Sports that scale: Soccer

I’m a huge fan of football round kind. Every four years, I take the time to follow the FIFA World Cup and keep tags on nearly all the 32 teams that start off.

The FIFA tournament funnels large, geographically disperse audiences onto relatively few events (if compared to more spread-out calendars like the Olympics’). We are barely mid-way and am already seeing the World Cup matches making “dents” to our e-commerce traffic traces, starting with the national-level traces. Their W shape clearly marks the first half of a match (traffic is significantly depressed for 45 minutes), then the interval (traffic way, way up), and the second half (traffic down again for some 45 minutes more). Italy was the country showing the most pronounced dents among the ones that I surveyed (but no more of that, given their early toss out). The colleagues in the NOC must be aware of this happening and tease these symptoms apart from, say, a problem with backbone routers.

As the tournament progresses, those dents surface from a national-level to a super-national level (e.g., pan-European level). Eventually, they will make an appearance in the world-wide roll-up of all traces once semi-finals or finals take place. That will be the pulse of a planet. This year only, let’s call it the WWWzela effect :)

It’s interesting to debate whether these dents in the traces will be more or less pronounced compared to 4 years back. Several factors tip my expectations up or down:

(+) increasingly, Internet access is a commodity and overall traffic grows at a good clip year over year, worldwide;
(+) online content has grown manifold too, giving folks more reasons to be online before/after a match (e.g., sports commentaries, friends and family chats, etc.);
(+) the application bias is more significant, meaning that (say) social web features and e-commerce features will exhibit different levels of perturbation before/during/after match;
(-) compliments of wifi, smartphones, etc., more audiences are untethered and can now multi-task effectively during a match;
(-) DVRs, VOD, web video services are making tape-delay more practical than ever, thus eroding synchronization effects around any timed event.

Now, for another scaling dimension…

Some eleven basketball courts or so can be tiled over a soccer pitch. Yet, there is a single referee in a pro soccer match vs. three referees in a NBA match. Isn’t this a blatant scaling anomaly? Yes, it surely sounds like, though it’s basketball that got it wrong! As Ed Felten aptly puts it, the soccer rules are designed to scale way down and give any amateurs’ team the thrill of playing a match with precisely the same rules that the pros use. Nowhere is this more evident than in Brazil, where I can easily see legions of footballers of all ages and skillsets totally at ease with football’s minimalist prerequisites and ways to officiate a match.  There will always be blatant mistakes by referees (oops, I just saw one today morning). In absence of malice and conspiracy, they will even out, despite the immediate heartburns. That’s pretty good scaling to me.

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