Sunday, August 10, 2008

Competitveness is a Matter of Perspective

A perennial topic of conversation among football fans is whether or not football has become "too predictable" and "too slanted towards the top teams", and often the blame for this is laid at the feet of greedy owners, Sky, globalization or what have you. Veteran denizens of the kingdom will likely know that I'm sceptical of such claims - I'm not sure football's playing field has ever been particularly flat.

So I read with interest Paul Wilson's recent article in the Guardian claiming that this year's odds on sorry little Hull City's winning the Premiership (10,000 to 1, since you ask) are so much worse than the odds of the weakest teams in Serie A and La Liga winning their leagues (1,000 to 1, he says) are proof that the Premiership is the least competitive league in Europe thanks to all this money.

Hmm. Hmmmmmmmmm.

Let's assume for the moment that the pre-season odds of winning are a reasonable method of gauging competitiveness. Is looking at the odds of the weakest team really the best way to look at the competitiveness of a league? That seems weak - when was the last time a promoted team won the championship? I can think of several others that might make more sense.

For instance, one could measure it by the odds given to the strongest team - that is, by asking the question: how certain is the eventual winner before the season even starts?By this measure, England is actually the most competitive major league in Europe. Man U is currently quoted (according to at 1.8, Inter at 1.45, PSV at 1.375, Real Madrid at 1.2, Lyon at .72, Porto at .57 and Bayern at a mind-boggling low .5.

Alternatively, one could measure it by asking how likely is it that there will be as many as three teams in the hunt for the title? Here, too, England does reasonably well: Arsenal at 6-1 are not as good as Benfica at 4.5-1, Roma at 5-1, or Bordeaux at 5.5-1, but is better than Feyenoord at 7-1, Schalke at 10-1 or Atletico at an amazing 22-1 (so much for Spain being the continent's most competitve league...)

What about competitiveness for Champions League spots? How good are the odds for the team with the fifth-shorted odds in each country? Now the case for England as less competitive gets better: Villareal's 25-1 is the best of the bunch (oo! competitive again!) followed by St. Etienne at 33-1, Twente at 40-1, Fiorentina and Wolfsburg at 50-1, Spurs at 60-1 and Vit Guimares at 80-1.

But then again, there is more to football than the top five. Let's see the odds for the teams that are at or just above the median in each country; that is, the ninth-shortest odds in each league. Here again, the case against England gets stronger: France's Stade Rennais is shortest at 66-1, NEC is at 125-1, Vit. Setubal at 150-1, Hannover at 160-1, Racing Santander at 300-1 and Newcastle and Palermo at 500-1.

As for the odds of the weakest team: Portugal's Trofense gets 500-1, Heracles, Grenoble and Bologna get 1000-1, Gijon 1250, Cottbus 1500 and Hull 10,000 (though one can at least suspect that the odds on Hull have more to do with the gimmicky habits of English bookies than anything else).

So the English league is certainly unforgiving to teams in the bottom half and the top 4 so seem to be set almost in stone (of the big leagues, Spain's seems to have the most porous top 4). But by the same token, England is arguably the European league where the identity of the winner is least predictable.

Does that make them more competitive? You be the judge.


Blogger ursus arctos said...

Spot on.

In particular, something tells me that Ladbrokes, et al have figured out that they are much more likely to get punters to throw away a fiver on Hull City at 10K to 1 than they are at 1000 to 1, without their underlying risk equation being significantly different.

Another interesting way to look at this is to examine regional differences in odds. SNAI, the state-owned bookie in Italy, is currently offering a "Field" bet on the Premier League with odds of 100 to 1 for anyone other than Man Utd, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Newcastle, Man City, Aston Villa, Everton and Middlesboro.

There is money to be made in arbitraging such wide disparities in odds, but I've never been able to motivate myself sufficiently to figure out how best to do it.

9:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The gap in the rest of Europe between the main challengers and the other are significantly bigger than in England. No doubt about that!

7:05 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

When assessing the competitiveness of a league, looking to the betting odds is one interesting indicator, but in the end probably not the best one to use. As ursus points out above, the odds are affected not purely by the likelihood of one team to win, but many other economic considerations, and therefore is not a strict assessment of competiveness.

There are too many variables that bookmakers take into account and that ultimately affect odds for those to be the only or best indicator of a league's comparable competitiveness.

A proper study would be to examine the past, say, ten years of the top European leagues and compile the results of indicators such as the following:

1. Number of different teams that won the title.
2. Average point difference between title winner and runner up.
3. Average point difference between title winner and fifth place.
4. Average point difference between title winner and tenth place.
5. Average point difference between title winner and last place.
6. Number of different teams that qualified for Europe.
7. Comparison of point difference between 1st place and 10th place versus 10th place and last place, i.e. is the median team closer to the bottom than the top, and by how much?

etc. etc.

Those were just the indicators that came immediately to mind.

A comprehensive statistical study would actually not be that difficult, just time consuming.

9:41 PM  
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