Zero to One: Why Attachment to Competition Hurts NHL Clubs

When Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and Palentir and the first outside investor in Facebook, conducts interviews, he always asks one very difficult question.

“What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”

I’ll wait while you struggle to find an answer that suits you individually….no go ahead….okay maybe table that for later. While straightforward, it’s an incredibly difficult question both because most of the knowledge we accumulate – particularly when it comes to conventional education – is widely agreed upon, and because in an interview setting, answering it inherently involves voicing an opinion that the interviewer doesn’t share. It takes courage, and courage is something that Thiel feels is lacking.

“There is more genius out there than there is courage,” he said at a talk at Georgetown University Tuesday evening, the second time I had seen the venture capitalist talk (full disclosure, my sister is his executive assistant; it’s not a coincidence).

Now if you know anything about Thiel, you know he’s a controversial figure. He has advocated against the current American education landscape, and is known as an extreme libertarian. You kind of have to have some quirks to be as smart and successful as he is, he himself might say.

But going back to that first question, Thiel has his own answer. He believes that the two values that the American economy holds so dear, Capitalism and competition, are in fact not complements but – at least from the perspective of a business – opposites. We have an attachment to this idea of competition, and it leads people to go out and open restaurants, he jokes of essentially the least successful kind of business out there. But when you’re looking for success, you don’t want competition, you want a monopoly.

It’s something that the decision-makers in sporting organizations often don’t get. Largely composed of former players, the demographic has experienced nothing other than heated competition for most of its life, with the ideas implanted from an early age that hard work will pay off, that everybody will get their due, that it’s not about winning as much as it is about how you play the game. General Managers want to fit in more than they want to stand out. They want to be respected for their comportment more than they want to be admired for their achievements. “You always hope a trade works out for both sides,” they are known to say. They are a group not unlike that which goes to business school, which follows a path already set out for them, never quite sure if they’re doing what they want, or what somebody before them has decided is the norm.

“The word ‘ape’ comes from Shakespearian times,” Thiel mentioned in his talk. “It means both ‘primate’ and ‘to imitate.'”

Fans often accuse decision-makers of a fear of taking risks. It’s often a valid complaint; humans are risk-averse by nature. But I believe there’s another dynamic at play here as well. If I’m a GM and I look at Moneyball, I immediately tear down my entire operation, no matter the sport, and ask how we can rebuild it using Beane’s methods. As John Henry (Arliss Howard) says in the movie, “Anybody who’s not tearing their team down right now and rebuilding it using your model? They’re dinosaurs.” And yet it took more than a decade for each baseball team to take steps towards a buy-in, and every other sport is still lagging behind.

General Managers aren’t just afraid to take risks, they’re afraid to be great. They’re taught to win within the confines of the sport, when in reality it takes a complete break from convention to truly sniff greatness. Teams are now embracing analytics to varying degrees – and as I’ve mentioned a number of times before, analytics and statistics are not synonymous. But hockey is still waiting for somebody to take an aspect of the sport from 0 to 1 rather than from 1 to n, as Thiel would put it. It’s waiting for someone not to reinvent the wheel, but to create something better, something different.

It’s time for some of that courage.

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