Marx addressed the issue of worker productivity and set into motion modern day labour laws. The ILO now records worker productivity of different countries and it is unsurprising that the US worker works more hours than anyone else in the world, certainly more than the European layabout. It is a statistic that is frequently quoted by conservative talking heads like the historian, Niall Ferguson, to bolster the argument that Europe is well on its way to demise. Of course, there is the little issue that the number of hours worked does not necessarily translate into more efficiency, which is where the Europeans score better. The productivity issue is a trenchant and relevant debate in the global economy.
Less examined is the issue of athlete productivity which crops up in a recent NYT article that examines Allen Iverson's record. Iverson was the shooting guard for the 76ers, before transferring to the Denver Nuggets. Iverson is a perennial All Star and is one of the NBA leaders in scoring. However, in the decade that Allen Iverson played with them, the 76ers only won more than 50 games once. Mathematical models show that Iverson for all his shooting prowess only accounted for 5 wins in a season, turnovers and wasteful field goal attempts accounting for that low number. In comparison Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, and Tim Duncan average 15 wins because of their better productivity. Iverson's profligacy seems to have followed him to Denver, where the Nuggets are at the bottom of the table despite again being in the leader board in scoring.
Such statistics can prove to be useful in assessing actual player worth and providing commensurate salaries in order to level the playing field with nuts and bolts players like Ben Wallace who can prove that they are more useful than a slash and burn player like Iverson.
Which leads us to the question, soccer has its unquestioned stars that command huge salaries. Some we are quite sure are less productive than others. Is there statistically a way to find out and put it out beyond mere reckoning? Soccer's issue is that it is a sport that does not lend itself easily to statistics. Or to be unduly obsessed with statistics. Are there players who generate more corners? Take away the ball? Give up the ball? Are less accurate? Soccer's statistics are quite perfunctory. In the absence of such data, it is hard to even come up with an operational definition of productivity in soccer. A reason cited in soccer's relative failure in the US is that it lacks a list of impressive stats that are part of American sports. These stats may also explain the more meritocratic structure of US sports compensation as compared to the subjective standards set in European soccer. Certainly, Alex Rodriguez, another of sports 'unproductive' stars is an aberration with his 10 year $252 million paycheck but in Europe, it is common to pay out $60-$70 million for soccer stars like Zidane, Beckham or Shevchenko who may or may not play upto expectations. Rodriguez's egregious compensation seems to have served as a cautionary tale for the MLB which has tamped down on player spending but no such brakes are evident in European soccer where the sky is the limit. Mathematical models of soccer that assess true player worth might be useful if it results in more diligent spending.
Of course, for the fan, the unitary event of scoring a goal might be the only statistic that matters since it could mean the difference between a win or a defeat in soccer. Beckham's fans would agree while his detractors would point to the other 89 minutes of his no show.