An Uneven Playing Field

By | October 8, 2013

I’ve lived in the United States for over ten years now, and yet somehow I still struggle to remember the name of my hometown’s American football team (give me a sec… oh that’s right, Atlanta Falcons – Rise up!). Being a Greek South African (born in SA, but 100% of Greek descent), my sports upbringing was dominated primarily by soccer (with rugby and basketball coming in close second). However, the stop-and-go pace of American football as compared to the rhythmic flow of “the beautiful game” has always deterred me from ever watching more than one full quarter of a game.

I’d be lying if I told you I knew which NFL team won the most recent Super Bowl or who the best quarterback in the league is right now. In fact I’d be lying if I told you I even cared. But there is one thing that I do envy about American football (the NFL in particular), and that’s the fact that, unlike most European soccer leagues, it embraces an even playing field.

I’m a huge fan of the underdog. Ask me which team I want to win in a match and (unless it involves my beloved Olympiakos) I’m almost always rooting for the non-favored team. Perhaps it stems from being both the only daughter and youngest child in a loud, obnoxious Greek family, but there’s something about an unforeseen victory by an underrated opponent that gives me the utmost satisfaction. With all this being said, those of us who are avid European soccer fans know that the chances of an underdog team ever winning a domestic league championship are slim to none.

If we take a look at the champions of both La Liga and the English Premier League since the start of the 21st century, we see both leagues are dominated by less than a handful of teams. Since 2000, Real Madrid and Barcelona have been the two most undoubtedly successful teams in La Liga (with the rare occurrence of Valencia breaking through El Clasico barrier). Real and Barça have won 32 and 22 titles, respectively, since the establishment of La Liga in 19291. In fact, no other club has won the title on more than nine occasions1.

In the EPL, a similar trend can be seen, although it is not quite as strong or as historically rooted.

spanish english

However, if we take a look at the winners of the Super Bowl over the same time frame, we see a trend that falls on the total opposite end of the spectrum. In the last decade, 9 different teams have won the Super Bowl.

super bowl

What constitutes for this stark difference in playing fields? In essence, it is the drastically different economies of the NFL and European soccer.

Firstly, the NFL’s revenue-sharing model is what makes it possible for the sport to survive in any size market across the US. The majority of the league’s revenue comes from TV broadcast deals, and that income, in addition to any revenue made from licensing deals, is shared equally among all teams in the league5.

Secondly, the NFL consistently rewards mediocre franchises with the most talented young prospects through a reverse-order draft2. Any team from any city has the same opportunity to compete, and in order to ensure this, the NFL has created a variety of mechanisms to prevent a free market for talent2.  Player movement and salaries are severely restricted: a rookie draft denies young players the opportunity to have teams bid for their services, a salary cap prohibits teams from spending over a certain amount of money on players, and a franchise tag forces teams to give up two first-round picks to sign each other’s most coveted free agents2.

On the other hand, European soccer leagues are financially fractured. It’s every team for itself, a strikingly capitalistic nature when compared to the NFL.  In La Liga each team has different sponsorship and TV deals, creating a dichotomy between the value of the big-market teams and small-market teams, and there is also no cap when it comes to how much a player is worth6.

This nonrestrictive structure of La Liga allows clubs like Barça and Real to operate on a financially higher level and thus make deals that other clubs could only dream of acquiring. Who could forget this year’s transfer of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for £85.3million, making him the most expensive transfer to date3. The fee eclipsed the £80million that Real paid in 2009 for Cristiano Ronaldo, the second most expensive transfer in the league, but still the highest paid player, making approximately $20.5 million a year, while Barça’s star Lionel Messi comes in close behind with an annual salary of around $20 million4.

Basically, there are no limits to how Barcelona and Real Madrid can acquire talent. However, since they have the best players, they also have the most fans. With more fans comes more money, and with more money, they can afford to buy the best players. It’s a never-ending cycle that gives way to an uneven playing field, but we can’t deny that it generates some incredible soccer.







4 thoughts on “An Uneven Playing Field

  1. Matt Ochs

    This article absolutely resonates with me. I took the opposite path through sports fandom (started out as a football/basketball fan and gradually found my way over to European soccer), but in just a handful of years of following the European leagues, I’ve realized that the sort of competition I had become accustomed to is non-existent in Europe. Take the NFL for instance: I have grown up a diehard Washington Redskins fan. The team essentially lived in the basement of the NFL for about 15 years. However, each year a new top ten draft pick gives the city hope that we could very possibly win the division and go far in the playoffs. During the 2012-2013 season, the Redskins made their way from having disappointing 5-11 the year before to winning the division title and having a realistic shot at the Super Bowl. This sort of upward mobility is an impossibility in all of the European Leagues. While European soccer certainly has numerous advantages to the American sports in terms of complexity and interest, the existence of a likable underdog seems to be an American phenomenon.

  2. Kavin Tamizhmani

    This analysis was a great examination of the domination of soccer and other sports by big market teams. It’s important to recognize that sport after all is a form of gross revenue through entertainment. Players are paid for their skills and their value in marketing the global brand of teams. While there is a draft system and collective bargaining agreement in place in in the NBA, the ability to purchase top level talent seems to outweigh youth development. An interesting counter example of this currently is the success of Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga. Although the league has been traditionally dominated by Bavaria’s Bayern Munich, the gap between the two teams has been shortened. Borussia realized that it is difficult to truly compete with Bayern in the transfer market so it focused on developing players coming through its youth teams and relatively cheap transfers. Mario Gotze is a prime example of top level talent developed at Borussia. He complemented the likes of Lewandoski and Reus in Dortmund’s run to the Champions League. While it’s fun to root for teams that are underdogs such as Borussia to win matches such as the Champions League Final, the dominance of big market teams will continue to impact teams’ success and commercial appeal.

  3. John P

    I really enjoyed reading this article, I didn’t know where it was going to take me at first but towards the end I was really excited to read someones view towards the sport of soccer be the same as mine. My entire childhood I grew up watching only soccer, I love the sport. However, as I got older and started following other sports such as Basketball and Football I started to notice huge differences in the way they handle their business. If you’re a soccer fan and you don’t want to suffer your entire life supporting a team, your only option is to be a front runner. The system for soccer sets up small market teams to fail year after year, and the bigger problem is that 90 percent of the teams in each league are small market teams. Which is why I don’t love watching the game as much as I did when I was a kid. FIFA needs to seriously change their ways in my opinion, NFL and the NBA sets a lot of rules and restrictions to avoid complete dominance in their leagues. Fans would love the sport more if it was more fair competition and with a system that would support all teams equally and set them up for success.

  4. George

    A great and interesting article. Provides good insight into the comparison of two awesome sports. Great job!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *