Supply, demand, and American soccer

The Nobel-prizewinning economist Paul Krugman has long been an outspoken fellow, both as an economist, and as a political polemicist. (Full disclosure: I mostly agree with this political views; but this article doesn't depend on his politics--even if you think he's a left-wing nutjob, read on). Twenty years ago, he wrote a short article entitled Supply, Demand, and English food, which attempted to explain, albeit in a very non-scientific fashion, why English food was so stereo-typically awful. Krugman's thesis was that because England urbanized earlier than much of the rest of the world (as large numbers of peasants were driven off the land by what was known as "enclosure", and moved to London and other cities to work in factories), the problem of feeding this large urban population arose. At the time, refrigeration was not available, so a cuisine was developed based on cured meats, root vegetables, whatever could be caught out of the water, and (later) canned goods.

Of course, this explained why English food was awful back in 1880, most food was awful. It didn't explain why it was so awful back in 1980, when refrigeration and modern supply chains were available. Krugman's theory was that of a "bad equilibrium", of a market that didn't know what good food tasted like and didn't demand it, and of a restaurant industry that wasn't interested in selling what customers didn't want.

Of course, English food now is another story. Krugman's column was written in 1998, while France was hosting the World Cup (gotta tie this into soccer after all), and he noted that in the post-industrial economy, the food available in London (including the English cuisine) was getting better. And today, England has restaurants that can stack up to any in the world, and has produced notable chefs like Heston Blumenthal, Jamie Oliver, and even good old Gordon Ramsey. (Ramsey may be an obnoxious TV personality, but he has a veritable galaxy of Michelin stars. Dude can cook). Even long-mocked English dishes like bangers and mash or fish and chips have been rehabilitated--these things can be tasty if expertly-prepared. (And English beer has always been good).

American soccer

Which brings us to American soccer.

To put it bluntly, American soccer has been stuck in a "bad equilibrium" for a very long time. Interest in the sport waned in the early 20th century, as baseball and American football captured the sporting public's attention, with basketball and ice hockey not far behind. Soccer was a niche sport for a very long time here, mainly the interest of immigrant communities and a few diehards, as well as a sport for children (right up there with stickball or kickball or similar playground games). But most of the public didn't care. Interest in the sport did start to pick up in the 1970s with the old NASL and guys like Pele playing on US soil, but that folded, and a right-wing cultural backlash in the 1980s probably did it in.

It wasn't until 1994 and the World Cup that Americans started to pay any attention--and gosh darn it, that plucky American side knocked off one South American team and managed to make the knockout round, giving up a respectable 1-0 loss to a powerful Brazilian team lead by the real Ronaldo. :) Soon after, MLS started.

The problem was--Americans had no idea what world class soccer looked like. Many thought they had achieved it as Tony Meola, Tab Ramos, Alexi Lalas, Alexi Lalas's hair, and the rest of Team USA managed to make the eventual champs sweat. Not knowing what world-class soccer looked like, it wasn't demanded--and as the sport become more popular in the US, a club infrastructure arose that pretended to supply world-class soccer (but didn't) to a public that didn't know any better.

So what happened in England?

So what happened in England that caused English food to no longer be terrible? (Or to be less terrible--some people simply won't eat things like kidney pie, no matter how good the chef is). Krugman theorized that increased immigration (as England integrated with Europe and saw many Indians and other migrants from countries with renowned cuisines) is a big part--some of these immigrants started to demand better food, and the market occasionally complied. (They also brought their own cuisines with them--curry stands have been a popular alternative to English fare for a very long time). Another possibility is more rich people--one downside of socialist economies (as England had between World War II and the election of Margaret Thatcher) is they don't encourage production of high culture, including haute cuisine--many of these things require wealthy patrons with lots of money to burn. But market equilibriums occur when the cost to supply something new and better far exceeds the additional profit to be made from supplying it. Often time, there's a chicken and egg problem involved.

Consider electric cars. The technology has been around for a while--indeed, a century ago it was wondered whether or not electricity would power our automobiles instead of gasoline. As it happened, gasoline was the better choice of the time, and a large infrastructure of refineries, pipelines, and filling stations was put in place to make sure that cars could travel anywhere and be able to refuel. No such infrastructure existed for electric cars--it took a lot of investment in charging stations from Telsa, GM, and the government to make electric vehicles an acceptable substitute.

In the restaruant business, logistics also limits what the chef can do. If there's no fresh fruits or vegetables available, if Sysco isn't driving its trucks around making deliveries every day--then no matter how good the chef is, there are things he cannot prepare.

And this is where we have been with American soccer.

It's all about the infrastructure

Consider what "infrastructure" exists in a country like England, France, of Germany--modern democracies with robust middle-class economies, that are regarded as soccer powers.

  1. A populace that understands, knows, and appreciates the game, and knows what good soccer looks like (and doesn't look like).
  2. A robust set of professional clubs and teams, financed by the folks in #1 who are willing to pay big money on tickets, merchandise, and beer at the stadium, but will refuse to pay for substandard stuff.
  3. A robust set of academy teams operated by #2, for training elite players
  4. A large supply of talented coaches, both professional and volunteer, drawn from the general population, to coach all levels of the game
  5. Lots of places to play (whether full-sized pitches, futsal parks, or open spaces with a goal). These don't have to be free to play, but they should be inexpensive (think of playing hoops at the YMCA).
  6. A robust and inexpensive grassroots game, consisting of many local (NON-TRAVEL youth clubs, organized and coached by #1.
  7. In many places, a robust pickup culture.
The US, of course, has all of these things--in baseball, basketball, and American football. In the northern climes, in hockey as well (though the NHL has done well with teams in Southern cities where you will never be able to skate outdoors).

But we don't have them in soccer. Yet.

We are starting to get #1, as the kids who watched the World Cup in 1994 (the first time you could actually watch the World Cup in the US on TV) are growing up. And many of them have strong opinions about the quality of the MLS and of the pro leagues. And we have the top leagues of European soccer readily available on the television.

We have a strong (even if the quality pales in comparison to other nations) first-division league in MLS. Some teams do poorly, but the LA teams, Portland, Seattle, many of the Northeast teams, and--oh my God,--Atlanta are selling out their stadiums week after week. (Who thought that Atlanta would be such a soccer hotbed?). What we don't have is a robust second division--the "new" NASL is nearly out of business, the USL functions more like a US-style minor league (in baseball), and below that is very little.

The DA is starting to give us #3, but has a long way to go. And the DA is highly variable in quality--it ranges from fully professional and serious MLS academies, to poorly-run MLS academies, to local club teams that are selling much the same product they've always sold, but with PowerAde served at games.

We are sorely lacking in #4--"skilled soccer coach" is something we seem to still have a shortage of. The dads coaching Little League and the PE teachers coaching high school football are more likely to have in-depth knowledge of their games, then their equivalents in soccer. (Iceland, in their quest for a World Cup appearance, invested heavily in coaching; we still have a lot of hacks with accents passing themselves off as elite coaches to parents who don't know better).

#5 is also a problem--we have a lot of public parks, but a lot of the soccer pitches aren't open to the public. (And there's good reason why--grass fields can be a problem to maintain). This is why programs like Operation Pitch Invasion are so important. Kids can't play if kids have nowhere to play.

At #6, we stink, and #4 and #5 are much to blame. "Rec" soccer is cheap, but in many places, lousy. And the volunteer coaching pool is frequently poor. Thus the existence of a market for pay-to-play club soccer, in order to afford competent coaches and nice fields, for what one parent I know once called "glorified P.E." In many places to get a good organized game you have to shell out money. Even at the lower end, with teams that don't travel, this is expensive. And travel teams, the sort that like to claim there is no worthy opponent that can be reached without a hotel reservation? Good lord. A big reason for this--see #4. Knowledgeable soccer coaches tend to cost money. In other places, volunteers provide high levels of coaching to most of the players, and professional coaches are instead engaged in coaching the elite players. (Obviously, many coaches with advanced licenses might not appreciate this observation or suggestion--it might put them out of work, after all).

As for #7. Pickup cultures exist in some places, and "Y" culture can often be found as well (particularly with futsal and other indoor variants), but not without places to play. Far too many kids in club soccer, it seems, seldom touch the ball outside of scheduled team events.

Ultimately, to get out of a bad equilibrium, you need the demand for better quality (whether English cuisine or American soccer) to be sufficiently intense that it overpowers the structural impediments that prevent the marketplace from supplying it. And suppliers will resist changes to such equilibriums--from their point of view it's a "good equilibrium", because they can do what they've always done and make a tidy profit, and if some reformer comes along and tries to change the system, throw as many wrenches in the works as they possibly can. After all, a new equilibrium that is better for the customer may be worse for them--they have higher hurdles to clear, and may not be able to pocket as much cash as before.

So what does this mean?

Basically--it means that it all comes down to us, meaning all of us. Not the Federation, or Major League Soccer (though these all have a role to play), but the public. As we start demanding better soccer, and voting with our dollars and our time, we'll start getting it. Until the public (or enough of the public) cherishes the game so much that they say "enough!", though, the bad equilibrium won't be overcome, and we'll be stuck in the pattern of guys in foam fingers cheering for bad MLS teams and thinking it's world class (nothing wrong with cheering for the hometown side while recognizing the limitations of the league), while paying some Brit a lot of money to teach their kids Route One football while calling it "premier" or "elite" or whatever buzzword is fashionable.

The good news is, the public is starting to demand it--and much of the angst you hear is the establishment resisting, trying to preserve the old equilibrium and telling us that doing what is done in France or Germany is too expensive, or inefficient, or just won't work here.

My kids play classic soccer, at a traditional pay-to-play club. It's a well-run club, and one whose DoC would probably agree with 90% of what I just wrote--he hates the system, but not being independently wealthy, he has to work within it to promote and teach the game he loves.

My goal, my hope is that their kids won't need to--that high quality youth soccer will be available for all, and that even the "rec" teams will have great coaches (with a large numbers of dads and moms who are experts on the game), nice fields, and a high level of play, with professional academies providing high-level training for the elite players, and little need for anything else in between.

After all, if English cooking can become good... then why can't American soccer?

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