UK vs US sports leagues – a little industrial organisation analysis

by Daniel on May 27, 2009

It is traditional for the end of a football season in the UK to bring a chorus of moaning about how uncompetitive the Premier League is, and how things would be better if we followed some system loosely based on the “millionaires’ socialism” of US professional sports – salary caps, preferential drafting of new players, all the other hilariously anticompetitive interferences in the market. When making any such comparison, though, one has to remember that the USA is not the size of the UK; it’s roughly the size of Europe.

If we’re going to compare like with like, the best comparison for the UK is the broadly-defined Mid-Atlantic region (Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Washington DC). It has about 60m population, GDP which is ballpark similar to the UK depending on how you measure it, and although the geographical area is about double the UK, the actual population (and the professional sports teams) are concentrated in an area roughly comparable.

The Mid-Atlantic region has 7 NFL teams (Ravens, Bills, Jets, Steelers, Giants, Eagles, Redskins), 4 NBA teams (Nets, Knicks, 76ers, Wizards), 6 Major League Baseball teams (Orioles, Yankees, Mets, Phillies, Nationals, Pirates) and 7 National Hockey League teams (Devils, Islanders, Rangers, Flyers, Penguins, Sabres, Capitals). That’s a total of 24 major sports teams, split up as seven each for New York and Pennsylvania, four each for DC and New Jersey, two in Maryland and none for Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia.

In other words, the total number of major professional sports teams in the Mid-Atlantic region (ignoring college sports, but also ignoring cricket and both codes of rugby in the UK) is equal to the twenty teams of the Premier League, plus the two Glasgow teams, Hearts and Aberdeen, which roughly corresponds to the part of the Scottish League that could realistically hold onto a top-flight place in a national association football league if there was one.

So comparing like with like (ie, comparing the whole of major professional sports on the US side versus association football in the UK), what can we say?

Firstly, the degree of monopoly and concentration is quite astonishing. London only accounts for four five of the Premier League teams (Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, West Ham and Fulham, thanks Dan Butt in comments). New York City (of roughly the same population) is massively more dominant in the Mid-Atlantic region – of the 11 teams in the states of New York plus New Jersey, only one (the Buffalo Bills) is outside the NYC commuter area. Washington DC has roughly the same population as Manchester, but has four teams compared to Manchester’s two. Fans of mid-table battlers like Portsmouth and Blackburn who bemoan the injustice of the gap that separates them from the big four would do well to remember that under an NFL-like system, their team would very likely not exist at all.

Second, the American teams play each other only very rarely. Obviously the fact that they are spread over four different sports means that there are necessarily fewer direct pairings than in the Premier League, but even within the sports, the Mid-Atlantic teams are split across two conferences – the system seems to be more or less designed to prevent local derbies.

Finally, of course this sub-population I’ve carved out is embedded in the national league structure, which should probably be compared to the European championships in association football. I’m not sure if this is an advantage or a disadvantage for the fans; I suspect that it would not be all that much benefit for association football to create a structure which proliferated meaningless ties between teams like Wigan and their counterparts in the Bundesliga.

I think my conclusion is that the American sports leagues achieve the illusion of competitiveness by severely restricting the number of teams – note that there is no promotion or relegation to the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL. The UK system should probably be seen as one in which the real league is the European one – the Champions League – but in which the minor-league teams are allowed to play against the major ones. I guess it’s something of a judgement call whether this is better or worse for the fans of non-Big-Four teams than a league in which they supported a team which had a chance of winning, but much less local connection to them (for example look at the geographical map of MLB support). It is true that there’s only four teams in the Premier League that have any realistic chance of winning, but there’s only three teams that have any chance of being the top NFL team in California, because it only has three teams.

{ 167 comments }

1

Dan Butt 05.27.09 at 10:05 am

“London only accounts for four of the Premier League teams (Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, West Ham). “

…plus Fulham.

2

Daniel 05.27.09 at 10:07 am

good spot, yes!

3

John Quiggin 05.27.09 at 10:11 am

As I’ve said before, I’m with the moaners on this one, though there are things I don’t fully understand. Why, for example, does anyone bother to follow the Scottish football competition when the result could be replicated if Rangers played Celtic once a year? But people apparently turn out to watch teams that would need a miracle to make second place once in a lifetime.

Anyway, my main point is that the US isn’t the only comparator. Australia has an even more thoroughly socialist system – most of the clubs are actually clubs, though a handful have individual or corporate owners. A population of 20 million has a choice of 50-odd football teams across 4 codes, all of which (except maybe rugby union, have a draft and salary cap system). Lots of local derbies – the AFL and ARL competitions are hybrids between the Melbourne and Sydney local competitions they started out as and the national, one-team or tw0-team per city setups the marketing guys would like.

4

Daniel 05.27.09 at 10:12 am

One thing I didn’t note is that “competitiveness” cuts two ways. The NFL would never allow a massive media market like the Leeds/Bradford or Sheffield conurbs to have zero representation, but the Premier League does (and this is structural – not so long ago there was precisely one team from the entire Midlands). Any “break up the Big Four” proposal is basically going to be a big subsidy to Leeds and Newcastle from a load of small Lancashire towns.

5

kegler 05.27.09 at 10:16 am

The NFL would never allow a massive media market like the Leeds/Bradford or Sheffield conurbs to have zero representation

Tell that to Los Angeles

6

Daniel 05.27.09 at 10:19 am

Australia’s got some pretty unusual physical geography, though which affects the structure – it doesn’t really have many of the kind of small/medium towns that UK soccer moaners want to give a hand to.

7

Daniel 05.27.09 at 10:23 am

Why, for example, does anyone bother to follow the Scottish football competition when the result could be replicated if Rangers played Celtic once a year?

Taking a cursory look at the head to head results (and I’m certainly prepared to defer to anyone who’s done more than this), I’m surprised how little correlation there is between the Old Firm derbies (in which there’s substantial home advantage – at the very least you’d want them to play twice) and the eventual SPL winner. The Scottish League seems to basically turn on which out of the top two can avoid getting turned over by Dundee.

8

Joe 05.27.09 at 10:23 am

Isnt Fulham a Premier League team in London?

9

mpowell 05.27.09 at 10:29 am

I have a tough time arguing with this. If you look at representation in the Champions League, it starts to look even more similar to American style sports. I think American college football and basketball have also shown that you can run a league successfully without much competitiveness. You need very strong local ties, local rivalries, and something to play for besides the championship. College football is a great example of this with all the intermediate levels of success teams can achieve. European football has the locality down and relegation makes for exciting games between midlevel teams. If there were going to be any kind of improvement to the system, perhaps they should look at the college bowl system to provide more end-of-year excitement to midlevel Premier league squads than to the NFL for salary caps.

10

John Quiggin 05.27.09 at 10:32 am

“Australia’s got some pretty unusual physical geography, though which affects the structure – it doesn’t really have many of the kind of small/medium towns that UK soccer moaners want to give a hand to.”

Not sure exactly what size we’re talking, but in the 100-500k range (maybe some are a bit outside this, but I think most are in it) there’s Canberra (NRL and ARL teams), Cairns and Townsville (hate each other, but share an NRL team), the Gold Coast (a string of short-lived teams of various kinds), Newcastle, Wollongong, Geelong and (always missing out) Hobart and Launceston. Of course, several of these are part of greater conurbations, but they see themselves as separate, which is what matters in this context.

Until its recent sad demise, basketball came closest to the US model (mostly privately owned teams, with a salary cap and draft system). But, sad to say, owning a sporting team appears to be an excellent indicator of impending corporate failure.

11

Brian Weatherson 05.27.09 at 10:38 am

I was just noticing a number of Americans saying the same thing about how much better the American leagues were than the English Premier League because it was more competitive. My initial reaction was something like Daniel’s, though much less carefully worked out.

I think the comparison with California briefly mentioned at the end is just as good as the comparison with the mid-Atlantic. California is the same population as a mid-to-large European state. If American sports were run along the lines of European soccer, California would have a popular state league in each sport, in which a few big LA and Bay Area based teams would usually dominate. But other teams, representing all sorts of parts of the state (Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Palm Springs, etc) would frequently challenge for the title, and occasionally win (a la Wolfsburg this year in the Bundesliga). Meanwhile the big LA and Bay Area teams would play other big teams from NY, Chicago etc in continent-wide competitions on top of the state competitions. In other words, they’d play something like the current NBA/MLB/NFL as an extra competition. And that competition would be extremely competitive over the long run, though like the Champions League (and like the NBA/MLB/NFL) there may only be smallish year-to-year turnover of teams with realistic title chances. Of course as it is, the chance of Santa Cruz having the best baseball team in California is 0.

It’s a matter of taste whether one would prefer this structure of state-based competitions with continent-wide cups as an extra level, or the American version of continent-based competitions as the basic level. I certainly prefer the European model, but I can understand people preferring the American. What I think is wrong is the apples-to-paella comparison between a league that crosses the 50 American states, and a league from 1 of the 52 UEFA members.

12

Brian Weatherson 05.27.09 at 10:39 am

If there were going to be any kind of improvement to the system, perhaps they should look at the college bowl system to provide more end-of-year excitement to midlevel Premier league squads than to the NFL for salary caps.

Isn’t that what the UEFA Cup/Europa League is for?

13

Ginger Yellow 05.27.09 at 10:43 am

“I suspect that it would not be all that much benefit for association football to create a structure which proliferated meaningless ties between teams like Wigan and their counterparts in the Bundesliga.”

There used to be such a thing. In fact, there were several. Until last year there was the Intertoto Cup, and before that, there was the Anglo-Italian cup, which featured teams from the second tier divisions.

“Why, for example, does anyone bother to follow the Scottish football competition when the result could be replicated if Rangers played Celtic once a year?”

I can’t speak for the Scots, but as a fan of a team which hasn’t played in the top flight for 20 years and hasn’t even been promoted for over a decade, I can say that there’s more to football than winning championships. The games themselves are fun, you know. Or at least they can be.

Personally, I think US and European sports have a lot to learn from each other. European leagues really need a salary cap, for instance. And the US really needs promotion and relegation. I’d like to see the US move away from the draft system, but more for the benefit of universities and students than sport. And I’m realistic about the prospects of that happening.

14

Daniel 05.27.09 at 10:52 am

mpowell – I think that the popularity of college sports in the USA reflects the massive underproduction of professional sport by the NFL/NBA cartel.

15

Chris Bertram 05.27.09 at 10:53 am

_Why, for example, does anyone bother to follow the Scottish football competition when the result could be replicated if Rangers played Celtic once a year? _

I guess because winning isn’t everything … I follow Liverpool and Bristol Rugby (RU). For the first, winning is pretty much everything. Though their are moments of pleasure (stuffing ManU 4-1 at their place) the team has fallen short for nearly 20 years. With Bristol, on the other hand, the occasional successes give the pleasure, as would mere survival have been, had we not been relegated :(.

BTW, Lancashire will have 8 teams in the Premier League next year

16

Brian Weatherson 05.27.09 at 11:02 am

mpowell – I think that the popularity of college sports in the USA reflects the massive underproduction of professional sport by the NFL/NBA cartel.

As a bit of cheap evidence for that, college sports are often biggest in places where the professional sports are, or at least have been, least represented. So Nebraska, Oklahoma, Alabama, etc have huge college sports traditions and no pro teams. On the other hand, college sports simply aren’t that big a deal in New York City where, as Daniel points out in the original post, we have a pretty good quantity of teams. (Rutgers is trying to become the New York region’s big college football team, but without a great deal of success so far.)

17

Matt McGrattan 05.27.09 at 11:23 am

The Scottish league isn’t actually much less competitive than the rest. In Scotland there 2 of 10 teams with a realistic chance of winning most years. With the the English Premiership there are 4 from 20, and I’d expect that pattern is roughly replicated in the other European leagues. I’d imagine it’s an inevitable result of concentrations of population and wealth that’s magnified by the winners receiving larger shares of media revenue.

For the fan of a smaller Scottish team there are exactly the same incentives as fans of smaller English teams. You want to see your team play well, improve their league placing, maybe have a good run in the cup [where smaller teams do have a chance of winning], see them turn over one of the big two, beat your local hated rivals, and so on. Winning the league is only one of the ‘prizes’ up for grabs, and if that’s not the one you have a realistic chance of winning, the others are just as able to attract people’s attention.

18

Matt 05.27.09 at 11:30 am

As a bit of cheap evidence for that, college sports are often biggest in places where the professional sports are, or at least have been, least represented.

I don’t doubt that there’s something to this, but there are lots of exceptions. College basketball is very popular in Philadelphia and, of course, in North Carolina, despite the presence of pro teams (maybe marginally a pro team in North Carolina!) College foot-ball is, of course, huge in Florida, but it also has two popular pro teams with long histories (especially Miami.) I think that some of the difference is that in the US, because of how many of the biggest universities were formed (especially outside the east coast), via the land-grant system, there just happens to be college teams in places that wouldn’t support a modern professional team, at least not without history tying a team to odd locations- Buffalo or Green Bay and the like. Also, baseball in the US is really pretty competitive, with all sorts of teams winning in different years and the biggest spenders often messing themselves up, despite having no salary cap and only fairly modest revenue sharing.

19

Daniel 05.27.09 at 11:42 am

Lancashire will have 8 teams in the Premier League next year

yes, versus a grand total of one (Hull) for combined Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Anglia! On a plausible relegation/promotion scenario for next year (Hull and Sunderland down, Newcastle and Middlesborough not promoted), the 2010/11 season could have the most northeasterly club in the Premier League being either West Ham or Oldham.

20

Doug 05.27.09 at 11:42 am

14, 16 – Alternatively, you could look for historical reasons. American football was reasonably well codified by 1880, but the NFL was not organized until 1920. Basketball was invented in late 1891, and popularized by choice through YMCAs and colleges; the league that became the NBA was not founded until 1946. In contrast, baseball was codified by 1850, with professional play in its first decade, and had a fully pro team, which still plays in the same city, by 1869.

The forty- and fifty-year gaps gave college football and basketball traditions and fan bases that keep them popular, even in the face of the higher quality play of the professional leagues. Baseball’s early professionalization (and to be fair to the economists in the house, the system of farm teams) means that the college game is much less of an attraction.

21

Chris Bertram 05.27.09 at 11:47 am

_he 2010/11 season could have the most northeasterly club in the Premier League being either West Ham or Oldham._

A cursory visual inspection of the UK on Googlemaps, suggests that a 45 degree line extending northwest from West Ham would pass through the middle of Birmingham and well to the south of Merseyside, so I’m not sure I get your meaning.

22

Doug 05.27.09 at 11:56 am

17 – Data from Germany, from the 1988-89 season through the 2008-09 season:
Bundesliga championships
Bayern München – 11
Borussia Dortmund – 3
Kaiserslautern – 2
VfB Stuttgart – 2
Werder Bremen – 2
VfL Wolfsburg – 1
(Going back to the beginning of the Bundesliga in 1963 gives you seven more titleists, three of whom have more than one title: Borussia Mönchengladbach – 5, Hamburg 3 and FC Köln 2.)

So in the Bundesliga there are two contenders Bayern München and everyone else.

23

tulip 05.27.09 at 11:58 am

I’m an American, and the idea of replicating the European system here (with 5 or 6 regional leagues and the NFL/NBA etc in the role of UEFA) holds no appeal to me.

As it is, the 32nd best football team is usually pretty bad, as is the 30th best baseball team (go Nats!). I can’t even imagine the awfulness of, say, the 80th best football team.

24

Ben Alpers 05.27.09 at 12:04 pm

As a bit of cheap evidence for that, college sports are often biggest in places where the professional sports are, or at least have been, least represented. So Nebraska, Oklahoma, Alabama, etc have huge college sports traditions and no pro teams. On the other hand, college sports simply aren’t that big a deal in New York City where, as Daniel points out in the original post, we have a pretty good quantity of teams. (Rutgers is trying to become the New York region’s big college football team, but without a great deal of success so far.)

This is largely accurate, but wrong in some details.

Oklahoma City now has an NBA team. And Oklahoma (like other similarly major-league free, college sports mad places) has long had an assortment of minor league pro sports, from AAA (and lower) baseball to minor league hockey to arena football. All these teams are well supported (at least in OKC; I assume the same is true in Tulsa). Oklahoma City even sets attendance records in minor league ice hockey, a sport with no local playing culture behind it (and hockey’s popularity in North America is extremely local; Canada + the few ice-belt U.S. cities where people play hockey as well as watch it). College sports absolutely lead the way locally. But they substitute not only for most major league pro sports, but for just about everything else, too. And the result is a sports fandom that spills over into places one might not expect. Finally, don’t forget high school football, which is also huge in this part of the country.

As for NYC: half a century ago, NY schools dominated college basketball. And a handful of New York area schools are still a lot stronger in that sport than in college football (St. John’s and Seton Hall). Notre Dame football for years had an enormous fan base among NY area Catholics. At any rate, my sense is that many New Yorkers follow college football, despite the relative lack of big time football in the immediate vicinity.

25

dsquared 05.27.09 at 12:04 pm

yes you’re right, it’s definitely Oldham. But a line from Oldham to West Ham would (unless I’ve forgotten a club like I did with Fulham) mark the northeastern boundary of the PL.

26

cleathorpes 05.27.09 at 12:27 pm

I wonder why one of these billionaires buying up football clubs hasn’t bought Leeds. As D2 points out, there is a massive fan base to exploit, and surely with enough cash you’d only have to wait a few years until you were back in the Premier League. Presumably Leeds is available for purchase at a price well below that paid for clubs like Man City. I’;d have thought the prospects for a return on investment are better than for buying a current Premiership side.

27

Philip 05.27.09 at 12:29 pm

I am not sure that the calls for a salary cap are to make the premier league more competitive. When I was a kid the league was Liverpool and everyone else, the Man Utd. and everyone else, then Arsenal joined Man Utd. There were always some other clubs doing well who could win the league or come second. Since the formation of the Premier League Blacburn, leeds and Newcastle come to mind. Then we got a 4th place in the Champions Leageue which Abromovich bought-up for Chelsea, and the funds they get for that keep the top 4 in place. So getting rid of the 4th Champions League spot or giving it to the FA cup winners should make the league more competitive again.

I think the call for a salary cap is more to do with fans feeling no connection with the players in their teams.

28

dsquared 05.27.09 at 12:38 pm

Cleathorpes – the trouble is that even if you did take Leeds back into the Premiership, there’s no guarantee it would be profitable. LFC also has a nasty little dormant VAT liability which HMRC dropped in 2008 but which I for one would be cautious of if I was a deep-pocketed billionaire. The most valuable thing about the club is probably its option to buy back the Elland Road ground.

29

James Joyner 05.27.09 at 12:47 pm

I’ve responded at length in a post titled “Premier League vs. American Team Sports.” Very short version: While I agree that the latter use anticompetitive practices, I find your artificial league rather wanting as an illustration.

30

cleathorpes 05.27.09 at 12:56 pm

well, there’s no guarantee any club will be profitable – buying a football club is a pretty daft thing to do imho, but if you’re going to do it, at least relative to other clubs Leeds ought to be cheap, and it has a larger potential fan base than most, which has a value, I’d have thought. But I didn’t know about the VAT thing, nor that they don’t own Elland Rd – and perhaps the current owners are simply holding out for too high a price.

31

Guano 05.27.09 at 12:59 pm

I presume that you mean “Cleethorpes”.

Sorry for being pedantic, but I very much doubt if you would ever make the mistake of writing “Chelsee”.

32

mpowell 05.27.09 at 1:15 pm

Well, that’s an interesting take on the popularity of college sports in the United States. But it’s almost orthogonal to the discussion. There is still the question of why college teams fill this gap but not alternative professional leagues (that could be well balanced, for example). A lot of it is path dependency, but the similarities between college football and european soccer suggest that there is perhaps something to the model of uncompetitive leagues that still provide fans something interesting.

33

dsquared 05.27.09 at 1:33 pm

There is still the question of why college teams fill this gap but not alternative professional leagues

Professional sports leagues are a natural monopoly (this has been found in successive antitrust trials).

34

Amos Newcobe 05.27.09 at 1:41 pm

the fact that they are spread over four different sports means that there are necessarily fewer direct pairings

A hockey game between an American football team and a basketball team? That’s something I’d pay to see.

35

Malcs 05.27.09 at 1:44 pm

Good article. As a fan of mid-league battlers Pompey _and_ Aberdeen, both mentioned above, I’m sceptical about arguments for reform of either of the Premierships for the same reason I’ve long been sceptical of arguments about quotas for foreign players. I don’t see what real benefit accrues from shielding players and teams against competition of the highest standard. Matt McGrattan has it exactly right, as far as I can see, on the subject of the pleasures of supporting smaller teams.

Oh and D2 I think you might mean “turned over by Dundee Utd”.

36

mollymooly 05.27.09 at 1:48 pm

Given how controversial the Bowl Championship Series is in US College football, has anyone seriously considered following the European model; i.e. rather than a regular-season mix of Conference games plus a few others, followed by a single post-season Bowl game, you had Conference games one season, with the top teams from each Conference playing each other during the following season for the national title.

37

mollymooly 05.27.09 at 1:48 pm

The Intertoto Cup has been abolished? I had no idea! I’m devastated! Oh, wait. No I’m not.

38

deliasmith 05.27.09 at 2:07 pm

The Scottish League seems to basically turn on which out of the top two can avoid getting turned over by Dundee

Dundee UNITED you mean. Nicknames ‘The Terrors’ and ‘The Arabs’ – put that on a button and walk through immigration at JFK.

You are right that the Old Firm games rarely decide the league championship in Scotland. This year Celtic could barely get a win away from home, last year it was Rangers who suffered the same problem.

The clustered geographical distribution of Premier League clubs is actually a consequence of the persistence of social-geographical patterns of the 1880s. The 12 Founder Members of the Football League came from Lancashire (6) Staffordshire (4)*, Nottingham and Derby. Seven of these clubs were in the Premier League last season, and seven will be in next season.

*Villa Park was in Staffordshire in 1888, albeit by a few hundred yards.

39

Cryptic Ned 05.27.09 at 2:26 pm

Canada has its own thriving football league, while Wales’s soccer league is pathetic, because the teams from Wales’s biggest and most vibrant cities, Merthyr Tydfil, Newport, Wrexham, Swansea, Cardiff, and Colwyn Bay, all play in the English leagues. Short-sighted Canadian investors must resist the push to have the Buffalo NFL team move to Toronto and try to displace the Argonauts.

40

JRoth 05.27.09 at 2:32 pm

Doug at 20 nails the history – there are very similar numbers of teams in the NBA, NFL, and MLB, yet college baseball is a niche sport/event (calendars probably play some role in this). There are, of course, minor league baseball teams, but they have nothing like the fan base of college football and basketball teams.

It’s also worth nothing that college football especially serves a function in “flyover” country that wouldn’t work if the NFL expanded there – in many places you have intercollegiate rivalries between two areas that couldn’t individually support pro teams. So you get (bitter, life-affirming) rivalries between StateU and UofState in states that would be marginal for a single NFL team. I’m not sure that fans of the respective schools would trade the rivalries they have for higher quality play but without the rivalries.

41

Tom Hurka 05.27.09 at 2:38 pm

The original post is baffling.

The moaners” complaint is that before the Premier League season begins you know that only one of four teams can win, except that it won’t be Liverpool. And it’s supposed to somehow answer this complaint to note that a North American League that doesn’t and never will exist — a mid-Atlantic league combining teams from four different sports — would have a lot of teams from New York City? WTF???

And the shot about “an illusion of competitiveness”? In actual North American leagues — the actual NHL, NFL, etc. — it’s often wide open at the start of the year who will win. Or if there are favourites one year, they’ll be different from the favourites a few years later. That’s actual competitiveness in an actual league, not the tedium of always Man U, Man U, Man U …

And at least for hockey (support me, Berube!), the claim that local teams don’t play each other is just false. Five of the seven mid-Atlantic teams — the five closest to NYC — form an Atlantic Division and play each other more than they play other teams. The New York Rangers and New York Islanders play each other many more times a season than Liverpool plays Everton. And yes, they hate each other.

Main point: the moaners are talking about actual competitiveness in actual leagues. How is it remotely relevant to speculate about what would be true in some North American league that doesn’t and never will exist?

42

Andrew 05.27.09 at 2:46 pm

If we accept the obvious analogy between Europe – the Champion’s League/European Cup – and the US – the NFL, then we can directly compare the competitiveness of the two over the 43 years of the Superbowl. There have been 20 European Cup winners, of whom 10 have won it more than once, and the Herfindahl is 687 (or 676 in the unlikely circumstance that Barcelona win tonight…). Comparatives for the NFL are 17, 11, 752. In both cases the most successful club has won 6 times. I also looked at the so-called World Series in Baseball – 19, 14, 562, allowing back to 1965 so we have the same size data set (not run in 1994). I’m no statistician, but there doesn’t seem a significant difference between the US and Europe to me: an argument that the anti-competitive US structure where 2nd tier teams provide players to top tier teams but cannot themselves compete, actually mimics rather well the open-market system in Europe?

If you accept this, then I guess it is a matter of taste. But I wonder what the US system actually gains for the supporter? My own limited experience of watching minor league baseball on holiday in the US suggests that even very small teams are not without passionate support so I don’t buy the argument that we (automatically) prefer quality, and the professional vs amateur argument also seems a bit dubious as there is no clear dividing line between them – take Scottish 2nd division football for example. Whether you pay your players is more a question of the economics of the club I think. I wonder whether it is true that the proportion of the population watching live sport in Europe is much greater than that in the US (pure speculation), so more professional clubs can be supported, but in any case I would imagine that is a cultural phenomenon not a consequence of the league structure? Ultimately I still prefer Europe, if only so that I can dream of my bottom-division English club winning the Champions league. Usually in this fantasy I’m the player-manager-owner.

Great topic, thanks for posting.

43

JRoth 05.27.09 at 2:52 pm

Oh, and I meant to say something like this:

As it is, the 32nd best football team is usually pretty bad, as is the 30th best baseball team (go Nats!). I can’t even imagine the awfulness of, say, the 80th best football team.

44

someguy 05.27.09 at 2:58 pm

Even the CL league is not as competitive as the NFL let alone the PL.

Celtic won’t be playing in a CL title anytime soon and you can say that for a lot of teams that make the CL.

You can only rule out a fairly small handful of NFL teams. As long as you don’t bet.

The real cost of the NFL and NCAA monopoly is felt by the workers and fans.

A chance at a ‘free’ college degree is worth quite a bit but probably not nearly as much as the wages earned over a lifetime by a Coke Champions player.

45

john theibault 05.27.09 at 2:59 pm

I really don’t understand the premise of focusing on comparable population/regions rather than on full leagues and then trying to compare across sports. That New York has multiple teams in several sports hardly surprises. And aren’t the Belgian or Austrian premier leagues about as non-competitive as the English premier league? The only Belgian team I can think of off the top of my head is Anderlecht. So why not just compare the English premier league with MLB or the NFL?

And in any case, you’ve got the actual explanation for the success of millionaire socialism in US sports near the end of your tangential analysis of the northeast region: there’s no relegation in any major US sport. That’s why the main way in which a US sport changes its geographical profile is by moving an existing franchise from one city to another. I actually think that soccer might have taken better in its first round in the US if it had emerged a bit more organically from clubs with the possibility of relegation instead of trying to emulate the other major sports with ownership of franchises. Bill James did a very good job of describing how baseball’s minor leagues were transformed from competitive leagues to training grounds for future major league players during the 1920s and 1930s in his Historical Baseball Abstract. In football, college leagues provided the necessary training for future pro players while retaining the quality of competitive leagues.

46

dsquared 05.27.09 at 3:27 pm

#39: lots of things are baffling if you don’t stop and think. Everyone else got it.

The point is that US professional sports are a lot more geographically concentrated than UK professional sports. You say that “it’s wide open at the start of the year who will win” in a US league, but this isn’t really true; Hartford can’t win the NFL, for example, nor can Los Angeles, Charlotte or Wilmington, because they haven’t got teams. The “competitiveness” of the American leagues is achieved at the expense of shutting lots of towns out of the league, towns of the sort that are plentifully represented in the Premier League. The PL moaners are typically fans of clubs like Tottenham or Aston Villa, who think they’re the equivalent of the Steelers or Packers, but who are actually the equivalent of some minor league team in a town that will never get a franchise.

That’s actual competitiveness in an actual league, not the tedium of always Man U, Man U, Man U

you appear to have a blind spot when it comes to the UEFA Champions’ League. As I noted, the USA is the size of Europe, not the UK. And as noted several times on this thread by people who actually follow UK football, the game is not actually rendered tedious by the fact that Manchester United have won the Premier League a lot. This is pretty mindless localism.

47

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 05.27.09 at 3:33 pm

“That’s actual competitiveness in an actual league, not the tedium of always Man U, Man U, Man U”

Except when it was Arsenal, Chelsea… gosh, Blackburn won the Premier League in 94/95, which isn’t all that long ago and and that’s bloody Blackburn (no offense intended to Blackburn Rovers fans.) Man U’s dominance is not absolute, nor guaranteed, even with the advantages it has. Moreover, whilst we’re talking about dominance of leagues, should I mention the New England Patriots (at least in the past decade or so)? The New York Yankees?

I know, I know, Man U, at least recently, have been far more dominant in the Premier League than even either of those two have been in their respective leagues. I would like to point out that the knockout structure of the latter stages of the NFL and MLB may have something to do with their vaunted competitiveness. After all, a knockout competition is a different kind of competition to a league competition; it’s far easier, relatively speaking, to have a run of luck in a knockout competition than a run of luck in a league campaign, and in the US, some of the teams in the playoffs don’t even need to have done particularly well in their division, if they’re picked on a “wild card”.

So let’s look at the premier knockout competition in England, the F.A. Cup, which is considered a worthy trophy in and of itself. Who’s the current F.A. Cup champion? Portsmouth! Having beaten Cardiff City, a team not even in the Premier League. Admittedly this is not a usual occurrence, and it’s usually one of the Big 4 that win it, but it’s definitely not “Man U, Man U, Man U” all the time. Man Utd have won it 4 times in the 16 years the Premier League has been going, which is quite a few times less than they have won the Premier League. So it may be that the inclusion of a knockout element in the American league structure increases competitiveness.

48

someguy 05.27.09 at 4:14 pm

Freshly Squeezed Cynic,

Maybe but regular season standings

2005

Broncos
Seahawks
Colts
Jaguars

2006

Ravens
Bears
Patriots
Colts
Chargers

2007

Patriots
Colts
Cowboys
Packers

2008

Titans
Steelers
Giants
Panthers
Colts

Without even looking I am pretty sure the results for the PL the last 4 years were some combination of

Man U
Chelsea
Liverpool
Arsenal

49

dsquared 05.27.09 at 4:23 pm

I’m not sure that comparing the regular season standings is valid – the playoffs are a part of the NFL, and if I was managing an NFL team I wouldn’t have winning the regular season as an objective (given that injury management is a big part of the sport, it could be really counterproductive). I think the more obviously valid comparison is Superbowl/Champions’ League, which also has a knockout stage and has been won by a different club in each of the last five years, and has twice in the last 15 years been won by teams from towns with a population smaller than 600,000 (Dortmund and Porto)

50

Peter 05.27.09 at 4:26 pm

college baseball is a niche sport/event (calendars probably play some role in this)

College baseball is relatively insignificant because MLB has its own minor league “farm” system for developing new talent. The NFL and NBA use colleges for development purposes, which is the main reason why college football and basketball are major sports (and also why there are no minor league professional football or basketball leagues to speak of).

51

Raphael 05.27.09 at 4:27 pm

Freshly Squeezed Cynic, “and in the US, some of the teams in the playoffs don’t even need to have done particularly well in their division, if they’re picked on a “wild card”.

I don’t know that much about US professional sports, but from what I know, I don’t see how a team that didn’t do particularly well can get a wild card. For that, you still need to do better than almost everyone else in your division, and almost everyone else in your league, right?

52

Jamie 05.27.09 at 4:32 pm

Raphael: correct.
The way mediocre teams sneak into the playoffs isn’t by the wild card slot; it’s by winning a lousy division (e.g. the San Diego Chargers this past NFL season).

53

Cryptic ned 05.27.09 at 4:37 pm

The confusion of people like Tom Hurka is understandable, since the poster started out by saying, logically, “Mid-Atlantic region of the US : England :: United States : Europe”, and then wrote about how a theoretical and nonexistent Mid-Atlantic league would resemble the EPL, while forgetting to describe how the actually existing NFL resemble the actually existing Champions League.

The PL moaners are typically fans of clubs like Tottenham or Aston Villa, who think they’re the equivalent of the Steelers or Packers, but who are actually the equivalent of some minor league team in a town that will never get a franchise.

London and Birmingham would never get a franchise? Those are some high standards.

54

john theibault 05.27.09 at 4:47 pm

While my previous comment sits in moderation and having read the comment stream more carefully, some slightly different thoughts…

(Charlotte does have an NFL team, by the way)

The number of possible champions in any country’s top league is limited to the number of teams in that league in any given year. Oxford can’t win the Premier League championship this year any more than Hartford can win the Super Bowl. It is true that Oxford already has a team that could eventually win a Premier League championship through its own efforts, whereas Hartford would need outside help that it is unlikely to get in the form of a franchise move or new franchise if it were ever to win the Super Bowl. But if you accept the premise that there should be a top league of all the best teams in the country, there is a maximum number of teams that should play in that league to make it manageable. Thirty seems to be about the limit. (Elimination tournaments like the FA and UEFA cups are a different entity and tend to be formulated to fit within a league schedule) The US system of millionaire socialism does seem to work to give a higher percentage of those thirty or so teams a credible chance of winning the championship. It’s not clear whether you are denying that, or asserting that population is also a factor, or what. I think the relative populations of the US and England are red herrings.

As you note, the US system accomplishes this relative internal parity at the cost of preventing all those regions not currently with a franchise from ever aspiring to a championship. Bill James was good on this too, and basically agreed with the (your?) implication that if baseball’s antitrust exemption were removed, new major leagues would spring up in competition with MLB because of the increase in population.

I think a comparative history of the development of football/rugby/cricket in Britain and baseball/football/basketball in the US would be very valuable. What is the best work on the history of Association Football up to the 1950s?

55

dsquared 05.27.09 at 4:47 pm

North London would get one franchise, which would go to Arsenal, while Birmingham’s franchise could go to a lot of places, but would be unlikely to end up in Aston. Villa is a prime example of a big club that wouldn’t ever have been created ex nihilo but owes its existence to its history of success – Green Bay shows that this sort of thing happens in gridiron too, but it’s the only example. Substitute Everton and Man City if you like.

56

Chris Bertram 05.27.09 at 4:58 pm

_Substitute Everton and Man City if you like._

Sorry, for what? There are certainly periods in both Liverpool and Manchester history when each of these clubs would have been the first choice for their city franchise.

57

dsquared 05.27.09 at 5:13 pm

(Charlotte does have an NFL team, by the way)

Good spot, yes. Las Vegas, then, or Louisville or somewhere.

Oxford can’t win the Premier League, but it could win the FA Cup (Cardiff nearly did last year from outside the PL). Hartford can’t ever play against New York at all, but Oldham can play against Mancheter United. My basic point though is that if you compare the UK not to the whole USA but rather to a region of roughly the same size, you tend to find that there are actually only about half a dozen teams in that region who have any chance of winning their championship, whereas if you compare the USA to Europe, the football competition is a lot more “competitive” (if by that we mean, having lots of different winners).

Furthermore, the counterpart to millionaire socialism in the NFL, NBA etc is that they don’t have promotion and relegation, and this absence really does need to be taken into account when talking about “competitiveness”. No NFL team, no matter how awful, will ever be relegated, whereas Leeds and Nottingham Forest show that even European Champions can end up in the wilderness.

58

chrismealy 05.27.09 at 5:29 pm

The best thing about English football is that teams never move (except Wimbledon, and that was a disaster).

It’ll never happen but I’d love to see promotion and relegation in American sports, with college basketball and football teams privatized and added to the pro leagues. There are plenty of college teams that outdraw pro teams already.

59

Justin 05.27.09 at 5:33 pm

The only point the OP proved is that Americans have lots of cars. Yes, England manages to put 20 teams (well, 4 teams and lots of exhibitions) in a fraction of the space, but its not really all that interesting of a point. The real comparison is illusive, as Tom illustrates.

60

Justin 05.27.09 at 5:33 pm

Sorry, I meant illusionary. I sometimes make up wordds.

61

Stuart 05.27.09 at 5:34 pm

Celtic won’t be playing in a CL title anytime soon and you can say that for a lot of teams that make the CL.

Except in the NFL (or MLB/NHL/NBA) equivalent in europe, Celtic wouldn’t have a franchise, so Celtic have a better chance of winning the CL under the european system because at least they can qualify to take part in it. No matter how long their odds, it is at least greater than zero.

62

Justin 05.27.09 at 5:35 pm

dsquared, the difference between 0.000 and 0.005, statistically speaking, is not relevant.

63

someguy 05.27.09 at 5:37 pm

dsquared,

Post salary cap and probably even pre, but less so, I don’ think NFL has anything like

Real – Man U and won’t. [Barca – Liverpool – Bayern]

It is a mixed format with a group stage and then a knockout.

The quarters are harder to make than the NFL playoffs. A reduced number of spots and for the last 5 years a previous knock out round.

The CL Real 6 – 10. Man U 7 – 10.

The NFL Colts 7 – 10 Pats 6 – 10.

So the difference is much narrower than I thought. But I still say I see a continuity and concentration I don’t see in the NFL.

Good post.

64

Daniel 05.27.09 at 5:37 pm

There are certainly periods in both Liverpool and Manchester history when each of these clubs would have been the first choice for their city franchise.

Quite far back in history though … the point I was trying to make is that it’s fans of teams like Everton and Villa (ie, teams just outside the Big Four) who tend to make most noise about the merits of the NFL model, because they assume that it would take the existing Premier League, and distribute the goodies more evenly. But the NFL redistribution model can’t be separated from the NFL franchise system, and it’s not at all obvious that teams like Everton and Villa would do well out of that (cryptic probably has a point with Villa, because there would need to be a Midlands franchise, but no way would a second team in the Liverpool media market get the nod).

This isn’t wholly academic either – something not entirely unlike it was the original proposal for Super League, where they were going to merge Castleford and Featherstone, graft the Harlequins brand onto London Broncos and screw around with the promotion and relegation system. Widnes fans might certainly have once upon a time thought that a franchise system might have opened up the Leeds/Wigan/St Helens oligopoly and helped them compete, but in the end it basically killed their team.

65

Daniel 05.27.09 at 5:42 pm

Yes, England manages to put 20 teams (well, 4 teams and lots of exhibitions)

when you make a remark like this, it really does hurt your credibility. Ask a Newcastle fan this week whether their last ten games were “exhibitions”.

I should probably have emphasised this more; “competitiveness” isn’t just a feature of the winners, what happens to the losers matters too. For an NFL or NBA team which isn’t going to make the playoffs, their games become totally meaningless a long time before the end of the season.

66

Daniel 05.27.09 at 5:50 pm

Celtic won’t be playing in a CL title anytime soon and you can say that for a lot of teams that make the CL.

I also don’t necessarily accept this. FC Porto won in 2004, with a team that cost significantly less than Celtic’s.

67

Matt 05.27.09 at 5:53 pm

For an NFL or NBA team which isn’t going to make the playoffs, their games become totally meaningless a long time before the end of the season.

Well, only in one sense (the normal one). Many teams in the bottom of the NBA are regularly suspected to be trying to loose at the end of the year so as to increase their chances of getting high draft choices. Because this is hard to distinguish from the reasonable practice of bad teams playing their younger players more at the end of the year nothing much is done about it, but there does seem to be a real race for the worst record among bad teams. That makes the games “meaningful”, just not in the ways fans would normally like. (I think this is more common in the NBA than in the NFL, and certainly more than in Baseball, because a single player can have a much larger impact in the NBA than in the other sports, and the likeliness of success for draft picks seems somewhat more predictable.)

68

sdh 05.27.09 at 5:58 pm

Others have made the point that comparing the structure of the English Premier League (or any of the football leagues in Europe) to the millionaire socialism of various US professional leagues is like comparing apples and paella (I stole that from #11). The biggest difference is the lack of a relegation/promotion scheme between overlapping divisions in American sport.

There are, however, several factors which are currently contributing to the imbalance of power in the English Premier League. First, the big three have for years been gliding on debt. Manchester United currently have over 700 million pounds worth of debt. Liverpool FC owe 350 million pounds to the Royal Bank of Scotland. Chelsea “owe” over 300 million pounds to their billionaire owner Abromavich. This “financial doping” allows these clubs to spend money on players they might not otherwise afford (i.e.: Manchester United’s controversial purchase of Berbatov for 30 million pounds).

Second is the fact that many premier league teams have more players on their squad than they know what to do with. Liverpool FC has 62 players on contract for their first team — apparently they regularly sign up promising players and then never play them.

However, in the long run the English dominance of the European Champions League will end of its own accord. Yes, the EPL has done very well over the past 10 years, especially the past 5. However, changes to Britain’s taxation schemes for the very wealthy, plus structural changes to Series A and a revitalization of Real Madrid (although honestly, the Spanish League needs to get its act together and enact some serious reforms, especially with regards to scheduling and TV rights) will begin to lay siege to English dominance over the next few years.

Now I’m off to watch a game. Best.

69

john theibault 05.27.09 at 6:08 pm

dsquared,

I guess my argument is that the presence of relegation/promotion can do all of the explanatory work for why an American style system won’t work in England. Hoffenheim is unimaginable in the US.

And so I don’t see why you need to go to all the trouble of comparing parts of leagues in different sports in the US with whole leagues in England to make some point about concentration of championships. The US is bigger than England. So what? If you accept the premise of a national league (and if you accept that there is a limit to how big that league can be and still have some kind of sensible round robin schedule), then it’s just about inevitable that only about half a dozen teams in any region of the US are likely to be competitive, even if the league as a whole is very competitive. Why you think that is an important distinction?

I absolutely agree that competitions like the FA cup provide an alternate way to win a championship for those cities not blessed with championship division teams.

70

someguy 05.27.09 at 6:11 pm

Ahh foo. It is 9 – 10 for the Colts. Bad data. Still 6 – 10 for Pats.

Still very slightly convinced that the CL competitive balance is a bit less.

71

Philip 05.27.09 at 6:26 pm

As I mentioned earlier the lack of competition in the PL is a recent thing. It’s a bit before my time but gone are the days when someone like Brian Clough could take a team from the second division to be European Champions in only a few years.

The way I see it is hoologanism was forcing attendances at matches to fall and eventually English clubs were banned from European competitions. Once they were allowed back the likes of Liverpool and Man Utd. couldn’t compete with the best of Europe. So the PL was formed and TV rights were sold to SKY, football was re-branded as more of a family sport and tried to distance itself from hooliganism. This is very different to how things would happen in Spain or Italy where clubs are politically protected, Milan is owned by Berlusconi, Juventus by the Agnelli family, Barcelona and real Madrid have been able to borrow almost what they like from various banks (I think that’s right but don’t know the details). So basically the PL was a trade off of domestic competition for English clubs t compete in Europe. This ended up with the big 4. This could change again if one of the top 4 has a bad season and someone like Man City gets rich backers and takes advantage, Abromovich leaves Chelsea or there is a change in regulations.

As a Sunderland fan I know the last ten games were not exhibitions but many felt that they were to the players (same goes for Sunderland and Hull). Also does anyone know anything about Ellis Short, the rich Texan who has finished buying out Sunderland today?

72

g 05.27.09 at 6:32 pm

This post seems way, way too forced. It seems people are not pointing out the obvious, that you are comparing apples to oranges, in fear of being the small minded of the group.

You said it yourself, the US is the size of Europe yet with only ~30 teams per sport. This is no coincidence, as it has been found to be a good number to keep teams competitive.

Don’t get me wrong, american leagues have their own failures. But when a sport purposely keeps the number of teams relatively low (20 soccer teams in the UK? Really?), that is not an “illusion” of competitiveness, that is competitiveness .

Yes, you can run a successful league with more teams. But college football in the US(which I definitely enjoy at least as much as pro) is not nearly, not even close, as competitive as the NFL. More entertaining? Often yes. More interesting stories? Yes. More competitive? Absolutely not. Every single player in the NFL is a winner, the best at his position. The great, vast majority of college players don’t play their sport after college, there simply aren’t enough spots in the NFL. It’s competitive.

73

blah 05.27.09 at 6:54 pm

I think my conclusion is that the American sports leagues achieve the illusion of competitiveness by severely restricting the number of teams

It’s not an illusion – different teams actually do win the championship in different seasons. You are suggesting that there would not be the same level of internal competitiveness if other, less populous cities were allowed to field teams and join the professional leagues. I don’t see why this would be the case. Such teams would likely not be economically viable, but assuming that the owners were willing to subsidize a money-losing team, there is no reason why small city teams could not be competitive, assuming that the rules meant to maintain competitive balance – the drafting system, free agency rules, salary caps, revenue sharing, and luxury taxes – remain in place. Even crappy baseball towns like Miami and Tampa have been able to make it to the World Series despite the fact that nobody in Florida wants to watch baseball.

The real reasons that the leagues restrict the number of teams is to maintain a higher quality product. Too many teams dilutes the quality of play by distributing the best players more thinly and allowing less talented players to play.

74

g 05.27.09 at 7:02 pm

Alas, blah has said what I intended much more effectively. Especially the last paragraph.

75

Charrua 05.27.09 at 7:16 pm

“The real reasons that the leagues restrict the number of teams is to maintain a higher quality product”
This is the funniest joke I’ve heard today.

76

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 05.27.09 at 7:43 pm

Regarding wild cards – yeah, I checked, and they do have to have the highest “winning percentages” of those who do not qualify regularly as a division champion. So I was wrong there. But the rest still stands, and as dsquared and Andrew have noted, probably the better comparison in structural terms is the Champions League; it’s not exactly the same as the NFL, but in the competition proper since the 94/95 has a league structure for the first round, and a knockout structure thereafter, so it’s at least similar. And in the 14 years this structure has existed, there’s been 10 different winners.

77

dsquared 05.27.09 at 7:46 pm

The real reasons that the leagues restrict the number of teams is to maintain a higher quality product. Too many teams dilutes the quality of play by distributing the best players more thinly and allowing less talented players to play.

I think that this comes really quite a long way below the monopoly rents in the scheme of things.

78

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 05.27.09 at 7:51 pm

Too many teams dilutes the quality of play by distributing the best players more thinly and allowing less talented players to play.

As Daniel has pointed out, there are 94 teams in the English league system, and, if anything, the best players are highly concentrated in the top teams because of their financial clout. So it’s not as if restricting the number of teams is the only way to achieve “high quality of play.”

It of course begs the question as to whether fans want the “best quality of play” as defined by a few teams with superlative players showing great technical skill and flair. I suspect, if it came down to a zero-sum choice between playing attractive football and grinding out a victory, most fans would choose the latter and watch the World Cup for feats of technical brilliance when it wasn’t their team’s arse on the line.

79

Chris Bertram 05.27.09 at 7:52 pm

Interestingly there are two top rugby union leagues in the UK and Ireland: the GP (club based) and the Celtic League (franchise/region based). Any lessons to be drawn?

80

someguy 05.27.09 at 7:52 pm

Ok whew. Very time wasting.

I am off by at least one in each set. From last years CL and this years NFL regular season.

For final 8 appeareances last 10 years I get

CL

Man U 7
Real Bayern 6
Chelsea Barca Milan 5
Inter Juventus Liverpool Valencia Arsenal 4
Lyon 3
Porto Deportivo PSV Roma 2
(Can’t read my own hand writing)
Dynamo, Panathinakias, Olympic, Kaiselauthern, Leversuken, Lazio, Galatarsarxy, Leeds, Ajax, Monaco, Benficia, Villareal, Schalke, Fenerbanche 1

= 79

NFL

Eagles 7
Pats 6
Steelers Colts 5
Ravens Titan Panthers 4
Greenbay, Raiders, Bears, Panthers, Vikings, Hawks, Chargers, Giants 3
Jets, Bucs, F alcons, Saints, Skins, Jags, Dolphins 2
SF, Broncos, Cowboys, Cards, KC 1

= 78

30 teams made the final 8 in the CL vs 28 in the NFL.

CL has a fat top, a skinny middle, and a fat bottom.

Roughly the same amount of teams have a chance but the teams at the top of the CL have slightly better chance and the teams at the bottom have a much worse chance.

81

George W 05.27.09 at 8:41 pm

I was about to nitpick, but then I grasped the sheer genius of this post. You have married the overeducated insecurity of an academic blog with the macho-nerd obsessiveness of a sports blog. Brilliant! The average ESPN comment threat has many thousands of entries; if they were all as long as the average CT comment, your server would poop a brick.

Anyway, my question (possibly addressed somewhere above): is it fair to treat college sports in the US as equivalent to cricket and rugby in the UK? On any given Saturday in October, you could go to 50 places in the US and find ~50,000 people at a college football game. At a handful of places, 100,000+ people routinely rock the house. Are cricket and rugby really like that?

82

John Quiggin 05.27.09 at 8:52 pm

Looking from the outside, it seems as if the survival of the PL and similarly uncompetitive competitions in most of the European leagues, mainly reflects lifetime allegiances formed before it was obvious that the same few teams were always going to win, now and forever. By contrast, with a knockout competition format, and plenty of rich teams to start with, plus national rivalries, it seems likely that the European Cup will stay competitive for a long time to come.

My question is: if football gradually becomes a Europe-level sport, with the national leagues becoming its qualifying pool, what will be the socio-political implications for European integration? I think you could tell stories both ways.

83

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 05.27.09 at 8:57 pm

You have married the overeducated insecurity of an academic blog with the macho-nerd obsessiveness of a sports blog.

Ooh, get her.

84

Sebastian 05.27.09 at 9:22 pm

You start the post by assuming that you can count the teams from 3 different sports as if they were substitutable goods. First assume a can opener. Argh.

“But I wonder what the US system actually gains for the supporter? My own limited experience of watching minor league baseball on holiday in the US suggests that even very small teams are not without passionate support so I don’t buy the argument that we (automatically) prefer quality”

This is actually getting somewhere if you bother looking at the characteristics of different sports. Baseball is a high variance game. In any given single game, a worse team is still relatively likely to win against a much stronger time—while in American football that happens much more rarely (I don’t know enough about world-style football to be able to comment about it). So the fan of a relatively poor baseball team can still get the emotional jackpot effect of beating a better team every now and then. I suspect it functions as a sort of slot machine effect—you lose money over the long run, but psychologically the big ‘wins’ feel good enough to a lot of people to make it worthwhile.

Football usually has the meritocratic effect of the better team winning. Also it has the whole violence thing going for it as far as many fans are concerned.

85

Tom Hurka 05.27.09 at 9:46 pm

The Champions League (well done Barca, by the way) isn’t at all equivalent to a national league because it doesn’t play often enough. There isn’t a game every week, or two a week, or six a week (as in baseball). For English fans it’s, in terms of time allotted, a minor addition to the main menu of PL football. And that menu is totally uncompetitive: always (at least recently) Man U, Chelsea, Arsenal, and not Liverpool. With one exception once for Blackburn: whoopty-do!!

Who cares about geographical concentration? North American sports fans don’t. Boston Celtic fans can hate the Lakers from across the continent; everybody everywhere can hate the Yankees. And everybody can enjoy a season that could have many different endings.

North American leagues start the season with lots of teams that can win, and which teams they are changes from year to year. This year in the NBA the last 4 teams include Orlando, Cleveland, and Denver, all long-time losers. That’s *interesting,* whereas the PL is terminally boring. Once again Man U vs. Chelsea or Man U vs. Arsenal … yawn, yawn.

It takes a very special mind to think it takes away from the actual uncompetitiveness of the actual main English football league that some genuinely competitive leagues are geographically dispersed. Who gives any kind of damn about that?

86

stostosto 05.27.09 at 9:58 pm

Wasn’t it TV money plus a Europeanised labour market for players that led to the present high concentration of money and talent in England, and especially the big 4?

Earlier, and from the top of my head, I remember we fairly often had European cup winners, or finalists, from minor countries like Holland (Ajax, Feyenoord), Belgium (Anderlecht, FC Brügge), Portugal (Benfica, Porto), even Sweden (IFK Göteborg, Malmö FF), and Yugoslavia (Dinamo Zagreb, Red Star Belgrade). And we had “minor” clubs from major countries doing well like Nottingham Forest, West Ham, St Etienne, Bordeaux, Verona, Parma, Deportivo (actually quite recently) etc. Plus the odd Soviet or eastern bloc entry, like Dynamo Kiev, Ferencvaros or Sofia.

And, of course, having three English teams in the CL semi-finals was completely unheard of until recently.

On that note: Well done tonight, Barcelona! (Although a little active resistance from Man U would have been nice).

87

Ginger Yellow 05.27.09 at 10:01 pm

“The US system of millionaire socialism does seem to work to give a higher percentage of those thirty or so teams a credible chance of winning the championship. It’s not clear whether you are denying that, or asserting that population is also a factor, or what. I think the relative populations of the US and England are red herrings.”

I dunno, I think that argument is a red herring. The people who prefer the US system (as a whole) seem to think that what matters is who has a chance of winning the Superbowl/World Series/Stanley Cup in a given year, whereas the people who prefer the European system (as a whole) seem to think that what matters is that everyone has a theoretical chance of winning the title, eventually.

“Oxford can’t win the Premier League, but it could win the FA Cup”

Funny you should mention that. We did, in fact, win the League Cup. And I wouldn’t give that up for all the draft systems in the world.

88

dsquared 05.27.09 at 10:14 pm

Who cares about geographical concentration? North American sports fans don’t.

Whoopty doo for North American sports fans, and their intimate knowledge of all the reasons why the rest of the world is wrong and their somewhat strange cluster of monopolies are the best possible sports leagues there could ever be.

Anyone who cares about having a local connection with their sports team – or for that matter, anyone who doesn’t live in one of the major cities but fancies going to see a match once in a while without a 300 mile drive, would care about concentration. It means that the whole sport becomes a television spectacle seen at home, on your own, or at best in a bar, rather than a communal, social experience. (Tom, this is the bit where you make your hilarious remark about hooliganism, I think, then you’ll have collected the entire set of cliches).

This year in the NBA the last 4 teams include Orlando, Cleveland, and Denver, all long-time losers. That’s interesting, whereas the PL is terminally boring. Once again Man U vs. Chelsea or Man U vs. Arsenal … yawn, yawn

I really don’t see what’s so interesting about the fact that the last four teams in a knockout competition weren’t very successful last year. Do you sit watching a dull game thinking “well, new faces this year”? I can see the attraction of a handicapping system for horse racing, or another sport where the main point is to have a bet, but American sports fans don’t even gamble for the most part.

Nor do I see why you’ve selected “Man U vs Arsenal” or “Man U vs Chelsea”, which in a normal year for the Premier League would be crucial deciding fixtures played between the very best teams in England (ie, the most exciting matches of the season) as your main examples of something that would be very dull to watch. I think you might not have quite the deep understanding of association football that you believe yourself to have.

89

blah 05.27.09 at 10:30 pm

So comparing like with like (ie, comparing the whole of major professional sports on the US side versus association football in the UK), what can we say?

I do have to say that this is pretty funny stuff. Comparing like with like means creating some wierd chimera sports leage where hockey teams, baseball teams, football teams and basketball teams all co-exist. What type of ball do you they use in this league?

90

Jamie 05.27.09 at 10:38 pm

Anyone who cares about having a local connection with their sports team – or for that matter, anyone who doesn’t live in one of the major cities but fancies going to see a match once in a while without a 300 mile drive, would care about concentration. It means that the whole sport becomes a television spectacle seen at home, on your own, or at best in a bar, rather than a communal, social experience.

But for that experience, you certainly don’t need to go to a major sports league event. I’ve been to many Pawtucket Red Sox games, but in the last decade only to one Boston Red Sox game. In northern New England, you can go to the Portland Sea Dogs games. These are, frankly, much more ‘communal, social experience’ than a game at Fenway is.
So I agree with Tom that concentration is not so important. It may have negative effects in the long run, but as a going concern it’s no big deal.

I really don’t see what’s so interesting about the fact that the last four teams in a knockout competition weren’t very successful last year.

That doesn’t in itself make the playoffs interesting. But for a large percentage of fans, seeing the same teams in the playoffs year after year is enough to turn them off.

91

Bernard Yomtov 05.27.09 at 10:40 pm

College baseball is relatively insignificant because MLB has its own minor league “farm” system for developing new talent. The NFL and NBA use colleges for development purposes, which is the main reason why college football and basketball are major sports (and also why there are no minor league professional football or basketball leagues to speak of).

Yes, but the calendar is probably an important reason for this. Students, whether players or spectators, are generally not around during the summer, so if you want a development league the minor leagues work better.

I don’t think minor professional basketball and football leagues could ever compete with college sports. Some of the reasons have been mentioned, but let’s not overlook the economic advantage colleges get by not paying players, commanding sufficient loyalty to get contributions from fans, and not least, often controlling the only suitable venue around.

92

nick s 05.27.09 at 10:45 pm

I remember reading a football album from the early 80s that speculated about the whole “SuperLeague!” thing — one London team, one Birmingham team, and so on. Of course, that predated the mobility of foreign players.

Danny Baker proposed a totalitarian league of 20 teams, based upon “one generic characteristic” and “one distinctive characteristic”, the idea being that every aspect of the game could be represented by them. I believe the little Scottish clubs did pretty well out of it, and it might be that quirkiness that still draws four-figure attendances to Dunfermline or Hamilton Accies.

I can’t even imagine the awfulness of, say, the 80th best football team.

Well, it’ll be playing against its peers. As someone who watched a team, on occasion, that ranked somewhere around joint 200th (the pyramid makes it vague) I can say that they might not have been top class entertainment, but it was well worth four quid, not least because the price of entry got you a free cup of tea on a crisp winter’s afternoon.

93

Tom T. 05.27.09 at 10:45 pm

What size crowds does UK association football draw?

94

Jamie 05.27.09 at 10:51 pm

Tom,
It varies tremendously. Man U draws about 75k, Blackburn under 25k.

95

dsquared 05.28.09 at 12:17 am

But for a large percentage of fans, seeing the same teams in the playoffs year after year is enough to turn them off.

Is there some evidence on this? I don’t believe it, specifically because the era of Big Four dominance in association football has been associated with massively rising attendances (despite excruciating price rises), not falling.

96

RD Jonsson 05.28.09 at 12:21 am

(I’ve only skimmed the comments so this point has probably been made several times…)

Besides the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed watching Barcelona dismiss Man U this evening, I think that the main point is the promotion/relegation itself. You can at least keep the hope alive that your own team can improve over time and at some point challenge the best, even if it is only in one game in a national or European cup. When I was a kid it was an amazing thing to see IFK Göteborg win against the big European clubs, even though they are from another part of the country, because my own team had from time to time been successful in the national league, so the hope was always there that we could do that as well. Sure, says the cynic, that will never happen, with all the money going to the big clubs, but why regulate away the possibility?
Football practice after one of those games were always a lot more fun…

97

BillC 05.28.09 at 1:25 am

I think there is a very good chance that the EPL will drive English football towards a similar model to baseball in the US. Most of the lower league teams are in serious financial trouble or will be within a few years. The teams will face the choice of being of becoming amateur teams or becoming vassals for bigger teams and most will choose the latter. This took about 40 years in the US. The only likely way this won’t end promotion/relegation is if the bigger teams are in foreign countries.

98

John Quiggin 05.28.09 at 1:32 am

Promotion/relegation “You can at least keep the hope alive that your own team can improve over time and at some point challenge the best”

Is this a serious hope any more? At a minimum you need a billionaire backer, which is just possible for a famous club fallen on hard times, but even that door is probably going to close soon, if it hasn’t already. Otherwise, promotion is just a temporary bonus for doing well in the second division and relegation a kind of booby prize which (as several commenters above have noted) adds some interest (rather morbid interest, IMHO) to the late season for the teams that have missed out on the middle places (the top places having been decided, except for order, long before the season starts).

99

George W 05.28.09 at 1:51 am

I’m no expert on soccer, but based on what I know, I think college football in the US might be *more* like UK association football than any US pro sport is. College football is dynastic (ie, the same handful of teams seem to dominate year after year based on institutional advantages), there are different leagues at different levels of talent (eg, the six “BCS” conferences versus all the other Div A conferences, not to mention Div II and II), while at the same time as there is interleague competition with the real chance of significant upsets from time to time (see Utah over Alabama or Boise St over Oklahoma — bar none the best sporting event I have ever seen, live or on TV). Last but not least, college football is about 10000x more provincial — and fanatic — in its appeal than any pro sport. UK soccer’s more or less like that, right?

100

sdh 05.28.09 at 2:11 am

Is this a serious hope any more? At a minimum you need a billionaire backer, which is just possible for a famous club fallen on hard times, but even that door is probably going to close soon, if it hasn’t already.

While the billionaires are spending big bucks on English Premier League teams (in Spain and Germany most teams are owned by their fans… Hoffenheim is not owned by its multimillionaire benefactor) — most recently Sunderland and Pompey — that is not the only road to future success. Wigan is actually using the other path, more or less, identifying promising talent, selling that talent on at a profit, and reinvesting in new profit (although Wigan seems to be more interested in selling talent than climbing the table, which will eventually lead to Steve Bruce moving on…). There are a number of teams that use this model, as well as nurturing a fan base and building a cohesive team with limited resources. Maybe the best example, and one of the more successful, is Villareal, the yellow submarine team, who acquitted themselves well despite the fact that they did not have the depth or speed necessary to handle Chelsea this year in the Champions League.

One could also argue that Arsene Wenger at Arsenal does not need a billionaire to back him. Although Arsenal are in debt, it is not due to player transfers as much as to the global recession’s effects on real estate. I fully expect that Arsenal will win the Premier League in the next year or two.

101

nick s 05.28.09 at 5:24 am

@99: Alex Massie thinks so [cached version], too. That and college basketball are shielded from non-American eyes, for the most part. There are significant differences, though: scheduling, particularly for non-conference “creampuff” games; subjective ranking; and particularly the NCAA’s amateurism rules, which lead to vastly different treatment of young, talented players. Still, the Final Four, for instance, is “the magic of the FA Cup” compressed into a few weeks, and the bowl games can deliver some of the same.

102

dsquared 05.28.09 at 6:20 am

Most of the lower league teams are in serious financial trouble or will be within a few years.

this isn’t actually true.

Is this a serious hope any more? At a minimum you need a billionaire backer, which is just possible for a famous club fallen on hard times, but even that door is probably going to close soon, if it hasn’t already.

as noted above, of the Big Four, only Liverpool and Chelsea have billionaire backers – Arsenal and Man U (Man U, Man U, how boring) pay for their players out of organically generated cashflow.

Outside the magic circle, Bill Kenwright has put a lot of his fortune into Everton, but he would be a long way outside the Fortune 500, and Everton were a creditable fifth this year. Even in the English premier league, I don’t think the economics are quite as suggested.

103

John Quiggin 05.28.09 at 8:19 am

DD, you (and others) have misunderstood my point. The top teams can indeed support themselves from cash flow, and that’s likely to be increasingly true as the fan base and advertising support focuses on teams that have a chance.

What I said was that a billionaire (or at least many-millionaire) backer is needed if you want to live the dream of promotion from the second division leading ultimately to first division success (if it isn’t already too late for this).

104

dsquared 05.28.09 at 9:24 am

Blackburn Rovers are the example we’re thinking about here; although Jack Walker was very much an “ordinary” multimillionaire rather than a billionaire, the sums of money he chucked at Rovers were at the time regarded as astonishing. But they weren’t (and aren’t) a big club fallen on hard times – they were just the local club in Blackburn and it happened to be the case that Jack Walker was from Blackburn.

Could it happen again? Dunno, but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out 100%. I think that Newcastle have destruction-tested the hypothesis that billionaire owners can buy success. Looking back at the Blackburn anomaly, I think the difference was that Walker hired Kenny Dalglish from Liverpool as manager – he didn’t actually spend all that much on players, even by the standards of the day (Dalglish then dealt incredibly well for him in the transfer market, picking up Shearer for silly money). Niall Quinn and Roy Keane were meant to be doing the same thing with Sunderland and although it didn’t work out, I don’t think it was at all unreasonable to hope.

So actually, I think that with a multimillionaire owner and a good manager, it’s a faint but reasonable chance – certainly a better chance than Hartford or Louisville has of getting an NFL franchise. I’d certainly be very interested to see where Gordon Strachan shows up, for example.

105

Phil 05.28.09 at 11:10 am

the US is the size of Europe yet with only ~30 teams per sport. This is no coincidence, as it has been found to be a good number to keep teams competitive.

This is some meaning of the word ‘competitive’ with which I’m not familiar. Football teams at every level in the English & Welsh league[s] are massively competitive, with other teams at that level – and, when they get the chance, frequently hold their own against teams at higher levels (google “FA Cup upset”). Yes, promotion to or relegation from the Premier League is a very big deal – much bigger than it used to be – but even now it’s not as if nobody cares about promotion & relegation in the lower leagues, or the teams that get promoted and relegated. (Example. My brother-in-law’s got a programme for that 1996 match framed on his wall.)

As for the PL, speaking as an impartial – nay, uninterested – observer, it seems to me that the health of the PL depends on its continuing to function as Division One (of four + Conference + regional leagues), and a lot of its more pathological features stem from attempting to break with that model.

106

belle le triste 05.28.09 at 11:20 am

Do other sports/nations have an equivalent to Supporters Direct?

107

John Quiggin 05.28.09 at 11:27 am

DD, I’m not attuned to all the regional nuances here but Wikipedia says that Blackburn Rovers was a founding member of the Football League in 1875, won the FA Cup and Football League championship and drew crowds of 60 000 in the 1920s, before being relegated in the 1960s. That sounds like a famous club fallen on hard times to me, and not like the typical local club for a town of 100 000 people.

108

Ginger Yellow 05.28.09 at 11:29 am

“Is this a serious hope any more? At a minimum you need a billionaire backer, which is just possible for a famous club fallen on hard times, but even that door is probably going to close soon, if it hasn’t already.”

Well, it depends what you mean by challenge. It’s not that long ago that Hull were in the third tier division. Now they’re in the top flight, playing against the big four and everyone else and not embarrassing themselves too much. Same for Wigan. And Oxford went from being a semi-pro team in the conference to the top flight (and all the way back down again), as did Wimbledon, somewhat more famously and successfully, until the owners took the ball away. For most fans of small clubs, that’s more than enough. Winning the top flight championship would be marvellous of course, but so is climbing the leagues, doing well in the cups and occasionally beating one of the giants.

“Otherwise, promotion is just a temporary bonus for doing well in the second division and relegation a kind of booby prize which (as several commenters above have noted) adds some interest (rather morbid interest, IMHO) to the late season for the teams that have missed out on the middle places (the top places having been decided, except for order, long before the season starts).”

For most clubs (bear in mind that there are 92 teams in the league, and hundreds in the non-league system), promotion and relegation is hugely important.

109

Chris Bertram 05.28.09 at 11:34 am

John Q: the whole of Lancashire consists of famous clubs fallen on hard times. See Preston North End, for example. DD is quite right on this one.

On another matter, I’m not sure it’s correct to divide the big 4 in the way DD does above. Liverpool and ManU look rather similar from the point of view of ownership/revenue structure (Hicks & Gillet/Glazer), except that Man U are doing rather better. Partly that’s stadium size (which Liverpool are trying to address), partly it is the thoroughly inept management of Liverpool’s commercial side under Rick Parry. Chelsea, otoh, are just a rich man’s toy.

110

Phil 05.28.09 at 11:39 am

That sounds like a famous club fallen on hard times to me, and not like the typical local club for a town of 100 000 people.

The typical local club for a town of 100,000 people is a famous club fallen on hard times – look at PNE or Wolves.

111

roac 05.28.09 at 3:07 pm

What about little countries and international competition? Do Icelanders and Maltese tune out the World Cup and the regional competitions because they know their teams have no chance of getting out of the qualifying rounds? Or does the prospect of maybe knocking off an Estonia from time to time keep them invested?

112

Bunbury 05.28.09 at 3:24 pm

Re Tulip’s comments on the 32nd best football team, in Europe and talking soccer, that would roughly correspond to watching Everton which would not be too shabby at all while 82nd would be like Bolton or Portsmouth. Not my cup of tea but not disastrous either. This may be related to D^2’s point about underproduction of sport.

All the talk of competitiveness is treating it as a market share issue and not focussing on individual matches or of overall quality. It is clear that European soccer now is of a vastly higher quality than it was even 20 years ago. Is that true of American Football or basketball? As for the Premiership, it might possibly be boring if you only look at the top and only look at the table and not the matches but overall it was undecided until the penultimate weekend at the top and until the last day at the bottom and in the middle the top 4 was quite different than it was at the end. As for ManU dominance, they were bottom of a league of the top 4.

113

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 05.28.09 at 3:42 pm

Tom, my point was not that the Champions League is a national league, of course it isn’t; it’s that it’s structurally similar to the NFL (league portion then knockout section), it’s pretty competitive, and I hypothesized that there might be a relationship.

And that menu is totally uncompetitive: always (at least recently) Man U, Chelsea, Arsenal, and not Liverpool. With one exception once for Blackburn: whoopty-do!!

Previously you were complaining about how it’s “all Man U, Man U, Man U yawnyawnyawn.” Now it’s “all big 4, all big 4, yawn yawn yawn.” Can I hear the sound of goalposts being shifted?

114

des von bladet 05.28.09 at 6:12 pm

Just to add some vigorous agreement to the majority opinion in the competitiveness debate: I skipped the Big Cup Big Day last night on the grounds that I wasn’t really bothered either way, but I’ve got the radio on tonight to hear if my local team, FC Groningen, can pip NAC Breda to the last of the Dutch places in the “Europa League”.

Although I cheerfully admit that I’d just as soon watch the local minor league base-ball team, if there was one.

115

vlad 05.28.09 at 6:47 pm

A few comments on the idea that the number of US pro sports teams is being artificially restrained by the pro leagues’ anticompetitive behavior:

1. As some have already noted, you cannot understand the demand for NFL and NBA games without appreciating the role that college football and basketball play in satisfying the demand for those sports. For largely historical reasons, college football is more popular than NFL football in many, many places in the US, even places with NFL teams. For example, on any given fall Saturday in the State of Michigan, you’ll have somewhere between 200,00 and 300,000 fans paying to attend college football games played by some combination of Michigan; Michigan State; Central, Eastern and/or Western Michigan; and a number of small colleges. Even when the NFL Detroit Lions were good, they would often struggle to sell out their 80,000 seat stadium. The same holds true for college basketball. There is no NBA team in Kentucky, a college basketball hotbed, and the North Carolina NBA franchise is of recent vintage and struggles with local indifference. The NBA hasn’t hesitated expanding into areas like that because it want to preserve its monopoly rents (the owners, frankly, aren’t that far-sighted); it’s hesitated because it knows it couldn’t compete with the college teams.

2. The US pro leagues do NOT enjoy general purpose exemptions from US antitrust law. The only thing they’re exempt from is the claim that the league members are engaging in price-fixing when they agree on rules like salary caps, and they enjoy that exemption only because they negotiate with unionized players. If the NFL took anticompetitive actions to drive a rival league out of business, it would be just as vulnerable to an antitrust claim as any other business would be. Which leads to . . .

3. There is, in fact, a robust history of alternative pro leagues being formed to compete with the incumbent North American pro leagues. The NHL faced a challenge from the WHL in the 1970s; the NBA faced a challenge from the ABA around the same time; and the NFL faced challenges from the AFL in the 1960s and the USFL in the 1980s. In all cases, the rival leagues were formed out of a belief that there was excess demand that the incumbent refused to meet. In the WHL, ABA and AFL cases, the upstarts were proved correct, and after several years of competition, the incumbent league assimilated some or all of the upstart teams.

In the case of the USFL, the upstart guessed wrong, and the league collapsed after a few years. The USFL then sued the NFL, arguing that the NFL had engaged in a variety of anticompetitive practices designed to drive the USFL out of business. The jury agreed — and awarded the USFL damages of $1 (trebled to $3), because they also concluded that the USFL had never had a chance to succeed in the first place.

116

socialrepublican 05.28.09 at 7:01 pm

I’ve wonder what advantages that swapping to an American format might really offer a wannabee top three one club. The Arse, the Rags, Chelski and the Scousers d’rouge rely not just on money alone. Out of the various big monied contenders for the PL over the years, Blackburn, Newcastle, Leeds, Villa, even early period Fulham, Tottenham and Man City today, only Blackburn proved able of ‘buying’ the league. Chelsea’s entry into the big three in the early 2000s was not just money alone. Managerial excellence, organisation and European wide scouting and youth networks account for the missing factor. How would these things be either spread around the 16 other teams or would they be abolished as possible contigencies.

To be fair, there are clubs that do have these ‘non-money’ elements, Bolton under Fat Sam, Churb’s Charlton, Moyes’ Everton, O’Neill’s Leicester, Fat Harry’s Pompy and even the Crazy Gang themselves. Yet they needed constant and wise investment to move up from their current standard and challenge.

I just don’t see how central allocation of resources to a select few of chosen franchises can help the rest of the league and the greater game either. If you ask any fan outside the top twenty (and I now recently find themselves amongst their numbers) ‘The League will somehow become really competitive, but now you will never be able to be in it or even play the teams in the FA or League cup’, They would tell you to fuck off (with all the lucid charm the average football fan can muster)

117

ejh 05.28.09 at 7:52 pm

There’s a certain amount of straw man in this because it’s been observed many times that the US franchise system is not really a suitable model to impose on European leagues, not least for the reasons Daniel gives here (i.e. that there’s not many teams in such a system) but because of others mentioned above (e.g. the absence of promotion and relegation). I can remember mentioning these and other points in a book I wrote well over a decade ago: the fact that occasionally someone will write a newspaper article backing a US-style system doesn’t really prove anything except that a lot of things get written about football and not all of them are sensible.

However, it’s worth mentioning the US system purely because it demonstrates that things don’t have to be as they are in English football: there may be other ways of doing things and “all power to the powerful”, which is what happens now, might not be the best of all routes.

It’s certainly true to observe that increasing elitism has actually gone alongside increasing attendances at all levels and that therefore there has to be a limit to how much damage it’s doing football: fair enough. But I think it’s perhaps worth observing that one serious change, among many, in the culture of English association football over the time I’ve followed it has been the development of hostility towards the Big Clubs, notably, though not solely, in the attitude of many supporters to the performance of Manchester United, Chelsea and others in Europe. When I was young, you’d have gone a long way to find anybody other than fans of local rivals who didn’t back them: now the picture is, to put it mildly, much more mixed. ( I wrote a piece in When Saturday Comes some time in the Nineties making this point.) This may change as a younger generation that has known only the Premier League and the Big However Many takes our place, in a kind of Thatcher’s Children kind of way, but I think they’re getting a league (and most certainly an FA Cup) which is significantly less interesting and culturally valuable than the one we had before. I say that, as do many others, fully aware of the drawbacks and imperfections of the old way of doing things.

In some ways it doesn’t matter so much because the strength and soul of English football is actually in its depth, in the lower divisions, rather than in what the superstars get up to. But you’d really like to enjoy football at all levels rather than have your pleasure spoiled by the bad taste in the mouth that you get from the consistent greed and “fuck you” of the elite. I think they’ve deeply damaged several leagues and cups in order to have their so-called Champions’ League and I’m so glad none of the bastards won it.

118

ejh 05.28.09 at 7:56 pm

Incidentally people who care for English football may or may not know that Tony Kempster is dying. This is desperately sad: moreover, though as far as I’m concerned he’s done more for football than any number of millionaires, yet his plight seems unknown to a press which devotes pages and pages daily to every last uninteresting detail of Big Football. He will be irreplaceable.

119

Mike C 05.28.09 at 9:01 pm

The original post seems to me like comparing the SAT or A-level exam scores of two students who have the same birthday, while ignoring factors like class and the efficacy of the local school system. The relative populations and numbers of teams in two leagues are considerably less important to their success than the cultural structure in which they reside, let alone the sports that they play.

Connection to the local, regional team is not nearly as meaningful in the United States, a country which is far more transient than the UK. As has been pointed out, the US is far more comparable to Europe. How many more people do you think would move from London to Barcelona if the language was the same, and no passport or visa was required? Millions of sports fans in the US root for their teams from halfway across the country.

To further stress the point that local access is not key to US success for sports, as a business model, we can compare the NFL and MLB. Baseball teams play 162 games a season, 81 at home per year in their local stadium. The NFL plays 8 home games (assuming one of yours doesn’t get exported to Toronto or London). Personally, I would say that baseball games are considerably more fun to attend. However, despite the advantages in availability and quality of product, the NFL dominates MLB and all other leagues in popularity and financial success, and it’s entirely due to television. American Football the best TV sports experience in our country, and in addition, the NFL has been the most media savvy league in setting up it’s TV deals. Going to games just isn’t what it’s about over here.

I agree with the OP in that I don’t think BPL shouldn’t adopt the American system, because it is a distinctly American system, but the insinuation that our system is inferior is fairly baseless.

120

Mike C 05.28.09 at 9:18 pm

Honestly, there are so many issues related to this topic that I can’t bring myself to begin to discuss them. I think I’ll list a few, however:

American vs. British concepts of regional identity
The relative appeals of College vs. Pro sports in America
Why minor league baseball could work, but minor league American football doesn’t

121

ejh 05.28.09 at 9:45 pm

Incidentally to my mind there are a fair number of incorrect or tendentious comments and claims in this thread, not surprisingly given the number of posts, but here’s a few things before I go to bed:

#54: Oxford can’t win the Premier League, but it could win the FA Cup

English football clubs are “they” rather than “it”.

#78: there are 94 teams in the English league system

There are 92.

#94-95: What size crowds does UK association football draw?

It varies tremendously. Man U draws about 75k, Blackburn under 25k.

It’s “draw” rather than “draws” and “k” is a questionable usage when we’re talking about people rather than money, but most importantly, it doesn’t stop at Blackburn and 25,000. even if we’re only talking about full-time professional football you’ll find league Conference teams with full-time squads and average crowds a tenth (or less) of those at Ewood Park.

97-102: Most of the lower league teams are in serious financial trouble or will be within a few years.

this isn’t actually true.

Given the number of points deductions in recent seasons, the likelihood that the clubs who suffered them are not alone in having severe problems and the unlikelihood that the recession will help in this respect, I’m not clear as to Daniel’s reasons for thinking it untrue.

(It’s true that teams are always expected to go bust because of debt yet very rarely do: however, whether the much-played CVA card is going to be available to them indefinitely is something of an open question. We may see a lot more reborn and reconstituted clubs, in the future, than we used to. That’s not altogether a bad thing but at the same time it’s not really something I’d want to welcome when such an important part of a club’s identity is their unbroken history.)

#116: Chelski

Though commonly used the term is a silly one since -ski is a Polish usage, not a Russian one.

Oh, on Blackburn – Alan Shearer signed for them because they offered more money than anybody else including Manchester United. (As it goes I suspect the lasting impact of Jack Walker on English football will have been to inject a large dose of inflation into it.)

122

duncan 05.28.09 at 11:24 pm

Re 121 on 116: the Russian for Russian is russki, so it isn’t only a Polish usage.

123

Planeshift 05.28.09 at 11:24 pm

“Wales’s biggest and most vibrant cities, Merthyr Tydfil, Newport, Wrexham, Swansea, Cardiff, and Colwyn Bay,”

I never thought I would ever read a description of Colwyn Bay as “big and vibrant”…

124

Matt 05.29.09 at 12:14 am

122- and not just for “Russian”- in Russian, French is “Fransuskii”, “American” is “Americanskii”, etc. It’s funny that those who like to pick nits on others usage almost always end up making mistakes of their own.

125

smd 05.29.09 at 12:19 am

I may have missed it, but I don’t see any discussion about clubs vs. franchises–this is the crucial distinction (Wimbledon/MK Dons aside).

Also, is it really fair for a team with a paucity of supporters (Atlanta Thrashers, Sac Kings, AZ Cards, KC Royals etc.) to be on a level financial playing field with teams whose support is tenfold or greater (Yankees, Red Wings, Lakers, Cowboys etc.)?

126

Cryptic Ned 05.29.09 at 3:52 am

Well that’s the entire roster of Welsh teams that play in the English league system as far as I know, so Colwyn Bay had to go on the list.

Is The New Saints the only team located in England to play in the Welsh league? It seems unlikely, since from what I can tell of their history Oswestry Town was an English team in the Welsh league even before they merged with that Welsh team to form The New Saints.

127

dsquared 05.29.09 at 7:33 am

Oswestry Town merged with Total Network Solutions (previously Llansantffraid FC), who changed their name to “The New Saints” when Total Network Solutions was taken over by British Telecom.

A number of English teams used to play in the Welsh Cup, a fact which had minor political consequences, written about in Ian Bone’s autobiography and covered on my blog.

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ejh 05.29.09 at 8:57 am

is it really fair for a team with a paucity of supporters (Atlanta Thrashers, Sac Kings, AZ Cards, KC Royals etc.) to be on a level financial playing field with teams whose support is tenfold or greater (Yankees, Red Wings, Lakers, Cowboys etc.)?

No, but it’s also important to understand that left to its own devices, the market tends to increase the differentials of support because people from, say, Torquay, will end up (or, indeed, start off) supporting Manchester United – which they wouldn’t do so much if the Gulls were able to compete.

Of course to some degree – to a considerable degree – you’re going to have to have inequalities because population centres are of very different sizes, and in fact that’s desirable, because you get different levels of football which can be enjoyed in different ways. What’s not desirable is if only the top level is valued, if that very highest level blots out or serious damages the others, if it seriously reduces competition, if it injects superinflation and dangerous levels of debt into the game. All of these have demonstrably happened to one degree or another.

This probably hits harder in England than anywhere else because there’s more of a tradition of supporting your local team than anywhere else: and the idea that people who follow provincial clubs are going to say “well, the prospects for Southampton* or Ipswich are much reduced but never mind, English teams dominate the Champions’ League” is a bit like expecting people who’ve had redundancy or a pay cut to rejoice in the CEO’s increased salary. (Mind you, some people do expect us to think that, don’t they? Economics is funny sometimes.)

* People may like to check out the name Rupert Lowe as a demonstration of almost everything that’s wrong with English football, and indeed the Universe

[re: -ski: I stand partially corrected and am grateful for it, and indeed it serves the corrector right if they’re corrected! But I’ll stand a little more so if I can be shown that it’s a common suffix in place, personal or institutional names….]

129

dsquared 05.29.09 at 9:34 am

All of these have demonstrably happened to one degree or another.

All of these are features of the UK game, true, but I’m less convinced on the point of causation. The French and German leagues are just as “uncompetitive” as the UK one, with very different corporate and economic structures. Although some clubs are unprofitable and overindebted (but by no means all – per the Deloittes annual report, clubs like Reading were always run on an operating profit even when they were in the PL, as are about half of Championship clubs), ’twas ever thus; there were plenty of unprofitable, overindebted clubs before the Premier League.

The PL does look like it’s been a significant driver of wage inflation and transfer cost inflation (though I am tempted to regard the second of these as more of an example of the general speculative bubble in all asset prices in the same period). But this is arguably just a transfer of value from owners to players that I find it hard to get excessively worried about. Seven of the starting players in the Barcelona team that won on Wednesday had not had transfer fees paid for them.

130

ejh 05.29.09 at 10:18 am

They did: but if Barcelona weren’t so rich (and I’m well aware that their ownership structure and cultural role is rather different to most) they wouldn’t still be there. As indeed Ajax’s famously good youth players are not.

I think the problem with inflation in football is not just that it shows up in ticket prices (twenty-two years ago I got into Anfield for three quid) but that it has a really deleterious effect on the responsible financial management of football clubs. It’s your field rather than mine, but a far as I can see where there are a significant number of clubs prepared (by their owners’ wishes) to operate at a serious loss, then those clubs who wish to do otherwise are in the invidious position of trying to balance the books – and dropping down the table, which renders aforesaid book-balancing really hard – or of operating as if debts would never be called in. It’s true that clubs have always run at a loss (I remember reading many years ago, long before the Premier League, that there were only five clubs of the ninety-two who were technically solvent, which presumably meant depended on their boards’ assurances to auditors that funds would be provided to keep them going) but even so I don’t think the deficits in older days were quite so eye-watering as they are now. Not remotely so.

It’s very true that other leagues are as uncompetitive (where that is measured by the number of clubs ever able to meaningfully aspire to the title, or to a high placing) or more so than the English – the difference is that this didn’t use to be the case. It’s true that Liverpool had a long run of titles – albeit broken by such clubs as Derby, Everton, Forest, Villa and Leeds – but it’s also true that many more teams competed for both the title and for the top three or four places than is the case now, and that they did so largely without either breaking the bank or being bankrolled by multi-millionaires (many clubs did of course have wealthy chairmen, but not ones who would lend tens of millions, or who had tens of millions to lend). And it’s also true that being promoted to the top division is followed by immediate relegation far more than it used to be, which is an effect of the Premier League if there ever was one.

Now it may well be true that if you want investment in an area that tends to be accompanied by rising inequality, and it’s true that this investment has brought genuine benefits which would include increased television coverage and very real ground improvements. But it’s also true that we’re paying far more for a less competitive product, a much more unstable and unpromising existence for smaller clubs, the severe devaluation of several competitions and all the usual features (arrogance, greed and resentment) that accompany the simultaneous production of wealth and inequality. Still, some of the football’s good and I can watch much more of it on telly than I used to. If I want. Usually I don’t.

131

ejh 05.29.09 at 10:42 am

(Part of the reason, of course, is attitude, theirs and mine. I stopped, for years, going to top division games after the Premier League was set up, and almost entirely stopped watching Match of the Day after that programme ceased to show games outside the flight, on the grounds that if they were saying fuck off to everybody else, then I’d reciprocate. Incidentally,watching several BBC sports bulletins last Sunday evening and the following morning, I caught absolutely no mention of what I believe was the second-best-attended football match of the day. Almost sixty thousand saw Scunthorpe beat Millwall: but if it ain’t the Premier League, it didn’t happen. I think this approach is part money-worship, part-philistinism and generally small-minded all round.)

132

John Quiggin 05.29.09 at 12:02 pm

The French and German leagues are just as “uncompetitive” as the UK one, with very different corporate and economic structures

I don’t know what these differences are, but as far as I can see, the corporate structure is largely irrelevant. What matters is the presence or absence of a draft and/or salary cap. Where you have these, the winners in one season are automatically handicapped in the next. Where you don’t, the winners get richer and keep on winning, while the losers get poorer (in the absence of a billionaire backer) and keep on losing. All the European soccer competitions have the latter setup AFAIK, and all (again AFAIK) are uncompetitive as a result.

In particular, the issue of franchises is a red herring, as the Australian example shows. Locally, supporter-controlled clubs are entirely consistent with socialism at the league level. I’m surprised that anyone should think otherwise.

133

dsquared 05.29.09 at 1:29 pm

There’s two parallel discussions here; NFL-style drafts & caps, for and against, and the post Premier League UK football industry, for and against.

I think that if you’re going to have a socially-owned or mutual model, you have to have a salary cap and all the other gubbins, because unlike a capitalist firm, a mutual can’t pay dividends and so has to reinvest all of its operating profit in the football business. A profit making firm would never do this; the point at which the financial return on a marginal player purchase would be less than the cost of capital would be reached a long way before total dominance. (This ties into my theory that the problem with the PL is an excess of “football people” and a dearth of “accountants”, very much not the other way round).

On the other debate, I am now deciding to push back substantially on the value to anyone of “competitiveness”. How, exactly, do you watch a league? Most people watch games. It seems to me at the very least to be a breach of one of the von Neumann/Morgenstern axioms if your enjoyment of the game you are watching depends on the results of a whole load of other games yet to be played

(I have this Beckettian vision of football supporters sitting in a windswept ground, saying
“cracking game, isn’t?”
“Yes, but in a wider sense it is empty and meaningless because of the dominance of Manchester United since the 1990s”

Or of the difficulty in persuading North American sports fans to go to the cinema because
“Who wins? Live and Let Die – Bond. Octopussy – Bond. The Living Daylights – Bond. Goldeneye – Bond. Yawwwwwwwn!”)

Furthermore, even for people who follow the football by looking at the league standings every week, it’s only for the first few months that a league can appear “competitive” in the sense of being open to everyone to win. The nature of a league competition is that toward the end, a group of between two and six teams will have pulled away and will be the only ones with a chance to win. So the “competitiveness” theory would suggest that sports leagues get less interesting as the season wears on and that seasons which quickly turn into a closely fought two-horse race are the boring ones. All of which seems a bit odd to me, and therefore I reiterate my disagreement that competitiveness (where defined as the Gini coefficient of the day one betting odds, which seems to be the metric we’re using here) is a particularly important property of a league.

134

Cryptic Ned 05.29.09 at 1:30 pm

What surprises me is that more teams haven’t adopted modern-style logos. The Wolves and Nottingham Forest logos are way cool, and it’s nice that most teams have complicated old-fashioned badges, but you’d think a bunch of chairmen would get the idea that they needed to modernize and throw out their history in order to get 4,000 fans at their games instead of 2,000.

135

Salient 05.29.09 at 1:54 pm

On the other debate, I am now deciding to push back substantially on the value to anyone of “competitiveness”.

Good. Ample supporting evidence is to be found in Cubs fandom & in Packers fans from the Forrest Gregg era. The kind of fan who tracks win/loss statistics and championship viability but doesn’t enjoy watching individual games isn’t terribly representative of fans generally.

Conversely, I think ejh gets at a very good point in #131, and I think that comment might have something to do with what some folks are actually wanting when they complain about “competitiveness,” though I’m not able to articulate exactly what the relationship is.

136

dsquared 05.29.09 at 2:06 pm

I think ejh gets at a very good point in #131

Yes he does, and I am slightly ashamed at my jibe about von Neumann/Morgenstern rationality, but it’s clear that he’s talking about a very thick social relationship between man and game of the sort that you could write a book about, not “competitiveness” tout court. I don’t think that, starting from where we are now, you could introduce a salary cap, a draft system and no relegation and expect things to get *better* in British football. You’d just end up making a bunch of billionaires a lot richer (because they would benefit from the end of salary inflation) and leave the next Wayne Rooney stuck at Everton, trying to form a partnership with Tim Cahill.

137

ejh 05.29.09 at 2:08 pm

How, exactly, do you watch a league? Most people watch games.

That’s not really right: games aren’t standalone things, and people’s consumption of them isn’t restricted to their real-time experience of them.

138

duncan 05.29.09 at 2:41 pm

Re “-ski” in place, personal, and institutional names. Nevski Prospekt is a place, I believe. Trotski is a person. And in the old institution CCCP/USSR, the words for soviet and socialist ended in forms of “-ski.” I think it is a pretty common ending for Russian words, roughly equivalent to “-ist” or “-ish” in English.

139

ejh 05.29.09 at 4:12 pm

And indeed Spassky – but it’s commonly rendered -sky in English. I’ve never seen “Trotski” before, for instance. (As I obviously know less about this than I thought, I’d be interested to be told the reason, but I wonder if it would be that in Russian the sound is rather longer than in Polish? You also see -iy occasionally.)

140

Preachy Preach 05.29.09 at 4:22 pm

I’m willing to be corrected by someone with more than a GCSE in Russian taken 15 years ago…, but the relevant chunk of Russian is кий.

и is basically the ‘ee’ sound, while й has no sound value in of itself, but basically turns the proceeding vowel into a dipthong. ой sounds like ‘oy’ basically, versus the standard Russian ‘o’ which is like the ‘o’ in pot.

I’ve never been able to tell the difference between и and ий, but I’m willing to be enlightened.

141

Salient 05.29.09 at 4:37 pm

I’ve never seen “Trotski” before, for instance.

Really? I’ve seen that, and I’ve seen Dostoevsky rendered Dostoevski, and Tolstoy rendered Tolstoi.

From wikipedia:
British Standard
Endings -й, -ий, -ый may be simplified to -y.

Maybe that’s a description of where the -y standard is from?

142

vanya 05.29.09 at 5:43 pm

The point is that US professional sports are a lot more geographically concentrated than UK professional sports. You say that “it’s wide open at the start of the year who will win” in a US league, but this isn’t really true; Hartford can’t win the NFL, for example, nor can Los Angeles, Charlotte or Wilmington, because they haven’t got teams.

Most Americans think this point is inane. For Americans it’s about teams, not geographical locations. This fundamental difference in attitude is probably why it’s so hard for British and Americans to debate this.

143

Bunbury 05.29.09 at 7:19 pm

They didn’t when the Dodgers left Brooklyn.

I’ve not been able to get to the bottom of this but it looks to me as if the proportion of money spent on player salaries may actually be slightly higher in the US, NFL at least than it is in top flight football which surprised me. Does anyone know more?

144

Phil 05.29.09 at 7:48 pm

For Americans it’s about teams, not geographical locations.

What happens if you substitute ‘brands’ for ‘teams’? Anything?

ejh’s point at #117 about hostility to the big clubs is interesting in this respect. When I started at a new school in 1968 – in South Wales – I was immediately asked if I was Leeds or Chelsea. (I said neither, I was Man Utd, but that’s by the way.) The school intake consisted mainly of migrants (Army town), so “Leeds or Chelsea?” was a quick way of establishing if you were a Northerner or a Southerner; these days it would be “Man U or Chelsea?” (Poor old Leeds.) Except that it wouldn’t, because (a) everyone knows Man U fans come from all over and (b) everyone who isn’t actually a fan hates Man U.

So there’s a level of non-local (regional) identification which has actually been eroded by the big teams floating free, at the same time as non-local (brand) identification has been encouraged.

145

dsquared 05.29.09 at 9:00 pm

I’ve not been able to get to the bottom of this but it looks to me as if the proportion of money spent on player salaries may actually be slightly higher in the US, NFL at least than it is in top flight football which surprised me. Does anyone know more

yes, slightly higher as far as I can see, although cf the original post – the 7 NFL teams in a region roughly the size of England would correspond to the top PL teams, not the average.

146

duncan 05.29.09 at 10:05 pm

My GCSE is even more than 15 years old, but I can say with authority why I spelled it Trotski. It was just to make the point that ‘-ski’ = ‘-sky’.

Preachy Preach and Salient explain it all quite well.

147

duncan 05.29.09 at 10:06 pm

Italics there by mistake, by the way. I’m not speaking loudly and slowly as if to an idiot.

148

stostosto 05.29.09 at 11:49 pm

This thread is sheer joy.

149

John Quiggin 05.30.09 at 2:00 am

Does “games not leagues” change much? A quick (and possibly fallible) check of the 2008-09 season shows me that Man U, Chelsea and Arsenal each lost only one game to a team outside the Big 4. Liverpool lost a few more, but (on this admittedly limited check) it looks as if the typical Big4 vs Rest game is about as unpredictable as Harlem Globetrotters v Washington Generals.

Of course there are plenty of other games to watch. But on this analysis, why not send the Big 4 off to a European Super-15 (or whatever) league and have a domestic competition where the final league table is of some interest?

150

ejh 05.30.09 at 4:16 pm

Or, in Chelsea’s case at least, declare them an illegal organisation….

151

Nick Valvo 05.30.09 at 10:58 pm

When my father was a kid (the 1950s) in Buffalo, New York, International League baseball was a big deal there, reported in the papers side by side with the American and National Leagues (the two Major Leagues). The Buffalo Bisons played against teams from New England, New York, Pennsylvania, two teams in Ottawa, four in the Carolinas, and — before the revolution — one in Havana.

The IL is still around; it has just been relegated to minor league status. The Bisons are now the AAA team for the Cleveland Indians. The IL’s Rochester Red Wings, in the Minnesota Twins’ organization, are the oldest continuously-operating professional baseball team. There are no more Canadian teams, as the Ottawa Lynx have moved to Allentown, PA, and the Toronto Maple Leafs became the American League Blue Jays.

I guess my point is that regional alternative leagues were popular until fairly recently. Television changed a lot.

152

Philip 05.31.09 at 8:11 pm

Nick Valvo, yeah I think you’ve come to the main point. I think TV was more important earlier in the US than the UK. As a kid I didn’t watch much football on TV (internationals, some FA cup matches and some local matches, and highlights on Match of the Day). This only changed when SKY came along and fans still feel attached to the local identity of clubs, even to the big 4 ( though not all fans obviously).

153

Bernard Yomtov 06.01.09 at 2:58 am

Nick Valvo,

Even in the 50’s the IL was a minor league in the sense that its teams likely had working agreements with specific major league teams, if they weren’t owned outright. Minor league baseball was locally popular lots of places, but was not the equivalent of the majors.

What changed was not only television, but also the increasing sophistication of the major league teams in the use of their minor league affiliates. The best minor league players go to the majors when rosters expand in September, pennant race or no. Injured major leaguers are sent to the minors for rehabilitation. AAA teams are generally used as a sort of safety valve/reserve vehicle for roster moves. All that makes it hard to establish loyalty to minor league teams.

154

Chris Bertram 06.01.09 at 7:04 am

_A quick (and possibly fallible) check of the 2008-09 season shows me that Man U, Chelsea and Arsenal each lost only one game to a team outside the Big 4. Liverpool lost a few more, …._

Liverpool lost only twice all season, to Middlesboro and Spurs.

155

John Quiggin 06.01.09 at 7:46 am

And Arsenal lost a bunch. I did say it was fallible – shouldn’t do that kind of thing late at night :-). Still, the general point is right, I think.

156

dsquared 06.01.09 at 7:46 am

More or less by definition, the top four teams in a league will not have lost many times. But my real point here is that we’re sacrificing an awful lot on the altar of “competitiveness”, a quality which there just isn’t much empirical evidence that sports fans care about:

But on this analysis, why not send the Big 4 off to a European Super-15 (or whatever) league and have a domestic competition where the final league table is of some interest?

Basically, this would make the domestic league irretrievably second-rate (NB that whenever this has been proposed in the past, it has been suggested by one or more of the Big Four, and vehemently opposed by the smaller clubs). Even more so if it didn’t have relegation and promotion.

Seriously, do fans of Championship teams bemoan their promotion to the Premier League, even though it means that they face a season of watching their team get repeatedly smashed, with small chance of survival and negligible chance of winning?

157

ejh 06.01.09 at 8:22 am

As we’re number-crunching, the figures on the Big Four’s domination appear to be as follows:

a) they’ve filled at least three of the top four places in each of the last twelve seasons

b) they’ve filled all four places six times, including the last four seasons

c) since 2001/2 (Chelsea were sixth) none has finished lower than fifth

d) in the past three seasons the gap between fourth and fifth places has not been smaller than eight points.

FACT(i): prior to the introduction of the Premier League, there was no occasion on which the the top four of the top division were the same in consecutive seasons, let alone four (or more) Indeed there were only eleven occasions(ii) in which three of the top four places were occupied by teams that had been in the top four the previous season, and this never happened for more than two consecutive seasons, let alone twelve.

(i) probably

(ii) 1984/5 and 1985/6
1981/2 and 1982/3
1977/8 and 1978/9
1973/4 and 1974/5
1972/3 and 1973/4
1961/2 and 1962/3
1959/60 and 1960/1
1903/4 and 1904/5
1891/2 and 1892/3
1889/90 and 1890/1
1888/9 and 1889/90

(Where sets of two seasons overlap, e.g. 1888/9 and 1889/90, 1889/90 and 1890/1, it is not the identical three teams involved, so Preston Villa Wolves Blackburn becomes Preston Everton Blackburn Wolves becomes Everton Preston Notts County Wolves. Only two teams are common to both sets.)

158

ejh 06.01.09 at 8:29 am

a quality which there just isn’t much empirical evidence that sports fans care about:

Ah, this isn’t true. The empirical evidence consists of the fact that we complain about it all the time. People do, observably, hold this opinions and express them. It’s very widespread indeed.

However if (and only if) you restrict “empirical evidence” to observation of attendances, and take it that if people keep on attending then they’re not that bothered, then that’s another matter: but while continued attendance is scarcely irrelevant, it’s not the whole story.

159

ejh 06.01.09 at 8:31 am

Incidentally, does anybody imagine that people would attend less if there were a more competitive league?

160

Phil 06.01.09 at 9:11 am

The Reds I know remind me a bit of lottery millionaires – they were all prepared for a lifetime of dogged devotion in the hope of a big payoff next year or the year after, when all of a sudden We Win Everything Everywhere All The Time! Wa-hey! The big money made a difference, but the difference didn’t have anything to do with whether the fans stayed fans.

What was your point about competitiveness, ejh? I wasn’t sure what you were saying people complain about.

161

dsquared 06.01.09 at 9:27 am

and take it that if people keep on attending then they’re not that bothered

But if they keep on attending in increasing numbers and in the face of extortionate price rises, then I think you really do have to take it that they’re not that bothered. I also think we need to separate out people’s complaints about “uncompetitivness” and those which simply relate to their team not doing very well. The respective boards of Spurs and Newcastle, for example, certainly didn’t want to end the oligopoly at the top – they just wanted their team to be in it.

Also “Big Four” including Chelsea/sky/ski is retrofitted. Chelsea weren’t a top four club before Abramovitch.

162

dsquared 06.01.09 at 9:39 am

Incidentally, does anybody imagine that people would attend less if there were a more competitive league?

Depends very much on whether this was achieved by pure luck, or by something like a draft system which would make it impossible to put together anything like the actually existing Man U team.

The Celtic League, mentioned by Chris above, is AFAICS a bit more competitive than the old Welsh rugby union league (having followed more or less the model suggested by John in #149), with no obvious effect on attendances either way.

163

Phil 06.01.09 at 10:04 am

I wasn’t sure what you were saying people complain about.

OK, got it on second reading. Took me a while, because practically all the football supporters I know are either Man U (and think the dominance of the Big Four is great) or City (and think it would be great if only City could get into it). The latter do hate Man U’s dominance of the league, but that’s just because they hate Man U, always have hated Man U and always will hate Man U – they’d hate them just as much if they were relegated.

164

ejh 06.01.09 at 10:22 am

But if they keep on attending in increasing numbers and in the face of extortionate price rises, then I think you really do have to take it that they’re not that bothered

I think that if people say they’re bothered, and keep on saying that they’re bothered, it’s as well to take it that they’re bothered. I mean I’m bothered, I know I am. Wouldn’t stop me paying to watch my team if I didn’t live a thousand miles away, but I know I’m not making it up.

It’s a big mistake to confuse “people watching their own side” with “people’s attitudes to football generally”. In economics it’s not necessarily a mistake, since you don’t usually contribute much money to clubs other than your own (obviously there are various minor direct and indirect ways in which you may, but the great bulk goes to the club you follow) but then again economics isn’t everything. There’s been a great sea-change in attitudes towards the top clubs, and for that matter a certain change in attitudes of the fans of those clubs towards the clubs themselves: given that sport is basically about meaning, I think this has a certain importance. Of course we could take the view that what people say and feel doesn’t matter as long as they keep shelling out – but do we really wish to?

The respective boards of Spurs and Newcastle, for example, certainly didn’t want to end the oligopoly at the top – they just wanted their team to be in it.

Well for sure, and also look at all the stupid bastards who voted for the Premier League and then fell out of it. But what’s that to do with anything?

Chelsea weren’t a top four club before Abramovitch.

Well, four top four finishes in the six seasons before his takeover might suggest otherwise. But of course it’s his money that’s consolidated that position – certainly Chelsea used to occupy the same sort of wannabee position that, say, Spurs occupy now. (There could certainly have been a different Big Four had the timing been a little different. Leeds or Newcastle or Tottenham might have been in it: Arsenal or Chelsea might not have been.)

Depends very much on whether this was achieved by pure luck

Well, it used to be achieved by pure culture – the particular culture of English football in which supporting your local team had a much greater resonance than it does (or did) in, say, Scotland or Spain. There are certainly other leagues which have always, or for a very long time, been as uncompetitive as the English now is – Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Holland and so on. But England wasn’t and while I’m sure that television was bound to break that down in the end, I don’t actually think it needed to happen to the extent that it has.

I don’t think there needed to be a separate Premier League in order to sell football to television (any more than Castleford needed to merge with Featherstone, Rupert doesn’t have to have everything he wants) and I certainly don’t think there needed to be this bloated, horrendous “Champions’ League” in which you get to sit at the trough on the basis of coming fourth.

Again, you can claim this doesn’t matter because people will keep shelling out to watch Derby or Forest or Ipswich regardless of the impossibility of these clubs achieving what they did before. But you could ask the people shelling out: “what do you think about it?” and then you’d maybe have to ask yourself if you wanted to deny that the answers possessed real meaning.

A note: if you want the real success of English football over the past twenty years – vastly increased attendances, receipts and public interest – it’s not the Premier League. It’s the Conference.

165

ejh 06.01.09 at 11:04 am

whenever this has been proposed in the past, it has been suggested by one or more of the Big Four, and vehemently opposed by the smaller clubs

I’m not sure this is right, by the way, simply because I can’t recall it ever being proposed, not seriously anyway. I don’t suppose there’s any confusion with the situation in Scotland, where the Tweedles definitely want to leave and the other clubs don’t want to let them?

166

dsquared 06.01.09 at 11:15 am

I was thinking of , eg this story, but I’m not a close follower of the news and daresay that I was probably comingling it with the Scottish situation.

I think the underlying reality here, with which your points and mine would both be consistent, is that over the last ten to fifteen years, the audience for association football has expanded massively, and the new supporters have overwhelmingly attached to a small number of clubs.

167

ejh 06.01.09 at 12:00 pm

Ah, yes, the European League. May or may not happen, but if they think it’ll work, they’ll do it in the end, regardless of whether they’re given what they want now.

That said it’s not so clear that the Big Four would necessarily want to cut their ties with English football (though Manchester United might, I think) since domestic football does provide them with a fallback that wouldn’t be there if they opted for Europe and only Europe. (Though on the other hand, one can’t imagine – regrettably – that they wouldn’t be allowed back if they asked.)

over the last ten to fifteen years, the audience for association football has expanded massively, and the new supporters have overwhelmingly attached to a small number of clubs.

Actually this wouldn’t quite be my view, though it might depend on what we mean by “supporter”: pretty much all clubs have experienced considerable increases in attendances, the actual paying spectator isn’t so unevenly distributed. But of course the “passive” spectator, the TV audience, is indeed overwhelmingly attracted to the Big Four. Pandora’s Box if ever there were one.

Incidentally, I’m fairly sure that the clubs who voted for the Premier League didn’t really anticipate this, expecting (and welcoming) the gap that would grow between them and the lower divisions, but not so much the chasm between them and the CL entrants. However, from their point of view – considered as individuals rather than custodians of football clubs – it doesn’t really matter, since who cares if the club you run ends up winning nothing and owing fifty million quid, provided you’ve made millions yourself in the interim?

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