We all suffer from free kick prejudice in Soccer

Like many other football fans the last month has been a bleary eyed blur, waking up at ridiculous times to watch as many world cup matches as I can possibly manage. Since June 13th we’ve all been living in a constant state of jet lag and clinging to the justification being “It’s only once every four years”.

Cristiano-Ronaldo-Free-kick-stanceWhilst watching Portugal in particular as they’ve struggled on the big stage, there’s been a consistent image of Cristiano Ronaldo stood over a free kick puffing out his chest and looking born to be the savior for his country with his legendary free kick taking prowess. The commentators eagerly anticipate the shot, the Portuguese fans sit on the edge of their seat, and the opposition fans can’t watch as the inevitable free kick is taken. There’s a common call throughout those watching that “We all know what he’s capable of” and as we sit in wait, Ronaldo’s shot flies way over the crossbar and into the crowd.

What amazes me is this seems to happen a lot, and yet even the well paid pundits seem to completely forget the past four or five attempts, even in the same game. Wearing my data hat I decided to do a bit of digging into the success rate of freekick takers to make sure I wasn’t just allowing my judgement to be clouded by Ronaldo’s arrogant approach.

I found data on the 2012/2013 season across Europe with the help of WhoScored and found some remarkable insights on our most feared free kick takers.

top five free kick taker stats

As expected despite Ronaldo having the most free kick attempts, a hefty 32% more more than second place, he’s only in third place for the number of free kicks scored. His conversion rate is at a very average 8%, when compared to one of my alltime favourite players Andrea Pirlo, who’s conversion rate stands at 14%, nearly doubling the efficiency of the Portuguese predator.

Similar to when we’re looking to drive efficiencies within digital performance media, my main interest isn’t necessarily in the players who are getting the largest volume of free kick attempts, i’m far more interested in the overall conversion rate; finding those rare gems who may be overlooked for their goal haul without factoring their relatively low attempts on goal (to preserve statistical significance only players with ten attempts or more have been included).

When we look at the conversion rate from free kicks we see the real lethal weapons standing over a free kick, people who should be striking fear in the opposition’s fans and exciting the commentators. Players like the 23 year old Tunisian Whabi Khazari, recently moved to Bordeaux; Whilst we know very little about Whabi, if he was given centre stage within a world class team subsequentially handed as many freekick attempts as Ronaldo he’d score a mighty ten goals a season compared to Ronaldo’s paltry four.

Snodgrass - Unfashionable, unnattractive but deadly free kick taker
Snodgrass – Unfashionable, but a deadly free kick taker

Whilst it may be unfair to compare the French Ligue 1 with Spain’s Mighty La Liga, we can make a good compariosn with Norwich City’s Robert Snodgrass, playing in the elite English Premier league and delivering a conversion rate of 19% against some of the best goalkeepers in the world. Snodgrass has recently moved to Hull City for a relatively low cost of $11 Million AU, that’s only 7% investment of Ronaldo’s megabucks transfer of $147 Million AU, and for a player who’s 2.4 times as efficient from his free kicks.

I’m not for a moment suggesting i’d rather have Robert Snodgrass in my team over Ronaldo, there’s a wide range of elements to a player’s game that need to be considered. In addition when it comes to football we’re limited by the amount of players you can have on the field at one time, so unlike with media buying, building a team of hundreds of high value long tail players will not equal the sum of it’s parts.

What the data does suggest though is that when applying a limited transfer budget to deliver the most effective team possible. There’s a great opportunity for football clubs to learn from legendary Baseball coach Billy Beane’s ‘Moneyball’ model by embracing, listening and most importantly applying data, moving past transfer decisions based on emotional bias and invest based on hard facts rather than what your commentators are telling you.

For any data obsessed, football fanatics I highly recommend you read ‘The Numbers Game’ . A fascinating insight into the under utlisation of data within Football.



The Reach Economy

In media we’re all hardwired to value the importance of using publications who can provide large audience scale; sites who can take large chunks of media budget primarily based on meeting an audience goal.

These few sites with the largest reach had to do little to maintain their lofty position; as economists will always tell you, wealth is easier to accumulate once you have a large base, and that’s certainly the case with large online publications.

The One Stop Shop Approach

Back in 1901 Henry Ford created a mass production line for the Ford Motor Company, with a factory priding itself on being self sustainable, all responsibilities were kept in house as opposed to outsourcing areas of weakness. I can see a lot of similarities in how media buying has been carried out.

We’ve become so used to a siloed approach to judging a publisher’s merits to being on a media plan, whereby each site is expected to deliver both content and reach under one roof. Their output and delivery were all part of the service, our job as media buyers were to assess their performance in full, comparing them to others who had the same task.

Often the self sustainable publisher model fails to deliver on integration, consistently missing the brief on brand integration due to limiting nonnegotiable guidelines that come from large organisations and suffocate creative flexibility. Unfortunately in most cases the greater the size of a publication more often than not actually hinders the potential to deliver on a great advertising product. This leaves media planners with the ultimate choice to make – Quality execution or quantity of audience reached?

The Reach Revolution

When we take a step back to see the changes in media over the last ten years, it’s pretty incredible to think platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and most notably Google, hold so much reach but create absolutely no original content whatsoever. This really flies in the face of content publishers who see such content aggregators as parasites on their industry; leveraging their created content to monetise for themselves. I would argue that content aggregators are creating a level playing field for media creators, where quality of editorial shines through, hence the growth of long tail media consumption within Australia.

As advertisers we’re moving into a great new realm whereby we’re not limited to using large reaching publications, reach is now nothing but a commodity that we can access via content aggregators. We can now break out responsibilities and allocate them each to specialists. We can build really great content with small nimble publications, and then use the likes of Facebook to efficiently reach our audience, using the editorial as our advertising message.

The Reach Revolution

The local publishers we have here in Australia such as Mamamia and Pedestrian.TV may not have the reach of large media empires but they can deliver great integration for brands as well as local editorial authenticity.

The challenge for media buyers

It’s far better to leverage everyone for their strengths than having to rely on a one stop shop approach to receive both content (very limited integration) and reach (Now reduced to a commodity). The real challenge comes from embracing this opportunity within the media landscape and being able to manage allocated responsibilities for the delivery of campaign goals.

Getting the balance right between quality content delivery and efficient audience buying through multiple vendors will require media planner/buyers to increase their skill set. Project management skills, a collaborative approach to media partners as well as leadership skills will be increasingly be required to deliver great campaigns with complementary media partnerships.