The death of football

The headline may be a bit sensationalist, but hidden away beneath the increasing revenues and global popularity of the sport is a deeply disturbing trend which may spell trouble for the beautiful game.

The Class System

An informal class system is readily apparent across the major leagues in Europe and the gap between the top teams and the rest is only widening. The EPL rests under the thumbs of the big four (Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal), the Bundesliga can be winnowed down similarly to a handful (Schalke, Stutgart, Werder Bremen and Bayern jump to mind), the Italians have their quartet (Milan, Inter, Juventus and to a lesser extent Roma) while the Spanish are, for the most part, a two horse race (Real and Barca… although Valencia can be included as well).

The gap between these teams and the rest keeps growing while UEFA and the governing bodies do nothing to correct it. Instead we are left without suspense and without surprise. I already know, at the beginning of every season, that one of the big four will win the EPL while the rest slug it out for UEFA spots and to avoid relegation. The gap isn’t only in the brand name or money but also in talent. It is far easier for the big names to attract talent in the form of youth and expensive stars while the rest have the choice to either choose from leftovers or hope to get lucky with youth that the larger teams have overlooked.

The end result of this is that the bigger teams, the ones with a global reach and audience have an easier time attracting and retaining talent. This forces the highest levels of talent to be concentrated into a handful of teams ensuring that those teams retain their stranglehold on the league, the money and the audience which in turn ensures the attraction of even more talent. This continual loop cements the dominance of a few and destroys the competitiveness of the rest.

A Structural Problem

This same problem exists in most professional leagues around the world but with a slightly different dynamic. I’ll take some time to compare the situation in Europe and football with the situation in the United States with their top leagues: MLB (baseball), NFL (football- the american kind) and NBA (basketball). I’ll refrain from making a direct comparison to the MLS because, well, the teams in the MLS suck equally across the board.

The NFL is probably the most equitable (or mediocre depending on your view) of all the leagues. A hard salary cap, a yearly amateur draft and competent management across the board means that any given team can win in any year if the pieces fall together.

The NBA comes next in terms of equality. Although their salary cap isn’t has restrictive as the NFL’s, it still limits the ability of a team to aggregate talent. The volatility can be readily seen as the teams that dominated the 80’s (Lakers, Celtics and Sixers) are now reduced to bottom of the league squads while a new crop of powerhouses rise (Spurs, Suns, Cavaliers, Mavericks).

The MLB is the closest parallel to the situation in football. There is no hard salary cap and the big markets (New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles) attract the top free agents. This league, more than any other in the US, is ruled by money and prestige. Nevertheless, it has been shown repeatedly over the past decade that the richest team isn’t necessarily the one that will win the title (see New York). The effect of money and prestige is nullified to a certain extent by the revenue sharing concept and most importantly by the amateur draft.

The Difference

So how is it that the US leagues mitigate the concentration effect of money and prestige? They force talent towards the teams who are worse off. All three leagues have amateur drafts in which the team with the worst record in the previous season gets to choose first and therefore (theoretically) select the top talent. The contract structure, the revenue distribution and the salary cap (in the case of the NFL and NBA) conspire to keep that youth at the team that drafted him for a certain number of years. The amateur draft and the organizations of the leagues make sure that the only way you can be continually horrid and without hope for a championship is to have grossly incompetent management or horrible luck.

The Chicago Bulls provide a great example of this situation. They were the dominant force in the NBA during the 90’s. They had the best player to ever play (Michael Jordan), a solid second superstar (Pippen) and the best coach in the league (Jackson). They had a solid cast of supporters and went on to win 6 championships in that decade. Towards the end of the decade however, the stars retired and the coach left forcing the team into disarray and bleeding it of talent. For the next 7 years (starting 1998), the Bulls languished at the bottom or near the bottom of the league. They suffered from mismanagement the first couple of years which prolonged their misery but with each bad season came a high draft pick.

They were able to slowly accumulate talent and rebuild their squad. After almost 10 years, they are considered one of the elite teams in the league and possess, arguably, the youngest and most talented nucleus in the game.

This ability for teams to succeed, fail and rise again is what the European leagues lack. Instead we are forced into a static situation where teams are perpetually locked into a spot in the table, where a fall from grace means going from #1 to #3 and only a mammoth infusion of cash (Chelsea) can force team from the dregs of the league to the top. A system to redistribute cash and talent is something that the game desperately needs. Otherwise, the leagues will become increasingly static, marginalizing not only the other teams, but their fans as well by destroying any hope of a Champions League spot or a shot at the title.

And that destruction of hope is the worst crime of all.

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