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Memo to Coach: Stick With What You’ve Got

• January 11, 2010 • 5:00 AM

That high-priced new star might fill seats, but a study of professional soccer teams reveals that low player turnover is the best predictor of success.

In what’s surely a global pastime, played out as loudly in the bars of Brooklyn as the pubs of North London, sports fans bewail the lack of loyalty in professional sports, as evidenced by ever-changing rosters and inflated egos that bounce from city to city chasing the highest bidder.

In the age of free agency, players are commodities, bought, sold and traded like any investment. The payoff — and fans expect one, the hell with loyalty — is a better shot at the title and the riches that come with it.

But a new study of top professional soccer teams in Europe is challenging the wisdom of that approach to winning. According to psychology professor Mark Van Vugt of Oxford University and VU University Amsterdam, teams fare better when their player rosters remain stable.

“Everyone wants to sign the big-name stars, the top players,” says Van Vugt. “But change does not come without risk. It seems intuitive, but now we know that team stability is a very important predictor of success in sports.”

The study, “Stability and Performance in Football Teams,” looks at archived data from nine consecutive seasons in the top professional soccer leagues of England and Italy. After assigning each team a “stability index” reflecting its player retention rate over the nine years, Van Vugt found a strong correlation between all measures of competitive success — league rank, points earned, goals scored and goals allowed — and the stability of the team’s roster.

The so-called stability-performance effect was strong even when controlling for a team’s previous league performances, the age of its players and the wealth of the team as measured by the amount it paid for new players. (Unlike the more tightly-regulated American leagues, English and Italian soccer have few restrictions on the amount teams can spend acquiring new players each season and what it pays them, affording a greater competitive advantage, it would seem, to wealthy clubs). The effect was consistent among top teams and cellar-dwellers alike.

The findings may help settle the age-old debate — a staple on sports-talk radio — of the surest path to No. 1: build from within or sign new talent. Indeed, wealthy teams, eager to win, often jettison veteran, blue-collar players in favor of high-priced stars who promise a quick, on-field return on their investment.

But success is never guaranteed. Last summer Spanish soccer giant Real Madrid spent close to $400 million to revamp its lineup but still can’t defeat its archrival, a more-homegrown FC Barcelona.

The American sports landscape is filled with similar examples, sports analysts say. Despite winning this year’s World Series, baseball’s New York Yankees often fall short of expectations for a team whose median player salary is 10 times a handful of other teams’ in the league. And in American football the teams that generally avoid free agency in favor of the “stability model” of building from within — the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers — have fared far better than most over the long run.

“Teams looking for the quick fix, who every season change their personnel, are rarely among the serious contenders,” says Dave Hyde, the Tribune Company’s syndicated sports columnist.

Van Vugt, whose research focuses on group dynamics, says the value of player stability lies in the nature of team sports, which requires highly coordinated, “synchronized activities.” Each part is dependent on the other. And the more time players spend within the team environment, in games and in practices, the greater their “shared knowledge and memory base” — sometimes referred to as a “transactive memory system.” That memory base declines incrementally, Van Vugt says, with each change in personnel.

But an equally important effect of team stability, adds van Vugt, is a deeper sense of loyalty and commitment that drives players to work harder. When players share both a common history and the expectation of a common future, their motivation improves and they tend to “go the proverbial extra mile for the team,” Van Vugt writes. They become stakeholders, not just employees.

As an analogy, he notes, research shows that the longer a person has lived in a neighborhood the more likely they are to participate in community-building projects or other civic activities.

Van Vugt believes his findings will add fodder to the growing debate across Europe (as well as in America) over how to loosen the competitive grip of professional sports’ wealthiest clubs.

UEFA, the governing body of soccer in Europe, is studying the matter. Proposals include American-style spending caps, greater financial controls and restrictions in the transfer markets for players – ideas that may seem more palatable to deep-pocked owners once they understand the strategic importance of team stability.

As a starting point, Van Vugt suggests narrowing periods during which teams can sign new players. He also believes teams should invest in youth development programs, and that league management and players unions should promote policies that lengthen players’ contracts.

“Clubs should focus on introducing young players, developing them, and then keeping them around,” says Van Vugt. “That’s a better formula for success.”

But success, of course, is always measured by another team’s failure. If all teams in a particular league adopt similar policies and similar philosophies, would the stability-performance effect be felt?

“Not sure I’d thought of that,” admits Van Vugt. “But yes, I suppose it would be felt. Stability within a group is only effective up to a point. Sooner or later, some players must move on and new ones brought in. The competitive advantage will go to the team that finds the balance.”

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David Villano
David Villano is an award-winning, Miami-based journalist who has contributed to dozens of publications, including The Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Newsweek, Mother Jones and the Columbia Journalism Review.

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