From The Economist print edition Jul 12th 2007
quote: IN PRAISE OF UNEQUAL SPORTS Off the ball
European politicians should not meddle with the beautiful game
IT IS a curious irony that Europe, which often takes a dim view of market forces, lets them rip in sport, while America, usually the world's most enthusiastic exponent of commerce and its consequences for society, has all sorts of arrangements in place to mitigate its effects on the nation's favourite pastimes. But these days, the American model is gaining adherents in Europe. Sports ministers in many countries are arguing that football needs to be exempted from competition law in order to allow governing bodies to equalise the resources of clubs without risking prosecution. The European Commission's strategy paper on sport, published on July 11th, ignored those calls; but the pressure will not go away.
Professional sport differs from other businesses in one important respect. Rival teams need each other to produce a sellable product: a match. In most businesses co-operation between rivals would attract the ire of antitrust authorities. But in sport, an element of collusion is unavoidable (see article).
The balance between collusion and individualism is a hard one to strike, but has been managed reasonably well by Europe's trustbusters. The collective selling of television rights, now the main source of income for football's elite, has usually been sanctioned by the European Commission's antitrust arm. Joint marketing is defensible, because sports contests are by their nature a collaboration.
Egalitarians quibble that the bulk of the money ends up with rich well-supported clubs. The English Premier League, for instance, collectively sells its television rights and splits the proceeds between clubs. But a club's share partly depends on how many of its games are broadcast and how high it finishes in the league, so Chelsea and Manchester United get a bigger slice. The worry is that the continued dominance of national championships by a few clubs will drive away supporters.
In the United States the baseball, basketball, hockey and American football leagues try to mitigate the effects of competition and inequality through revenue- and talent-sharing agreements, such as “the draft” (baseball even has a specific exemption from antitrust law). But it is not clear that this is either necessary or desirable. Measures to increase equality within a league take the edge off competition—and therefore, presumably, off the terror that drives sportsmen to excellence.
There is more to sport than watching too well-matched teams vie for supremacy. Professional basketball in America has lost some of its shine since one of Michael Jordan's many retirements ended the Chicago Bulls' dominance of the sport. The lesson from this and from golf's popularity since the emergence of Tiger Woods is that sporting prowess matters more to fans than strict competitive balance.
European football has never been a balanced affair. The very first professional league championship in 1889 was a cakewalk for Preston North End, which went through a 22-game season without losing a match (it won in 1890 too, though never since). Championships in Portugal, Greece, the Netherlands and Scotland are nearly always won by just two or three clubs. Leagues in bigger countries are scarcely less open. Manchester United has won nine out of 15 league titles since the English Premier League was set up in 1992. None of this has impeded the global popularity of football, which has done far better as an export industry than America's more equal sports.
Politicians like the notion of equality. Sportsmen should beware it. Politics is about majorities, averages and keeping lots of people happy. Sport is about individuals, excellence and winning and losing. The two don't go well together; so it is, by and large, better for sport if politicians resist the temptation to interfere with it.
The one thing overlooked is that all of the USA's sports end with a single-knockout playoffs or playoff series. This adds a vast amount of luck to the proceedings. Baseball was the closest thing to football in terms of a long season with a champion. That's why the Yankees won so many titles in the 50s-60s-70s, and why Atlanta won many during the 90's-00's.
Football's different in that it's a culture more than a sport. In that sense, competition isn't as important, as it's more of an event to sing and scream your head off than winning or losing. The only thing America has in comparison to that is college athletics, especially gridiron and basketball.
Watching Univision's coverage of the Copa America, there are dancers in the studio, Argentinian gaucho or Brasilian samba drum music, live reports from bars and restaurants of ethnic areas of the teams involved...and very little highlights or pregame package. The pregame is about everything but the game; it's about the culture of the countries, the flags of the countries, the fans having a blast and screaming their heads off. (Often they'll have dancers, musicians, and a bunhch of bozos holding up grilled meats on a skewer. So add food into the mix.)
In college gridiron, a game is sold out even if a team starts off 0-6 for many teams in the Southeastern Conference and Big 10.
That said, we've crushed every instance of "wrapping it up with a month left" out of every sport. Nascar was the last, and even figured out how to do a playoffs with a 40-car race (the top 10 drivers with the last 10 races having their points reset with the gap at 5 points between each driver, and going from there.) Everytime it's been done, it has paid off quite handsomely.
Posts: 9565 | Registered: May 2002
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I read that article over the weekend. I suppose if you're looking at football purely as entertainment - or as an alternative to other forms of entertainment - you would probably come to the conclusions they did. I don't so I didn't.
Posts: 876 | From: Fog on the Rhine | Registered: Dec 2004
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