Analysis

The argument against a chartered flight

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First class

The Union lifted off for San Jose yesterday, the second leg of their three game, eight day road swing. The team did not take a chartered flight across the country for this game, keeping their full bevy of allocated charter legs with only short one trip left in 2019 (each team has the option to use 4 chartered flights per season at their own expense).

In the midst of such an historic season, much has been written about why this is the wrong decision from a front office so often derided for its thriftiness. Jonathan Tannewald’s piece for the Inquirer was where this news broke and is absolutely worth a read.

The arguments for chartering at this point in the season are obvious: a short week (particularly after such an uninspired loss), a huge playoff push, and a long flight (with a quick turnaround) with the aforementioned untapped reserve of charters available.

There is a business case to be made for why a charter in these circumstances isn’t worth it.

Leaving on a jet plane

FiveThirtyEight.com gives the Union a 27% chance of winning Wednesday night, as well as a 22% chance of a draw. These numbers are slightly lower than the team’s chances were in New York over the weekend and slightly higher than they will be for the trip ahead to Columbus. They’re higher than the average road team’s chances too, but nothing like those of teams traveling to Cincinnati or who are named “LAFC.”

So, even though the Union are 6-7-18 all time when playing on Pacific time, they are almost as likely as a coin flip this time to come home with at least a point. More comfortable travel seems like it should increase those odds, but data doesn’t exist to confirm that theory and science is rife with outcomes that seem to defy “conventional wisdom.”

With respect to that wisdom, this issue arose most recently when the Union were in Vancouver taking a point off of the Whitecaps. Alejandro Bedoya’s tweet about travel hours and leg room catalyzed the conversation for many fans.

In spite of their dire travel situation, the Union won their next road match just 4 days later, ironically also in Ohio, against then-high-flying FC Cincinnati.

Perhaps the whole kerfuffle was indeed “no harm, no foul,” but a sample size of 1 is not enough upon which to make a declaration either way. Thus, for the sake of argument an assumption can be made that being comfortable for 6-10 hours of travel is better than being uncomfortable.

Therefore the question isn’t whether the chance of the Union being successful in San Jose is higher with a chartered flight, that’s impossible to know but reasonable to suggest. The question is whether the chance increases enough this time to justify the cost.

Money for nothing

A charter flight is often quoted at $150,000 per leg, but flight costs are usually billed hourly and often include a return fee if only one flight leg is booked. What that means practically is one leg of a trip often nearly costs two, regardless of whether or not the second leg is used (someone has to take the plane back where it belongs after all).

Given that the Union are spending $8.96 million on salary this season, one leg to San Jose and one back would represent 3.2% of the team’s salary budget. Funding an entire professional soccer team obviously costs more than just salaries of course. However, that number is a reasonable measuring stick for how far the dollars might go should they be used elsewhere because businesses have limited budgets and a zero sum choice for investing capital: the same dollar invested one place simply can’t be invested somewhere else.

3.2% is Fafa Picault and Aurelien Collin’s combined annual salary. 3.2% is Brendan Aaronson, Mark McKenzie, and maybe two thirds of the entire Bethlehem Steel FC roster (making some estimations). If the argument becomes one where four chartered flights is expected, then 6.4% equates to the annual salary expenditure for every single Union player not named Alejandro Bedoya or Marco Fabian.

3.2% is real money.

Return on investment

Using FiveThirtyEight’s percentages, the Union have an expected return of points for tomorrow’s match that breaks down like this:

Multiply the percent chance of each outcome by it’s respective full value and sum the parts.

(27% x 3 point win) + (22% x 1 point draw) + (48% x 0 point loss) = 1.03 points

The cost of a round trip commercial flight to San Jose right now is about $800 per person and the Union brought more than their game day roster, so perhaps 30 people for the sake of argument.  The per person cost of a charter for a squad that size is closer to $10,000, or more than ten times as expensive.

The charter certainly wouldn’t give the Union more than a ten times higher chance of winning the match (commensurate with the increased cost), that’s impossible. But the reader can grab a calculator and plug his or her perceived increases into the equation in order to outline the team’s perception that their investment of dollars would be better used elsewhere.

  • A 10 point increase in win percentages? 1.33 points
  • A 20 point increase in draw percentages: 1.23 points
  • A 25 point increase in both: 2.03 points

The first increase is reasonable, the second is a stretch. The third is all but impossibly high, considering the Union’s chances at home against Chicago in July were only 56%, 21%, and 23%.

Assuming the thesis that comfortable travel makes teams more likely to be successful in road games, any reasonable person would agree that these invested dollars do equate to a somewhat higher chance for more points. They don’t, however, move the needle enough for the outcome of one match in order to justify their cost.

It’s that simple.

Summary

The Union have the largest salary they’ve ever had in 2019 to go along with the most successful side they’ve ever fielded. These are not correlations without causation: the team is more talented than they’ve ever been, with the most homegrown players on first team contracts they’ve ever had, the most experienced Sporting Director they’ve ever had, and the most experienced coach they’ve ever had.

They are getting value for all of their investments.

Thus the team can’t suddenly go spending money on things they didn’t plan for, specifically ones that are likely not to produce marked returns. That’s entirely counter to their business plan.

There is only one answer to the question of whether or not the Union should have chartered a plane to San Jose: only if they budgeted for it at the beginning of the year, and they did not.

Post script

This piece is an argument against a charter for this match. Major League Soccer is too large and geographically unbalanced not to give traveling teams some opportunity to offset their efforts. Long term, the league must do the same thing the Union have done in their own budgeting: focus on logistics, making player comfort a higher priority.

The good news for players and fans alike is this: next year, the whole argument about chartered flights might be, as Friends character Joey Tribbiani once put it, “…like a cow’s opinion? It doesn’t matter. It’s moo.”

See? You made it all the way through are were rewarded with a 1990’s-era dad joke. Congratulations.

23 Comments

  1. Despite all the arguments that Sugarman is cheap. I suspect that your analysis is closer to the truth in how he makes decisions about the team (or the analysis he expects Ernst to be doing) Cold hard numbers. If the numbers show an economic/financial benefit then he will do it. Unfortunately, we as sports fans hate that type of owner. We want them to splash the cash. Because it is OPM, we don’t care if it makes economic sense. We want an owner that lets their ego dictate decisions.

    • I have no problem spending other people’s money when those other people happily spend our money when it’s time to build a stadium. Get out the jaws of life and open Jay’s wallet.

  2. I have not seen anywhere their flight schedule for flying to the West Coast and the return. If they do not have to change planes and the flight is only 1 or 2 hrs longer than a charter flight than it does not make sense to charter a plane. If however they fly all day, like they did on the return from Vancouver then a charter makes a ton of sense.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      From what I could see on travel websites, there weren’t a lot of direct flight options as of last week. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have a direct flight booked already, just that you or I couldn’t have done that last-minute.

    • They could also just have flown to SFO. It’s an hour or less to San Jose. This is a secondary option, since San Jose airport is literally next to the stadium. But if there’s a good direct flight option to SFO , the “transfer” to a bus for a 55 minute ride afterward is no worse than what you’d end up with in many big American cities (e.g. Chicago) with a game there.

  3. The team has played well and raised our expectations. Ownership needs to step up and match the results on the field.

    If 2 charter flights mean a noticeable impact in salary flexibility… then it’s time to sell. Jay Sugarman sits on the expansion committee. Maybe he work out a deal.

  4. What does it cost to get the athletes into 1st / Business class (or even coach plus). How many of those seats exist on a flight and what percentage of them are filled with people actually paying full price (vs frequent flyer upgrade)?

    • AA offers 3 or 4 flights a day from SFO direct to Philly. Alaska offers one (a redeye, so that is out), and United has one in the AM. Between AA and United there are two early morning flights from SFO to PHL. Still, taking one of those pretty much necessitates hotel rooms post match / pre-flight. Not sure what Alaska and United fly, but AA flies A321s (16 or 20 first class) and 737s (16 first class). AA has been increasing its share of paid first class tickets significantly.

  5. I love this. Spot on.
    .
    Can we stop talking about airplanes and focus on winning points.
    .
    Save this shit for the off season, the Players Association, Strikes… whatever.
    .

  6. Interesting read, though I’d argue that cold, hard math doesn’t capture the full picture. A charter both ways helps with results in both the SJ and Crew matches. In addition, there has to be some sort of psychological boost, albeit impossible to quantify, of ownership making a statement that the team deserves a little extra support this week while making a final playoff push. It isn’t anywhere near the old riding in vans to practice at Chester park, but I think it’s a missed opportunity to show that we’ve elevated our status as a professional club ready to win something.

    • this is where i settle. it’s the psychological impact. it’s the reward and investment in you, a human being, that you’ve earned this. it’s the set up for players to perform as best they can, no matter how unquantifiable. i’d rather players and staff thinking about after the dud of Sunday, how they’ll improve and mentally be refreshed than groaning about this. it’s more than “we need to stay late to get it done; i’ll buy pizzas” but it has the same or better effect. Cheap is cheap.

  7. Good piece, Chris. It is a very large expense which much of the fanbase is advocating for, but ownership is the one that has to pay for it. I’m always wary of telling others how they should spend their money when it doesn’t come out of my pocket. However, I have two questions:

    Did you consider compare team performance when they charter vs their normal performance? I’m not aware of whether the Union have chartered before or not, but it seems to be missing the point by relying on 538’s calculation which doesn’t factor that into their predictions.

    Why did you choose not to address the possibility that one gained point could mean the difference between the 2nd and 3rd seed? This could mean an additional home match which brings additional revenue and a better chance to advance to the next round. Seems like a reasonable risk vs. reward analysis to consider.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      These are good points.

      I didn’t have time to dig into the team’s charter flight history. It’s tough to do a comparison though because there is no counterfactual: you can’t run a scenario where the same team plays the same match twice, one in which they take a charter and one in which they don’t. W/L record isn’t enough because of the other variables.

      I should have addressed the value of 1 point in the standings, but left it out because it was a seeding question and not a “qualifying for a home game” question. I basically decided that to try and predict seeding/better match ups/etc… was beyond the scope of the piece and that the 2 or 3 seed would still avoid NYCFC until the conference final and therefore be roughly equivalent.

  8. Nice piece, and very thought-provoking.

  9. I appreciate you playing devil’s advocate here, but I find the argument unconvincing. You could make the same argument for getting the player hotel rooms (why not just hand out tents or squeeze everyone into a B&B?). There are costs that you have to cover when running a major league professional sports team. Travel and accommodation are part of that. Taking care of your players is part of that…regardless of whether the return of points/dollar looks good or not. If the team can’t afford it, get more investors. The value of the team now compared to 10 years ago, and compared to where it is expected to be in another ten years should make that a fairly reasonable proposition.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      This is fair, and I like the tents v. hotel rooms comparison.

      The question becomes one of a standard of care: what is a reasonable baseline by which players can be professionals? For most American professional leagues, chartered flights and nice hotels (NBA teams have traditionally stayed at Philadelphia’s Four Seasons) are the standard of care.

      In the next bargaining agreement, I imagine that standard will rise. Right now it’s commercial flights and (I imagine) somewhat average hotels basically 95% of all league travel.

  10. OneManWolfpack says:

    I think the bigger question is simply: Could Sugarman just have done this regardless of cost, to show his team – who is having the best season in it’s existence, and it’s fan base – who has been through A LOT… that he gives shit and wants to help in any way to make them succeed? If all of these numbers prove it won’t help fine… but optics are a big freakin’ deal. They speak to the current players, the potential future players you want to bring here, and helps dispel the notion that you are cheap. People sometimes say it’s easy to spend other people’s money. Guess what… when you buy a professional team, you’re richer than most of, if not every single one of your fans. It comes with being the OWNER. And if you can’t afford it… please sell the team. Kraft let the Revs use his plane, usually reserved for the Patriots. The Revs. Who play in that football, turf stadium, that no one goes to… are flying on a private plane. Ugh.
    .
    He can afford it. He should have done it. Period.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      And Kinkaid and Tannewald made a good point on The Always Soccer podcast – they are guaranteed one home playoff game… should they win (and hopefully finish second) they get another. Won’t at least one home playoff game pay for the charter flight? Gotta be close to washing out.

  11. There isn’t an easy direct correlation between spending and winning. MLS proves that every weekend.
    .
    The Union have always been behind the curve on basic infrastructure, i.e. things that other teams have spent on that we hadn’t. We are finally beginning to catch up, but this is a conspicuous item where we are still lacking.
    .
    Yes it is a notable expense, and that money is probably better spent elsewhere on a fixed budget.
    .
    But there are times when you have to bust the budget and scrape some coins out of your pocket, and iStar seems to be doing pretty well these days.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      iStar stock is up 43% year to date.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Fixed budget… sure. When is the next time we are going to have a season this good? Next year, I hope. but are we guaranteed that? Of course not. This was the time to use it. And if you make Champions League next year and you have to spend more money… well boo-hoo. You’re the owner. Spend it or sell and move on. If you want to actually, really win / do very well and then you actually really do… you should be prepared for things like this.

  12. My opinion is that if you’re an owner of a pro sports team you use those flights or you shouldn’t be an owner. It’s bad optics IMO when you don’t and could affect signing/keeping players in the future. We’re also going for 2nd place and have to go east to west on 2 days rest. Take the risk. If iStar stock is up 43% I think Jay will be okay.

  13. Treating people (let alone highly tuned athletes) like they are numbers on a spreadsheet is very short sighted. Your spreadsheet models are simple, often linear, and contain a handful of variables and assumptions. People are much more complex than that.

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