Commentary

Soccer and Metrics (Part 1): Beyond the marketing silliness

By Paul Gardner

Now here's a nice example of the extravagances, the exaggerations the deceptions, and, yes, the downright silliness that are inescapably linked to the methods of the marketeers.

Remember miCoach? Just over three years ago the miCoach system was launched by adidas as a “professional soccer team tracking system, the next step in player performance analysis technology ... [providing] coaches with real time performance metrics on the field of play, including player position, power output, speed, distance covered, intensity of play, acceleration and GPS heat mapping.”

That was the official adidas description, and you don’t have to read very far before you know that you’re not listening to the scientists who created this scheme, nor to the soccer coaches who -- supposedly -- cried out for it. Those words “the next step” tell you immediately, this is marketing talk.

Which to me, means beware. Be prepared for hype -- like this: “miCoach is the most significant advancement in soccer coaching in the modern era.” In just a couple of sentences, the miCoach saga has jumped from standard hype to utter silliness.

You wonder who on earth is going to believe this nonsense. It appears that MLS did. Commissioner Don Garber called miCoach a “new game-changing and revolutionary technology.” But then Garber is a marketing man and his comments on soccer -- sensibly, he keeps them infrequent -- are always likely to be clumsy.

Adidas then started talking about “smart soccer” -- this, I gathered, was a superior form of soccer which had never been seen before. MiCoach now made it possible. The scheme would be used by the MLS team in the 2012 All-Star game, so that was hailed as the world’s first smart-soccer game.

I was at that game and noticed nothing particularly smart, or unusual. Never mind. MLS next announced that all of its teams would be using miCoach during the 2013 and 2014 seasons. More contrived applause for the world’s first smart-league.

By November of 2012 we would learn that there was no stopping the marketeers leading the miCoach charge. On they plunged, passing smoothly beyond mere silliness into utter inanity. A series of TV commercials assailed us. Accompanied by the usual triumphant music, a number of unidentified soccer players went through various physical soccer activities -- but just listen to the melodramatic script:

“This is the Revolution ... This is how the fast get faster ... The strong get stronger ... The smart get smarter ... This is how great players unleash their true potential ... This is the Revolution . . . THIS is smart soccer.”

I have to emphasize that this emetic marketeering over-hype was promoting a product that hadn’t even been marketed yet, and that had no track record of ever having achieved anything.

My interest in miCoach, never exactly great, evaporated. And nothing happened to revive it. During 2013 and 2014, the MLS miCoach seasons, not a single word was heard from either MLS or adidas about how “the most significant advancement in soccer coaching in the modern era” was doing.

Then, a couple of weeks back, I was browsing through the new FIFA Rulebook for 2015-2016 and came across some newly added rules to do with the use of “electronic performance and tracking systems” -- certainly the category to which miCoach belongs. But this seemed like very bad news indeed for miCoach:

“Information and data transmitted from the devices/systems is not permitted to be received or used in the technical area during the match.”

Bad news because, amid all the mega hype, there had been that one clearly defined sales point for miCoach: that it provided the coach with real time performance metrics. And here was FIFA banning any real time use of the data.

I spoke with MLS seeking an update on on miCoach. I was not greatly surprised to hear that, after the 2014 season, the miCoach contract was not renewed. MLS is now the world’s first formerly smart league.

Getting anyone at MLS to criticize adidas, its main partner, was never going to be easy. I got nowhere with that. I was told that the miCoach program proved to be not suitable for first team players, maybe it would be better for reserve or youth players, that the program had undergone changes, had matured. My suggestion that miCoach was a flop was also rejected.

I have had a number of these tracking systems (though not miCoach) demonstrated to me and I always find myself genuinely awed by the amazing technology. It is surely impossible not to be impressed by the information collected and analyzed --- at speed -- by these programs.

And this is, so to speak, pure information, uncorrupted by the limitations and biases that bedevil human observations and measurements. This is the voice of science, the voice of reason, entering the sport. The temptation to assume that the mass of scientific information that it brings must therefore be of great value is overwhelming.

But the questions mount. Of value in what way? Of value to whom? Could it have a negative value?

Those are questions worth pondering. My pondering begins with defining what should be the aim of any of these programs. I don’t think there’s any argument here. The aim is to improve player performance.

Next: Soccer and Metrics (Part 2) - A Troubled Partnership

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