Not Only Lewandowski: the resurgence of Polish football

This post was contributed by James Fisk, graduate administrator at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

The Polish national stadium in Warsaw

The Polish national stadium in Warsaw

There are few things rival football fans set aside their partisan passions for. Indeed, there are also few places with rivalries as pronounced as in Polish football, a place where rivalries can become enmeshed in local politics, cultural identity and even criminality. But, for all the bitter rivalries present, there is one thing most fans will agree on: Polish football is not what it used to be.

During its heyday in the 1970s and 80s, Polish football saw its national team reach two World Cup semi-finals (1974 and 1982) and three of its domestic teams (Legia Warsaw, Widzew Łódź and Górnik Zabrze) reach the semi-finals of the European Cup (now called the Uefa Champions League).  Players such as Włodzimierz Lubański, Kazimierz Deyna and Zbigniew Boniek were the envy of Europe’s biggest clubs and helped cement a golden era for Polish football, an era all the more distinguished by failures played out in the following two decades.

Between 1997 and 2015, there were no Polish teams in the Champions League and between 1987 and 2002 the national team failed to qualify for either the World Cup or the European Championships – a devastating indictment of a footballing regime that had become mired in match-fixing and corruption scandals, culminating in its league champions being punitively relegated, over 100 arrests of players and officials and the entire board of the Polish Football Association being suspended in 2007/08. This nadir signalled an overdue change in the fortunes of Polish football. Euro 2012 served as a catalyst in forging a new identity, ethos and strategy that could launch Polish football back to its position among football’s elite teams and nations. It is this ascendency that brought Robert Blaszcak, a sports media executive and commercial consultant to clubs, federations and media groups, to Birkbeck to discuss this transformation and moving past Euro 2012.

Discussing the steps necessary to a resurgent Polish game, Blaszcak highlighted some crucial areas of development taken by the Polish FA. The most immediate would be the benefits of hosting tournaments and events, as Euro 2012 saw £26 billion invested into infrastructure, something that has provided a platform for the remaking of Polish football. Another chief component was the rebranding initiative that introduced new logos, crests and fan engagement strategies. This, along with securing themselves as hosts for the 2015 Europa League Final and significant investment into youth and women’s teams, has recalibrated the dominant narrative around the Polish league, the ‘Ekstraklasa’, and created a new identity separate from the tarnished one of the 90s and 00s. Furthermore, the league itself has been restructured to avoid scandals of the past, with a transparent distribution model maintaining domestic competition and allowing bigger clubs to still compete in Europe. Indeed, the salary to revenue ratio in the Ekstraklasa is at 52%, something British clubs such as Chelsea, with a ratio of 68%, must see as a far healthier balance between revenue and talent.

Central to galvanising Polish fans however, have been the creative and concerted efforts of club marketers, with a robust commitment to bringing in new fans and those who were disillusioned some years ago being targeted with creative and engaging marketing campaigns. This has translated into games being populated with many younger people, a crucial aspect in creating a sustainable following for clubs and guaranteeing the future of the domestic game. During the ‘dark years’ for Polish football, many young fans adopted ‘second teams’ that would compete in the Champions League, whiletheir hometown clubs failed to reach the group stage. Although events on the pitch are beginning to reflect these positive changes, events off the pitch still have a long way to go, as evidenced by Legia Warsaw’s recent dramatic draw with Real Madrid – a fantastic result marred by the fact it was played behind closed doors due to fan trouble. While many problems persist, particularly in the influence of local politics and crowd trouble, Polish football looks finally set to redeem its golden years.

Robert Blaszcak’s talk was part of the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre public seminar series, an opportunity for open discussion and dialogue, with guest speakers chosen to reflect current trends and issues in the sporting world. You can see their upcoming events by visiting their website.

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“1966 and all that….”

This post was contributed by James Fisk, graduate administrator at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics. On 31 May, James attended the Sport Business Centre’s event, ‘1966 and All That: A Cultural & Social Reflection on England’s World Cup Victory’.

The Queen presents the 1966 World Cup to England Captain, Bobby Moore (National Media Museum @Flickr Commons)

The Queen presents the 1966 World Cup to England Captain, Bobby Moore (National Media Museum @Flickr Commons)

As Europe looks forward in anticipation to this summer’s Euro 2016 tournament, Sports Management masters student Leslie Crang invited academics, students and fans to consider the enduring legacy of England’s biggest footballing victory, the 1966 World Cup.

The 30th July 2016 will represent 50 years since England won the biggest prize in international football, an event that captured the imagination of not only football fans, but of an entire nation, a nation for whom the next 50 years would see significant political and cultural transformation.

The event, held at Birkbeck’s Bloomsbury campus, traced the impact of the World Cup win and its influence on life since; from the rise of commercialism in football and its attendant celebrity culture, to the challenges of articulating national identity in the wake of decolonisation and significant social change.

The audience were also treated to an exploration of cultural artefacts from the win, such as the first ever football song ‘World Cup Willie’, whose eponymous cartoon Lion helped England supporters sing ‘He’s tough as a lion and never will give up’.

Speaking at the event, Director of the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre, Sean Hamil said: “It’s a great chance to bring people together to talk about the win not only as a sporting event, but their own experiences of the cup and the way in which it has influenced their own lives and those around them.”

The shadow of 1966’s legacy

A diverse and engaged audience shared a wealth of differing experiences, from those that have grown up in the shadow of 1966’s legacy, to those who were there at the time. In an open discussion that benefitted from Birkbeck’s burgeoning international cohort, perspectives from Germany, India, Guyana and Nigeria enriched the lively debate and alluded to the global importance of the cup and its ability to influence domestic and international politics, society and identity.

With the EU ‘Brexit’ referendum due to take place on the 23rd June 2016, consideration was made to the potential impact of sport as a vehicle for resurgent nationalism and of its possible influence on the forthcoming referendum. Indeed, there has been some debate as to the influence of 1966’s victory on British politics and the cup’s ‘feel good’ factor; Labour’s win at the 1966 general election followed England’s triumphant victory over West Germany, whilst a loss four years later at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, also against West Germany, saw Labour lose the 1970 general election.

The final England group game will take place on the 20th June against Slovakia and, as the England team fight to keep themselves in Euro 2016, the nation will head to the polls three days later to decide its own European fate. Coincidence or not, the close proximity of the two major national events will undoubtedly play a role in shaping the future of England over the next 50 years.

The event served as precursor for a one-day academic symposium, hosted by Senate House Library on the 3rd June, exploring how England’s triumph in the 1966 World Cup marked a turning point for role of sport, and in which Leslie Crang presented his fascinating work. Birkbeck’s Sport Business Centre offers a wealth of courses exploring the world of sport.

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Role of law expands in evolving football transfer market

This post was contributed by Nick Eisen, Business Engagement Reporter, Birkbeck School of Business, Economics and Informatics

Football transfer deals require greater legal input than ever before, being more complex and involving more money, parties and issues than in the past. A presentation organised by the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre (BSBC) focused on these developments.

Titled The Football Transfer Market Uncovered: An Insider’s Perspective of How Things Work in Football, the presentation took place at the British Medical Association in Tavistock Square on Monday 22 February, and was part of the BSBC’s Public Seminar Series.

The speakers were Daniel Geey, Partner, and Jonny Madill, Associate, at the Sports Group of media law firm Sheridans, a long-term supporter of the Public Seminar Series. The two lawyers offered an overview of current issues in a complicated and often-misunderstood subject, and facilitated extended and lively question-and-answer sessions, in which the presenters and audience of sports industry professionals, academics, students and public explored evolving issues.

The evening divided into four main areas: the player contract, the lawyer’s role in the transfer process, the transfer window, and key commercial issues. On another level, lawyers had also been advising on intermediary (agent) regulation.

Football-transfer-market---Sheridans

Individuals, organisations and change

In an era of big money, new markets and revenue streams, new media, increased media coverage, and globalisation for football, one general theme was reconciling individual and organisational interests (such as player and club). Another theme could be seen as the sheer pace and level of change to which lawyers and others have to adapt.

Parties requiring legal advice in a transfer include the buying and selling clubs, player, player’s agent and the leagues and federations involved. Documents that lawyers negotiate and draft include the transfer agreement, employment contract, image rights, performance-related pay, release clauses and work permit. Failure to agree any one of these could mean the failure of the entire deal.

With such multiple parties and issues, one example of a contract strikingly indicated the challenge of adapting some mid-20th century procedures to the 21st century, and showed that rapid change in one area might not always entail rapid change in another: a multimillion-euro transfer deal was framed in a contract effectively less than five pages long. Daniel Geey pointed out that it was very unlikely that any other business would handle such a valuable deal and all its component parts so briefly.

Performance-related pay

Pay is one indicator of the changing relationship between clubs and players: there has been a shift away from unvarying, guaranteed remuneration and towards variable, performance-related reward: “giving players more control over their earnings”, as Jonny Madill described it. Here, the objective is to incentivise the player to aim for team benefit rather than personal benefit. Performance analytics (explored in an earlier BSBC/OptaPro event) help in devising incentives. Some have objected to the lower guaranteed earnings. Others stress the potential to earn more through performance rewards. Further tensions have arisen when rewards have not matched expectations.

Such structures can also create anomalies; sporting success can threaten financial failure: bonuses due to players for competition success at one club (Barcelona) led it into financial difficulties in paying those bonuses. The FA allows clubs to insure against such a possibility, though insuring against negatives (such as relegation) is prohibited.

In another area, changing approaches have also threatened to increase individual players’ liabilities. In one case, a club (Chelsea) sued a player for breach of contract and compensation on his transfer fee, due to an issue of illegal drug use. The club subsequently dropped the lawsuit. Players’ representative body FIFPro has questioned why players should be held liable for transfer fees negotiated between clubs without involving the players concerned or their advisers.

Release clauses

To balance the interests of player and club, release clauses also require careful drafting, consisting, among other things, of multiple triggers specific to different contingencies (such as approaches from certain clubs, relegation or time period).

Image rights

In the UK, image rights can now be 20% of a top-level player’s earnings (limited by UK tax authorities) and a valuable endorsement tool for that player’s club. Legally agreeing how the club can use the player’s image is therefore vital. Paying such earnings to a player’s image rights company rather than to the player reduces tax liability. Here therefore, the lawyer’s role is to negotiate between club and player’s company, as well as between club and player.

Work permits

The FA has an intricate new work permit regime, with one tier for European Economic Area (EEA) players and the other for non-EEA players. Lawyers have to navigate a complex system of qualifying points dependent on what minutes a footballer has played in which league in which jurisdiction and can appeal points decisions before an Exceptions Panel – divided into two levels… The UK’s EU referendum result could change the situation again.

Transfer window

The transfer window can also pit individual players against clubs. Some see restricting periods in which players can change teams as providing clubs with some stability. Others argue this restriction conflicts with normal employment rights. FIFPro has complained to the European Commission (EC) that the transfer system is incompatible with EU law, questioning transfer fees and why players’ employment rights should be different from other employment rights (again, how this will affect the UK will depend on the result of the UK referendum on EU membership).

Players’ agents also have a dispute about regulations. The Association of Football Agents has complained to the EC that world football governing body FIFA’s regulatory 3% cap on agent commissions constitutes price-fixing incompatible with EU law.

Jonny Madill concluded the evening by heralding ongoing and likely future issues, including that of transparency in football.

The evening was another event in the BSBC’s active strategy of engagement for all. Closing the evening, BSBC Director Sean Hamil emphasised the role of the Public Seminar Series as a forum for academia, industry and public to meet and explore important developments in sport

Image: Courtesy of richardobeirne under CC via Flickr.co

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How the science of analytics can raise football’s game

This post was contributed by Nick Eisen, Business Engagement Reporter, Birkbeck School of Business, Economics and Informatics

Football

Studying the data could revolutionise football’s development, according to a conference hosted by Birkbeck’s Sport Business Centre in February.

In collaboration with the Sport Business Centre, sports analytics provider OptaPro’s 2016 Analytics Forum attracted international attendance when the event was held on Wednesday 10 February at the University of London’s Senate House.

The Birkbeck Sport Business Centre had also hosted the previous two editions of the annual conference. The collaboration with Opta is part of the Centre’s mission to provide a forum for informed debate on emerging areas of best practice in sport management, of which the field of player performance analytics is one.

Winning formula: finding present indicators of future performance

Presentations showed how analytics could help to build winning teams and described research quantifying correlations between specific elements of play and performance. Recognising such correlations could help coaches, managers and others focus on elements indicating correlations with longer-term success. Some initial findings also cast doubt on pieces of received wisdom.

Attendees networking at the event

Attendees networking at the Analytics Forum in Senate House

Focusing on the Premier League, analyst Joel Salamon found like-for-like comparisons to be valuable indicators of future performance. For example, he found correlations between chances a player created early in a career and chances created later on, as with shots: like predicted like. Conversely, Salamon’s study found no significant correlation between how young a player was when first recognised as a top-level regular and subsequent success.

One of blogger Sam Jackson’s findings from his study of goalkeepers, and how they deal with crosses, suggested that the game attributes too much importance to how tall a goalkeeper is.

Speakers acknowledged that their findings were preliminary, required larger studies involving more players and teams, and could be refined to offer more sophisticated indications of future success or failure. But, the speakers argued, the studies already suggested analytics was a valuable addition to other skills in the game.

Translating research into practice, numbers into words

Dean Oliver presents at the OptaPro 2016 Analytics Forum

Dean Oliver presents at the OptaPro 2016 Analytics Forum

One question from the floor was: how could the mathematics of this research translate into a language that would win over players, coaches and others? Guest speaker Dean Oliver, renowned statistician of the US National Basketball Association (NBA), addressed this.

Citing his NBA work, Mr Oliver suggested that analytics experts adapt to the sport rather than try to teach the sport about analytics, and that analytics were an addition to existing approaches, not a replacement for them. Introducing analytics was likely to be a gradual process that would have to overcome resistance with persuasion, fostering cooperation and managing expectations by avoiding overconfident claims. Two of Mr Oliver’s key phrases were: “Relate everything to wins”, and: “Understand the existing process and where you can help”.

This Forum offered an exciting view of the contribution analytics could make to football.

With thanks to OptaPro (view tweets from conference)

Hosted by Birkbeck Sport Business Centre (on twitter and LinkedIn)

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The next School of Business, Economics and Informatics Open Evening, will be held on 14 April, 17:00-19:00

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