06 August 2005

Soccer vs. Football, Pt I

I was intrigued to read this post comparing US sport to European soccer on the always-praiseworthy All Things Footie. In particular, Jordan looks to many of the unique features of American sport, and muses a bit about how English soccer* might learn from it.

This is a topic that's quite interesting to me, though I usually think about importing things the other way. There's much about European soccer that I wish American sports could emulate: multiple levels of leagues, relegation, multiple cups that run independently of league championships, and so forth. I could write about these at length, particularly how they apply to American soccer, but for now I'd just make a few points.

No matter how much Jordan or I might covet features of the others' leagues, it would prove quite difficult to import much on the business side, due to the wildly different business models the leagues follow. And the biggest example is that the US sports leagues are effective monopolies, while all the European leagues are in competition with one another. It's one thing for the NBA to force a salary-cap agreement onto the players. Where else are they going to play? World basketball has come a long way; witness the 2004 Olympics for Exhibit A. Yet still, none would argue that the European leagues are anywhere close to the NBA in either quality of play or quantity of pay. If Kobe Bryant wants to be known as the best, and get paid accordingly, he's got to play in the NBA.

Compare that to soccer. Suppose the English FA tried to impose a salary cap. Ludicrous, right? You'd have all the top talent fleeing to La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga... just about anywhere. Not only could they make the money they're accustomed to, they could also still play soccer in its highest form. You might be able to enforce such rules at the UEFA level, but the payoff for a breakaway league would be immense. All it would accomplish is to end UEFA.

I think Jordan (and his commentors) also overestimate the effectiveness of the salary cap. ("An NFL-style salary cap would also mean you didn’t have wonky-lipped mecenaries going from club to club trying to get paid more than the average Middle-Eastern Oil Baron.") You certainly still see American players acting as mercenary as any European. Baseball has its Curt Flood, Andy Messersmith, and Dave McNally to match with John Bosman. Free agency is if anything a bigger influence in US sport than in European, if only because it's had more time to become entrenched. See of course Terrell Owens, for starters.

Still, it's an interesting thought, and well worthwhile to think about what each sports system could adopt from the other. I'll post more on this in the future; it's an interesting topic for me.

*I watch and read so much English coverage of soccer that it's actually a bit painful for me to say "soccer" instead of "football". But it's much clearer if I stick to the American usage, particularly when comparing the two countries.

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