is easily understood. Luker’s insights, particularly in the areas of consumer behavior and customer profiling, are easily applied and encourage the user to dig deeper and learn more.

    Mark McCormack, in his book “Staying Street Smart in the Internet Age,” cautions against abandoning relationship marketing in favor of technology. He emphasizes that technology and information are tools that enhance the sales and marketing process.

    So where are we going, or where should we be going in the area of sports analytics and data-driven decision-making?

    All sports business academic programs should restructure their curriculum to include courses in analytics and data mining (one of the first things we did in developing the program at USF).

    Sports organizations should invest in hiring individuals to analyze data, trends and operations to improve performance, efficiency and financial optimization (this is not a one-person hire).

    Seek out best practices from other organizations to help secure resources to justify and implement a comprehensive data-driven decision-making process.

    Embrace the art of doing business along with the science of how you should do business.

    Bill Sutton (wsutton1@usf.edu) is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida, and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_Impact.

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