Friday, September 10, 2010

Fifteen Hundred Words about European Soccer, Online Fishing Reports, and the Hoplessness of it All

This is a post about online fishing reports, I promise. But its going to take me awhile to get there, and before I do I am going to discuss European club soccer and the ethics and practices of British newspapers. If you stick with it (1500 words or so), you might find it worth your while (I make no guarantees), but I thought it fair to give you warning in case you want to opt out early.

I started following European club soccer closely about five years ago. I don’t know why I started. I was bored I guess. I am a huge sports fan and I have been since I was a kid. Its not an understatement to say I threw myself into European soccer, especially the English game. I was just under 30 years old but I felt like I was 12 again and learning about this whole other world that exists inside the world we all live in, a world everyone knows exists but only a select few understand the language. Sport (even fly fishing) has always felt like that to me. There are layers that must be peeled off the onion, things on the surface that are not what they appear and I like that.* Euro soccer is no exception, in fact the select few that speak the language are even fewer here in the states and especially in Idaho (although there are more of us than you think, trust me).

*I like experiencing the stages of these new frontiers of personal discovery, things that you wonder about from the outside and then throw yourself into. As far as I can tell, a rough description of the stages would go like this:
• Newbie unsure of what is going on but blindly holding on to whatever got them into this
• More knowledgeable but still aware that they don’t know everything, utterly intolerant of newbies
• Jaded and mean know-it-all, utterly intolerant of everyone else and constantly longing for the good ol’ days
• Humbled veteran who learns that much of what they thought they knew was wrong.

I think many of us go through these stages as fly fisherman. I know that as soon as I think I know it all, some river or lake or trout comes along and proves that I am still an idiot. Maybe that should be the title of this blog: still an idiot.

Anyway, back to the also off-topic discussion on European soccer. One of the cool things about jumping into the deep end of the soccer pool was the fact that soccer in Europe is quite different than American sports. For one, they really don’t care about parity. In fact, they don’t even pretend to care about parity. Most soccer leagues in Europe have two teams that basically trade championships and make the Yankees’ historic dominance in Major League Baseball look like a minor achievement. These historically dominant teams dominate for a number of reasons but the primary driver isn’t all that different from American sports: money. These powerhouse teams simply have (or spend)* more money than the rest of the teams in the league.

*Fiscal theory in European soccer tends to follow the U.S. government’s borrow-and-spend model.

And money buys you more in soccer. In fact, money is literally used to buy players. Rather than trading players, teams simply buy and sell them for what is called a transfer fee. And teams can buy and sell players from outside their league or inside their league. The two teams (buyer and seller) simply agree on a price and sell a player like a simple commodity. All this buying and selling is encapsulated in what the fans and the journalists call the transfer market. And while the market is always around, the actual buying and selling can only take place for a limited time—during the summer (generally speaking the offseason for the professional leagues) and during the month of January.

Now its important to note that the transfer market makes baseball’s trading deadline look tame. Fans all over the world spend their time wondering and talking and mostly surfing the internet trying to figure out who their team is going to buy. This thirst for information has created another market—the transfer rumor market. And the British papers specialize in this market.

Trade rumors in baseball or basketball come and go, but usually there is some semblance of truth behind them. It seems to me that there is no such requirement for transfer rumors. Many appear to be completely made up. My favorite team (Arsenal FC) was linked to more than 100 players by various rumor mongers this summer. They ended up buying three players.

So why is it that legitimate “news” agencies would allow such a farcical record to exist? Because transfer rumors drive traffic. Anytime a paper can post a story to its website about a player and a team and a potential transfer, they see a spike in traffic, which drives their advertising dollars and so many other things. The accuracy of the story has become secondary to the traffic. 99% of these stories won’t name their sources and most won’t even claim to have sources.

Transfer rumors actually represent a conflict of interest for papers. The more rumors they publish the more traffic they get, but more rumors also means less accuracy, less actual news, and less journalistic integrity, at least from my view.

By now you probably see where I am going with this. Fly shops are faced with a similar dilemma. Fishing reports drive traffic for a shop’s website. I don’t know this for a fact, but I would be absolutely stunned if it were not the case (maybe one of my three readers knows someone from a fly shop who can toss us a bone here). The more often a report is updated and the more detail it provides, the more page views. Which is okay. Current and detailed reports are a good thing for everyone.

Still, there is a conflict of interest here simply because the fishing isn’t always great.* And there aren’t many fly shops that want to tell potential customers: “Hey, the fishing sucks at the moment, go somewhere else.” So what do you do?

*Which, ironically, is one of the prime reasons why we fisherman check online fishing reports—to determine where and when the fishing is great. We don’t care about website traffic (although we do care about river traffic). So the goals of the fisherman—when it comes to online reports—don’t mesh so nicely with the goals of the shop, unless the fishing actually is great, then everyone wins (except maybe those of us who don’t like river traffic).

Some shops seem to have decided that the fishing is always great, reason and logic be damned. These reports are the ones that seem a little wildly optomistic compared to every other report you find about a certain river (I’m not going to link to any such reports, because I am not trying to point fingers and because I sympathize with anyone who runs a fly shop and has to spend time worrying about whether their fishing report is driving cutsomers away). I guess in a way they are simply meeting a demand. People would rather read about great fishing than poor fishing, so that is what they give people.

Shops have guides to think about as well, at least most shops do. How much information do they give out? They certainly have their fingers on the pulse of the river (with guides fishing it every day). But do they want every fisherman on the river casting the same fly as their playing clients? If they have some openings coming up, do they post an extremely optimistic fishing report to try and drum up some business?

Most shops are probably too busy to think about all these ethical and piscatorial dilemmas. They are so busy during the summer that they simply turn over the report to the college kid working at the shop who seems to know best how to use the computer.*

*One of the things I like about the Blue Ribbon Flies newsletter is that you get the report directly from Craig Matthews. And it comes in your email, like Craig sent you a personal email updating you on the fishing near West Yellowstone. Its always enjoyable.

On top of all this, fishing reports are outdated almost as soon as they are posted. It doesn’t matter how quickly reports go up, fishing conditions seem to change even faster.

So why am I writing all this? Why did I make you wade through a primer on European soccer and several irrelevant asides? Simply to say this: when I read transfer rumors about Arsenal on the website of a British paper, I get a little excited at first. Its natural. Maybe its true, maybe we have a new player coming on. Everybody likes to dream of the possibilities. But I never get upset when it turns out to be a load of garbage. And, after much experience and many visits to both fly shop websites and the rivers they describe, I find myself feeling the same way about online fishing reports. I never get upset when my fishing experience doesn’t seem to match the one described in the report. I sort of expect it.

I figure you get what you pay for—and online fishing reports (and transfer rumors) are free.


  1. I've been a Man United supporter since the late 80s, and I was going to give you a link for this post until I discovered you're a dammed Arsenal supporter.

    Sad. How sad...

    Also, I can't post a comment as the Trout Underground - can you enable "anonymous commenting" somewhere?

  2. Okay, I've enabled anonymous commenting. Sorry about that. Though I'll never apologize for supporting Arsenal.