Leicester, Leicester, Leicester! Last weekend, a nation rose to cheer a fox to victory. Leicester City, better known as the Foxes, won the premier league title. The odds of such a triumph came at merely 5,000 to 1. To put that in perspective, the odds that the USA would defeat the Soviets during the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” Olympics hockey match were 1,000 to 1. This makes the Leicester victory the biggest payoff in sporting history.
It’s no secret that the public loves to root for the underdog (or fox). And Leicester certainly qualified as one. Before the season even started, there was talk of relegating the team to the “second tier” of English football. It was seen as average, with no stand-out stars. The team changed coaches at the beginning of the season to Claudio Ranieri, an Italian who had not seen a league title in 30 years, who was widely regarded as a has-been.
And yet one by one, the titans of English football fell to Leicester. Teams internationally known and always long time fan favorites. Clubs who are responsible for having launched the careers of the biggest football celebs in the game–Harry Kane, Thierry Henry, Alan Shearer, Ian Rush, Wayne Rooney, David Beckham. But what makes them stand out is how much money they have.
Manchester United earned €519.5 million last season. Chelsea earned €420, Liverpool €391.8, and Tottenham €257.5. Combined, they have billion-euro war chests. Of the top 10 highest earning football teams, 5 are from England, but Leicester City isn’t among them. It brings up the rear, at #24, earning a measly €137.2 or almost five times less.
How is it that a team with so little bread can thrash billion-euro juggernauts? This should not happen. That’s the point of money. With money, you can afford the best players in the game. Players who presumably work harder, play better, and attract more spectators. With money, you can rally a larger fan-base with better marketing. There should be no way for Leicester, with less money, unknown players and a brand new Italian coach, to win. And yet they did.
We must remember that the exceptions often prove the rule. Leicester, this year, is the exception. There have been 24 seasons in the Premier League. Manchester United has won 54% of them. Chelsea has won 17%, and Arsenal has won 13%. Clearly, there is a strong correlation between team revenue and Premiere League championships.
The exceptions, however, show us that with money, success, and fame come unwanted side-effects. Big bucks bring timidity to the game. With so much at stake, it’s harder to make bold decisions. And so you see predictable decisions, game after game, which can cause a team to stagnate. This leaves the door wide open to more nimble teams that are not afraid to innovate.
The Foxes were no stranger to change. Under Claudio Ranieri, quick decisions earned him the nickname “The Tinkerman” because he was constantly chopping and changing lineups. While many say this nickname was meant to be humiliating, I think it reveals a nimble aspect of his coaching style that is willing to pivot as things on the field change. He’s willing to craft a new lineup from scratch, on the fly, as the game progresses, in order to adapt to conditions on the field. This is much like startups who subscribe to Lean Startup and agile models. Maybe his winning formula was using a few tactics off the field. Like all startups who celebrate milestones with a cheap easy meal, he followed suit: “I told them when we keep a clean sheet I will pay them [with] a pizza.”
It is this nimbleness (and incentives of pizza parties), this willingness to make bold decisions quickly, that separates stagnant lakes from roaring rivers. It’s something that travel and tech startups should pay attention to, and learn lessons from. In the world of travel software, you find enterprise-level software makers that have dominated the space for decades. But like billion-euro football clubs, success weighs heavily upon them. They have too much to lose, so they make slow, safe, bland decisions.
Conversely, young tech startups have the vigor and drive of the underdog. Like Leicester, these companies play with gloves off. They give each game everything they’ve got. They’re willing to make bold decisions quickly. They can adapt to new conditions on the field as they appear, instead of waiting for committee approval.
These players play better games. These makers make better software. At the end of the day, it’s not about how much money you have in your war chest. It’s about whether or not you make the pivotal decision that ends the game in your favor.
And don’t forget to celebrate with pizza.