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2018 World Cup Russia Takeaways

It’s the world’s most popular sport on the sport’s biggest stage … it’s the World Cup. With as much hype as the Super Bowl and yet the international relevance of the Olympics, the World Cup is unique to it’s kind. The event is positioned as a measuring stick of where the game of football (or soccer, as us Americans call it) currently sits – with players, coaches, and fans across the world taking note at which playing styles prevail, which continents are the most dominant, and who the world’s most elite players really are. So with that, here are 5 of my biggest takeaways from 2018 Russia.

  1. Europe is Still King.

With 15 of the 32 qualifying countries coming from Europe, this World Cup saw 6 of those European countries make up the final 8 teams in the tournament.

World-Cup-Semi-Final-France-v-Belgium
Samuel Umiti’s header sent Les Bleus and the French past Belgium and into the World Cup Final.

It made for an all-European semi-finals and upcoming final between France and Croatia on Sunday. 4 out of South America’s 5 teams went through to the Round of 16, however without Brazil, Argentina, Columbia or Uruguay making the semi-finals, CONMEBOL will view this World Cup as largely a disappointment for themselves. While Africa’s expectations are not quite as high as South America’s, they too, will be disappointed without seeing a single one of their 5 teams advancing to the Round of 16. Given the mere 3 teams Asia had representing the continent, Japan became a bit of a Cinderella team after having Belgium on the ropes, up 2-0 in the 2nd half of a Round of 16 match. While only one of the 3 North American teams (Mexico) advanced to the Round of 16 … North America also claimed the tournament’s worst performing country with a record of 0-3 and a -9 goal differential

Belgium Counter Attack Goal
Down 2-0 in the 2nd half to Japan and facing elimination, Belgium had one of the most improbable comebacks in World Cup history. The comeback culminated with Belgium’s Nacer Chadli’s last touch of the ball off a brilliant counter attacking goal in stoppage time.

with Panama, the same country who eliminated the US from qualifying.

 

  1. Tika-Taka Out, Counter-Attack In

For those unfamiliar with the “Tika-taka” style of play, this is known as a Spanish style of the game that is characterized by short, quick movement passing while working the ball through channels and keeping possession. While it’s a style of play largely associated with Spain and Barcelona FC, it’s the pervasive style of many South American teams like Brazil and Argentina as well. In France’s wins over Argentina and Uruguay, as well as Belgium’s win over Brazil in the Quarters, the world saw a new counter-attack style of soccer prevail predicated on sharpness in transition and catching opposing teams off balanced on the counter attack.

The concept here is centered on the idea of attacking as soon as the ball is taken possession of in an effort to catch up an opposing a team unbalanced defensively. Belgium and France did this better than any other two teams in the tournament in large part due to attacking midfielders who fit this mold with De Bruyne and Hazard for Belgium and Mbappe and Griezmann for the French.

  1. Set Pieces Decide Matches

The numbers are staggering with 70 of the 160 goals scored in this World Cup having come off set-piece finishes, an unprecedented 43.8%. The team that everyone was talking about on set-piece goals was England, who got their lone goal in the semi-final yesterday off a free-kick.  The tournament saw a lot of penalty kicks but also very well-executed corner and free kick designed plays. The aerial aspect to the game is still a critical part of deciding matches.

Trippier England Goal
England’s Kieran Trippier’s set piece goal in the 5th minute of yesterday’s semi-final was the quickest goal in a World Cup semi-final since 1954. The England were’s able to bring it home, but distinguished themselves on set pieces throughout the tournament.
  1. Video Assisted Review (VAR) – Verdict Still Out

Every professional sports league in the United States have official replays and reviews and yet this was the first year of it being introduced at the World Cup. Quite frankly it was overdue. Having said that, I think there are still differing opinions about the technology as it applies to soccer after this World Cup. The technology helped Sweden collect a pivotal PK against South Korea, which was justified and changed the face of Group F. Meanwhile the Brazilians felt like their defender was pushed on Switzerland’s tying header in group play. And France was awarded a very soft PK against Australia after reviewing a foul on Griezmann.

VAR Review
Russia 2018 marked the debut of Video Assistant Referees which certainly changed a few matches. There are still mixed opinions of the technology, but many believe it is here to stay.

There is still a huge element of the sport that relies on human judgment which the traditionalists of the sport will argue should be left in the hands of the person with the whistle in the middle of the field … while the VAR supporters will argue the more eyes on the play the better and that it is simply a matter of mastering the use of the new technology. I think the two biggest knocks on the implementation of the technology have been, one, how long does it delay the game and secondly, the appropriate timing of when the play is actually stopped to review the questionable play.

  1. Too Many Dives

FIFA terms it simulation, that is, the act of when a player takes a dive. In fact the governing body of international soccer instructs it’s officials to issue a yellow card if and when a player does this. Nonetheless, diving is still a huge part of today’s game, which was exemplified by Neymar throughout the tournament. Neymar was in fact the most fouled player in this year’s World Cup by a landslide. However, what several players and coaches were most upset about, was the excessive exaggeration of the injuries and perceived time-wasting that was associated with it.

Neymar
Brazil’s Neymar was the tournament’s most fouled player, however, he received an overwhelming heat of criticism among players, coaches and fans for the way in which he “sold” many of the fouls.

The rolling around in agony and flailing arms led to countless comedic videos go viral, and even allowed Kentucky Fried Chicken an opportunity to commercialize a combo meal “Making a Meal Out of It” through the course of World Cup television commercials. I personally believe the Video Assisted Review will play as a big a role in discouraging this behavior as it will to confirming or denying penalty kicks.

At the end of the day, there is diving or “flopping” in every sport, American football, hockey, and basketball. US soccer legend, Alexi Lalas, in fact calls simulation a skill, stating that there are good ways and bad way to sell fouls.

The World Cup Final on Sunday will feature heavily favorited France take on a somewhat surprising Croatian team. If Croatia prevails, Croatia will be the second smallest country in population (4 million) to ever win the sport’s most coveted trophy after Uruguay (3.4 million) did it in 1930 and 1950. Meanwhile the French feature the second youngest team in this World Cup, with an average age of 26. Needless to say it should be an entertaining final.

Show Me The Money

When the infamous words “Show me the money!” in Tom Cruise’s blockbuster movie Jerry Maguire came out in 1996, Hollywood brought attention to the world of sports and entertainment agency. Since Cruise’s classic, Hollywood has highlighted the glitz and glam associated with that world – the big egos, flashy athletes and everything in between. America has seen Ari Gold in the HBO tv series, Entourage and most recently, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson in HBO’s comedy-drama series, Ballers.

Screen Shot 2017-10-26 at 7.22.07 PM
Tom Cruise (Jerry Maguire), Jeremy Piven as Ari Gold (Entourage) and Dwayne Johnson (Ballers), all portray the hustle behind the glitz and glam of sports agency. 

 

It sounds fun, doesn’t it? Scouting and identifying talent, working with professional athletes, and getting paid millions of dollars in commissions on big 7-figure contracts … who wouldn’t want to do it? Oh and you don’t necessarily have to have a JD, MBA or PHD from a top 10 school to be qualified to do it … if you have the rolodex of contacts, the savviness to build those relationships, and fortitude to build a reputation of trust, and maybe a little luck, you’re right there.

So let’s cross from Hollywood into what the sports agency landscape looks like in reality today.

To a large extent, Hollywood is not far from the truth. The spots agency business is booming. Media right deals, salary caps and the size of professional athletes’ contacts are bigger than ever. In Forbes’ 2017  ranking of the “World’s Most Valuable Sports Agencies,” the firms featured have negotiated a collective $43 billion in current professional athlete contracts, netting over $2.1 billion in commissions, nearly a 10% increase from 2016.

CAA
CAA, the number one sports agency in the world, lands 5 out of the 20 most successful individual sports agents. 

There is one agency that is head and shoulders above the rest. Creative Artists Agency (CAA). Their total in contracts managed is larger than the next three top agencies combined at $8.5 billion (equating to $318 million in commissions). CAA leads the way in football and hockey, and is only second behind to Excel Sports Management in basketball. CAA has 5 of the top 20 compensated sports agents:

  • #9, Pat Brisson – Hockey – $44.05m in commissions
  • #11 Tom Condon – Football – $42.17m in commissions
  • #16 Nez Balelo – Baseball – $28.92m in commissions
  • #17J.P. Barry – Hockey – $28.75m in commissions
  • #18 Todd France – Football – $27.95m in commissions

*Scott Boras (with Boras Corp) ranks #1, earning $108.33M in commissions via baseball.

ScottBoras
The world’s most lucrative sports agent, Scott Boras (right), sitting side by side his client Max Scherzer. Boras negotiated Scherzer’s 7 year $210 million contract. 

CAA’s biggest contracts include Matthew Stafford’s 5 year $135 million deal with the Detroit Lions, Robinson Cano’s $240 million deal with the Seattle Mariners, and Patrick Kane’s 8 year, $84 million deal with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Right behind CAA is Jeff Schwartz’s Excel Sports Management who may be the quickest growing sports agency company, acquiring an increase of over $300 million in contracts last year. Managing a roster of over 60 NBA players, including Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, and Andre Drummond, Excel has dominated the basketball space.

 

Behind Excel, is LA based, Wasserman, with about $2.7 billion in contracts. Wasserman recently acquired European soccer agency Mondial Partners, which makes them  the No. 1 ranked agency in soccer combined with its domestic soccer division.

Rounding out the top 5 is Independent Sports & Entertainment at No. 4 and Octagon at No. 5.

The sports agency business has traditionally had several barriers to entry. In fact, the top 5 conglomerated sports agencies in the world represent over one third of all professional athletes. While the top 40 agencies representing 3,6000 clients, this equates to about 60% of pro athletes in the top 4 US sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NHL, and NBA).

Today, a 24 and a 25 year-old out of New York City are dispelling that stigma. Two years ago, Andrew Hoenig and Daniel Hazan became the youngest agents with a player on a NBA roster with the New York City Knicks Jameel Artis. Today they have 20 clients and have negotiated 11 contracts. Neither of them were certified agents when they started, nor did they have many contacts, so they networked organically by adding athletes on Facebook while taking them to D-League open tryouts, paying for their travel and they learned the business instantaneously on their own. And while they still consistently loose guys they recruited (many of times starting at the beginning of an athletes’ 4 year high school career) to the big agencies like CAA, Excel and Wasserman who come in at the last minute and scoop up the highly talented.

Hazan and Hoenig are trying to develop their own niche specifically within the NBA. They are starting to get guys after they leave Wasserman, or CAA, who want more personal attention. For Artis, it was exactly that, “With me, it’s not about the age of the agent, not about how many people you are representing … They were all focused on me. They were all about Jame Artis getting in the right position.”

AHoenigDHazan.jpg
Andrew Hoenis (left) and Daniel Hazan (right) negotiated their first contract wiht the Knicks for client Jamel Artis (center). 

While the vast majority of agents’ income is made through commissions on their clients’ contracts, the other component to it is marketing and endorsement. Hazan owns his own marketing company called New Generation Management which promotes events and products for Jonathan Simmons, JR Smith and Charles Oakley. Agents typically earn 20-25% from marketing and endorsement contracts. Typically, however, these endorsement earnings just make up 1-2% of their overall player contract.

Needless to say, the sports agency landscape is an interesting one … filled with big egos and lots of money. Whether you’re a young entrepreneur, a seasoned sports marketer, or even an ex-professional athlete, there is opportunity.

 

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