The Longest Long Shot (Ep. 249)
When the uncelebrated Leicester City Football Club won the English Premier League, it wasn’t just the biggest underdog story in recent history. It was a sign of changing economics — and that other impossible, wonderful events might be lurking just around the corner.
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.
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MUSIC: The Sound Room, “Dirty Groove”
It’s a town most people hadn’t heard of, which many couldn’t even pronounce.
ROGER BENNETT: It’s really in the middle of nowhere. It’s a nondescript, Middle English town. Population, about that of Wichita, Kansas.
Its claims to fame? King Richard III was buried there. Otherwise, fairly sparse.
BENNETT: It was once England’s post-industrial leather center. Now the epicenter of the English potato-chip industry.
But in the last few months, it has become …
BENNETT: It has become home to the greatest underdog story of all time.
We are talking, of course, about …
BENNETT: Leicester. This town has become the center of the sporting world.
Leicester has become the center of the sporting world, yes, but more specifically the world of English football, or what we Americans call soccer.
BENNETT: What this team have done — this innocuous little team, a team that were almost like an extra in a movie, or a third cousin at a bar mitzvah surprised to been invited and just happy to be in the background of the photographs — they’ve gone from the very bottom of the Premier League to the very top, in the course of 12 months.
Today on Freakonomics Radio: how did this happen?
BENNETT: Watching them — I can only describe it — it’s like watching the Miracle on Ice happen over 36 games again and again.
JOHN HILL: I think it’s the biggest betting upset we’ve ever seen in the U.K. and around the world.
But even more important, what does the Leicester City miracle mean for the rest of us?
BENNETT: “If Leicester City can win the Premier League, you can do anything.”
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So, in the last few years, I have been in the process of becoming a serious-ish soccer fan, mostly because of this guy:
SOLOMON DUBNER: I’m Solomon Dubner.
STEPHEN J. DUBNER: And our relationship is…
SOLOMON DUBNER: Father and son. And co-podcast hosts on Footy for Two.
STEPHEN J. DUBNER: That is true. We do do a podcast together that’s about football. We should say that just about everything that I’ve learned about footy in the last several years you’ve taught me.
SOLOMON DUBNER: Pretty much.
MUSIC: Mark Ullrich, “Grasshopper”
Solomon is 15. On Footy for Two, he talks match results and tactics and transfer news, and I pretty much just try to keep up. Mostly I fail.
STEPHEN J. DUBNER: So how would you describe your level of interest or obsession with the sport?
SOLOMON DUBNER: This might sound crazy, but I’d say I’m top 500 to 1,000 Americans in football knowledge. Or at least for kids. I know a lot. It’s pretty much my whole life, sadly.
STEPHEN J. DUBNER: Now, let me ask you this. Why did or do you consider it your duty to school your father in football?
SOLOMON DUBNER: Because you’ve taught me most things about life, so I think I should teach you something, right? I think that sounds fair.
Last year, Solomon and I went to Europe during spring break to see as many football matches as we could in person. One of them, it turns out, featured Leicester, more officially known as the Leicester City Football Club, playing away against Tottenham Hotspur in North London.
Stephen DUBNER: That was the “seven-goal filler” that we saw at White Hart Lane? That was Leicester?
Solomon DUBNER: Jamie Vardy scored then, of course. Then they won, I think seven or eight out of the last nine games, without losing one, and stayed up, finishing in 14th place with 41 points. And then they sacked Pearson, the racist sex orgy, hired the Tinkerman, Claudio Ranieri …
OK, whoa whoa whoa, we’re getting way ahead of the story here. We’ll get to all that – the “great escape” and what it means to “stay up” in the Premier League, rather than getting demoted. Also the sex orgy, the Tinkerman, everything. But first, a little background, especially if you’re not familiar with how European soccer leagues work. Because the Leicester City story is not just a Cinderella story; it’s a story about income inequality, about paradigm-shifting; it’s a story that’ll probably show up in business-school case studies for years to come by every David who’s looking to take down not just one Goliath but a whole army of them.
MUSIC: Justin Cimino, “Pillar to Post” (from Pillar to Post)
ROGER BENNETT: To really understand it, for your listeners, Stephen, you have to understand that the reality of English football, it’s not like American sport.
BENNETT: It is a very small beachhead for the growing, growing magnitude of Americans who are falling ever deeper under the spell of the Premier League.
Bennett grew up in Liverpool.
BENNETT: The jewel of the nation.
DUBNER: It is a lovely city.
BENNETT: It’s the Baltimore of England, Stephen.
The team that Bennett supports is not the legendary Liverpool Football Club, which has won many trophies. But rather the somewhat less legendary Everton, an even older club that also plays in the city of Liverpool. Why support Everton?
BENNETT: Birth. Father. Grandfather. It’s in my blood. And I do believe it’s possibly the greatest way to bring up your children. It prepares them for the vicissitudes and also misery of life. It really hardens them young.
Anyway, as Bennett said, to understand the Leicester story, you need to understand that English football leagues don’t work at all like the typical American sports league.
BENNETT: Which is bizarrely one of the only things in America which is actually communist in the way it’s set up. In English sport, there’s no draft; there’s no salary cap; there’s no revenue sharing, no parity. In the Premier League, it’s every team for themselves.
STEFAN SZYMANSKI: This is not a recent phenomenon.
And that is Stefan Szymanski.
SZYMANSKI: I’m a professor of sport management at the University of Michigan. I’m actually an economist by background, and I’ve been writing about the economics and business of pro sports, really, for the last 25 years or so.
SZYMANSKI: Well, the simple answer is that money buys success and that the big clubs generate far more money than anyone else, and so they are able to buy the best new talent coming into the league and perpetuate that success. And this goes back 50 years or more in each of these leagues.
MUSIC: Judson Lee Music, “Poking Too Much Fun” (from Judson Lee Music)
“Each of these leagues” meaning the leagues throughout Europe: in Spain, for instance, it’s La Liga; in Italy, Serie A; it’s Ligue 1 in France, the Bundesliga in Germany — and in England, the Premier League, which is the most-watched football league in the world. Each season, 20 clubs play 38 matches to determine a champion. Those 20 clubs aren’t constant, the way they are in American sports leagues – we’ll get into that later. Each season, the league champion is simply the team that accumulates the most points over those 38 matches: you get three points for a win, one for a draw, none for a loss. There’s no playoffs, no conferences or brackets – just one long march, from August to May, designed to flush out pretenders and flukes.
BENNETT: And the big teams — Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City — they’ve owned the Premier League. Only five teams have won it in the previous 23 years. They just keep sharing it, as if by right, by divine, God-given right.
SZYMANSKI: And the difference, particularly for American sports fans who aren’t used to this system, the big difference to understand is that American leagues have instituted a series of restraints on the clubs, on the teams, in order to prevent this kind of dominance emerging. You think of salary caps; you think of revenue-sharing and all the myriad of measures that restrain competition in the American leagues, almost all of those measures are absent in Europe. So there’s no restraint which prevents the big clubs from becoming dominant and then perpetuating that dominance through the power of the checkbook.
DUBNER: We’re all so used to, in American team sports, having a draft of the new round of amateur players — new professional players — where the worst teams generally get the top picks. Nothing like that in these leagues, correct?
SZYMANSKI: There’s no draft system and, indeed, the clubs now carry out a global search for the best young players. And when we talk about young, we’re often talking about 8-year-olds that they’re looking for. And, of course, the big clubs with the big financial resources can trawl everywhere on the planet and the small and medium-sized clubs just don’t have the resources to do that.
DUBNER: How would you best describe the predominance of repeat champions in Europe versus, let’s say, Major League Baseball?
SZYMANSKI: So, I wrote a paper on this with a couple of co-authors, Luigi Buzzacchi and Tommaso Valletti, a few years ago. And the way we put this was to talk about how many teams could possibly get into the top five places over a given period of time — the top five rankings, say, in win percentage for a season — and how many actually do. And if you look at something like Major League Baseball, over a period of 20, 30 years, maybe 60 percent, 70 percent of all franchises end up getting into one of those top five slots, if you just take this arbitrary measure of win percentage in the regular season. And then you make the same comparison in Europe and look at how many teams could get into those top five places over a period of 20, 30 years and how many actually do. And the answer is: it comes down to more like 10, 15 percent. And the difference in that is both in the numerator and in the denominator. So, there are actually more teams getting to those top places in the American leagues, but also, interestingly, there are many more teams that could get into those top places in the European leagues. And that’s because of the system of promotion and relegation.
BENNETT: There’s a thing called relegation, which is like the moon door in Games of Thrones, through which teams — the bottom three teams every year — are just callously chucked down. It’s as if in Major League Baseball, you took the worst teams in the major league every year and just discarded them, into Triple-A.
That’s right. In relegation, the three bottom teams are flushed out of the league into a lower league. It’s a concept that doesn’t exist in American sports, though I have to say, I wish it did. Maybe in American politics as well.
BENNETT: We can do Congress. Oh, I’d love to do Congress.
MUSIC: Adi Goldstein, “Keep it Simple” (from Keep It Simple)
In any case: when you relegate the three worst clubs from the top football league, you have to replace them with the three best clubs from the lower league. This is called promotion. So every season, three clubs from the top league are sent down and three from the lower league are boosted up. Which brings us back to Leicester City Football Club. It was founded in 1884 and since then has gone back and forth between the first and second leagues of English football, with a brief descent, just seven years ago, into the third-level league. There are many, many levels in English football and throughout Europe — from the rich and glamorous top leagues down through semi-pro and Sunday-league amateurs. Freakonomics Radio, in fact, sponsors a Sunday-league team called Dun Cow Football Club, which plays in Shrewsbury. Its league is roughly 20 levels below the Premier League. But, good news: after finishing second in its league this season, Dun Cow has just been promoted. So, only 19 more levels to go until the Premier League! Leicester City, meanwhile, two years ago finished atop the second division of English football and was therefore promoted to the Premier League. But toward the end of their first season back in the top league, it looked like they were bound for relegation again:
BENNETT: As recently as April 17, 2015, little Leicester, decrepit little Leicester, were bottom of the table. Doomed. There were nine games to go. No one gets off the bottom of the table and manages to escape relegation. Somehow, they won seven of the last nine. They Glenn Close’d it back to life. It was fantastic.
This was the “great escape” that Solomon was talking about. And the match we saw Leicester lose in person, to Spurs, was the match just before they caught fire. So, by winning seven of their last nine matches, Leicester stayed up in the Premier League for another season. But their troubles were hardly over.
MUSIC: Phil Symonds, “Picture Pieces”
BENNETT: They had a manager then. A man called Nigel Pearson who was a stern, authoritarian kind of despot. And he was willing to attack opposing players while the game was going on. He tried to strangle one of the opposing players.
SOLOMON DUBNER: He choked an opposing player. Yeah.
It gets worse.
BENNETT: Then in the off-season, Leicester, owned by a Thai entrepreneur, went on a tour of Thailand and — terrible idea to take English footballers to Thailand — a video emerged of a couple of the footballers, one of whom was Nigel Pearson’s son, engaged in a shameful tryst with a gaggle of Thai prostitutes, which brought shame to the Thai owner, shame to the club.
So even though Nigel Pearson led Leicester to the great escape from relegation …
BENNETT: Nigel Pearson fell. He couldn’t get over this video, which was social-media catnip. And he was discarded, replaced with a gent of the anti-Nigel Pearson.
In comes a new manager, the gentlemanly Italian Claudio Ranieri, known as the Tinkerman for constantly tinkering with lineups. Although very well-liked, Ranieri has a reputation …
BENNETT: A reputation as a loser. Twenty-nine years, he’d never won a title anywhere. The guy lost everywhere. English journalists howled and said this team are hopeless. They were hopeless. Now, they are doomed. Doomed to relegation. The bookmakers said they’re 5,000-to-1 to win the Premier League title.
That’s right. At the start of this season, British betting houses put Leicester’s chances of winning the league at 5,000-to-1, which seemed, if anything, perhaps too generous. My son Solomon again:
SOLOMON DUBNER: What would you say if I told you the Cleveland Browns were going to win the Super Bowl next season?
STEPHEN J. DUBNER: I would say that you’ve started smoking marijuana.
SOLOMON DUBNER: Exactly, and that’s what you would have said if I said Leicester had won the league.
And yet: Leicester did win the league.
MUSIC: Phil Symonds, “Love Generation” (from Love Generation)
BENNETT: It was like watching Mighty Ducks. It was like watching Major League with Charlie Sheen. It was like watching Karate Kid but for real. A team chosen by no one, fancied by no one, respected by no one, unbelievably they’ve clinched the Premier League title, and even the players that I’ve interviewed can’t quite explain how they did it.
So how did they do it? It’s a combination of many factors, surely. We should start with the players.
BENNETT: That is part of Leicester’s genius. They have scouted unbelievably well. They realized they didn’t have the money. They were willing to look at certain statistics in a slight “Moneyball” variation that the big teams just didn’t value.
Jamie Vardy, for instance, who wound up tied for second in the Premier League for goals scored.
SZYMANSKI: Four years ago, he was playing in the fifth tier of English football.
SOLOMON DUBNER: Pretty much pub football. Sunday league, he was a factory worker.
Another relatively obscure signing was Riyad Mahrez, who wound up fifth in the league in goals.
BENNETT: A young Algerian with the face of a young Omar Sharif. A lot of big teams had looked at him, but all of the big teams said he’s too slight; he’s a waif; he’ll never survive the physicality of English football.
But Mahrez did survive, as did the rest of Leicester. They had a remarkably injury-free season, especially relative to other clubs. The players also got on with one another quite well.
BENNETT: The players themselves all point to this unique spirit and team chemistry that exists in the club.
Plus, their underestimated manager, Claudio Ranieri, made some good decisions:
BENNETT: What Ranieri did, he made their team incredibly quick and incredibly vertical. He played a high-velocity counter-attacking football in which they love to attack space.
And as it happened, there was room at the top of the table this season in the Premier League.
BENNETT: The five big teams — Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, and Liverpool Football Club — they all blinked. Complacency at every level — managerial, recruitment, tactical. All of them have had seasons of flux, transition, disappointment.
There’s at least one more factor you can’t dismiss:
BENNETT: They also had luck.
But there is no amount of luck, or team chemistry, or good scouting, that is supposed to be able to produce the result that happened this year. Low-level clubs like Leicester City just do not win championships in top leagues.
SZYMANSKI: So, I estimated that the wage budget for Leicester in the current season would have ranked them about 12th in the Premier League. And they were competing against teams like Manchester City, whose budget would have been about four times as much as Leicester City’s. And there’s usually a pretty close correlation between the rank of your budget within the league and your league position at the end of the season.
DUBNER: So when is the last time that someone so relatively low-ranked in budget won this or any other top league?
SZYMANSKI: Well, in England, the last time, probably, is 1979, when Nottingham Forest won the English Football League championship, which is what the Premier League title would now be called. And there was a very distinctive manager, a man named Brian Clough, who clearly had the ability to take relatively low-valued players and turn them into superstars, and that was the secret of his success. Brian Clough did it not only at Nottingham Forest in ’79, but with another small club, Derby County, in 1974. So he did it twice in a period of five or six years.
DUBNER: Now would you say that, that the relationship between spending and success in American team sports is, whether necessarily less, but is significantly less strong, because of the constraints, as you said, having to do with the way profit-sharing happens, drafting happens, and so on?
SZYMANSKI: Oh that’s quite certainly the case. Now, it varies depending on which league you look at. So, in Major League Baseball, there’s still quite a significant correlation between spending and success. But if you look at something like the NFL, where really the difference in wage-spending budget between the top team and the bottom team is negligible — well, there’s almost no scope, statistically, for money to make a difference. So if you actually removed all of those restraints in the NFL, you would get the same phenomenon. And maybe actually, if you think about it, that’s what college football is. That’s a system where there are no restraints on recruitment and effectively you see huge dominance by relatively big colleges in the different conferences.
DUBNER: What do you think it says about the American system overall versus the European systems that we opt for sports leagues that have this built-in quest for parity?
SZYMANSKI: Well, I’ve always been very surprised by this. So to me, thinking as an economist, I think of this as the difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes. And when I think of Europeans in general, we tend to have strong systems of social services and safety nets, which ensure, really to a large extent, equality of outcomes within the European systems. But traditionally, we have a sense of limited equality of opportunity. We have class systems, we have big social gaps. And America, we always think of as being the reverse — where there’s equality of opportunity, but very limited safety net. And it seems to me that the sports story is completely the opposite. In Europe, we have this incredibly hypercompetitive, capitalist system where the devil take the hindmost, and we have a lot of financial failure in Europe. That’s also one thing that goes with this — an incredible financial distress and failure. And yet, in America, there’s these leagues which are essentially closed societies, which don’t allow any competition, and then share out the resources equally in almost a socialist fashion amongst the top teams. It seems that the mental framework for sports is at odds with the mental framework about competition in society more broadly.
DUBNER: Here, the quest for parity creates something that’s pretty close to a cartel, which is that if you are in, you will almost be guaranteed to do quite well, which again, doesn’t seem to be much the American political system. But do you know anything about how we evolved into this seemingly un-American cartel-ish league system?
SZYMANSKI: Well, there are a number of steps that are very interesting in this. One of the things is this absolute matter of faith, I think, in the United States that parity is necessary for league success. And this is something that really emerged all the way back in the 1880s, when the National League in baseball started talking about the need to maintain parity and give equal chances to the weaker teams. And yet, the history of European soccer proves, I think beyond any reasonable doubt, that parity is almost unimportant. So La Liga in Spain is currently in many ways the most successful — or certainly Barcelona and Real Madrid are two of the biggest clubs on the planet, and yet, they have the most unequal league that you could imagine. And the Premier League — traditionally it has been for many years — a very unequal competition, and yet it generates phenomenal revenue. So for example, the combined soccer leagues of Europe now generate an annual revenue of about $25 billion, which is equal to the combined annual revenues of the NFL, Major League Baseball, and the NBA. So, it’s not that this is economically unsuccessful. And there are plenty of people who step forward who want to put money into these leagues. Indeed, there have been many American owners investing in English soccer; many of the Premier League teams are now owned by Americans. So this system works terribly well, it seems to me. I think one of the problems is that people have bought into this idea of parity and that’s been a cover for the leagues in order to, really, to cartelize the leagues and to ensure that they are very profitable for their owners.
MUSIC: Shadows from the Underground, “Steamrolling” (from Steamrolling)
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MUSIC: Pailboy, “Bronx Lion” (from Pailboy)
JOHN MICKLETHWAIT: I rather famously used to always bet on them every year.
That is John Micklethwait.
MICKLETHWAIT: And I’m the editor-in-chief at Bloomberg. And I was formerly the editor-in-chief of The Economist.
DUBNER: Which meant you lived in London.
MICKLETHWAIT: Which meant I lived in London.
Micklethwait grew up close to the city of Leicester and still has a house there. For many years, he had a tradition.
MICKLETHWAIT: Pretty much since the mid-1990s, I used to go and bet every year, because the start of the soccer season was the same time as my birthday, which is August 11. It became a sort of ritual. And I did that throughout my long career at The Economist.
DUBNER: All right, so you’re saying that every single year, for the last roughly 20 years, you’ve made a season-beginning bet on Leicester to win whatever league they were in, correct?
MICKLETHWAIT: Exactly. And for most of that period of that 20 years — I looked back and checked — I won nothing in most years.
And then this past year, when the British betting houses established Leicester as a 5,000-to-1 long-shot for winning the Premier League …
MICKLETHWAIT: I foolishly moved to your country and as a result of that, and not being in Britain in August, I somehow forgot to bet.
DUBNER: And you typically bet how much? £20?
MICKLETHWAIT: £20 is what I bet recently.
DUBNER: OK, so let me ask you a question. If you had made your customary bet this season, you would have won roughly £100,000.
MICKLETHWAIT: £100,000. Which is a disappointing thing to have missed.
DUBNER: Here’s what I really want to know, John. Would you rather have won that money — which is not nothing, but it’s not a new world — or would you rather have this remarkable story of having never failed to place the bet, except for the one year in which this bet would have paid off?
MICKLETHWAIT: Strangely, throughout this entire thing, although I’ve regretted not putting the money down, it’s never made me not desperately want Leicester to win. Because if you’ve spent your life supporting this team, then you’re intrinsically on that side of it. I think the other thing I should say, which is being honest — again this doesn’t reflect well on me — but for, at least, for a couple of months at them being at the top, I miscalculated. I don’t know why I did this. I thought it was £20 against £10,000, which — it would have been a lot of money, but not as much as £100,000. So I was sort of more, kind of, jokey about it. It was actually only when I did the proper maths — actually one of my children did the proper maths — that I began to realize the seriousness of what I’d missed.
DUBNER: There’s been quite a bit written about the astronomical payout that the bookies will have to make, but my assessment — I’m just curious to know if you’ve seen any data on this or just have any intuition for it — is that there are relatively few payouts on Leicester winning even at that very, very, very high rate, that there are many, many, many more people who bet the big clubs, and that it’s in the interest of the bookmakers to act as if they’re very aggrieved, but in fact it’s a wonderful advertisement for them and they probably are doing just fine.
MICKLETHWAIT: You are a wonderfully shrewd man, and I think you’re absolutely correct. On most numbers I’ve seen, bookmakers tend to lose out heavily when there’s a favorite, which is heavily backed and where there are odds of 2-to-3 to 1. You see that on racehorses, that happens quite a lot. The long shots, there typically aren’t many people who bet on them, Leicester to win the premiership. But you’re right. In terms of the economics of gambling, I suspect actually that if the bookmakers, this has been a very good thing, because what has happened is it’s excited everybody to the idea that long shots — horses that are unfancied — are worth putting money on, and the honest truth is they’re usually not.
JOHN HILL: In the end, we’re looking at probably an industry loss of around £20 million for Britain’s bookmakers, which is a big payout in one day to be giving out.
MUSIC: Chauncey Canfield, “Bondo” (from Chauncey Canfield)
And that is a British bookmaker, or at least a spokesman for one. John Hill is with Coral, one of the country’s biggest betting shops. (He is no relation to William Hill, which is the name of another big British bookmaker.)
HILL: We have just over 1,800 shops in the U.K. But we also have a strong online business, as well. As a company, we take bets on football, horse racing — they’re two of our core products. But we take bets on more or less everything, whether it’s cricket, whether it’s novelty betting, the British weather — that’s one thing that the British public love to bet on, the weather.
Hill says that 114 Coral customers bet on Leicester City to win the Premier League at odds of 1,000-to-1 or longer:
HILL: I think it’s the biggest betting upset we’ve ever seen in the U.K. and around the world.
No other event really compares.
HILL: Just looking at some of the previous sporting achievements. Ben Curtis, the American, he won the 2003 Open Championship. He was 300-to-1 that year.
That’s the American golfer Ben Curtis, winning what the Brits call the Open Championship and what Americans call the British Open.
HILL: We offer bets on horse racing. The biggest-ever winner in horse racing in the U.K. is 250-to-1. So, 5,000-to-1 — that’s far bigger than anything else which has been successful before in the world of sport.
How does a bookmaker establish the betting odds?
HILL: So at the start of the season, we’ll price up every single team, say, in the Premier League. You’ll have a favorite, which normally is the side which won the Premier League before. Leicester, as I say, were close to being relegated, so they were rightfully one of the outsiders. That 5,000-to-1 — nobody would have said at the start of the season, “well that is the wrong price.”
CHARLES WHEELAN: At some point, it’s a bit arbitrary.
That’s Charlie Wheelan.
Wheelan warns that we shouldn’t take an oddsmaker’s numbers too literally.
WHEELAN: When bookmakers make odds for football games, or soccer games, or anything of that nature, it’s really not a terribly scientific process. In contrast, if you go to Las Vegas, we know with precision what the likelihood is of spinning red or black when you’re doing roulette because we know how many holes there are on the wheel, and so on. We know with precision what the likelihood is of drawing 21 when you’re playing blackjack. Those are things that are essentially scientific because we know the number of possibilities and therefore using probability, we can estimate how frequently different combinations will come up. That’s one way of the most scientific and precise way of assessing the odds of something. The second way we can come up with probabilities or odds is we can just look at lots and lots of outcomes. When it comes to professional sports, we don’t have thousands and thousands of examples of Leicester playing soccer games. We have 10 or 20 years of data. The players, by the way, are changing over that time period, so we have relatively few data points on which to make our assessment. And therefore it’s really much more of an opinion judgment as to the likelihood that they’re going to win or lose a particular game. It’s a much less scientific process. It is much less guided by past data. And therefore, we would expect these odds to be, at best, approximations of what is likely to happen.
What else is so unlikely to happen?
WHEELAN: The risk of dying on a bicycle is about the same as the odds were of Leicester winning the championship.
MUSIC: The Cheebacabra, “Exiles in the Woods” (from Cheebacabra)
So what does it mean when a bookmaker sets the odds so high, at 5,000 to 1?
WHEELAN: One way to think about it is if you played this tournament or this season over and over again for 5,000 years, you know, once a year for 5,000 years, on average, you would expect Leicester to win once. 5,000-to-1 essentially suggests they’re never, ever going to win.
That they’re never, ever going to win. And yet this year, they did win. And when something that’s considered borderline-impossible actually happens, what does that mean for the rest of us? What other sort of borderline-impossible, potentially wonderful events might be lurking just around the corner? It’s nice to think about, isn’t it? Maybe that person you’ve been madly in love with for a few years but who’s never even looked your way – maybe that’s all about to change! I wanted to know Roger Bennett’s thoughts on this:
DUBNER: Obviously, humans like stories generally; we like happy endings generally. But we particularly like those underdog and Cinderella stories. And here, we really got one. You’ve been following it and breathing it in so intensely, that I’m curious if it’s changed the way you look at yourself, the world, your children, the future.
BENNETT: Yeah, absolutely. I mean we got a lot of teachers from American classrooms showing us their whiteboards in the morning. Those whiteboards said, “If Leicester City can win the Premier League, you can do anything.” So, to me, this story does transcend just football. It definitely transcends English football. Within English football, the big takeaway: Leicester have shattered a long-cemented truth, that money off the field directly correlates to Premier League success. That is gone. They showed that a football team can be beloved, can feel uplifting. Football is a fairly flashed, can be a very repugnant beast, fairly dark. Professional sports in general, when you get involved, it can be a fairly cynical and negative, angry world. And this has been unbelievably joyous, uplifting accomplishment that will make every single supporter, of every single team, in any sport in the world, believe that when their team’s next season starts, that “why not us?” Believe it could be us. Everyone in the world will feel that, apart from Cleveland Browns fans. It makes me feel everything in life is possible. I guess you could summate it by saying Leicester City has officially spread false hope all around the globe.
MUSIC: Mark Ullrich, “Blow My Mind” (from Mark Ullrich)
In the meantime, back to the present, and back to reality.
WHEELAN: There’s no doubt the bookmakers will make the odds much differently next year. I’d be surprised if they were more than 100 to 1.
HILL: Yeah, we already opened betting for next season’s Premier League title. In terms of Leicester, they’re now 25-to-1 for next season of Premier League title
I went back to John Micklethwait from Bloomberg:
DUBNER: OK, John, next season, will you place your customary bet, or having failed to bet last year and seen Leicester win the league, will you refrain upon betting on the chance that it was your failure to bet that somehow helped them win the league?
MICKLETHWAIT: You’re sad, because you’ve already acquired the deep, deep pessimism and sense of personal responsibility that all football fans, including me, feel — that you think, if you’re sitting on the same sofa at the same time watching NBC Sports Network, that that will definitely help Leicester. The answer is that I fully intend to make the bet again, because what happens if they won again? Then you’d feel an idiot to have done it twice.
SOLOMON DUBNER: I think they could actually challenge again next year.
Solomon Dubner again:
SOLOMON DUBNER: It is going to be a good season.
STEPHEN J. DUBNER: What’s your prediction, right here right now, for Leicester’s finish next year?
SOLOMON DUBNER: Sixth.
STEPHEN J. DUBNER: Really?
SOLOMON DUBNER: No, I’m going to say fourth. Fifth. Fifth. Fifth is my final. I’m not going to make a prediction, is my final prediction.
STEPHEN J. DUBNER: All right.
How Leicester does next season depends of course on many factors. Expectations will be higher, as will demands on their time and talent; they’ve now qualified to play for the Champions League trophy, which requires a whole other level of competitive intensity. And now that their players have proven themselves, richer clubs will try to snatch them up. Although Leicester will have more monetary ammunition than they’re used to.
SZYMANSKI: They’ll certainly get a significant influx of cash as a result of this. So the broadcast money in the Premier League is distributed partly on the basis of your success in the league. So you get a larger share of the broadcast revenue.
DUBNER: As I understand it, there are two forms or two streams of revenue sharing for football clubs in England. There’s the domestic money, which is you get a larger share of that money if you’re more successful on the pitch. But then the international money, which is growing, much faster than domestic TV rights money, is split more equally. Is that correct?
SZYMANSKI: Right. So strictly it’s like this. The domestic money is divided into three parts. Half of it is divided on completely equal shares. Twenty-five percent of it is decided upon your rank in the league, and you get — it’s divided into twentieths. You get 20 twentieths if you come first, 19 twentieths if you come second, 18, 17 twentieths and so on down to one. And then, finally, a quarter of it is divided on the basis of how many times you appear on television, because not all the games are shown on TV. And the more successful clubs tend to have their games televised more often, and therefore you get a larger share; you get an appearance fee every time you appear on TV. And then, as you say, the international broadcast revenue is divided on a strictly equal basis. Now, the big difference here is this: so, this contract, this sharing rule, was actually devised in 1992, when the Premier League was created. Back then, the overseas broadcast rights constituted, I don’t know, one or two percent of the total broadcast revenue of the Premier League. So when they were in negotiations, the big clubs said, “No, we have to have a bigger share of the broadcast money,” and that’s how they negotiated this three-part deal. And then apparently what happened is the international money — because nobody thought about it and just, “Oh let’s share it equally” and nobody argued. In the last 10 years, the international part is 40 percent of the total broadcast revenue. And it could actually go over 50 percent in years to come.
DUBNER: So presumably, this is very good news for traditionally smaller or less rich teams, yes?
DUBNER: So does this mean, potentially at least, or theoretically at least, I should say, more Leicester-like victories in the future?
SZYMANSKI: I think that’s absolutely right. I think it’s perfectly possible that we could see an increasing number of small teams being competitive in the championship.
DUBNER: I’m curious, which team do you support, Stefan?
SZYMANSKI: So I support a third-tier English club called Scunthorpe United, which are hopeless.
DUBNER: I’m sorry, I don’t mean to laugh.
SZYMANSKI: Most people do.
DUBNER: So you’re saying your primary team that you support is not Premier League, not even the league below, but the third tier? So that’d be like me being a — AA baseball team would be my first team, yes?
SZYMANSKI: Right. It’s like being a supporter of the Toledo Mud Hens or something worse than that. But here’s the thing. The Toledo Mud Hens could not win the World Series in seven years’ time. Leicester City was a third-tier team like Scunthorpe United seven years ago. So I have hope that Scunthorpe United can do exactly what Leicester City have done.
DUBNER: I can’t wait until that happens, only because it will be so much fun to phone you up and chat again about it.
SZYMANSKI: Well you’d have to wait until I got sober, I think.
* * *
Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. Today’s episode was produced by Arwa Gunja. The rest of our staff includes Jay Cowit, Merritt Jacob, Christopher Werth, Greg Rosalsky, Kasia Mychajlowycz, Alison Hockenberry, Jolenta Greenberg and Caroline English. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, you can also find us on Twitter and Facebook. And if you want to further your football knowledge but don’t have a live-in 15-year-old tutor like I do, you might want to check out an episode from our archives called “Why America Doesn’t Love Soccer (Yet).” Don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever else you get your free, weekly podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Roger Bennett, co-host of the podcast and TV show Men in Blazers.
- Stefan Szymanski, professor of sport management at the University of Michigan and co-author of Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Spain, Germany, and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australiaand Even Iraq Are Destined to Become the Kings of the Worlds Most Popular Sport
- Charles Wheelan, senior lecturer and policy fellow at the Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College, a former correspondent for The Economist, and the author of the Naked book series
- John Micklethwait, editor-in-chief of Bloomberg and former editor-in-chief of The Economist
- John Hill, PR manager at Coral
- Solomon Dubner, co-host of the podcast Footy for Two
- Money and Soccer: A Soccernomics Guide: Why Chievo Verona, Unterhaching, and Scunthorpe United Will Never Win the Champions League, Why Manchester … and Manchester United Cannot Be Stopped by Stefan Szymanski (Nation Books, June 2, 2015).
- “Leicester City and Donald Trump: a new era for the Premier League?,” Stefan Szymanski, Soccernomics (March 24, 2106).
- “Equality of Opportunity and Equality of Outcome: Open Leagues, Closed Leagues and Competitive Balance,” Luigi Buzzacchi, Stefan Szymanski, Tommaso M. Valletti (2003).
- “Leicester City: Dirty Dozen or Harvard Case Study?,” John Micklethwait, Bloomberg (April 26, 2016).