Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Economist's Notebook: Incentives and Soccer

Update: Mexico wins 2-1, and deservedly so: after a bright start to the game the US seemed lethargic, even given the 7,200 foot altitude. Still it was heartening to see a game played with passion and respect, without the general nastiness that used the characterize these matches. There is a part of me that is happy Mexico won, I hope they qualify for the World Cup and loosing would have put their bid in serious trouble. In 2002 the USA and Mexico played a great match in the World Cup (which unfortunately dissolved into nastiness in the end with Rafa Marquez's karate kick on Cobi Jones), and I hope they can do it again in South Africa. But the USA needs to regroup quickly and win convincingly at home versus El Salvador next month in Utah. And yes, the name of the blog is Oregon Economics....

As the United States National Team prepares for a World Cup qualifying match in Mexico City, in a stadium, Azteca, where they have never won, and as Portland readies itself for a jump into Major League Soccer, it is a decent time to ask why the US is not a better soccer playing nation.

The modern reasons are pretty clear to an economist's eyes: the incentives, both financial and social, are such that the best US athletes are drawn into football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey, individual sports like running, tennis and golf before they consider soccer. In the past, most of the best US players have come from households that already have a built in strong predilection for soccer, stemming from immigrant roots. Still, in a nation of 300 million people where sports are so important and a strong part of the youth experience, it is amazing that we have not produced more and better players.

The historical reasons are less clear to me, but I suppose most of the blame lies with baseball. As the sports of rugby and association football were splitting and evolving into their modern incarnations in England, they had already arrived in the US and morphed into American football - our take, essentially, on rugby. The association football version of the sport never really caught on. I imagine that this was largely due to baseball having already cemented itself as the casual pastime of kids in the US, much like soccer is for kids everywhere else. American football and then basketball quickly gained popularity and soccer was left relatively unloved. Perhaps it has something to do with eschewing the traditions of the former colonizers, but I doubt it.

At any rate, the US gets by on determination, athleticism and good organization, and is a decent but mediocre team by world standards. If we ever start producing players of real quality, then these established traditions could make the US a tough team to beat. The MLS is starting to change the modern incentives. Yes, salaries in the MLS on average are terrible, but good American players are now getting noticed by European teams and they pay great. So youth players can now see a clear path to success and riches that should provide motivation. Also, as European soccer is becoming more and more visible in the US, the world of soccer that exists beyond our borders is much clearer to an American kid whose parents don't know the sport.

So I predict failure today in Mexico, but I think in another 20 years, the US team will consistently be among the top ten and hopefully develop a little flair along the way.

By the way, as a footnote, I once read a book about the origination of association football which claimed the term 'football' does not have to do with the fact that you kick a ball with your feet but rather came from the fact that these were commoners' sports that were played on foot (as opposed to horseback). So now you know.


OregonGuy said...


Is this on?

As a former association president, many of your comments bespeak a viewpoint that doesn't reflect the reality behind competitive soccer.

You are a relatively young man, and can be excused for sharing rather youthful explanations for your viewpoints. The facts, however, are pronouncedly different from your narrative theme; blame it upon the cash incentives.

The OYSA has had a long held and practised view that the folks involved in promoting soccer have a clear understanding of the motivations of those who participate in the sport. These are necessarily economic variables. Such as are the variables for taste and preference.

One of the objectives of OYSA are to promote an understanding of these motives. If you are a player, then you recognize the primary reason for participating in the sport is for the competition. If you are not comfortable with taking yourself to the limit in order to win, then, you should play dodge-ball, or perhaps, Shutes and Ladders.

In my small, rural community, soccer has the largest number of members of any sports association within our county. Bigger than PeeWee football and baseball. Combined.

Both my sons--who are currently enrolled at OSU--are former Varsity soccer players, one at goal, one at back.

With a little bit of checking, you can determine who I am, and who my sons are. They are still involved as intramural players at OSU.

Regardless, we've been able (we being our local YSA) to develop players who have been able to compete at the Div I and Div III level. It is not an issue of the competition for any other particular sport as much as it is a question of who is the better coach during a particular season?

One of the best coaches in Oregon has been, for years, Jerry Boisvere, at Astoria High School. This is not meant to "take away" from the great coaches for either boys or girls at Seaside High School.

But, the point is, whether you view development programs, such as the Olympic Development Program, or the thousands of kids across Oregon who are introduced to soccer at ages down to five, we need as parents and coaches to understand that the needs--the preferences--of soccer kids are rarely the needs of parents or coaches.

Soccer will be one of America's finest sports, for reasons that are apparent. During the last coupla months, both during friendlies and FIFA matches, the USA team has proven itself, both women and men.

As a dad whose son is a spitting image of Tim Howard...I'm probably biased. But as a coach since the 80's, I can let you know, we are teaching kids how to compete in the game. And bringing along the parents, step by step.

(BTW--the distinction between "footers" and "ruggers" had to do with the disassociation between those who allowed hand touches and those who didn't, of what was historically the same game. They wouldn't have neither of each.)

Patrick Emerson said...


I am not sure exactly where you find fault with my simple "incentives matter" explanation. But it is hard to argue, in my opinion, that most elite athletes in this country wind up in other sports and that financial incentives are one reason why. It is hard to otherwise explain the exceptionally high levels of participation in the soccer with the relatively low yield of elite soccer players (and by elite I mean playing in top professional leagues). Steve Nash and Nomar Garciaparra are two top atheletes that were, apparently, exceptional soccer players as well, but chose more lucrative paths.

But if you are very big, fast and strong soccer is the obvious outlet for your talents in most countries, but not the US. Watching the top European teams play friendlies with MLS teams is quite revealing in this regard, it is literally like watching boys play men in terms if size and strength.

My point is precisely that we have the youth participation, the clubs, coaches, great facilities but still lack in the number of top players we produce. Incentives have to play an important role. As does culture for that matter, but culture and big time spectator sports have a self-reinforcing relationship. Which is why, I think that MLS will continue to have a major impact but it will take another generation or two.

Finally, my last point was that the split of football between rugby and association football yielded two distinct and thriving sports in England, while only the Rugby variant evolved here. And this the name football, by the way, for our sport.

dyana said...

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