Sunday, August 14, 2016

Take Down the Safety Net

Illustration - Alex Nabaum, NYT

Much has been made about Columbus bouncing around the bottom of the table all year. As a team performance this year - it is a flying "F" for Fail. This is the beauty of sports right? It's simple. You're near last out of a specific set of things. Don't be last.

Years ago General Electric head Jack Welch implemented his own form of promotion and relegation in the workplace. It was meant to weed out the poor performers and reward the best. It was ruthless and cold but it worked. 

What Welch did was / is called "rank and yank." The basics here are to reward the top 10-20% and cut the bottom 10%. It proved to be extremely effective in his time with GE. He grew the company by some 28 fold. 

In sports, you often get a conflict of cultures. One is obviously the sports one and the other being the business. In recent decades... let's say, since Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the business side of sports has overtaken the jock side. It's to the point these days where the actual competition is everything off the field and has very little to do with what's on it.

Fast forward to 2005 or so and now you even on the "sports" side, you see the jock / meathead type getting crowded out of their own domain by they analytic approach. Looking at it this way shows which culture is winning out; The rise fo sports business begat analytics and that killed the jock.


Looking at MLS head coaches you see a lot of sameness. 18 of the 20 are 37-49 years of age, 15 from the US and 11 of them played together at some point from the late 1990s through the 2000s on the USMNT.

Gregg Berhalter checks off all those boxes. It's almost like some sort of simple Google algorithm could've predicted it. One the surface all of this looks horrible. Add race and it looks even worse. It's a club. Other US leagues are like this but there's one massive difference. The rest of the world does not play the damn sport.

Within this club we see a mildly paced march away from the meathead (let's put Peter Vermes in there along with Pablo Mastroeni and Jay Heaps) and towards an enlightened and reformed man that was born in 70s, grew up in the Jack Welch (and Roger Smith) 80s, formed their game in the 90s - 00s and is now coaching in our modern analytic time (the league structure that opens the door for this, not discussing it directly here today).

"Ten Games? It seems a lot longer," is the quote in the Columbus Dispatch from Berhalter this morning after another home draw. Maybe it seems long because it's the longest the team has gone in its 20 years without a win.

Crew SC had two weeks to prepare for this game against NYCFC last night only to see it devolve into a chaotic MLS match filled with penalties, fouls, generous amounts of extra-time for the home team and varying levels of effort and approach. To top it off, there was an hour-long weather delay that thinned out the crowd to about a third full. All this made last night's game seem like 10 games on its own.

From a competitive standpoint, Berhalter, both the Coach and Sporting Director, is the perfect candidate to be "yanked" for his performance in the bottom 10%. But Anthony Precourt is not Welch, and he's made it clear that he wants Berhalter to have a heavy hand in shaping his baby here in Columbus.

The question becomes is his nebulous role as part of the culture maker team in Columbus given him a pass in Precourt's eyes. The fall from where this team was last year, to where it is this year is a bad as it can get in MLS - but it seemingly appears that the accomplishments of last year are enough to let it slide this year. There's also a nebulous side of Precourt's selection of Berhalter and other leaders in the organization that they are there to be the creators of his culture with the franchise.

This makes it tricky to do anything with underperforming aspects of his team. A lack of simple segregation of duties has muddied the water at a time where you want to be finding the best and weeding out the worst. Not stubbornly holding on to what's not working.


Are you familiar with the boys club that is the Columbus Blue Jackets? A sports market like Columbus should absolutely be dropping the bottom and promoting the top. From ticket sales to concessions to players and managers.

There isn't time to wait around for it to bounce back. Look at the Columbus Blue Jackets. Look at the culture that was forged there early on their first 5-10 years. It's now embedded into the mindset and permeates every aspect of that NHL franchise. They are the poster child for what Crew SC should be trying to avoid, not replicate. Heck, look at the last three years under the previous operating group. A mirror image of a content culture.

Allowing a season drift bye like this sets a dangerous precedent for the future of the Columbus Crew SC under this new leadership. Maybe he's doing it behind closed doors and we don't see it, but quotes by Berhalter to the press suggest this isn't the case. Precourt needs to demand more from this first group of hires he has made. If not management changes, then simple and public calls for improvement. The same goes across the company. Do you want more butts in seats? A jersey sponsor the Sports Business Journal will write about? More games on national TV? Burn down the safety net. 

Bottom of the league should not be acceptable. Demand improvement. Expect results. That's the culture needed in these critical early times and results on the pitch are big part of that. 

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