Editors’ note: FSF is hosting a panel at Hofstra’s “Soccer as the Beautiful Game” conference on April 12, 9:30AM. The purpose of the panel is to provoke discussion and debate on how journalists and scholars can inform our respective work. Alex, Peter, Brenda, John Foot, Grant Wahl, and Simon Kuper will be producing a series of blog posts exploring here on footballscholars.org. The posts will discuss how academics and journalists deal with sources and methodologies, topics, audience, market logic vs academic logic, and the role of digital tools in the writing and dissemination process. Each panelist will post over the next few days, starting with Simon Kuper below.
In 2007 the Turkish football club Fenerbahce celebrated its centenary by staging something called a “100th Year Sports and Science Congress”. Fenerbahce flew me to Istanbul to give a talk, and while there I met a British economist called Stefan Szymanski. (He’s now an economics professor at the University of Michigan.) I’d come across his work by then, but academic economics very rarely penetrated into sportswriting, and I don’t think I’d ever written about it before.
Stefan and I began to talk, first at the conference and later over beers in the hotel bar. What struck me was that everybody had views on soccer, but Stefan’s were actually informed by data. That’s not something you encountered much in sportswriting. By the time we left Istanbul we’d agreed to try to write a book together, a sort of Freakonomics for soccer.
The book, Soccernomics, contains ideas from both of us. It’s a genuine collaboration. But a lot of it came directly from Stefan’s academic writings. He would send me a paper that had appeared in an economics journal, and had been read only by specialists, and I would think, “This is fascinating”, and try to rephrase it in layman’s terms. I work for the Financial Times, and once spent two years there in the economics department, so I had some experience of this kind of thing.
Many of Stefan’s arguments challenged conventional sportswriters’ wisdom. Crucially, he showed that averaged out over a period of about ten years, the correlation between a club’s wage bill and its average league position is typically about 90 per cent. In other words, salaries tend to predict brilliantly where a club will finish in the table. That didn’t leave much room for other factors to matter. Consequently, Stefan thinks that coaches have far less influence on results than is commonly assumed in soccer talk. And he found that transfer fees were a much less efficient way than salaries to buy success. The correlation between a club’s net transfer spending and its league position was pretty weak.
There’s a lot more of Stefan’s academic work in the book. For instance, he used econometric methods to show that black players at English clubs suffered wage discrimination until about 1990, but not thereafter.
One of the issues for discussion at our “Football Scholars Forum” at Hofstra University on April 12 is “the impact of digital tools in the writing and dissemination process”. Stefan and I actually found the old-fashioned book pretty effective. Soccernomics first appeared in 2009, and has sold about 200,000 copies in nearly 20 languages. I think it has had some marginal influence on soccer talk. True, many soccer fans instinctively reject some of our findings. They often struggle to accept, for instance, that the coach – the most prominent voice and face of his club – generally doesn’t have much influence on results. I certainly wouldn’t claim that we’ve proven any of our arguments beyond doubt. That’s almost impossible to do in economics. But some commentators do now take our findings into account.
For me, Soccernomics is an example of something I’ve been striving for all my journalistic career: a collaboration between a journalist and an academic that presents sophisticated findings fairly clearly to a non-specialist audience. I’m the son of an academic, and know a lot of academics, and often when speaking to them I find myself thinking, “What you’re saying is fascinating. Why does almost nobody know this?”
I understand the pressures that push academics into using specialized language. As an old girlfriend of mine once told me, explaining why she’d written an academic paper on Jane Austen in almost impenetrable jargon: “If you don’t use the jargon, the other academics think you don’t know it.” But that leaves a role for journalists like me to try to popularize academic findings without dumbing them down. I think that often it can be done.
*Please leave comments below to stimulate discussion for our session at Hofstra.