Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What Soccer Can Teach Us About the Value of "The Best"

Word came recently that my beloved Red Sox are close to buying Liverpool, one of the soccer (I should say football, especially since I'm in Europe) clubs in the English Premier League (EPL). While I would prefer that the Sox owners put the money into acquiring a few stronger players, I understand the business motivation: after the last World Cup, there is (again) talk that soccer is finally catching on in America, and investing in a premium franchise, and in an English-speaking country, makes sense as a long-term play.

Well, so I thought, to the extent I thought about it at all. The essential logic is that the EPL represents the best in soccer, and that those franchises will only continue to increase in prominence and importance. Numerous books on business and branding have noted the phenomenon that the rich get richer, that there are many industries where winner increasingly takes all, and the most successful, the most powerful, the most well-known increasingly get more money and fame while second-best fades.

However, this column by Theodore Dalyrimple, ostensibly about the World Cup, caused me to reconsider. The key point:

There is also an interesting contrast between the way the professional sport is practiced in Germany and in England.

The English football league generates far more money than the German, and most observers deem it the best in the world, at least in terms of attracting hundreds of millions of television viewers. Players in the English league are much better paid than those in the German league (though the Germans are hardly impoverished). However, most of the players in the top echelon of the English league are foreign. Many of the best clubs have only two or three English players, and some have none. English clubs import players; German clubs foster and train German players. English clubs are largely owned by foreigners, such as Russian oligarchs of the most dubious reputation; German clubs are owned by Germans. English clubs lose money and are highly indebted; German clubs make a profit and have monetary reserves. And as I have already mentioned, the German national team plays incomparably better than the English national team.

As a marketer, I have to think that the German teams (and German soccer) as brands, are in the stronger long-term position. They are authentic, local, and sustainable, all modern branding buzzwords for a reason. One could imagine a future in which the EPL fans grow disenchanted with their crazy owners (who aren't English) and pampered players (who aren't English) and see their league as fatally compromised. One could also see a future in which the unsustainable financial practices of these teams cause a paring back, with the best talent going to other leagues, including the German ones, and cutting into the EPL's talent advantage.

If John Henry and the other Red Sox owners wanted my advice (which of course they don't) I would tell them not to invest in a bubble inflated by foreign money chasing "the best". They should try to be a part of building something (which is what they've done with the Sox) rather than buying at the peak of a sports bubble. They might even think about using some of that money to build soccer in the US. But I think they'll find the value of owning the Liverpool 'brand' will be much less than they think.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Incentive to Mediocrity

In my last post, I argued that greatness is increasingly unlikely to occur when society rewards talent so lavishly in its embryonic state. I would like to examine the issue from another perspective: is there, in fact, an incentive in modern life to be mediocre?

Throughout most of history, luxury was exceedingly rare, and only those at the pinnacle of power (think kings, dukes and the like) could harness sufficient economic resources to have it. This changed with the industrial revolution to some degree, but the real shift came with the advent of electricity and broadcast technology, which allowed for the first time most people to consume entertainment regularly. The advent of commercial air travel then allowed the non-elite to consume experiences (going to a beach in the winter, seeing exotic places or great art) with some regularity. After this, you no longer had to be a king to receive the best society has to offer, just moderatly wealthy: the top 1% of US households bring in more than $350,000 a year, which will pay for a very nice home, luxurious travel, and a damned big television.

So the incentives, perhaps, start to change for people. Is it worth it to kill yourself for your art, your science, your political platform, if you can achieve recognition and wealth without going quite that far? For those without genius-level talent, a great effort is necessary just to get to that elite level, and they will work extremely hard if they want all the perks of modern life. But the most gifted can achieve great success without supreme exertion: these are the people who 'make it look easy.'

I admit there is no proof to back up my idle theorizing, but the nature of modern luxury seems to offer at least a partial explanation for why society has produced so few truly great individuals in the post-WWII era.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The End of Greatness

Would Ghengis Khan have conquered most of Asia and a big chunk of Europe if he had been able to vacation in the South of France? Would Tolstoy or Dostoevsky have toiled over thousand page novels if they could have gained fame and fortune from an Oprah's Book Club sticker? Would the leaders of the American Revolution have stuck with their hard path if the UN had existed to intervene and 'talk it out'?

These are, perhaps, stupid questions. At least, on their face, they are unanswerable. But they point to something I think is important: the great reduction of greatness in all walks of life in our modern times. Whatever the realm you choose to inspect, whether statecraft or art or science, we seem to be suffering, in the last 70 years or so, from a distinct absence of greatness. One could argue that we might recognize greatness in some of our contemporaries only once time has passed, but I think we'll find, even decades from now, that this time will be marked by a dearth of the extraordinary. Why? Because the luxuries and temptations of modern society sap the most talented of their will to punish themselves to scale the mountains which they might be capable of ascending.

Society has become so good at recognizing and celebrating talent that it rewards the gifted before their talents have matured. The intelligent, the creative, the visionary: for the most part they are absorbed into the upper levels of privilege before they have had the chance to achieve true greatness. If a talented 20- or 30-something is whisked off to Cannes or Miami or given the funds to afford a lavish lifestyle in the great cities of the world, chances are they are going to be diverted from whatever greatness they still had to achieve.

I can't imagine an easy solution to this problem. We just have to hope that later generations will be better able to resist the lures of a well-developed material culture, and will once again be willing to walk the hard road to high achievement.