When Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game hit shelves in 2003 booksellers could be forgiven for believing that a story about sports management and statistics might not exactly light up the mass-market audience. Even though it was about America’s national sport it was about the Oakland Atheltics, not the Yankees. Moneyball of course went on to be a national bestseller as Lewis’s tale of the underdog A’s and Billy Beane managed to capture the attention of baseball fans, academics and corporate executives alike.
Moneyball is about the success of a perpetually underfunded baseball franchise in the face of the financial might of historically larger baseball clubs. Lewis’ explanation for Oakland’s success is two-fold: a rigorous application of statiscal sobriety to player selection and business acumen in player trading. Billy Beane used these tools to outperform competitors year after year while also paying out a much smaller wage budget; it is a familiar American narrative that plays especially well in the recent times of extreme financial disparity. But Lewis’ most important theme is emphasizing the rewards of innovation in an industry which had grown complacent and wasteful.
An environment in which major financial decisions, like player trading and wages, are divorced from reality is easily recognizable for soccer supporters because an equally ridiculous climate exists in the world of soccer. Elite clubs owned by billionaires are able to splash mountains of cash on outsize transfer and wage budgets while the minnows who must operate within the considerations of balance sheets and income statements are resigned to the fate as perpetual middlers or relegation fodder. The rise of Manchester City is only the most recent example of a club whose financial presence places one more brick in the wall between the tiers of clubs. Moneyball has a following among soccer supporters because it gives hope that money is not the sole determinant of a club’s success and that disciplined management and scientific innovation can build an underdog into a giant. It worked in baseball, can it work in soccer? Is it possible to buy low, sell high and still win things in soccer?
At best it is unclear whether such a system is possible in soccer, at worst the future looks dark for the competitiveness of small clubs. There are few clear examples of clubs that govern themselves well financially, much less one which succeed in implementing a disciplined system as a whole. People might point to Arsenal as an example of a club that operates in the style, but it is not an apt comparison as the club’s commercial strength and playing history already make it a regular destination for quality players. Moreover, while the club does not pay high transfer fees, its wage bill places it squarely in the financial elite of the football world. The Oakland A’s they are not.
A more accurate analogue would be a club of more modest resources, like an Everton or a Blackburn, breaking into the Champions League, a feat which has yet to be achieved in the modern era. That no ‘small’ club has yet succeeded in consistently batting above the restrictions of a meager wage budget suggests that while it is not impossible, it is substantially more difficult in soccer.
One reason this might be the case is the increased complexity of analyzing soccer on a statistical level compared to baseball. As an example, baseball offense (at least the batting part) can be always be distilled to an interaction between just two players; the pitcher, the batter and their respective talents. Any analysis of soccer offense, however, must take into account the positioning, skills, etc. of at least five times as many players at any given time. While this suggests that what is lacking is an appropriate model and the data, the fact remains that the situational complexity of soccer means that there is not yet an equivalent to Sabermetrics.
The relegation mechanism plays a larger part than one might expect. If a baseball team places last in the league it will not suffer a deathblow to its finances, it lives to fight again the next season with its playing staff and management relatively unscathed. The same stability is a luxury in soccer. Even assuming the presence of an owner committed to the Moneyball experiment, a particularly bad season could see a promising squad dismantled in order to balance the books. Two or three poor seasons and the experiment could easily be over. Contending with the imperative of short term survival simultaneously with the ideal of long term growth is a precarious scale which few can balance.
And finally, the competition for playing talent in soccer is incredibly intense. There are 30 professional teams in Major League Baseball who constitute the entire ‘Top Flight’ of baseball. While there are other baseball leagues based in other countries the quality of baseball is not comparable to that of the MLB and any talented player who opted to ply his trade overseas rather than in the States would be looked on rather oddly. As a result the American clubs essentially control the World’s baseball talent, competition within the league itself is limited to the money that the 30 MLB clubs can conjure up from the pockets of fans and billionaires. This is not the case with soccer. Consider that there are more than 100 clubs in Western Europe alone which play in the top leagues of their respective countries and all are actively scouting and competing for players of the highest skill levels they can afford. Combine this with no ceiling on wages and a lack of rebalancing features such as the player draft in baseball or football and the difficulty of digging up inefficiently priced youth or senior players starts to become clear.
The allure of a sustainable, self-financing team is undeniable; for many supporters it is the only hope that their club will have of winning something in their lifetimes barring the appearance of a Russian, Arabian or American billionaire. But the challenges to such a dream are unmistakeable. John Henry purchased Liverpool last year and many believed that his company New England Sports Ventures would bring Moneyball style management to Anfield, as they had to the Boston Red Sox. So far no one would say they have been buying on the cheap as this past year they have spent close to 100m (gross) on five players, several of whom will command substantial wages for their England international status. Whether Liverpool will be successful under this new regime is up for debate, but it certainly is not Moneyball in its purest sense.
Just because no one has solved a difficult problem is not a reason to doubt the existence of a solution, but when even some of the truest proponents of Moneyball see the need to spend vast sums to stay competitive it bears consideration that the obstacles to a Oakland A’s story in soccer are large. Moneyball may eventually come, but not in this generation.