Can European soccer learn from NFL on team parity?
The NFL prides itself on ‘parity’, on the competitive balance between different clubs being close, ensuring that games are tightly-fought contests and that as many teams as possible start the season with some sort of chance of making the Super Bowl.
Looking at the start to this season, with surprise results and with unfancied teams such as Houston and Tampa making bright starts, the balance is very healthy.
There are a number of mechanisms in place in the NFL to ensure that an elite group of winners and a desperate group of losers do not form. The salary cap which makes sure that cash doesn’t talk too much and the draft, which gives the lowest ranked team the first pick of the best college talent, are the two most obvious means by which the NFL ensures that things stay interesting.
On the surface at least, it seems a remarkably socialist system for a profit-orientated American sports league to have in place. Money and talent is spread around equally to ensure that there is a healthy equality. It hardly seems appropriate for a society that prides itself, in theory at least, on being a free-market capitalist system, with choice and opportunity prioritized above fairness and equality.
Not only does the NFL limit the ability of owners to spend their way to success, it also saves teams from failure. Unlike in most sports leagues in the world, there is no relegation for weak teams — no punishment for being bad. Indeed the draft system is almost a little welfare-state style form of assistance.
In contrast, Premier League soccer in England (or Serie A in Italy or La Liga in Spain for that matter) operates the most laissez-faire style of capitalism you could imagine. If you are a young Russian billionaire or a Saudi businessman with cash to spare (or an American NFL owner for that matter) you can buy a team and assemble the best players and coaches that your money can buy. No-one will tell you how much you can pay your staff or how much you can blow on transfer fees.
The result of allowing that disparity has been that since Blackburn Rovers won the English title in 1995 only three clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United have finished champions. In that same period 12 teams, over a third of the NFL, have won the Lombardi Trophy.
Spain, with Barcelona and Real Madrid and Italy with AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus, are similarly dominated by a small number of wealthy clubs with most of the teams beginning the year knowing that they have virtually no chance of winning the competition they are involved in. Throughout Europe, clubs are in huge debt despite lucrative television and sponsorship deals.
So is there something that European soccer can learn from the NFL? I believe there is, even if one has to acknowledge that there will always be some very big differences between the way top professional leagues are organized in North America and Europe.
There is no way that European fans would accept no promotion or relegation between the leagues and likewise it is hard to imagine a return of the old maximum wage rule that once kept wages down in English football and there will obviously never be a draft system.
But an overall salary cap for each team would go some way to allowing the challenging clubs to have a realistic chance of getting their hands on the title and would weaken the grip of elite clubs. That would surely create more compelling matches and better overall competition in the main European leagues.
But would it ever happen?
PHOTO: Washington Redskins chase Houston Texans Arian Foster in the second quarter of NFL football game in Landover, Maryland, September 19, 2010. REUTERS/Larry Downing