Below is a guest piece I wrote recently for The Secret Footballer’s site.
In the United States, you can buy almost anything. Anything that is but the Super Bowl. Because, remarkably, the National Football League (NFL) is a sport where the worst team still gets the first pick of the best players. A sport where the amount that clubs can spend is tightly controlled to prevent billionaires buying success. A sport where TV income is shared equally, where there’s no prize money for winning the Super Bowl and where smaller clubs can hold on to their star players.
For the growing band of British NFL fans, then, the game offers not just an exhilarating sporting spectacle but a vivid reminder of where English football has gone wrong.
Here’s five lessons – of many – that the Premier League could learn from the NFL …
1. Only a salary cap will end the madness
The Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations have a strange notion of fairness. Broadly, you aren’t allowed to spend more on wages than your total income. Which is like staging a race in which everyone is limited to roughly the kind of car that they have now. Nice if you’re already driving a Ferrari. Not so good if you are in a Mondeo.
To have a meaningful impact on the league table, FFP would need to demand this: a limit on player wages that was the same for every club and that was low enough that everyone could afford it.
Which is how it is with the NFL salary cap. At a stroke, it becomes impossible to have a star player in every position. For example, when Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2013, they made their out-of-contract quarterback, Joe Flacco, the best-paid player in the NFL. The only way they could afford it, though, was by letting seven of their stars go and replacing them with youngsters. It would be like Manchester City winning their first title in decades and then funding a huge new contract for Sergio Aguero by giving free transfers to Samir Nasri, Vincent Kompany and David Silva.
The salary cap has remained pretty much static for the last five years, allowing teams to spend a maximum of about £77 million ($120 million) a year on wages. It’s not as much as it sounds. Accounting for squad size, it would be about £40 million per Premier League team. The only clubs who spent less than that on wages in 2011-12 were Wigan Athletic, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Norwich City and Swansea City.
In the 22 years of the Premier League to the end of the 2013-14 season, just five teams had won the title. A further three teams had finished second. In the same period, 12 different teams won the Super Bowl, with ten more making a losing appearance. More than two-thirds of the NFL teams have been to the Super Bowl since the Premier League began.
2. TV coverage of football is laughable
If you don’t watch much US sport, it’s very easy to become numbed by the cosy mindlessness of UK broadcasting.
Most British pundits, Gary Neville aside, could easily be replaced by animatronic puppets programmed with a small selection of non-specific phrases on endless repeat. It may already have happened.
Almost no summariser seems to know the difference between narration and explanation and so, in lieu of any actual illumination, we have to sit through agonisingly ill-prepared descriptions of what we can see plainly on the screen before us. You could, for example, watch “Match of the Day” for eternity and still know nothing other than what a goal looks like or when you should award a penalty, flag for offside or produce a red card. Little thought is given to what happens off the ball or to analysis that may contribute to a better understanding of the subtleties of the game.
American commentators, by contrast, are expected to prepare ferociously so that, with just a few seconds notice of a replay, they can explain and contextualise the game for the audience. Most British broadcasters would struggle to get a job covering high school sport in the US.
TV coverage sets the tone for much sporting debate and, in the Premier League, that tone is low.
3. Hiring more black managers improves the overall quality of all managers
Here’s something to remember when next an FA spokesman, reading from a prepared statement, reasserts his organisation’s commitment to rid the game of racism: there are more black men sitting in the House of Lords than there are managing English football teams. This isn’t just offensive and ludicrous but it perhaps also helps to explain why so many managers are so bad and why turnover is at record levels.
In 2003, the NFL brought in the “Rooney Rule”. It had two simple stipulations: when teams hire a new head coach, they must interview at least one ethnic minority candidate and they must document the process, providing written reasons for their final appointment. That’s it, nothing else. Its impact, though, was dramatic.
Within three years, the percentage of ethnic minority head coaches rose from six per cent to 22 per cent.
As Cyrus Mehri, one of the architects of the rule, explained, the measure worked because it helped reform and professionalise the whole process of hiring head coaches. “The Rooney Rule does not tell you who to hire,” Mehri said. “It just gets everybody to slow down … open their mind to a broad slate of candidates, including minority coaching candidates.”
In other words, you can tackle racism in sport not by forcing the hiring of black managers but by improving the quality of managerial appointments generally. Given the current turnover of – almost exclusively white – managers in football, this might be something worth considering.
4. Player contracts can and must be reformed
Google “the world’s luckiest man” and you’ll be directed to Frano Selak, a Croatian gentleman who supposedly survived seven transport accidents that claimed a total of 40 lives before becoming a lottery winner with his first ticket. After Selak, in joint second place, is every British man born after 1980 with a modicum of football talent. Not only did they get to fulfil our childhood dream of being a professional footballer but they also got minted, even if it turned out that they weren’t all that good in the end.
Depending on which paper you read, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was on £60k a week in 2013-14 – a sum that neither I nor the majority of British people have ever earned in a year. Oxlade-Chamberlain was 20 and had played a full 90 minutes in the league only once the previous season. Is he a talented player? Undoubtedly. Should he have been paid more than three million quid a year before he’d even earned a regular place? You tell me.
A few years ago, the NFL negotiated with the players a new system of “rookie contracts” that limit the amount that players can earn in their first four years. Now, only if a player produces a solid body of work is he able to get fantastically wealthy. Notably, too, unlike football, NFL contracts aren’t fully guaranteed. They’re structured to ensure that, if performance isn’t consistent over the years, a player can be released.
The result of these and other regulations is that teams focus on developing young talent and writing sensible contracts. They are very wary of making expensive trades and, because no team can afford to stockpile talent, every team can expect to hold on to their star players. In the NFL, small-town legends like Steve Bull or Matt Le Tissier are a fact of the game, not a nostalgic memory.
5. You have to actively promote fair competition
The NFL is founded on the notion of “competitive balance” – the idea that, in the medium term, all teams need to have a fair shot at winning.
Unlike the Premier League, in which a few top clubs manoeuvre to reduce the rest to cannon fodder, it is explicitly agreed that having a competitive league is the best way to grow the game. Which is why, in the NFL, television and merchandising money is shared equally – no bonuses for your finishing position or how often you are televised because those reinforce the dominance of big teams. And there is no financial reward for a team winning the Super Bowl, just a trophy.
The NFL also has the draft, where the worst teams have first pick of the best new players coming into the league. I mention this last point not because I think this could work over here but because of what it says about the sport. Isn’t it interesting that the single most important factor in sporting success – how talent is acquired – is determined by the kind of elementary team selection ritual you see enacted in playgrounds around the world? Children, and the NFL, know what English football has forgotten: that there is something fundamentally wrong and unfulfilling about one-sided sport.
This, more than anything, is what football can learn from the NFL. The inequality we see in our game, the financial mess and the starving of the grass roots isn’t an accident. It’s the outcome of conscious decisions by people with no feel for the soul of the game.
It can change … but only if enough football fans decide that they are ready to take their game back.
If you enjoyed this, please buy my book “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL”. That way I’ll have the money to write more things you might like. Oh, and please spread the word, too. Thanks a lot.