There is often a lot of hullabaloo over the bidding process for hosting of playoff games in United Soccer Leagues as well as for US Open Cup matches. Publicly, the controversy over the decisions in awarding these events and the accompanying home field advantage has traditionally been hotter for the US Open Cup fixtures as witnessed by the drama and mudslinging between DC United and the Seattle Sounders last year prior to the tournament final.
That does not mean USL announcements have slipped by the attention of the fans, media and front offices of the teams over the years as top seeds have found themselves on the road, or clubs with great crowds or media coverage come out on the short end of the bidding process that is far from transparent. The PDL playoff hosts were released last week for the conference playoffs set for this weekend. I am sure there are some grumbling executives around the nation today as they head to their postseason destination while working on bids for the Final Four.
The current policies utilized by USL and US Soccer create a very subjective process that in no way resembles the concept of fair play. Around the world draws are used to determine match hosts in tournament competitions, but the realities of the American soccer business make that impractical. And when you bring it into a playoff perspective where seeding can be applied, those same financial impracticalities also create issues as often times a great team on the field may be far from capable of hosting a playoff-caliber event, especially a four-team conference tournament.
However, that does not mean lotteries, seeding and financial factors cannot be brought together.
My concept is that a weighted lottery process for determining match hosts should be adopted. As will be detailed below, this new idea would allow for both the important financial health of the tournament events to remain a top concern while also creating not only some randomness to the selections, but more importantly, fairness to an extremely subjective bidding process.
Having worked for United Soccer Leagues for over 10 years and another three years with a USL Premier Development League team, I am fully aware of the difficulties involved in selecting a ‘winning’ bid and the positive and negative feelings associated with being on the team’s end of those decisions. It is not in the least bit fun. Sometimes I was involved in the evaluation process of the bids; sometimes I wasn’t. The one thing I can honestly say is that more often than not, there is no clear right choice and not everybody involved was in agreement. And I couldn’t even hazard a guess at how many angry phone calls from team executives I overheard as they berated the league directors after being notified of the decision. And if the allegedly aggrieved team had a poor experience on or off the field, you were assured of a second salvo. Believe me, being in the governing organization’s position is a no-win scenario.
This biggest problem with the bidding process is that often times bids are very close to one another and you are literally splitting hairs on which is better on paper or making prognostications on which team will fulfill their proposal better. In the US Open Cup, US Soccer has to weigh the bottom line versus a perceived value in a lower division team playing host to a match. At USL, where the teams are also customers of your business that could walk away once the playoffs are over, many times the evaluation debates swung from seeding, to media outreach, to fan support and finally financial considerations. Unfortunately, just like the US Open Cup, the financials typically won out as the postseason is costly and the effort to minimize team financial losses were the overriding concern. The more you could reduce the costs of travel and collect revenue from the host, the further the playoff travel pool in which all the teams paid into went after the conclusion of the postseason. In an ideal world, you would like the top seed to host, but you can’t ignore the bottom line. If you were in a hard-to-reach location you were out of luck or needed to show plenty of green to counter the travel scenarios. And being Canadian made it many times more difficult because only teams in 3-4 divisions of the eight played games north of the border during the season and would be prepared to do so in short notice for the playoffs. Teams have a hard enough time keeping players from college call-backs so to lose players because visa issues keep them from leaving the country only compounds the lack of competitive capabilities or fairness.
In the US Open Cup, the debate has no more public of a symbol than DC United. Last year’s decision surrounding the host of the tournament Final, which ultimately featured the Seattle Sounders and DC United was the impetus that brought an issue long debated behind the scenes to the forefront. United has been the center of a lot of the controversy in recent years as they have not traveled since losing in Harrisburg in 2007, receiving hosting honors against clubs very capable of being the home side such as Seattle, Charleston, Harrisburg, Ocean City, Richmond, and Rochester (twice). Last week’s Quarterfinal win over Harrisburg was United’s 10th consecutive (most of them at a second venue) game at home in the tournament, including against fellow MLS members. They next face Columbus…. in yet another home fixture.
I have discussed the current process and the controversy, but this post is supposed to be about the solution.
Here it is, acquire 10 balls for a draw. Then for each hosting scenario - determined by geography as it is now, - weight the bids on a ratio of 1-10 between the two clubs, so long as both put forth the minimum hosting requirements. If the two bids are extremely competitive, then they both get five balls in the pot for the draw. If one meets the minimum and the other bid is far superior, then give the better bid nine balls in the pot.
For the US Open Cup, this creates at least an opportunity for the smaller clubs with fewer resources the opportunity to be able to host the contest.
More importantly, it takes the narrow subjective decisions out of the equation as the bids that are comparable will now have fair chance at being drawn instead of being selected based on some singular criteria in the bid. It also evens the playing field in situations where the bid evaluators are trying to weigh cash guarantees versus potential gate revenue or ‘trade-out’ values such as hotels, meals and travel provisions provided, a scenario that has allegedly fallen in favor of the guarantees more often than not. And for USL playoffs, the top-seeded teams with coaches and players who earned it on the field won’t be completely shut out because the front office of the club is not as strong as another team’s.
The process will never be completely transparent as bid details are not going to be released publicly, but in the end, if a team’s ball is or isn’t drawn, at least there was some fate involved and not some random decision made by an individual who has not seen a single minute of their season or ever visited their office/stadium.
The detractors, mostly those at the governing organizations, will say this creates a situation in which the financial health of the competition is put at jeopardy. I would counter that it would do the opposite.
Clubs will no longer be able to ‘allegedly’ use backroom influence to sway decisions and would have to put forth maximum bids. MLS clubs desperate not to travel will have to increase their bids to ensure a greater disparity from the counterpart’s bid in order to receive more balls in the draw. A lower division club, expecting not win a bid against a higher level opponent under the current format will now be more inclined to increase their bids to improve their odds in the draw. In the end, the water level on the bids will rise.
Now, I realize comparing bids in a four-team situation is a lot of work, and the crazy scenarios listed out each week when the US Open Cup host scenarios are announced are a testament to that. But, if the competition’s governing body so chooses, they can increase the ball number, to say 20, and just select one ‘winner’ out of an entire foursome based on the bids. This works just as well for four-team conference playoff situations in USL where a myriad of teams can be alive going into the final week or two of the season when the bidding process is occurring.
And as far as the media are concerned, the weighted lottery is actually not a new concept. The NBA draft order for the first three selections has utilized a weighted lottery since 1990 and is a separate annually televised event held approximately a month before the draft itself.