Wednesday, December 30, 2015

On the Soul - Alchemical Magic

Wonderful piece by Devin Faraci over at Birth Movies Death about Star Wars and where we are with George Lucas and his role as the creator of the whole thing. In it, Faraci hit on something that struck a nerve with me. A stats nerve. It's that bit thing that I cannot quantify or measure.
"Whether or not Star Wars is perfect or has plot holes or wooden acting or bad dialogue doesn’t matter, because the movie is more than the sum of those particular parts. It’s alchemical magic that works only once in a generation or two, and it can be copied and approximated but never exactly replicated. And that’s okay. You can play every single note exactly as The Beatles did, and it can sound the same but it will never feel the same. This is where all the art analysis in the world breaks down, where all of our words fail us."
That's exactly the thing that most miss, yet it's something that happens in everyday life. With sports, we like to separate the person from the action. Like they are only a figurine that we wind up each day and turn loose to predictable patterns.

I've spent a number of years pouring over facts and figures in trying to better understand the sport I love. It works alright. I reckon that if I managed some rec league team I could get them to be somewhere slightly above average. That's what stats can do. A championship, though? It takes something else.

Michael Parkhurst was brought in by Gregg Berhalter to be his voice on the pitch. Parkhurst is a mighty fine player, but his importance with Columbus Crew SC takes on an entirely different meaning were he on another "club" in MLS.

Berhalter and Parkhurst are what make Columbus Crew SC tick. There's an alchemical magic to it. Something we can't quite explain. Where data breaks down and the magical combination takes over.

I kinda like it that way.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015 - Helltown

Bits from a couple great pieces of music in here.

1. "The Scavenger," by John Williams. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack).

2. "Sons of Liberty," Hans Zimmer & Lorne Balfe. Sons of Liberty (Original Soundtrack)

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Cable Apocalypse

We've been talking about this since the dawn of the public internet back in the mid-90s and it appears it is finally here: People (households) are finally dropping pay TV (cabled) subscriptions.

How fast are consumers "cutting the cord"? Fast. It's going to take a while for it to completely die off (if ever) but it is clear that within this particular industry, cable has finally seen her day. She'll now spend her time attempting to mitigate the damage in the coming years.

GM was the face of the slowly dying American auto industry between the mid-60s through the 90s and now ESPN is emerging in that role for cable. Looking at the information in the table below you can see how it is warranted. Between ESPN and ESPN2 the "worldwide leader" has lost around 14 million subscribers from a couple years ago. More than any of the other top 5 networks.

[Figures in millions, sorted by most subscribers in 2015 to least]
NFL Network56,55062,09372,46472,20369,03222.07%-4.74%
MLB Network67,22069,81171,02669,88266,564-0.98%-6.28%
ESPN Classic32,64831,21930,82627,01224,917-23.68%-19.17%
Source: Sports Business Journal, October 26-November 1, 2015

Some of that they can't control. Channel bundling is the lifeblood of cable providers and the ESPN has seen their channels moved to the more premium packages. The exact reasons for that are locked away at the highest levels, but one can make educated guesses on why that might be.

You can tell from the figures above the whole model is shrinking at an accelerated rate year to year. It's possible it will level off with the bottom rising (like FS2 and NBCSN) and top falling but I expect that is years away.

From my view, it comes down to self-preservation within the cable industry. ESPN is expensive and is almost exclusively sports programming. Not everyone likes sports, shockingly. And even if they do, they don't necessarily need a 24-hour sport channel and would happily get news from the web or occasionally watch a NFL game on free TV or a NBA game in-between their favorite non-sports shows on TBS or TNT.

Cable will be hemorrhaging subscribers over the next five years. Winners and losers will be decided by who best figures out how to drive customers to internet subscriptions. HBO appears to be the first from traditional cable to figure it out but there will be others here soon as people trim down their packages.

ESPN3 or Watch ESPN has been around for some time now, but it is anchored to a traditional cable subscription for use. It was only this year that ESPN has decided to unbundle and allow a standalone service via Sling TV. Very limited and right now that comes at a premium price. Unfortunately, for ESPN, their quality has been poor for a number of years.

I don't expect people to pay a large monthly fee for any sports channel, let alone one that has stagnated for a decade in terms of quality. They didn't see the writing on the wall when they lost talents like Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann and Rich Eisen (and more recently Colin Cowherd) yet continued to pay record amounts for programming.

The losers here will be channels. Content providers. "Cable" will live on as an internet provider, no question. I'm not sure they are concerned about that model, at the moment.

Last item here to note is that Total Pay TV in US households has dropped -3.89% over the last five years with an acceleration... -4.54% over the last three, while at the same time total US households has increased by +1.48% in last five and +0.52 in three. What that means is the % of cable in homes is dropping very quickly.

Hold on to something.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Klute to Portland, Roster at 20

Things are moving fast since the MLS final last Sunday. We've seen a new list of free agents (of which my EA FIFA 16 campaign still continues) and a re-entry draft (or two?) and increased levels of Target Allocation Money (TAM!).

Earlier today Columbus let go of 25-year-old Chris Klute. Chris is a good player that was driving airport cars around Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta when he was given a chance by Eric Wynalda's Atlanta Silverbacks. From there Klute was loaned out to Oscar Pareja's Colorado side where he became one of the better defenders under 24 in the league.

All that seems like a lifetime ago, however. When Pareja left and Pablo Mastroeni moved in, development in Colorado stopped and a couple promising young careers jumped off the tracks. It was frustrating when the league and MLS media became infatuated with Mastroeni's damn mustache because it was clear that everything Pareja had done to turn Atiba Harris, Dillon Serna, Dillon Powers, Deshorn Brown, Shane O'Neill, Clint Irwin and Chris Klute into some of the most promising young players in the league would all be undone. Sure enough... we are two years later and exactly that happened.

Back to now, though. The start to the season was a bumpy one for Klute in Columbus. He didn't look quite right, but as the season went on he grew into the role. All in all he was a nice contributor to a Cup final season for Crew SC. +800 minutes and 16 (8 starts, 8 as sub) appearances at right and left back.

Today's move sends Klute to Cup winning Portland Timbers side for general allocation funds, where it looks like he will back fill the spot left by 26 yo. Jorge VillafaƱa. You'll recognize Jorge's name as the guy who shut Ethan Finlay down. A performance that likely helped along his $1 million dollar transfer to Santos Laguna in Liga MX (not a bad bit of business for Merritt Paulson's side). Villafana has a amazing career story up to this point as well. He's a great example of one of those kids in LA that do nothing but play soccer in their free time and why you'll hear some in the know say that MLS teams couldn't beat rec teams in Southern California.

Klute's move leaves the Crew SC roster at an even 20 players.

With that, I'm going to put % likelihood of each of those 20 players leaving between now and next season, as the situation stands right now. It's certainly possible that all will be back but considering what we heard earlier this week combined with October's revelation that Wil Trapp is working on picking up a Greek passport, Crew fans could see a couple more move on.

% Chance Player leaving
51% Justin Meram
51% Ethan Finlay
51% Ben Swanson

49% Wil Trapp
49% Kei Kamara
49% Romain Gall

25% Waylon Francis
25% Harrison Afful
25% Federico Higuain
25% Tony Tchani
25% Gaston Sauro

0% Michael Parkhurst
0% Hector Jimenez
0% Brad Stuver
0% Chad Barson
0% Sergio Campbell
0% Cedrick Mabwati
0% Tyson Wahl
0% Steve Clark
0% Mohammed Saeid

Thursday, December 10, 2015

[PODCAST] Red Cards in Helltown: Post Cup Show

Rick Gethin, Justin Bell and Larry Johnson get together to talk about what happened before, during and after the MLS Cup here in Columbus. Fun show, plenty to talk about. Remember, be sure to check out past shows over at Soundcloud and iTunes.

Thanks for listening!

Ratings: MLS Cup Final

TV Ratings (share of TVs tuned to the event)

Total Estimated Viewership

My first calendar year staying close to MLS television ratings has come to a close. Overall, it was informative and rewarding. I'll keep a close eye on it going forward but likely not with the same intensity.

The figures above chart both "ratings" and "viewership" for each of the 20 MLS Cup finals on ABC / ESPN. In recent years, MLS has been expanding to other platforms and networks like Univision Deportes and Unimas, but there isn't enough data there yet to get any sort of trend like ESPN. Important to not that Unimas did do well last year with LA market and Landon Donovan in the final, but I don't expect ratings to stay strong there over time and certainly not for a Columbus / Portland final.

Tracking ESPN is the cleanest way to evaluate how well the league is doing over the years.

It's important to look at these charts with a larger perspective, but it's not particularly needed. It's easy to see that ratings are trending down. In fact, this last Cup Final was the lowest rated Final in MLS history at 0.4 (which generously includes an extra 80k from Univision Deportes, ESPN notched a 0.3 rating according to Sports TV Ratings dot com). What that figure means is a share of televisions tuned to the event. With people migrating away from traditional cable (ie. cord-cutting) that's the one to keep an eye on. A "0.4" rating means less than one-half of one percent of all televisions on were tuned to MLS. The lowest in league history.

No doubt that MLS's target market contributed to the low figure as the 4:25 PM EST / 1:25 PM PST kickoff is right when NFL games kickoff. On the east coast, the afternoon game is usually the most watched event of the day (NFL games get astronomical ratings, 10-20 million tune-in regularly).

One general myth you see out there is that there are fewer people watching TV via traditional means. Live event programming has never been stronger (ie. sports programming) in the history of the medium. While cable subscriptions are relatively flat over the last five years on ESPN, they are up in on other networks. People are still buying TV by the zillions and sports leagues are making zillions from it.

I'll leave this post with one final chart. What is shows is ESPN viewership by program for the entire day of Sunday, December 6th, 2015. MLS is the 668k figure. Looking at it this way shows me that a college football playoff show was a lead in. I think that likely saved MLS from severe embarrassment.



Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Free Agents MLS (Live Broadcast...[updating])


Earlier this week MLS released a list of their first "free agent" class. 26 total players. Qualification to make the list is basically - play 8 years in the league. Almost all on the list were from the USA, over the age of 30 and overpaid.

Back on Monday, one of the MLS people said that the guys on the list would "make the playoffs" if they were on a team. I decided to put that to the test and create a team on EA's FIFA 16 (Xbox One) and simulate a season (via custom tournament). I'm towards the end of my 1st sim now. The team didn't make the playoffs.

In fact... they came in last. Restarting the process now, check it out!

More Details: I put all the guys on the Northampton Town Cobblers and swapped out the Philadelphia Union. This post will be up for just a little bit, if you want to watch just click on the video above.

[UPDATE: keep checking back, I'll be playing off and on for the next couple days. I'm kinda enjoying it. More broadcasts to come...]

Here's the list of players on this team:

Finlay, Meram Exploring Options

In the wake of MLS Cup Final at Mapfre Stadium Sunday, news drops that points towards Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay looking at offseason options outside of the comfortable confines of Columbus.

Both players were critical parts to Gregg Berhalter's success thus far in MLS. Not just with their play on the pitch but what they (knowingly or not) offered off the field as well.

Let me explain that second "off the field" part for a second.

When Anthony Precourt and Gregg Berhalter took full control of the team they had thousands of decisions to make about staff and players. There isn't time to make them all in a short period of time so you work off a couple major philosophies to drive the rest going forward. That way you keep things consistent and fair. Not saying that everyone does this. In fact, it's entirely possible that these guys didn't... but I think they did.

Here's a quick summary of the two philosophical approaches to leadership / management change:

1. BUILDING ON EXISTING FOUNDATION: By not flipping over the apple cart and retaining many of the players they inherited Precourt and Berhalter allowed the team to be successful. There is a risk to this approach in that you just might not have the people around to get you where you want to be.

2. TEAR IT ALL DOWN, REBUILD: The other side of taking control of an organization or business is to clear out all the voices and habits of the old guard. Slam the door open, set the bar impossibly high, hire your own staff, ride existing staff within an inch of their life and then tone it down, bring back smiles and go into build mode.

Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay are from the 'old guard.' Upon his arrival we saw Berhalter jettison a couple voices from the locker room (like Chad Marshall) and insert his own (Michael Parkhurst), but he kept most of the rest of the group. This decision turned out to be completely successful.

You don't realize how much easier things are when you have people around that know how to turn on the lights and let the cat out (so to speak).

It's completely understandable for players to get a little emotional after a big loss. It's also completely understandable for both these players to make a little noise at this time as well. You gotta make hay while the sun shines in sports. Your career is only so long. Guys entering their mid to late 20s start to realize this.

I would like to see Columbus have complete freedom, but MLS is so restrictive in what they can offer them. Not just with the cap but also on an individual player to player basis.

Per MLS rules; MLS raises have a max increase based on current salary...

+25%: make less than $100k
+20%: $100k-200k
+15%: if salary greater than $200k

So, if you are making in the $100k - 200k range (like both Finlay and Meram) your max increase is is only 20% greater than what they made last year. Because of single entity and lack of any form of real free agency, they are pretty much stuck unless they have outside of MLS options (or are a USMNT star like Graham Zusi or Matt Besler).

Whenever I hear about players wanting to move on, I think of all the MLS rules they are tangled up in and wish them to get out if they have the option. Same goes for Finlay and Meram. GET OUT. It'd be great to have them here in town for another year or two but they climbed the MLS moutain. Explore something new. A new city. Fall down, fail, get up, succeed. Grow as people. Meet new people. Have some fun!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

35 Years Ago, Tonight

Crew SC Roster Moves

The deadline for MLS teams to pick up player options passed last week on December 1st. Teams making the final were given extensions (although it looks like a handful teams used the extra week to decide / announce).

Columbus posted theirs yesterday, less than 24 hours after they hosted the MLS Cup Final. Mile high view: ~20% was trimmed from both the overall budget as well as the "cap."

$5.6m : Total Budget YE 2015
$4.5m : Total current Budget

$4.2m : "Cap" number
$3.4m : Current "Cap" after roster moves

Options Not Exercised:

Matt Lampson, GK, $60k
Emanuel Pogatetz, CB, 263k
Kristinn Steindorsson, MF, 119k
Ben Speas, MF, 68k

Out of Contract, Negotiating:

Jack McInerney, F, $334k
Kevan George, DM, 60k
Aaron Schoenfeld, F, 60k

NOTES: Four down-roster players from the previous ownership group (Lampson, Speas, George, Schoenfeld) and three "in the 18" from the current (Pogatetz, Steindorsson, McInerney) appear to be moving on their way. It's strange to see George and Schoenfeld under the "negotiating" category as they are already at the league minimum. McInernery's contract (likely prorated this past year) is one they might be trying to work down. Something that doesn't happen often in MLS.

Players Currently Under Contract, 2016:

Federico Higuain - $118k
Gaston Sauro - 600k
Kei Kamara - 537k
Michael Parkhurst - 300k
Cedrick Mabwati - 254k
Tony Tchani - 195k
Steve Clark - 188k
Justin Meram - 175k
Waylon Francis - 170k
Wil Trapp - 165k
Harrison Afful - 150k
Ethan Finlay - 143k
Mohammed Saeid - 110k
Hector Jimenez - 90k
Chris Klute - 88k
Ben Swanson - 80k
Romain Gall - 63k
Brad Stuver - 60k
Chad Barson - 60k
Sergio Campbell - 53k

NOTES: So far so good for Gregg Berhalter and team in regards to maintaining a solid core from the successful 2015 team. The only risks I see between now and the start of next year come in the form of the January transfer window. MLS is notorious for not allowing free movement of players to other leagues, but Crew SC could have a few players in that group. Sauro, Kamara lead the list. Meram, Mabwati, Francis and Afful are internationals that likely have some options. In the youth category, you've got Swanson and Gall who have value.

What's next for MLS rosters are a series of drafts (waiver and re-entry) throughout the month of December. A new twist this year is there is a class of "free agents" out there that meet the most recent CBA qualifiers of being 28 years old and have 8 years experience. MLS is a single entity so it is certainly a strange mechanism they have introduced.

First MLS "Free Agent" Class:

Looking over the list, I can see why the league agreed to it. It's mostly durable US based players who are overpaid mainly due to the fact they have survived and still pull a check in the single entity system (incremental increases year to year). My hunch is that these guys will be negotiating down, which is sort of the opposite of what the union expected.

"Rating" (far right column) comes from my own player rating system I've used since 2011. It's driven by (but not just) playing time and team results - obvious theory being; playing more on good teams means you are good. It's scaled 0-10, so a score of 5 is average, 10 is best. It is based on this season only.