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April 24th, 2009


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05:54 pm - Football news
All right, I've accumulated a number of links over the past months which I haven't got around to posting. At first I thought "well, I'll be able to clear them all in a single long post". In the spirit of trying to make more frequent, shorter posts, here is discussion of just three, all concerning association football.

1) Arguably, pound-for-pound, the most interesting league in English(-ish) association football this year is the Blue Square Conference South, one of two parallel divisions that form the sixth tier of football, so five promotions away from the Premiership. Its all-but-certain champions are AFC Wimbledon, formed in 2002 when Wimbledon FC relocated 56 miles north to Milton Keynes. AFC Wimbledon started their existence by being accepted into one of fourteen(-ish) parallel ninth divisions, the Combined Counties League Premier, and look set for their fourth promtion in seven seasons. A sense of natural justice will arise only when AFC Wimbledon earn another promotion or two after that, meet the Milton Keynes Dons, whom Wimbledon FC have become, and finally vanquish them.

The other unduly interesting team in the Conference South this year is Team Bath FC, anomalous within the football system for being "a fully-fledged football club within the environment of the University of Bath, allowing players to combine full-time training with a university course". They play at Twerton Park, a ground owned by Conference South comrades Bath City, their natural local rivals. The rivalry is unfriendly in some places; some accuse Team Bath of unduly lenient academic standards, effectively spending considerable amounts of the University's funding in order to get extremely marginal students onto degree courses purely for to strengthen their football team.

At this point I would say "remind you of anyone?" with not so much a specific target as an entire tradition in mind, However, not least because Team Bath FC's success has been relatively modest and has not become a particular draw for the university, the University objected to putting so many of their resources into the football club that the football club's participation within the football pyramid is being concluded. Iain interprets the situation as: "Apparently, it's no longer permissible for clubs in Division VI to share their grounds with someone else"; Team Bath FC claim that the Conference administrators have declared them ineligible for further promotion and that is being used as an excuse to resign their participation. It's possible that the University have simply decided not to renew their lease of Twerton Park as a money-saving measure; Bath City are apparently set to lose considerably from the conclusion of Team Bath FC's rent payments for the facilities, and a merger between the two teams was apparently even discussed. The University of Bath will continue to enter a football team into inter-university competitions, though not the wider football pyramid as present.

2) The Times report that bookmaker Paddy Power apparently lost over £500,000 as a result of the recent 4-4 draw between Liverpool and Arsenal. Most major UK bookmakers let you bet on the correct score for each match; only about a dozen or so different results happen more than 1% of the time (with about half being one of 0-0, 1-0, 0-1 or 1-1) and so most bookmakers will offer 100-1 against any score you name outside that dozen. Paddy Power, as so often is the case, are the anomaly and often quote odds for 4-4 draws and hammerings of up to 10-0, quoting odds of up to 500/1. The 4-4 Chelsea-Liverpool draw in the Champions' League a week or so ago had apparently caused them to have to pay out £225,000, and the Times claim that 537 punters placed a total of £1,027 worth of bets on the scoreline repeating itself, causing a payout of £514,527. Paddy Power have a titular fictional character who occasionally blogs and claims one gambler managed to bet £25 on the first 4-4 draw and then another £44 on the second 4-4 draw, the latter bet apparently returning £22k to one punter, who can't have been doing badly if he was able to throw £44 around on 4-4 in the first place.

It's surprisingly difficult to work out what the odds of a 4-4 draw "should" be. The The Rec.Sport.Soccer Statistics Foundation has a mighty archive, but I haven't been able to find a distribution chart for results across all competitive games. The similarly wonderful Statto.com (Statto! Statto! Statto!) provide limited score distributions broken down by league and by season, but don't break down the realtive likelihood of the less likely results and don't seem to give amalgamated all-football results. The closest I've been able to find is this database from which I could extract 21,538 results from international football matches from 1920 to 2001. Of those 21,538 games, only 26 were 4-4, so (making wild assumptions about distribution) 500/1 is not a generous price for Paddy Power to offer in the long run, albeit one with whopping variance that has caught them out this time. They have since tightened their 4-4 odds in for some games to a particularly chiselly 350/1 or so.

Paddy Power will be delighted for the publicity as much as anything else. They have a history of shamefully ingenerous 115%-125% books (compare with betting on the flip of a coin and charging £5 if you lose but only paying out £4 if you win) but remarkably generous publicity stunts, like paying out on bets that Stoke would be relegated after one game (noting that Stoke are now eight points clear in 12th place) and paying out on bets that Man U would win the FA Cup back in February (noting that Everton knocked them out in the semi-final last week). This means that some PP bets have got to be +EV, if you can work out which ones and avoid betting on the vast majority which aren't.

It's always tempting to wonder if there's any possibility of match-fixing to take advantage of these generous odds, but it sems unlikely; PP restrict themselves to 100/1 against on correct score bets in matches outside the top couple of divisions, because surely match-fixing at the highest level would cause ridiculous amounts of stink were it to be discovered. It's also true that the Liverpool-Arsenal game had a ninth goal deep into injury time, but it was disallowed for offside. Can't imagine Paddy Power having had nearly as much on 5-4 either way as on the 4-4 draw!

3) The chairman of Bolton is touting a plan to extend the Premier League from 20 teams to two 18-team divisions, absorbing Rangers and Celtic from Scotland and presumably 14 other yo-yo "too big to go down" teams from the Championship. This is a blatant grab at redistributing TV rights money in a way that will suit some teams better than others and its success or failure (for it apparently needs 14 out of 20 Premiership chairmen to agree) will depend on sufficiently many teams considering the plan to be in their interest. It's a bit like the puzzle about dividing gold among pirates. Actually, it's a lot like that puzzle, if not strictly economically equivalent.

Discussions about football reorganisation rumble on all the time, and I can't help wondering whether the notion of a two-division Premier League (which you'd think would be called the Premier League and, by logical extension, the Deuxiem League) is in vogue at least in part due to ongoing discussions over a parallel development in Scotland. Scotland like rejumbling and restructuring their leagues more than most nations; perhaps England is just feeling left out. (Incidentally, I've long wanted a football management game which simulated this aspect of sports business development, by virtue of the competitions in the game evolving over time. Haven't had one yet, though.)

BBC writer Chick Young gives a fairly standard defence of the argument against the Old Firm leaving, which makes a lot of sense. My view is that it's just a matter of time, though whether it's to an English Premiership, some sort of pan-European league or a putative Atlantic League remains to be seen. I'll only start to take such discussions of potential moves at all seriously if I hear that broadcasters are planning to make the move worth people's while, simply because TV rights are such a large proportion of the football business these days. One to look at seriously only about 6-12 months before the TV rights deals come up for grabs, or if there's a serious shift in power with pay-TV giants across Europe preparing to co-operate to make football dance to their tune even more than at present.

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