Sunday, April 21

Anarchy, Sport, and Utopia

Because everyone (by which, of course, I mean Megan McCardle, Jon Wishnia, and Lane McFadden) is talking about Steve Kuhn's post intimating that North American professional sports leagues are promoting Marxist values, I thought that I would toss out my proverbial $.02.

$.01 No.1: I generally agree with Jon Wishnia's take on the situation, which is, in brief, that sports leagues rather than their constituent teams should be viewed as the appropriate entity to which the rules of a competitive marketplace should be applied. That is, the goal of each league is to beat out the other professional sports leagues (and all other competing entertainment sources) in providing the best product for consumers. Each league has, independently, decided that the best product results from a reasonable level of parity so that fans in small or poorer markets still have some reason to follow the game and fans from bigger markets do not get bored seeing the Yankees, for example, roll over every other team (o.k., bad example, but even they don't win every year). The leagues have, therefore, instituted various internal mechanisms which balance the interests of the players with those of the owners and fans, such as revenue-sharing (though not all leagues have this) and both entry and expansion drafts. I would add that if the players really feel that their rights are not being respected they can (1) go play somewhere else (Europe, Japan, Canada) or (2) start another league (each of the current Big Four professional leagues is the product of the combination of smaller leagues).

$.01 No.2: On the other hand, I have never opposed totally changing the nature of North American sports leagues and adopting the rules of European leagues. It has always struck me as odd that in this limited industry the Europeans would have an infinitely more free-market, laissez-faire approach to regulation. If Real Madrid and Manchester United both covet a young soccer star, they compete against each other to buy him. Transfer fees of upwards of $50 million are not unheard of.

Two other aspects of the European system also seem much more enlightened to me. First, they do not have the absurdly high and arbitrary age restrictions on signing players that North American leagues do. If a player is able to play at a high enough level, or if a team thinks that a young player's potential is worth the risk of signing him at age 15, they can sign him. This is far more sensible than the North American college-sports farce, in which players who would not otherwise think twice about going to university are given huge "scholarships" (there is nothing scholarly about the process, and the name is an insult to actual scholars) to attend Stanford or, worse, Middle Tennessee State, as a stepping stone to the NBA, NFL or MLB. The draft process and the rules against signing players younger than 18 are entirely responsible for this massive and corrupt industry, which is a goiter on the neck of academia. The whole system makes no sense. Imagine if Austria had had rules that prohibited Mozart from selling his compositions or performing in public until he was 18. Even in the United States today, a 16 year old is free to drop out of school and work at McDonalds for $6.00/hr but, if he is fortunate and hard-working enough to be a star athlete, he is prohibited from earning a single dollar playing sports until his 18th birthday. No wonder the latest 17-year-old high-school basketball sensation is considering moving to Europe where he would be able to get paid while plying his chosen profession, at least until he qualifies for the NBA draft.

Second, in Europe, at least in sports that are popular to support enough teams, there is a competitive market even within leagues. The English professional soccer league (the FA) is stratified into multiple divisions, with the Premier League at the top, followed by the First Division, Second Division, and so on. At the end of each season, the best teams in each division are promoted to the division above them while the worst teams in each division are relegated to the division below. If we had a system like this in North America, the owners of perennial losers like the Golden State Warriors, the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Florida Marlins would have a real incentive to improve their teams or risk being relegated to the CBA, the CFL, or AAA Baseball, respectively. Critics of such a system point out that in a brutal free-market sports system, you inevitably end up with a few power-house teams like Juventus, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and Manchester United who can afford to shell out astronomical salaries year after year, while small market teams not fortunate enough to be owned by billionaires end up mired in the second or third division. There are two responses to this. First, so what? Second, the system works in Europe and there is reason to believe that is could work here. College basketball and football are enormously popular despite featuring an objectively poor level of play compared to even the worst professional sports teams, but people watch because the product is good enough, the games are usually competitive, and they have established regional loyalties to certain teams. If you gutted college sports of its best athletes (or, at least, turned it into a competition among athletes who are in college for the education and have no designs on a professional career) and created dozens of new local sports teams and eliminated the minor leagues of hockey and baseball by integrating them with the Majors and the NHL, you could create the same sort of thing in professional sports. By simultaneously expanding the total number of professional teams and contracting the number of teams in the each division, you create parity throughout the league, resulting in a better product from top to bottom and adding the extra thrill of making games between last-place teams meaningful.

The final piece of the puzzle, which makes the European sports system so exciting, is the presence of a competition for an annual trophy in which all teams, from all divisions, compete in a two game knock-out format (North American sports would probably require a one or three game format). Such a competition would pit the Yankees against the Brooklyn Cyclones or the Philadelphia Flyers against the Philadelphia Phantoms in a short series in which anything could happen. Could you imagine the atmosphere in the Brooklyn stadium if the Cyclones beat the Yankees? The European experience shows that even the mightiest teams can fall to lowly clubs in a short series and the experience for the giant-killing team's fans is unmatched by anything in North American sports.

This is all, of course, wild, seat-of-the-pants speculation and I know that there are insurmountable institutional barriers to these changes ever being implemented in addition to many good reasons why they should not be. But it does make for an interesting "What if ..." discussion.