Monday, February 27, 2023

Review: Game of Edges (2023)

By Bruce Schoenfeld

Perhaps the biggest overall story about professional sports these days might be the most underreported story as well. 

Not surprisingly, it's about money. It's almost always about money in this business.

While we haven't been paying attention very often, the value of franchises in the last 20 years has skyrocketed. Think of it this way. The Buffalo Sabres were sold for $189 million in 2011. According to estimates now, the team is worth $610 million. That's a mighty nice appreciation in 11 years. Not that it's for a team that has not played in the postseason since 2011, and plays in one of the smallest markets in the NHL. In some financial areas, an operation with that sort of record for success might have to relocate or go bankrupt. They don't triple in value. The Sabres did. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bills have been on the upswing during those years as well. Their value went from $1.4 billion in 2015 to $3.4 billion in 2022.

Indeed, an NFL executive recently said that the biggest change in the business of football in the past decade or so is the wealth of the owners. They weren't a particularly poor group  in 2010 of course. But they have gotten much wealthier since then - almost unimaginably rich. And it's a different type of "rich guy" that is buying the team for the most part. It's not someone who wants to spend the second half of his life rooting for "my team." It's someone that wants to run the team like his other business or businesses - with tons of smarts and cutting-edge decision-making. That means, naturally, that teams are trying to win on the field and off it, with the currency changing from victories to dollar signs.

That's the landscape we're looking at these days, and it can be applied all over the world - mostly in the form of soccer franchises. "The Game of Edges" is designed to be something of a primer on what this all looks like at the moment, and what might turn up down the road. 

Author Bruce Schoenfeld is a good choice for the job of looking around at sports business. He has written several for the New York Times on this subject, and done some additional work to adapt them for this book. It's somewhat episodic, but that's a good way to introduce a typical fan.

The chapters, then, become launching points for discussions on a variety of business. There's the story of John Henry, majority owner of the Boston Red Sox, who became owner of the Liverpool soccer team in England - not because he liked soccer, because he didn't. Liverpool represented an undervalued asset with a great deal of possibilities for growth. Sold.

You'd expect analytics to come up here, and they do. In hindsight, some of the decisions involving teams and their players seem almost quaint, as they sometimes relied on unquantified intangibles and personal feelings. That's not happening now. A lot of smart people are working very hard to find that statistical edge that can lead to wins and championship. But everyone is still dealing with human beings, and sometimes that can prove troublesome. A particular managerial action might be the proper moment if the percentages are to be believed - but they only represent chance. Sometimes the dice come up incorrectly in the biggest moment, which no doubt leads to a lot of indigestion.

And all of that research may have its costs. In baseball, the analysts know what works in the current system - strikeouts and home runs. But the game itself has suffered. Baseball has taken a few major steps toward adapting its product to make it more entertaining, which is the correct course. Leagues have to learn to be nimble enough to change direction when necessary. In other words, adapt or die.

The top English soccer league has become something of a test tube in one sense. It doesn't have any salary cap or luxury tax, unlike the North American leagues. The rich teams have gotten richer lately, especially considering how international the best teams are followed now. The wealthy squads tend to avoid long-term dips, which in recent years has upset the general balance of the league. 

All of these conversations come with an important catch: rooting is not a particularly rational action. In the case of the big soccer teams, they looked into the possibility of creating a Super League of the best squads in Europe. The fans rebelled quickly and loudly, to the point where the idea had to be dropped. It takes quite a sales job to convince people to spend a high proportion of their savings on something like sports tickets that won't make their day-to-day life better. Loyalty is high but not absolute, and the care and feeding of those fans is an important issue.

Schoenfeld goes into some other interesting areas as well. The sports leagues certainly have embraced gambling once it was legalized through a Supreme Court decision a few years ago. Some of the owners have been faster than others when it comes to embracing the concept, but it sure feels like it's here to stay. I'm not as convinced that the system is scandal-proof, and it's going to raise cynicism levels to higher levels. But there's little turning back now.

Teams also are becoming more open to the idea of allowing their players to express their opinions on non-sports issues, such as social matters. Atlanta's WNBA team members received a great deal of publicity when they went public on the statements of their own owner, who eventually sold the franchise. The Jazz' ownership in Utah has been quick to embraces certain stances which would seem to be a contrast to the usual "fans of all types watch basketball, so let's not annoy them " theory. Jazz owner Ryan Smith sent $4 million on safe haven homes for LGBTQ kids. That might not be a popular idea in conservative Utah, but he thinks it's the right thing to do ... and he no doubt knows that he might win friends and fans throughout the rest of the world.

You probably have gotten the idea that there's a lot to chew on here. The good news is that most of it is quite readable, and it's not that long of a book. Admittedly, some soccer analytics may not be of particular interest to a typical American fan. But for the most part, Schoenfeld's real-life examples illustrates larger points quite nicely.

"Game of Edges" shows that the revolution is here. It will force its readers to pay closer attention to what's going on in pro sports, mostly but not exclusively off the playing field. And, inevitably, it might convince fans to look at their own favorite teams and ask, "Are we keeping up?" There are many ways to be a fan, and this won't be for every taste - but those who dive in will be rewarded.

Five stars

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