Archive for the ‘Features’ Category

‘A lack of reliable doping data puts the spirit of sport in peril’

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

Roger PielkeBy Roger Pielke Jr

30 September 2014 

Sport is in the news for a lot of the wrong reasons, from the scandal over the NFL’s response to cases of alleged domestic abuse to FIFA’s latest farce – the global football body ordering executives to return $27,000 watches given as gifts during this year’s World Cup by a grateful Brazilian FA in the same week FIFA sponsored a meeting on ethics.

One area where sport would seem to have its act together is in the area of anti-doping, or in clamping down on the use of prohibited performance-enhancing drugs. The biggest ‘catch’ in recent times could hardly have been more exemplary, in the shape of Lance Armstrong, who finally admitted to years of doping and was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles.

But all is not well with anti-doping efforts. Current policies are unaccountable, threaten athletes’ rights and risk the integrity of very sports that they are supposed to protect.

Anti-doping policies for the Olympic sports are implemented by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which oversees and coordinates the work of almost 200 national anti-doping organisations. WADA is overseen by governments, sports organisations and stakeholders under the provisions of a United Nations treaty. It is responsible for developing a list of prohibited substances and implementing a corresponding testing regime to identify and sanction those who break the rules.

I asked WADA some simple questions. How many athletes fall under testing regimes globally? How many athletes were tested in 2013? How many associated sanctions resulted?

The answers I received were shocking. WADA told me that they do not know the answers to these questions, explaining that the tests are administered by 655 different agencies which have signed on to the WADA Code and not all agencies share their results, even for elite athletes.

This means that important questions, at the core of any evidence-based anti-doping policy, cannot be answered. How many athletes dope? We don’t know. Is that number increasing or decreasing? We don’t know. How well does testing serve as a deterrent? We don’t know. And most importantly: Are anti-doping policies working?

Anti-doping officials tell me that the true purpose of testing is deterrence not detection. However, it is hard to know how well an emphasis on deterrence is actually performing without solid data.

The data that is available clearly suggests a problem. Current testing around the world detects evidence of doping in less than one per cent of samples, a number that hasn’t changed since 1985. Many – most? – of those are for recreational drugs, mainly marijuana, and approved medical usage.

By comparison, an anonymous survey of more than 2,000 elite track and field athletes conducted by WADA at the 2011 World Championships and Pan-Arab games found that 29 per cent and 45 per cent of respondents, respectively, admitted to the use of prohibited performance-enhancing drugs.Syringes

The implications of these data are not lost on WADA. In 2012 the agency created a “Working Group on the (In)effectiveness of Testing.” It concluded that a weakness of WADA was that there was “no measurement of WADA’s efficiency and effectiveness” and that “drug testing programs have been generally unsuccessful in detecting doping/cheats.”

The lack of data leads to more fundamental problems as well. Since no-one really knows how effective anti-doping programs actually are in practice, it is impossible to know how far to go in trying to rid sport of athletes who seek an improper edge. Sometimes, anti-doping efforts can appear to go too far.

For instance, in 2009 WADA implemented a new rule requiring thousands of athletes to give testers three months advance notice of their location every single day, in case a surprise test was to be given. This led to considerable anger and even legal challenges by athletes. Tennis star Andy Murray said that the rules “are so draconian that it makes it almost impossible to live a normal life.” A lawsuit on the legality of the rules is pending before the European Court of Human Rights.

In another troubling example, last June elite Dutch judo athlete Henk Grol described a degrading physical examination he was forced to undergo while providing a urine sample to drug testers at the Budapest Grand Prix. Another competitor simply refused the test, telling the testers: “I’m not going to bend over for you.”

Equity is also a concern.  Lance Armstrong was given a lifetime ban from sport and will likely lose much of his lifetime earnings. Yet, the witnesses who testified against him in anti-doping proceedings, some of whom were guilty of the same violations, were given six-month bans and some have continued careers in professional cycling, broadcasting and sports management.

Even the US district court judge who refused to halt the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) investigation into Armstrong’s doping activities expressed concerns, writing that if the agency “is promising lesser sanctions against other allegedly offending riders in exchange for their testimony against Armstrong, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that [it] is motivated more by politics and a desire for media attention.”

The judge’s conclusion may or may not be unfair to USADA, it is impossible for independent observers to determine, because it is not clear to whom USADA is actually accountable. The agency receives most of its funding from the US taxpayer, but it is not a federal agency. Professor Paul Dimeo of the University of Stirling in Scotland explains a resulting tradeoff, “it may sometimes be necessary to make a strong example –  as USADA did with Armstrong – but the outcome is that some athletes suffer a great deal more than the others.” Neither athletes nor the rest of us have much recourse when such inequities occur, especially in far less visible cases.

Along with Verner Møller of Aarhus University in Denmark, Dimeo argues that anti-doping may also be harming the very essence of the sport itself. They say it’s a “farce” that the 1999 to 2005 Tour de France titles stripped from Armstrong have not been re-awarded. But, they add, the fact that a clean winner cannot be found means that re-awarding the titles would also be a “farce.” The combination of both athletes who doped and the anti-doping policies which caught them has left the sport without a legitimate history.

Today, anti-doping policies are such that we have to wait eight years for a result to stand, as that is the statute of limitations under which a doping violation can be sanctioned. The end of a competition is no longer the final verdict on who wins and who loses. The provisional nature of sporting event results does not seem fair to athletes or spectators.

Potential violations of athletes’ rights and decency and unintended consequences on the nature of sport can be traced back to the lack of basic information on the prevalence of doping in sport and on the effectiveness of anti-doping policies.

Yet, as an academic policy researcher, I can think of no setting better suited to the tools of evidence-based policy, and specifically the use of randomized control trials. It would be straightforward to design a testing regime focused on quantifying the prevalence of detectable doping among athletes, their trends over time, and the corresponding efficacy of different anti-doping efforts. Testing serves many purposes, of course, but one purpose should be to help evaluate the value of testing regimes.

Officials at anti-doping agencies tell me that they are thinking about how better to assess effectiveness. While this is good to hear, truly respecting the spirit of sport means that we need to be able to watch the watchers. Stakeholders and independent parties, including academics, should focus more effort on helping to evaluate anti-doping efforts. A necessary first step is for anti-doping agencies to make available better quality and more useful data.

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Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, where he also directs its Center for Science and technology Policy Research. He studies, teaches and writes about science, innovation, politics and sports. He has written for The New York TimesThe GuardianFiveThirtyEight, and The Wall Street Journal among many other places. He is thrilled to join Sportingintelligence as a regular contributor. Follow Roger on Twitter: @RogerPielkeJR and on his blog

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‘The president couldn’t say who owned his players. Maybe criminals. Astonishing’

Friday, September 12th, 2014

HerbieBy Ian Herbert

12 September 2014

One of the main panel events at the Soccerex global convention in Manchester this week was headlined: ‘How to run a club successfully.’ We heard all of the usual stuff about what the game has become: Liverpool selling £50,000 of Mario Balotelli shirts in a day, reaching 10 million unique users and having 100 million page views on the website. And associated confection.

And then the Sporting Lisbon president, one of a panel of executives assembled for the discussion, said two extraordinary things. That he did not know who ultimately owned some of his players. And that for all he knew they may be involved in encouraging those players to fix matches.

Astonishing. And potentially accurate.

Bruno de Carvalho (pictured, below right) was talking about third party ownership (TPO) – the system, illegal in this country but common in eastern Europe, Portugal and Spain and widespread in South America – which allows organisations to buy a stake in a player, often in return for handing that individual’s club some much needed cash, and to receive a share of the transfer fee when he is sold.

The players’ union Fifpro hates the feudal system, in which a player’s destiny is in the hands of the company which owns him. But the reasons for concern run deeper than pastoral worries for players. The fear is at the prospect of something far more malign. Allowing any third party to own a player leaves the sport at the mercy of any criminal enterprise which sees the vast sums to be made from the sport. The kind of criminal enterprise that feeds off a financially-struggling club’s the desperation for cash or of a desperate player, in search of a club. Pay me and I’ll let you have a share of my player. Pay me and I’ll find you a club. But I hold the reins.Bruno DC

There are plenty of desperate clubs in football. The British game alone reveals that. All of them want the cash to find the golden ticket to success. Fertile territory for criminal enterprises.

And what happens when that criminal enterprise has penetrated the sport? We know precisely what, because a Soccerex event on the very same morning as Carvalho’s revelations told us. The former head of the European Professional Football Leagues, Emanuel Medeiros, told the convention that an entire professional European football club is being run by an organised crime syndicate. He would not name the club or country but the insinuation was that match-fixing was behind the enterprise.

The prospect that Carvalho raises is not a theoretical one, but a real one. The ownership of a group of players by a third party provides fertile grounds for corruption if the owner is unscrupulous. There are dangers like these:

  • If the same third party owns players from two teams contesting a match, how are we to know that those on one side will not be encouraged to help the others win a match, if relegation or promotion is at stake for that side?
  • If a young player wants a move which is good for his career, to work with a manager who can best develop him, how can he make that move if the system allows a third party which owns a majority share in to sell him – over the head of the club, in a move which ill suits his own development? (“Indentured slavery” is Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore’s description of the practice.)
  • If a third party has links to two clubs, one of which has sights on another’s, how are we to know that one club will give another illicit help in pursuing players?

The Premier League summed up these dangers last weekend in a piece written by this website’s editor for the Mail on Sunday. A spokesman for the Premier League, which is actively lobbying to have TPO outlawed worldwide, said: ‘It [TPO] threatens the integrity of competitions, reduces the flow of transfer revenue contained within the game, and has the potential to exert external influences on players’ transfer decisions.’

Where match-fixing is concerned, dangers tend to exist where groups of players fall under an individual’s control. The recent Australian match-fixing case – involving games in a semi-professional league in Victoria state – revealed as much. It involved a group of controlled British players. They were not even third party owned. Fixing games with players who are third party owned would be substantially easier to accomplish.

The most revealing – and disturbing – part of Cavalho’s comments was his admission that he does not even know who ultimately does own his players. Chelsea FC have never been willing to comment on evidence that they might be involved in the third party ownership of players outside the Premier League. So I asked Carvalho if a Chelsea affiliate company owned some of his players – perhaps 11 of them?

“I know nothing,” he told me. “This is new for me. Maybe. I don’t know.” Hardly a convincing reply. That is not to imply wrong doing by Chelsea.

Carvalho is clueless about Chelsea because he admits anyone could be behind the third party ownership funds, registered in offshore tax havens.If you are speaking to me about the funds … do I know who are the owners of the funds?” was his reply to me. “No I don’t know. But is it me that needs to know? Or is it football that needs to create the rules to understand what kind of money is coming to football.”

Carvalho’s presentation to Soccerex revealed that Sporting were in a state of financial desperation when he took over 18 months ago. Countless others are in the same position. Sporting say they will have no more involvement with third party agents, though it is a very solitary stand in a nation where the practice is rife. There will always be another club ready to take the money and gain sporting advantage. The risks are self-evident. Premier League’s third party ownership ban is meaningless if it is not extended the world over.

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Ian Herbert, shortlisted as Sports Journalist of the Year in the prestigious Press Awards and highly commended in the SJA Sports News Reporter category  is The Independent’s Northern Football Correspondent (see archive of his work here). Follow Herbie on Twitter here.

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‘The data’s clear: soccer is becoming more significant in the US sporting landscape’

Friday, September 12th, 2014

Roger PielkeBy Roger Pielke Jr

12 September 2014 

It is a favorite debating topic among football fans in the United States: has soccer arrived in the United States? On one level the question simply reflects the fundamental insecurities of the American soccer supporter of a certain vintage. But those insecurities are based on experience. If you grew up when I did, in the 1970s and 1980s, soccer was a third-tier sport at best. My high school did not even get a varsity team until my junior year in 1985.

On the other hand, trends do change, and it worth asking what role soccer plays in today’s US sports landscape. For me a first indication that things were really changing occurred when I moved my family to Oxford in 2007 for an academic sabbatical. The most noticeable difference was not the lack of Colorado sunshine or the wallet-exploding exchange rate, as significant as those were. Instead, it was the loss of ready access to weekend European football and Champion’s League matches, both easily found on my US TV. That was almost enough to have me pack for home.

At FiveThirtyEight Carl Bialik has been asking where soccer stands among US fans, and he has presented some interesting data. For instance, from 2009 to 2013 the US TV audience for Premier League and Champions League matches has doubled. Other data is less conclusive about any rise in US soccer.

Here I take a different look at the growth of soccer in the US by examining its presence on the pages of the New York Times over the past 50 years. The New York Times is often referred to as the “paper of record” in the United States. Whether it is or is not is probably a debate for the pub, but clearly its long history and elite standing make it an important indicator of the focus of attention, at least among a particular elite, in the United States.

The data that I present below come from a very cool online tool called “Chronicle” that allows the user to track the presence or a word or phrase on the pages of the Times since the 1860s.

I searched the NYT for the occurrence of football (meaning gridiron football, as in NFL principally), hockey, baseball, basketball and soccer. The first figure below shows the results. American football, not surprisingly, is the most mentioned sport. But a big surprise was that soccer is now in the second spot. This result is due both to the growth of soccer’s presence on the pages of the New York Times, but also the reduction in coverage of baseball and basketball. For baseball the drop in coverage is significant, from being the most covered sport from 1990—2005 to a tie for third, with basketball which has also seen a marked decline in coverage.

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Soccer pc of total NYT

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We can also look at the data in relative terms to better look at changes over time. The graph below shows that of the major US sports, soccer is the only sport with significantly increasing coverage in the NY Times since 1965. The others have seen some ups and downs, but nothing like the phenomenal growth of soccer, which really started taking off on the mid-1980s. (Note: The start of this trend coincides with my own high school and club soccer career. Correlation is of course not causation, though the coincidence here is striking.)

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Soccer NYT indexed 1965

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So what does this data tell us?

It provides another indication that soccer is indeed becoming more significant in the US sports landscape. The US sporting context is fairly unique worldwide because it supports simultaneously a number of major professional sports. Most countries have just one major professional sport that dominates media coverage (and not surprisingly it is usually football, see this presentation in PDF for some data). In the US, therefore, the rise of soccer does not mean that other sports necessarily must decline. And of course, the rise to second place in 2014 may just be a blip fueled by the recent World Cup.

In addition, the coverage of soccer in the US is not the same thing as the rise of the US domestic professional league, Major League Soccer. A quick look at the NY Times Chronicle tool shows that UEFA is referred to more than MLS, and FIFA dwarfs them both. In fact, FIFA is not far behind the NFL in mentions, and regrettably both are in the news for reasons beyond what happens on the field.

US men’s and women’s soccer have already established themselves on the international stage. Now it seems soccer is also reaching new heights in the crowded mix of sports most followed by American fans. The state of US soccer will always make for a fun pub debate. Thanks to the New York Times, that debate can be informed by a few more numbers.

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Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, where he also directs its Center for Science and technology Policy Research. He studies, teaches and writes about science, innovation, politics and sports. He has written for The New York TimesThe GuardianFiveThirtyEight, and The Wall Street Journal among many other places. He is thrilled to join Sportingintelligence as a regular contributor. Follow Roger on Twitter: @RogerPielkeJR and on his blog

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Radamel Falcao: a symbol of Uefa shackling Manchester City in the FFP era

Friday, September 5th, 2014

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HerbieBy Ian Herbert

5 September 2014

Why didn’t Manchester City buy Radamel Falcao? It’s one of the unexplained mysteries of the transfer market.

They admire him. They would have leapt at the chance of buying him last summer. And now they go into the season with only three strikers, after letting Alvaro Negredo leave for Valencia on deadline day. It would have been one striker out; one striker in. Why not?

City were certainly interested, interested enough for their director of football, Txiki Begiristain, to have discussed the Colombian with the selling club, Monaco, when he arrived in the principality for the Champions League draw last Thursday.

The reason stated on Saturday for City’s decision not to proceed with the Falcao deal was the difficulty there would have been getting players off the books, to pay for him. But they did get players off their books on Monday. Negredo went off to Valencia, just like manager Manuel Pellegrini obviously suspected he would last Friday when he ducked three questions about the Spaniard’s future. Micah Richards went to Fiorentina, too. And still City did not move for Falcao.

The reasons lie in the financial restrictions imposed on City this summer. We know what they were because UEFA told us about them in May when they hit the club with a penalty for breaching Financial Fair Play rules.

Uefa’s detailed punishments are in the PDF linked here. City’s reporting of those sanctions were on their website.

Ueaf said City must:

  • Spend no more than £49m net in this summer’s transfer window.
  • Record losses no greater than £16m (€20) in 2013-14, and no more than £8m (€10m) in 2014-15.
  • Avoid increasing wages in 2014-15 and 2015-16.

Well, City have managed the first bit. By our calculations, they spent a net sum of around £32m in the summer transfer window. (This comes with the usual caveat around transfer fees: transparency in the vast majority of transfer fees remains a case of wishful thinking, so numbers are put together in good faith based on the best available sources. But it’s still not legally declared).

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Transfer PL summer 2014

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If the £32m net is broadly right, then even shelling out the loan fee for Falcao – they were quoted £12m by his agent Jorge Mendes – would still have left them within the Uefa limit.

The club are also on course to achieve the second aim. The club are quietly confident they reached break-even or very close for 2013-14 and these figures will become public in due course, perhaps in December or January.

But the Falcao wages look as if they must have been the problem. Senior City sources have confirmed that City were quoted a £28m package by Falcao’s representatives, or a £12m loan fee plus a one-year wage bill of £16m.

The total package was hefty but the £16m wages in particular wasn’t a comfortable figure for a club ordered not to increase wages in 2014-15. All of which makes Falcao the symbol of what failing the Financial Fair Play test last Spring has meant for City.

Many of those who follow the Wild West world of Premier League spending consider FFP to be a tedious irrelevance. More still suggest that Uefa would be toothless when it came to introducing penalties. But the inability to sign Falcao may prove to be a very significant decision for City, come the end of the season.Falcao

Their planning and execution of a strategy this summer has been excellent, and testimony to the value of having a sporting or technical director, as I argued in The Independent this week.

Pellegrini will say that the sale of Negredo is not a problem. He will point to the midfield players at his disposal who can provide auxiliary attacking options, like David Silva and Samir Nasri.

But Negredo leaving was never part of the masterplan and it still feels mighty risky to have sold him and not bought Falcao, even though the former is recovering from a broken foot and would not have been immediately available. Risky why? Because two of the three strikers left at the manager’s disposal – Stevan Jovetic and Sergio Aguero – have less-than-ideal recent injury records.

The decision to let Negredo go at all is actually puzzling, too. Pellegrini, after all was arguing after the win over Liverpool that he needed four strikers to retain the Premier League title. To quote him verbatim in the minutes after that match, he said: “We need four strikers.” Then he named them: Edin Dzeko, Negredo, Jovetic, Aguero.

Negredo’s loan to Valencia, like not signing Falcao, may also have been rooted in a need to get the wages down, with new contracts for Vincent Kompany, Sergio Aguero, Aleksandr Kolarov, David Silva, Samir Nasri and Edin Dzeko all taking their own salaries up. Footballers don’t sign new contracts and stay on the same wage, by and large.

City’s loss was Manchester United’s gain, where Falcao is concerned. With the Old Trafford club the only suitor at the table late on Sunday, the Colombian’s move was confirmed. The loan fee was between £5m and £6m – half of what City were quoted – which only goes to show what happens when there is not a market for a player.

But the biggest beneficiary from City’s loss could be Chelsea. The west London have not been hit by Uefa sanctions, of course, and on the basis of Diego Costa’s start at the club, have reason to be confident that if another close title race comes  down to goal difference, they have the personnel. Even though €1bn has been spent this summer by Premier League clubs on transfers, the biggest prizes hinge on the smallest margins.

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Ian Herbert, shortlisted as Sports Journalist of the Year in the prestigious Press Awards and highly commended in the SJA Sports News Reporter category  is The Independent’s Northern Football Correspondent (see archive of his work here). Follow Herbie on Twitter here.

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‘Community is at the core of football, and with it notions of identity and place’

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

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In his latest book, ’Taking Our Ball Back: English Football’s Culture Wars, MARTIN CLOAKE quotes political philosopher Michael Sandel’s statement that “The pleasure of sports has been diminished by its commerciality.” One of the central questions running through the collection of articles that make up the book is how the thing that makes sport so commercially valuable can be prevented from destroying what makes it so commercially valuable. It’s a complex discussion, but, as Cloake contends, one that has resonance beyond football.

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M CloakeBy Martin Cloake

3 September 2014

It is possible to trace a social, economic and political history of England alongside a history of its football clubs. And the current deep sense of discontent in the English game is rooted in this fact.

The roots of England’s football clubs lie in the efforts of church and factory to create community. Those who stood in the pulpit saw something that could provide a more wholesome outlet for the energies of the mass than drink and brawling. That mass of people had been brought together as never before by industry, and it is industry that looms large in English football’s formative years. The game’s early giants came from Blackburn, Preston, Burnley, Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Bolton, Derby, Nottingham, Stoke, brought together by men connected with steel, railways, textiles, manufacturing.

The world’s first Industrial Revolution shaped England, and England’s sport. Community is at the core of football, and with it notions of identity and place.

As the country changed, so did football. As the heavy industrial age petered out, affecting the fortunes of the early northern giants, the suburbs began to rise in the south. London, of course, had its industrial clubs, West Ham from the Thames Ironworks, Millwall from the docks, Arsenal from the munitions plant in Woolwich. But there was also Fulham, formed by a schoolteacher and churchmaster; Chelsea, established by a businessman who wanted to utilise a stadium; and Tottenham Hotspur, formed by a group of middle class boys under the watchful eye of a Bible teacher from a local church.

These were teams that rose to represent the south and the suburbs, the new world. When Tottenham Hotspur took on Sheffield United in the 1901 FA Cup final, 110,000 went to Crystal Palace Park in south east London to see the Flower of the South against the established might of the north. A turning point in football on the turn of the century itself.

Now, the Premier League is the richest and most glamorous in the world, English football is an in-demand global brand. But while it attracts support it does not inspire love. Love the game, hate the business; love the team, hate the club. The phrases fall readily from the lips of fans struggling with the contradictions that define them as football supporters. So too does the word ‘meaning’.

Football is successful commercially because it means something. The trouble is, we’re not sure what any more.

For many fans at many English clubs, it seems increasingly as if they support an idea that ceased to exist some time ago, a name that once meant something but is now just a badge sitting atop a global corporation or, most recently, a foreign government’s public relations spin. Those who own and administrate are also confused. The money is rolling in, facilities are better …  hell, there are even toilets for men AND women at grounds, so modern and customer-orientated has the game become. And yet there is still discontent. Why, they wonder, can the fans not be happy?

It’s becoming fashionable to say, especially of football, that business is ruining sport. It’s the language that irritates the most, turning fans into customers, games into matchday experiences and throwing up job titles such as Head of Fan Relationship Management. Someone who held that very post at Manchester City, Claudio Borges, caused much hoo-ha last year by saying of the fans that his job was to “engage them, serve them and monetise them”. He quickly had to replace “monetise” with “provide fans with relevant commercial opportunities”.

Writing about the incident in The Independent, journalist Michael Calvin aired his displeasure with the way things were going, talking of “Big Brother” “robo-marketers” and the battle between “idealists and monetisers”. I have a lot of sympathy with those reactions. But I’m wary of a hairshirtist tendency that says commercialism is the cancer at the heart of sport.Taking Our Ball Back cover

If you’re going to pay people to play sport, you introduce an element of commercialism. It was the growth of paid professionalism that swept unpaid amateurism aside and opened sport up for mass participation. In Matt and Martin Rogan’s book Britain and the Olympic Games, the authors write of efforts to “preserve sports club membership for the social elite. Those who competed for wages were excluded … In this sense amateurism was initially nothing more than a convenient way of preserving sport for the elite.”

This apparent clash between a yearning for a more Corinthian approach and a distaste for the vulgarity that commerce has inflicted upon sport is central to any effort to make sense of modern sport. I went to speak to Matt, who is now MD of Two Circles, a customer relationship company that uses data to “help sporting organisations get closer to their customers”. It’s the kind of description that may already have caused some hackles to rise, but I know from working alongside Matt that he has a genuine passion for sport and a keen understanding of where the commercial element fits in.

He starts off by pointing out that the most visible sports represent “a small percentage of the sport actually played in this country. Football, for example, only accounts for just over 10 per cent of the 15 million people in this country who play sport every week,’’ he says. “With sport, once it becomes a business, just like any business you get some that are well run and in it for the long term, and some that are not,” he says. “Remaining successful has to be about having a sustained customer base that cares about what you do.”

Creating that base involves nothing more complicated, he says, than “finding out what your customers want and giving it to them. When you look at the long tail of participation sports in this country, the business of sport is fundamental to them creating a sustainable operation. Government funds simply won’t allow survival by subsidy, so they have to no option but to think differently”.

He talks about the success of Harlequins rugby union club, where community outreach (junior teams are coached on Saturday mornings and invited to stay on for the match) and taking on board what supporters think has created one of the fastest-growing supporter bases in the country. Harlequins gather feedback after every match, and fan satisfaction is consistently the highest he has ever seen.

At Reading FC, the number of season ticket holders increased after the club was relegated two seasons ago, again through genuine community engagement. In cricket, ’Last Man Stands’, an 8-a-side 20-over league in urban areas run on weekday evenings, is bringing new people into the game, in particular ethnic minorities. In a much-publicised step a customer survey drove the creation of the County fixture list a few seasons back.

While sports need to stand on their old two feet financially, that doesn’t always mean the fan pays the bill. Triathlon England – which has seen huge growth in participation, having almost tripled its membership – works with local authorities to get the high cost of entry down by arranging bike loans or splitting entry fees with local sports centres. Cycling’s success has come on the back not just of high-profile success but because a large commercial partner – Sky – “enables the sport to have the funding to develop programmes that are right for different kinds of customers” such as women’s cycling programme ‘Breeze’ and school cycling proficiency schemes.

The idea of creating a sustainable base runs through all these examples, and this is where the drivers of the business and the sporting institution come together, reckons Rogan. One of the most striking things he says is that: “Sponsors have been disenfranchised by clubs and sports that don’t have a true, empathetic, warm relationship with their customers.” He goes on: “Any sporting organisation right now that doesn’t put customers at the heart of its sponsorship proposition is in real danger. Big brands are finally realising it’s incongruous to spend most of their time and budget getting closer to customers and then take a sponsorship and say ‘just a logo and some pricey hospitality for us thanks’. Sports fans can see that a mile off. Budweiser missed a trick at the FA Cup Final [in 2013] not transporting fans from Wigan back home from Wembley, when the kick off-time meant they could not get home by train.”

He recognises football is a special case, not just because of the popularity of the top clubs, but also because of the way it’s run. The Premier League is there to return money to its member clubs, so doesn’t necessarily have the relationship with the grass roots that, say, the England and Wales Cricket Board does. And, he says: “The way any business is run is a lot to do with how it’s owned. You’ll get a business that’s under private equity ownership that’s driven hard for short-term profits and a lot of the time you’ll find the care for employees and the push for long-term foundations isn’t necessarily there.”

He is eager to point out there are some examples of good practice – even in what may seem the unlikeliest of places. “Notwithstanding the enormous loss Manchester City made in the first year of the current ownership, I’ve got a lot of respect for the way they have gone about thinking about the growth and ongoing development of their club. The first things they did weren’t about customer revenue, but about customer relationships. So they put a large infrastructure around the stadium that just sold beer in a way that was quick and easy and made it easy for fans to meet before the game. They developed a membership proposition that was just about rewarding loyalty, and the basic level of that was free. They did a lot of smart things that weren’t about revenue growth but about creating the sort of links with supporters that Manchester City hasn’t had for 20 years.”

He thinks many football clubs need to think smarter about ticket prices, for example, returning to the relationship with sponsors to illustrate his point. “You can create a more sustainable revenue line by giving people what they want rather than imposing blanket price rises,” he says.

Putting £30 on every ticket will provide more short-term profit than devising a meaningful membership package for kids that creates a more sustainable base long term, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Creating a unique package that sponsors really want and charging them an extra £100 per seat could please both sponsor and bank manager, and subsidise the kids’ seats. “You have to understand the long-term benefit,” he says.

He reckons sport “needs to be more confident about what it has to offer”, but says “that confidence can’t be built on sand. Some of the organisations we work with have millions of people engaging with them and loving them month in, month out. Generically telling that to a business just sounds like a sales pitch. Providing evidence of that to a business changes the view of what sport can offer.”

You could dismiss Rogan’s comments as yet more “robo-marketing”. But you would be wrong. For it’s not the business of sport itself that is the problem, but the way the business is often conducted. Whether you call it listening to the fans or building a sustained customer base, it all comes down to giving the fans what they want. The trouble with too many in football is that they are telling the fans what they want – that’s when they bother to communicate properly with them at all. If we want to change the direction the game is taking, we may need to ask not what the business of sport does to us, but what it can do for us.

 

This article is an edited extract from Martin’s book Taking Our Ball Back: English Football’s Culture Wars, available now. It features material first published in Thin White Line magazine and at New Statesman online. More from Martin Cloake on his blog: www.blog.martincloake.com;  website: www.martincloake.com; Twitter: @MartinCloake

 

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MOTD at 50: ‘Interesting, very interesting … Oh look at his face, just look at his face’

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

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By Nick Harris

22 August 2014

When the first episode of Match of the Day was screened 50 years ago today, there were more than twice as many people inside Anfield watching Liverpool beat Arsenal 3-2 than there were watching on TV later.

MoTD was a one-game show then, screening whatever was deemed to be the match of the day. Just 20,000 souls tuned into the first broadcast to see extended highlights of a win for Bill Shankly’s men, played in front of a crowd of 47,620.

MOTDNobody in Liverpool saw the programme. For most of its inaugural season, the show was only screened in the London area, although some people in the Midlands could pick up ‘sample viewings’ towards the end of that campaign.

MoTD was not an immediate hit with the clubs, even as the BBC began to sell it in Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Kenya. Some clubs feared that televised football, even though not live, would hurt gates. There was thus a two-month stand-off over the contract renewal for MoTD to broadcast in 1965-66, and the clubs only agreed to it after their collective fee for the year was doubled to £25,000.

That cash was split between the 92 clubs from likes of the high-flying Liverpool, Burnley and Northampton in the top division to the lowlier Southport, Barrow and Bradford Park Avenue in the fourth tier. Clubs from all divisions could theoretically feature on MoTD then. The money worked out, on average, at £271.74 per club in 1965-66, or double the £135.87 of the year before

This current season, 2014-15, the BBC are paying £59.9m to show highlights of the Premier League alone as part of the current £179.7m three-year MoTD deal. That’s £3m per club per season, give or take, or more than 22,000 times more per club than 50 years ago.

What hasn’t changed over five decades is the enduring appeal of what is, when it boils down to it, is a simple package of clips and talking heads. Up to five million people watch each Saturday, an astonishing figure in an age where live sport, not highlights, takes primacy.

Barry Davies, the doyen of British sports commentators, worked on MoTD from 1969 to 2004, commentating and sometimes presenting.

‘It wasn’t available to the whole country when it started and many people thought it would never catch on,’ he says. ‘The powers-that-be were certain that it would, and after England won the World Cup in 1966, it really took off.’

Having been on BBC2 from 1964 to 1966, MoTD made the leap to BBC1, and the mainstream, after the heroics of Alf Ramsey’s England team, even though league champions Liverpool and FA Cup holders Everton were among a minority of clubs still unhappy with it.

‘The viewers’ sense was they were watching the best football in the world, and England were the best having won the World Cup,’ Davies says. ‘Pubs would empty just before 10pm on Saturday so people could get home to watch. It sounds extraordinary now but it was true. I was in awe of it as a programme.’

Davies’ break came when producers decided to experiment with a new format for the 1969-70 season. Instead of just one game, MoTD would feature one ‘main’ match plus highlights of a second on each show, on a regional basis. Viewers in the north-west would get their ‘extra’ game from the north-west, for example, and Londoners a match from the capital, and so on.

Davies joined the BBC from ITV in summer 1969, a few months before his 32nd birthday, to commentate primarily on north-west matches. He would become part of a line of treasured household names associated with the show, from Kenneth Wolstenhome and David Coleman in the early years, to Jimmy Hill, John Motson, Des Lynam and latterly Gary Lineker.

Davies’s first assignment was supposed to be covering Leeds against Tottenham on 9 August 1969. But over breakfast in Leeds he was told Coleman had laryngitis and would miss his own match, Crystal Palace against Manchester United, for which Davies was now expected to stand in. He dashed to London. ‘My preparation was virtually nil,’ he says. He commentated on a 2-2 draw, Bobby Charlton scoring one of United’s goals, and then hurried to the BBC’s Lime Grove studios where he helped Frank Bough to present that night’s MoTD, as two Palace players, Roger Hynd and Gerry Queen, were studio guests.

The 1969-70 experiment of regional second matches did not work. The second match wasn’t always good quality; resources were thinner than now, cameras less common. By 1970-71, more resources were pushed into a two-match show each week, expanding over time to be highlights of multiple games.

‘The biggest change in football in 50 years is, I’d say, that it’s no longer the game of the man in the street,’ Davies says. ‘The general public, the working public, had a rapport with the players they no longer have. When I started, players didn’t turn up in swish coaches or even swisher cars. You had a chance to establish relationships, as did the supporters.

‘There were also so many less reporters, less microphones. It was much easier to be able to talk to people, not like the Fort Knox that Old Trafford and other grounds have become today.’

MoTD held clout in those early years to bring important matters to wide attention, even to influence the laws. A case in point was a 1970 game Davies commentated on between Coventry and Everton. From a free-kick Coventry’s Willie Carr sandwiched the ball between his ankles, jumped in the air and flicked it back to tee-up team-mate Ernie Hunt for a spectacular volleyed goal. Clips are available on YouTube (here). By season’s end any such manoeuvre was outlawed as it was deemed a ‘double touch’. MoTD had brought it to everyone’s attention.

Davies’s mellifluous, measured tones can still be found on archive footage accompanying classic clips, such as one from December 1974 when title rivals Manchester City and Derby met at Maine Road. Former City hero Franny Lee scored the winner for Dave Macaky’s Derby, who would go on to win the title. Davies’s prescient commentary summed up the importance.

‘Interesting,’ he said as Lee unleashed his shot. ‘Very interesting,’ he added as it screamed into the top corner. ‘Oh, look at his face, just look at his face,’ he added, telling viewers all they needed to know about the potential consequences.

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Every viewer will have their own favourite MoTD moments. Many will recall Alan Hansen, for example, on 19 August 1995, telling viewers, after a 3-1 win by Aston Villa over Manchester United: ‘You can’t win anything with kids.’ United went on to win the Double that season.

Davies recalls how, a few years later, in 2001, the BBC lost the rights to highlights. ‘I was among those who felt maybe the BBC’s highlights days were up for good then,’ he says. ‘But they came back. The audience was still there. And still is. Match of the Day is still something people want to see, and that says a lot about the football public, and the appeal of the straightforward simplicity of the programme.’

A version of this article appeared in the Mail on Sunday earlier this month, linked here.

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‘Sport does not exist in a vacuum. Fifa has a responsibility to act on Russia’

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

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Roger PielkeBy Roger Pielke Jr

29 July 2014

Over the weekend, British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg told the Sunday Times that Russia should be stripped of the 2018 World Cup. Clegg joins several senior German politicians in calling for the next World Cup to be moved as a sanction against Russia for its role in the continuing conflict in the Ukraine. The renewed calls for sanctions have been prompted by the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines 17 over eastern Ukraine, allegedly by Russian-supported Ukrainian separatists.

Does FIFA have a responsibility to engage in global geopolitics? Its history and actions say yes.

Yet FIFA’s first reaction to calls for stripping Russia of the World Cup prompted FIFA on July 25th to issue a “Statement on Russia 2018.” In it FIFA rejected calls to revisit the 2018 World Cup hosting decision: “History has shown so far that boycotting sport events or a policy of isolation or confrontation are not the most effective ways to solve problems.” FIFA continues: “We have seen that the FIFA World Cup can be a force for good and FIFA believes this will be the case for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.”

Yet, FIFA’s reading of history is not quite right. Decisions about football competitions based on political considerations, including international sanctions, have a rich history. Just two weeks ago the UEFA Emergency Committee decided that no Champions League or Europa Cup matches are to be played in Ukraine or Israel. These decisions were based on concerns about the ongoing conflicts.  Another decision was made “in light of the current political situation,” with UEFA deciding that teams from Russia and Ukraine will not be allowed to face each other in the international competitions.Russia flag

While the recent UEFA decisions might be characterized solely in terms of security, there is a far more direct precedent. In March 1991, the Yugoslavian team Red Star Belgrade defeated Olympique Marseille to win the European Cup,  the event now known as the Champions League. Less than five months after reaching the pinnacle of European football, Yugoslavia was the subject of the first of a long series of United Nations Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on the nation due to its escalating civil war. These sanctions included explicit mention of sport and they prompted football governance organizations to respond.

In early 1992 the UN Security Council passed a resolution (number 757) calling on all states to “take the necessary steps to prevent the participation in sporting events on their territory of persons or groups representing the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.” Both FIFA, which oversees global football, and UEFA, which oversees European competitions under FIFA, followed up on the UN sanctions by prohibiting Yugoslavia from participating in the European championships or in qualifying for the World Cup. Of note, Yugoslavia’s replacement in the 1992 European Championships was Denmark, who subsequently went on to win the competition.

The UEFA sanctions also meant that Yugoslavian club teams could not participate in international competitions. This included the recent European champions Red Star Belgrade.  The Sunday Times opined that “For the man in the street, Red Star’s disintegration has been more devastating than any other effect of UN sanctions” (quoted in Mills 2009). Before Yugoslavia ultimately disintegrated into independent nations it was allowed back into international football competition in December 1996, and both it and Croatia, formerly part of Yugoslavia, qualified for the 1998 World Cup.

The Yugoslavian case is not unique. As long ago as 1961 FIFA suspended the South African football association from participation over the issue of apartheid, following the actions of the African Football Confederation (CAF) three years earlier. In this case FIFA acted before the United Nations imposed sanctions. The issue of South Africa’s participation became a major point of contention within FIFA itself over more than a decade.

FIFA has also used football as a diplomatic carrot. In 1998 Joao Havelange, president of FIFA, announced that FIFA would organize a football match between Israel and Palestine. He exclaimed: “Where politics, diplomacy and the business world have failed, I believe that football can succeed” (quoted in Boniface 2002). Obviously not.

History shows that of course sports organizations respond to political context. FIFA (and its member confederations) have included geopolitical considerations in their decisions about participation and hosting of football competitions, including the World Cup.  FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, likes to present himself as the equivalent of a head of state. And FIFA is quick to engage in geopolitics when deciding on where to host the World Cup.  Sport does not exist in a vacuum, of course FIFA cannot ignore global geopolitics. FIFA has a responsibility to engage, even when the stakes involve more than its own narrow interests.

Thus it is unlikely that FIFA’s July 25th statement reaffirming its support for Russia 2018 will be the last word on this subject. In particular, if the United Nations or even the European Union decides to impose sanctions upon Russia, pressure will increase dramatically on FIFA to respond accordingly. The Yugoslavian experience sets a powerful recent precedent.

Russia is spending a reported $20 billion on preparing for the 2018 World Cup. However, the costs of stripping the nation of the World Cup would likely be much greater than these direct costs and go far beyond those which can be measured in dollars. Europe has faced international criticism for its divided views on imposing economic sanctions on Russia. But the reality is that Russia is in a position to inflict severe economic pain on Europe as well, due to its significant reliance on Russian gas.

Right now it appears that neither FIFA, UEFA nor the EU are prepared to take any steps to question Russia’s hosting of the 2018 World Cup. No doubt they are hoping for a resolution of the conflict in a manner the does not involve international sanctions. However, politicians have already started the sanctioning equivalent of rattling swords. Such calls to use the 2018 World Cup as a means of punishing Vladimir Putin and Russia will likely become louder the longer the Ukrainian conflict continues.

Ultimately, if the Ukrainian conflict escalates to the point where the United Nations begins to discuss sanctions, the Yugoslavian precedent means that it would likely be difficult to exclude sport as part of that discussion. Not only would such steps call into question the 2018 World Cup, but also the participation of Russian clubs in international competitions as well as effects on other international sports. With the rise of football in its visibility and significance around the world, so too has its value as a bargaining chip in international politics. Russia 2018 is far from settled.

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Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, where he also directs its Center for Science and technology Policy Research. He studies, teaches and writes about science, innovation, politics and sports. He has written for The New York TimesThe GuardianFiveThirtyEight, and The Wall Street Journal among many other places. He is thrilled to join Sportingintelligence as a regular contributor. Follow Roger on Twitter: @RogerPielkeJR and on his blog

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‘Could England play “the German way”? Of course not … It is never going to be’

Monday, July 21st, 2014

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Tim RichBy Tim Rich

21 July 2014

Before I was married, I used to go to weddings and sit at the back as the bride and groom danced to the first song – usually something utterly inappropriate like Careless Whisper or the Police’s creepy Every Breath you Take. I would wonder why it wasn’t me up there in the middle of all the flashbulbs, grinning like the star of a commercial for Colgate. Why not me?

A lot of English footballers, particularly those who returned from the World Cup to be greeted by crowds of zero, would have similar feelings watching the Germans parade the World Cup through the streets of Berlin. Are Theo Walcott, Wayne Rooney or Joe Hart so very different from Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger or Manuel Neuer? Why not them?

In the aftermath of Germany’s triumph, there was an avalanche of articles on how England should ‘play the German way’ or whether the model of youth academies and hot-house coaching developed after their failure to get out of the group stages in Euro 2000, could work in England.

Of course it couldn’t. Lahm, Schweinsteiger and Neuer play their football in a league that is recognisably German , for clubs that are owned by Germans and controlled by a German FA that has been run to a tested, structured plan for the last 14 years.

Walcott, Rooney and Hart play in what is known abroad as the English Premier League, which increasingly has as little to do with England as the North American Soccer League – which provided employment and hefty cheques for the ageing shapes of Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and George Best – had to do with North America.

None of the big four English clubs that will compete in next season’s Champions League is owned by an Englishman.

Each Premier League club employs on average 16 foreign footballers. In La Liga it is nine, mostly Spanish-speaking South Americans. In the Bundesliga it is six. You don’t have to be Nigel Farage to wonder if this might not be disastrous.

Half the Germany side that won the World Cup also won the European Under-21 championship in 2009, beating England 4-0 in the final. Only James Milner of the beaten England side went to Brazil, although Theo Walcott would have joined him had the Arsenal striker been fit.

Jack Rodwell played the final dozen minutes of that game in Malmo and what happened to one of England’s brightest midfielders gives an indication of why for all the investment in club academies and the building of the FA’s centre of excellence at St George’s Park, the project will be derailed by the Premier League’s own clubs.

In 2009 Rodwell was 18, playing for Everton and considered one of the outstanding midfield talents of his generation. Three years later, having featured in 85 league games for the club, he moved to Manchester City, who had just won the Premier League, for £12m. He was often injured which was nobody’s fault but when he was available, Rodwell was barely used. His sum total of first-team football in 2014 clocks in at 89 minutes. It would have been laughable for Rodwell to have been even considered for a place in Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad.

Much the same happened to Scott Sinclair who signed for Manchester City from Swansea, just in time to miss out on their triumphant League Cup campaign and then disappeared. Both Rodwell and Sinclair would be counted as among the 30 per cent of English players in the English Premier League. The true depth of talent available to Hodgson is far smaller.

The pool of English managerial talent available to those wanting a replacement for Hodgson is also frighteningly small. The Premier League has five English managers – Steve Bruce, Harry Redknapp, Alan Pardew. Sean Dyche and Sam Allardyce. Dyche who has yet to manage a game in the Premier League, is the only one under 50. None has ever won a major trophy. Redknapp is the only one to have managed in the Champions League and that was one season with Tottenham.

In the wake of the German triumph, one newspaper published a photo of Jack Wilshere smoking while on holiday under the headline “Will We Never Learn?” We did not fail in Brazil because Wilshere had a fag. We failed because our resources are so slim that Hodgson felt he had no choice but to take a palpably unfit midfielder like Wilshere to Brazil.

He did not take Ashley Cole, who having arranged a transfer to Roma, wondered why more English footballers, especially those denied first-team football, did not play abroad. His namesake and one-time team-mate at Chelsea, Joe Cole did just that, spending half a season at Lille.

Cole enjoyed his time with a team that was competing for the French championship and had qualified for the Champions League. They wanted him to stay but could not afford the £90,000 a week wages he was being paid. So, instead of facing Bayern Munich or Paris St Germain, Cole returned to Liverpool reserves and then to his comfort zone at West Ham. He will never play in the Champions League again.

We can watch from the back of the room at the Germans parading the World Cup like a trophy bride but there is no point in waiting to catch the bouquet. Unless some fundamental attitudes change, it is never going to be us.

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A doping conundrum: just $6m a year on developing new tests, $350m on testing

Monday, July 21st, 2014

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Roger PielkeBy Roger Pielke Jr

21 July 2014

Speaking last week in Australia, the winner of the 2011 Tour de France winner, Cadel Evans, claimed that professional cycling today is cleaner than at any time in his experience. The 37-year-old Aussie rider said: “It’s in the best shape – maybe not economically – but the best shape ethically and sporting-wise that the sport has ever been in, certainly since I’ve been involved in the sport.”

Yet on that same day Team Sky, who employ the past two Tour winners in Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, announced that they had parted ways with one of their team members, Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, following a suspension for doping by the International Cycling Union (UCI). The alleged violations are said to have taken place prior to Tiernan-Locke joining Sky. But it adds to a growing list of allegations surrounding the “squeaky clean” reputation of Team Sky.

If road cycling’s self-proclaimed cleanest team has a range of issues to face, then what of the wider sport?

How can we really know if the Tour de France is indeed in better shape today than in past years? Are the anti-doping regulations trustworthy? Better data and independent analyses can help to shed some light on these questions.

We know that doping was endemic in the Tour de France through much of the 1990s and 2000s thanks to years of investigation by investigative reporters and the claims of whistleblowers. But it wasn’t until the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) released its report on the allegations surrounding seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong that the Tour’s recent doping history became widely accepted.

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L'Alpe d'Huez fastest

With the advantage of this hindsight, in the graph above we can see the effects of the availability of Erythropoietin, better known as EPO, starting in the early 1990s in the Tour de France. (The data comes with the usual caveats.)

The graph shows the climb times of l’Alpe d’Huez, one of the most famous ascents of the tour, which has been included in the Tour in most years. From 1994 to 2008 the fastest time each year averaged some four and a half minutes faster than the average winning time from 1977-1993. One might think that such a remarkable and sudden increase in speed would have raised some eyebrows. However, tracking performance times by Tour riders has never been made particularly accessible by the Tour or the UCI.

Doping in sport refers to the use of prohibited, performance-enhancing substances by athletes. For the Olympic sports, which include international cycling and the Tour de France, doping violations are identified by the World Anti-Doping Agency and its partners (including USADA). Specifically, according to WADA doping occurs when two of the three criteria are met: (a) a substance potentially or actually enhances athletic performance, (b) the substance poses a health risk to the athlete, and (c) use of the substance violations what WADA calls “the spirit of sport.”

Each year WADA creates a list of banned substances which it deems to have met these criteria. Doping is thus a procedural violation of very specific rules governing competition.

Oversight of doping is such a shared value in sport that 176 countries have signed on to the UN’s International Convention Against Doping in Sport. For instance, USADA is recognized by the US Congress as the non-governmental body responsible for fulfilling the US obligations under the treaty. USADA receives about $10 million per year from the US government.

With doping deemed so important internationally and nationally, it is fair to ask why it took so long to catch Lance Armstrong and others who broke the rules. This is especially a question worth asking given the huge step change in performance, as shown above. The data seem to suggest that something fairly obvious was going on in the Tour de France starting in the early 1990s.

Others have looked at performance data and concluded that other performances, still on the record books, were the result of doping. For instance, Le Monde  has raised questions about the “mutant” performances of Miguel Indurain in the 1990s. The only riders who ascended Alpe d’Huez faster than Indurain in the Tour were Armstrong, Jan Ulrich and Marco Pantani, each of whom doped.

But “mutant” times, by themselves are not sufficient to prove a doping violation. Doping is so difficult to detect and to reduce for at least three reasons.

First, performance data is not definitive of violations of the WADA list. In athletics, records are of course broken all the time. It would be a shame if every record-breaking performance was clouded by speculation and allegation of doping violations. But this is exactly what happened when Ye Shi-Wen, a Chinese swimmer, won the Gold medal in the 400m IM at London 2012, and in the process shaving five seconds off of her personal best time. At the time Ross Tucker, a sports scientist with expertise in human performance, wrote “don’t shy away from the question just because it’s politically incorrect – look where that got sport before.”

While Ye Shi-Wen never failed a drug test or otherwise was shown to break any rules, there is some valuable data to be gleaned from looking at performance data for evidence of doping. That is the argument made by Simon Ernst and Perikles Simon of Johannes-Gutenberg University in Germany in a recent paper.

They argue that the signature of EPO can be seen in the top 20 times run each year in the men’s 5000m race. The chart below shows a dramatic improvement in times from 1991 to 1996, what they call “the EPO effect.” They also claim that “the introduction of EPO testing in 2000 led to significant increases in running times.”  The subsequent release of a new EPO test in 2008 is also accompanied by an increase in race times. They caution however that “the concrete connection with doping can only be made by assumption or in retrospect.”

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5000 m men

A second reason why doping is so hard to detect and reduce is that dopers are one step ahead of their pursuers. Simon explains that drug testing, to identify doping, is fraught with loopholes. For instance, while anabolic steroids are readily detectable, other substances like EPO, human growth hormone and testosterone can be administered at levels which enhance performance, but are not detectable by current methods.

This raises a difficult set of questions – if a violation of the WADA regulations occurs but cannot be detected by contemporary drug testing methods, should it be on the WADA list in the first place? Alternatively, how long do we want to keep testing samples in hopes that future scientific advances can be used to detect violations which were undetectable at the time of the event? Even more perplexing, how should we think about performance-enhancing substances which were once used but later added to the WADA list (or vice-versa)?

There are no easy or unambiguous answers to such questions, but they do need to be dealt with, as the search for performance enhancement, whether allowed or prohibited, is not going away.

For instance, in a survey conducted by WADA of more than 2,000 elite track and field athletes, 29 per cent at the 2011 World Championships and 45 per cent at the 2011 Pan-Arab Games admitted to the use of prohibited performance enhancing drugs. This contrasts to a detection rate of only about 2 per cent for the drug tests used to detect doping.

Perikles Simon explains that this disparity between anonymous admission and formal dtection is partly due to the fact that only about $6 million per year is spent on developing new tests, in contrast to $350 million spent on giving drug tests.

Ernst and Simon also looked at men’s 100m times and identified a large reduction in times from 2006 to 2011 (below, they found a similar improvement at 200m, not shown here).  They speculate that the improvement is due to the introduction of Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1) into the medicine cabinet of sprinters: “In our opinion, IGF-1 is the source for the most recent improvements in male short-distance running.” Over this time period the use of IGF-1 was not detectable. They are careful to observe that there are other possible explanations, such as the use of other drugs or different populations and training of athletes.

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100m men

A third reason for the difficulty in detecting doping is that sports governance bodies may not want to hear bad news, and thus have an incentive to downplay or even cover up doping violations. The UCI, which oversees cycling, is in the midst of a year-long investigation to assess the agency’s poor performance, and perhaps even corruption, during the Lance Armstrong era. The UCI has been accused of covering up a drug test that Armstrong failed, of taking a bribe and of having its leadership financially involved with Armstrong’s team.

In another example, the WADA survey mentioned above was surrounded by controversy when WADA tried to halt its release over the objections of the researchers who conducted the study. Richard Pound, a former WADA chairman, explained: “There’s this psychological aspect about it: nobody wants to catch anybody. There’s no incentive. Countries are embarrassed if their nationals are caught. And sports are embarrassed if someone from their sport is caught.”

One thing we can be sure of — doping in sport is here to stay. An important question for athletes, fans and those who oversee the games is, how much effort should be spent to root out doping? This question lead to some complicated issues that go well beyond just sport. For instance, how do we balance the rights of athletes to privacy and due process while also implementing a more rigorous and some say already too rigorous) regime of testing?

The Tour de France provides a window into a complex world of human enhancement, global governance and the desire to excel, sometimes at all costs. While the Tour may indeed be cleaner that it’s been in a generation, as Cadel Evans alleges, the questions surrounding how to handle doping in sport remain as vexing and unresolved as ever.

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Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, where he also directs its Center for Science and technology Policy Research. He studies, teaches and writes about science, innovation, politics and sports. He has written for The New York TimesThe GuardianFiveThirtyEight, and The Wall Street Journal among many other places. He is thrilled to join Sportingintelligence as a regular contributor. Follow Roger on Twitter: @RogerPielkeJR and on his blog

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Upsets, giant-killings, adios, bye-bye: FIFA rankings STILL ahead in predicting results

Friday, June 20th, 2014

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At the completion of the Italy-Costa Rica match in Group D in Recife, half of the 2014 World Cup group games (24 of 48) had been played.  There have been expected victories for some nations, big upsets for others – Adios Spain! Bye-bye England! - and more goals than most fans would have expected. So who could have forecast this? Actually, a huge variety of ‘experts’, forecasters, theorists, modelers and systems have tried to predict the outcome of this tournament, from Goldman Sachs to boffin statistical organisations. In his second post for Sportingintelligence, and as part of an ongoing evaluation of rates of success (click HERE for Part 1 and background), Roger Pielke Jr sorts the best from the rest. 

Follow Roger on Twitter: @RogerPielkeJR and on his blog

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Roger PielkeBy Roger Pielke Jr.

20 June 2014

With Costa Rica’s surprising victory over Italy the group stages have reached their halfway point, with 24 of 48 matches in the books. There is still a lot to be decided and the same goes for the World Cup prediction evaluation exercise that I’m tracking. But like the World Cup itself a few pieces are starting to fall into place.

For background detail on the 11 different prognostications we are tracking, see the original piece; but their identities are clear enough in general in the updated prediction league table (below), which is starting to show some spread.

The FIFA Rankings and Andrew Yuan are sitting at the top with 16 correct outcomes from 24 games. The naïve forecast that I chose to use as a threshold of skill, based on transfer values, has slipped into last place alongside Infostrada and the FT.

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Pielke 11 WC predictions, 24 games

The spread across the methods in matches picked correctly is only three games, which would suggest a chance for those behind to catch up. I was curious about this so I created a crosstab showing how many of the 48 matches that each method has in common with each of the others. It shows that catching up is possible, but the opportunities are limited.

I was surprised to see how many matches are in common across the methods. For example, across the 48 group stage matches the approach based on estimated player transfer values has between 36 and 42 matches in common with each of the 11 prediction methods that I am tracking.

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Pielke WC sameness

On the one hand, this makes sense as the powers in world football are generally the same independent of methodology. If the top eight teams across the groups are each predicted to win their group stage matches, then that alone accounts for 24 of the 48 total matches. But on the other hand, skillful prediction means outperforming a simple approach, so it should be fully expected that a skilled method would be able to identify some of the opportunities for upsets.

For instance, several of the methods lost all of the matches played by Spain and England, including the transfer value baseline. Were those games inherently unpredictable? Or do they reflect a fundamental conservativism in the methods? In an alternate universe where England won their first two matches, the FIFA rankings would trail the transfer value approach, and the Elo ratings would be out in front all alone.

The FT method (which to be fair, was designed to say something about players not teams) has the greatest deviation from the other approaches, with Goldman Sachs not far behind. These approaches thus have offer a much wider spread of predictive outcomes, which could mean a big improvement on the baseline approach or a big degradation.

Prediction entails risk, and most methods have taken very little. It is well understood in studies of risk that we’d rather take a high probability of being right or wrong with the crowd, rather than stick our necks out and risk being wrong on all on our own. The World Cup predictions would appear to bear that out.

The two leaders thus far are the FIFA Rankings and Andrew Yuan.  This is not surprising as they have 47 out of 48 Group Stage matches picked identically. Their ranking against each other will be decided by a single match.  This raises an important question with relevance far beyond the World Cup or sports: what is the point of a complex prediction methodology that essentially replicates a simpler, readily available index?

None of the methods are able to outperform the FIFA Rankings – thus far – providing some good evidence of their value in ranking teams. There are 24 group matches left to play, and no doubt more surprises are in store. However, the results so far indicate that while there is a lot of entertainment value in the World Cup predictions, there is little evidence of value added.

The next update will come after the 36th match, Croatia vs. Mexico on Monday. Stay tuned.

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Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, where he also directs its Center for Science and technology Policy Research. He studies, teaches and writes about science, innovation, politics and sports. He has written for The New York TimesThe Guardian,FiveThirtyEight, and The Wall Street Journal among many other places. He is thrilled to join Sportingintelligence as a regular contributor. Follow Roger on Twitter: @RogerPielkeJR and on his blog

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