Monday, January 05, 2009

The fall of Southampton, the Leafs and Senators, and the power of relegation

Yesterday morning saw Manchester United see off Southampton rather easily [ESPN Soccernet] in the third round of the F.A. Cup. They were helped by the sending off of Saints' striker Matt Paterson in the first half and a questionable penalty call, but the class divide between the two teams was still striking. United started two players who have barely seen any first-team action this season(Jonathan Evans and Danny Welback) as well as several others whose minutes have been limited of late (John O'Shea, Nani and Gary Neville), and the Red Devils also brought on rarely-used Darron Gibson and Rodrigo Possebon as substitutes, but these lesser lights still had little trouble with the Saints.

It's interesting how quickly things change in soccer. Southampton has a long history of good, if not great proportions; they won the FA Cup in 1976 (reasonably recent by English soccer standards) and they reached Division I for the second time in 1978 and stayed there until 1992, when they became founding members of the Premiership. The Saints were a solid Premiership club for over a decade; they often flirted with relegation, but they were able to stay in the top flight continuously until 2005 when they finally went down to the Championship. Since then, though, their history has taken a turn for the worse. They were in danger of being relegated to League One in their first season in the Championship and only survived thanks to a good run of form late on in the season. The next season, they managed to earn a playoff spot and a chance at again reaching the heights of the Premiership, but fell to Derby County on penalties. Things only got worse in 2007-08, with the club forced to sell off stars like Gareth Bale and Kenwyne Jones to pay the bills; they only escaped relegation to League One with a narrow final-day victory over Sheffield United. Their struggles have continued this year, and they're currently 23rd out of the 24 teams in the Championship, once again staring into the abyss of relegation.

What's interesting to take away from the tale of Southampton and the many other clubs in similar predicaments is how such a thing would never be permitted to happen in North American sports. In North America, our sports figures believe in rewarding mediocrity. Finish last in a season in the NFL, NBA or NHL? Your prize is not a drop to a lower-tier league with all of the associated loss of revenues, but instead the best shot at the first overall draft pick. In fact, your club is much better off if you lose horribly for a long period of time; this way, you can stockpile high draft picks and then get good all of a sudden. Clubs that try to compete year-in and year-out often never quite get over the top, but they aren't bad enough to earn high draft picks and rebuild that way (and they have to keep trading their own picks for the pieces needed to get them into the playoffs).

A great case in point comes from examining the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs of the 1990s and early 2000s. Ottawa was appallingly bad []for most of those early years (they didn't win more than 18 games until the 1996-97 season, their fifth year in the league), while Toronto was in the playoffs for all four of those years, reaching the conference finals twice and losing in the first round twice.

Now, take a look at the teams' first draft picks over those years (thanks again to]. In 1992, the Senators had the second overall pick (Alexei Yashin, who played 850 NHL games and put up 781 points). Toronto had the eighth pick and took Brandon Convery, who only played 72 NHL games. In 1993, the Senators had the first overall pick (Alexandre Daigle, 327 points in 616 games); the Leafs picked 12th and took Kenny Jonsson (defenceman, 267 points in 686 games). 1994 saw Ottawa draft Radek Bonk (still active, 478 points in 924 games) third overall, while the Leafs took Eric Fichaud (goalie, .897 save percentage and 3.16 GAA in 95 games) 16th overall. 1995 saw Ottawa draft first overall again and take Bryan Berard (defenceman, 323 points in 619 games), while Toronto picked 15th and chose Jeff Ware (defenceman, one point in 21 games). In 1996, Ottawa again went first overall and took Chris Phillips (still-active defenceman, 184 points in 721 games). Toronto didn't pick until the second round, and took Marek Posmyk (three points in 19 games) 36th overall. Even though most of the players Ottawa took didn't perform quite up to expectations, they all still had long NHL careers and were reasonably productive. By contrast, most of those Leafs' picks are quite forgettable.

It's interesting to watch what happened afterwards. Starting in 1997, Ottawa made the playoffs each year and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007. Toronto missed the playoffs in 1997 and 1998, then returned for a six-year stretch, but hasn't been back since 2004. The Leafs beat Ottawa in the playoffs frequently, but the Senators were the more consistent team over time, helped by their high draft picks and the players they got in return for them. Both teams now appear to be in trouble again, and their lack of high draft picks in recent years certainly won't help.

This isn't intended as a comprehensive study of the Leafs and the Senators or the draft, as there are many other variables that play into hockey success. The draft is largely a crapshoot, and many of the players Ottawa snagged in the later rounds (such as Daniel Alfredsson) proved more valuable to them in the long run. The drafting skill of the team executives also makes a big difference, and so does the ability of their player development staff. My point is merely that the lack of a relegation system in North American sports and the practice of rewarding bad teams with high draft picks gives them an advantage. In every one of the drafts studied above, the Senators didn't wind up with the best player available; however, the players they did take proved to be much better than those the Leafs chose later on. Even famous busts like Daigle still had reasonable NHL careers, while the Leafs' only first pick of any note whatsoever in that span was Jonsson, a good-but-not-great defenceman. Part of that has to go on the head of the team's executives, but at least part of it is due to the disadvantages posed by actually trying to compete every year. Even the worst high-first round picks will usually be at least serviceable players, while many late-first round picks will barely crack the big leagues. This is what leads to the whole mentality of it being better to lose for a while to wind up better off in the long run (see "Tank for Tavares" [Pension Plan Puppets]). Unfortunately, that idea works under the current system. Especially if your team doesn't make the playoffs, it's far better to finish dead last than just outside of the postseason picture. High draft position doesn't guarantee success, but it certainly helps.

The question is how can fans be expected to enjoy that? No one wants to see their team lose, and especially not for years on end. Moreover, if the overarching strategy is the highest pick possible, that would necessitate fans rooting against their own team. It also leads to the possibility of teams deliberately losing to enhance their draft position. This has been explored many times, but most persuasively by Michael McCann of Sports Law Blog, who wrote a couple of great posts several years ago about the phenomenon of tanking and how it applies to the NBA in particular. He even quotes an article from the Boston Herald's Mark Cofman that had former Boston Celtics coach and GM M.L. Carr saying he purposefully lost games to give the team a better draft position. There's a large amount of compelling evidence to support these ideas.

However, the bigger question isn't if tanking is actually going on. It's why we persist in maintaining a professional sports system where tanking would give you an advantage. The lottery system helps to some degree, as the last-place team is no longer assured the first pick, but there's still a reward for being the worst; you have a better chance at drafting first overall than anyone else. There's rewards for getting into the playoffs, but narrowly missing them or losing in the first round every time will hurt you more in the long run than several atrocious years.

Moreover, the North American system means that every sport has a wide variety of meaningless games each year. Baseball is the worst in this way due to its long schedule and low number of playoff spots, as almost half the teams can be all but eliminated from playoff contention by June, but hockey and basketball are almost as bad. Sure, the games are still worth watching for hardcore fans of the team, as they can check out the development of prospects or just enjoy the atmosphere, but for the rest of us, there's little reason to care about a game with no implications whatsoever for the postseason (and particularly one that your team might be better off losing to get a higher draft pick).

Compare that to the system used in soccer, where promotion and relegation makes almost every game matter. The vast financial difference between the Premiership and the Championship (or Serie A and Serie B in Italy, or the top two leagues in pretty much any European country) means that there's a huge incentive to stay up. Relegation battles usually go down to the last matchday of the season, and they're frequently more exciting than the title race (which is sometimes decided weeks in advance). Most importantly, there's something for every team to compete for, and a legitimate incentive to win. The top teams duke it out for the title and the Champions League spots, while others battle for places in the UEFA Cup and still others fight just to stay up. Winning helps every single team, and there are tremendous rewards for success and high prices for failure. Overall, my feeling is that this system produces a much more exciting and watchable product with its rewards for success rather than the encouragement of failure found in North American sports.

That doesn't mean the European system is perfect, though. It's the sports equivalent of capitalism to the socialism found in North American models via revenue sharing, salary caps and the draft (curious how the political trends of both continents are reversed in sport), and like in politics, both philosophies have their own severe flaws. In the European system, you get a wealthy elite populated by the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal, and a lower class of clubs that can't hope to compete on even terms. The absence of a draft means that finding talent is divided by who can afford the biggest network of scouts and training academies, which gives the elites a tremendous edge. Even when lower clubs develop star talent, those players usually leave within a couple of seasons for the vast wealth found at the Big Four. There is little parity and not a great deal of competitive balance.

Still, on the whole, I'd take the European system. Even if winning the overall title is out of range for many of the smaller clubs, there's still plenty for them to aim for; the bevy of different competitions means there's room for them to claim trophies here and there (such as Portsmouth's FA Cup triumph and Tottenham's Carling Cup victory). Also, if one of the lower teams gets an owner willing to open the checkbook, they can rise to the upper echelon if they play their cards right (see Chelsea, nobodies until Abramovich took over). Moreover, almost every game matters, and the struggle to see who stays in the top league is always interesting. There's plenty of excitement around the lower echelon clubs, which is far from the case in the North American model, and when the lower teams do make a run, it's because of shrewd management and player development, not an edge in draft position granted for being the worst of the worst. The good survive while the mismanaged fall quickly, and off-field mistakes can be just as damning as poor on-field play (see Leeds United). Imagine if the mismanaged hangers-on like the Phoenix Coyotes were allowed to undergo such a fate!

Unfortunately, we won't see relegation in North American sports any time soon. None of the current owners would want to take a chance on having their team sent down to the minor leagues. The current model works very well for them; even if you're epically bad, you likely won't be bad for long (see last year's Boston Celtics). The downside of this is that we'll continue to see meaningless games and teams rewarded for poor play, which will likely lead to purposeful tanking if it hasn't already. Meanwhile, for those who want to see teams survive on their own merits, your only recourse is to cast your eyes eastward over the Atlantic to where losing actually matters.

1 comment:

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