The Success Failure

Congrats to Blackpool, Real Sociedad and St Pauli. They have achieved what all small football clubs dream of: promotion into the top division of the country’s football league.  In a Cinderella story, next season they will do battle against teams like Manchester United, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, respectively.

The most likely outcome: a season-long pummeling, relegation back to the second division and financial ruin.

I won’t go too deeply into the beauty of promotion and relegation in football; either you know how it works or you don’t. Suffice it to say that if the Golden State Warriors fans knew that they’d be in the CBA next year if they finished last, there’d be a lot more excitement around the end of the season, and there’d be fewer meaningless games.

I’m a fan of Systems Thinking; Peter Senge ought to be better-known than he is. Systems Thinking takes logical, if-then thinking and incorporates balancing factors like the law of diminishing returns, how success breeds resistance and opposition, and limits to growth. Logical thinking gets us the real estate bubble (“buy, re-fi and flip”). Systems thinking gets us the crash (“what happens when people can’t afford their mortgages, when the liar loans dry up, and no one can afford to buy at higher prices?”). Applying this to promotion, it would be easy to see that moving up to a division with stronger opponents who have larger stadia, more revenues, higher payrolls and better players does not make sense. Most promoted teams go back down within three years. But as they say at St. Andrews, “Dum spiro, spero” — While I breathe, I hope.

But heed the words of Saddleback Leather Company:

“I’ve heard horror stories of lots of small and successful businesses who, driven by greed, try to become giants and fail.  In the pursuit, they either shut their doors or become nothing more than mundane and mediocre.  We aren’t like that.  We are and will maintain our family of leather owners with a kind and personal touch.  As it is, we talk about customers/bag brothers and sisters that we email back and forth with.  We want to know your name.  If our goal were to sell something to everyone, we would no longer be selling to shepherds; but only sheep.  We’d lose our edge and our designs would lose their originality and charm.  To throw out my first cliché, We don’t want to be the biggest, just the best.”

We’ve all seen a business prosper, grow and then crash. Maybe it’s as small as a  restaurant or as big as People’s Express airline. They do something very well. Word of mouth spreads, they create a buzz. Customers flock, maxing out capacity. Revenues are strong, so the business expands. More people are needed but the systems (recruitment, hiring, training, real estate, finance, operations) are strained. The new people aren’t as good, they don’t have the same values. Quality drops, the buzz subsides but the expenses remain. Pressure mounts and failure closes the doors.

If we understand it for a restaurant, why don’t soccer teams see it? While it may be true that “Nothing succeeds like success,” there’s also a case for “Nothing brings failure like success” too.

It is perhaps a reflection of the non-rational nature of football as a business that leads to this self-destructive behavior. As Charles Revson said of an advertising campaign,

In the factory we make cosmetics; in the store we sell hope.

Football seems the same way — it sells hope, pride and a sense of heritage. As every father hopes his child will have a better life, every fan hopes to see his team move up in the league. The question is, will they be able to handle it?

The first thing Corny Litman, president of St. Pauli did after gaining promotion was resign. He knew his job was done and I think he knew the next one would be even more difficult. There’s a smart football man.

update: another success failure: Ike’s.

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2 Responses to The Success Failure

  1. Anne B says:

    Of course, you know what else going from small to big creates: bad writing.

    Great job. I am thinking of our pizza man, Gaspare, as I read this. 🙂

    Love you, husband.

  2. Pingback: Pay the Piper | Jim's a keeper

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