Capitalist Soccer and Socialist Football

Former congressman and star quarterback Jack Kemp once said that "…a distinction should be made that football is democratic, capitalist, whereas soccer is a European socialist sport,” in a June 19, 2006 column Kemp recanted (well, sort of). His new view is that "…I love soccer, but it's still boring. Oops, there I go again." In actuality, I rather liked Kemp's column. It's witty in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. But is there a kernel of truth in his musings (both old and new)?

Let's consider the economic issues first. Granted, Europe is generally more socialistic than America, but it is not the case in professional team sports. Here are just a few distinctions:

  1. Revenue sharing and salary caps. Both are essentially wealth redistribution programs aimed at guaranteeing similar outcomes. Imagine Toyota and GM sharing revenues with Ford and Nissan! The latter example would be unthinkable in most industries yet it is the norm in football. On the other hand, there is no revenue sharing in European soccer. The most profitable soccer teams in the world, such as Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Milan, do not share revenues with soccer minnows. Nor are there any salary or spending caps. Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich purchased Chelsea, a middle of the road English soccer club, and proceeded to turn it into a European powerhouse by spending prodigious amounts of money on star players such as Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast, Michael Ballack of Germany, and Andei Shevchenko of Ukraine. Many in England complained bitterly and still do, but as long as Mr. Abramovich has cash to spend no one can do anything to stop him.
  2. Draft. Another program aimed at equalizing outcomes. In football, as well as in other American team sports, weaker teams are subsidized by allowing them to sign up the best young players at below market prices. Think Vince Young, LeBron James, etc. There is no draft in soccer. Any club is welcome to join in the bidding for any player it wants and jack up the price — the sky is the limit. Not so in American sports. Consider the following example: It is reported that Cleveland is prepared to offer LeBron 75 million dollars for five years, which is the maximum allowed amount. Just imagine if there were no salary caps and any team could offer LeBron any amount it saw fit. A hundred million, anyone? Two hundred perhaps? Instead, the current system subsidizes team owners at the players' expense (yes, I know that LeBron plays basketball, not football, but the system is similar).
  3. Promotion/relegation. Team owners in the NFL belong to a very exclusive, private club. To gain entry, one must not only be very rich but get the members' consent as well. It is much easier to become a team owner in soccer. First, since there is no revenue sharing, small market teams cost many times less than big market ones. Second, there is the promotion/relegation mechanism. This is how it works. There is usually more than one soccer league in any country (there are four in England). Every year, a few top lower-league teams (usually two) are promoted to a higher-league, while the same number of bottom higher-league teams are relegated to the lower-league. Lower-league teams are much, much cheaper than higher-league teams. One can buy a lower-league team, hire a good coach, invest money and eventually see it promoted to the top league. Since it is easier to become an owner of a soccer team, there is more competition than in football — does this sound socialist to you?

Other issues:

  1. Soccer is a European sport. Soccer is not just European. The top dog in soccer is Brazil. Soccer has been the sport of Latin America for a long time. It is also the top sport in Africa. Ghana just beat the Czech Republic and the U.S. at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The African dream nowadays is to become a star soccer player, move to Europe and make a lot of money. Many fine African players now star at top clubs in England, Spain, France, Italy, and virtually everywhere else in Europe. Soccer is on the rise in Asia and even the U.S. It is the only true world team sport.
  2. Football is a democratic sport. First, there is much coaching in football during games. Since offence and defense are played by different players, coaches have many chances to direct the game. Soccer is more fluid. Coaches have fewer chances to influence the game. There is only one break and the game has no long pauses. Second, a quarterback calls every offensive play in football. There is no such top-down management in soccer.
  3. Soccer is boring. I agree with Jack Kemp up to a point. Yes, soccer is boring to a novice since it is indeed a slow and low-scoring game. But, to an avid fan, there are many other things worth looking at. On-the-ball skills, dribbling, deft passing, fearless tackling, movement of players without the ball — a thousand little things. Soccer is boring to many Americans for the simple reason — lack of understanding of subtleties. If you invest time and effort in figuring out these little things, soccer will amply reward you.

June 24, 2006