Piece on competitive balance for The Football Action Network: ‘A fork in the road’

Below is a piece I wrote for The Football Action Network (FAN), an important new pressure group aiming for top-to-bottom reform of the game in England, starting by making football part of the general election campaign.

The piece looks at sporting competitiveness in different leagues by tracing the fortunes of Huddersfield Town and Green Bay, two pre-war titans in their respective sports…

Unless you support Chelsea or one of the Manchester behemoths, then even the worst team in the NFL is vastly more likely to win the Super Bowl in the next ten years than your team is to win the Premier League. But that can change, if we want it to…

Huddersfield ought to be twinned with Green Bay, Wisconsin. Together they’re a cautionary tale; the two paths down which a sport can choose to travel.

At the far end of one pothole-ridden road is the great Huddersfield Town team of Clem Stephenson. In the years between 1920 and 1940, they won the First Division three times, were runners up three times and finished third twice. There were also three losing trips to Wembley for the FA Cup final and a winning one to Stamford Bridge in the last year before the final moved permanently to north London.

The other road leads along the painfully cold shoreline of the Great Lakes to the town of Green Bay, population a little over 100,000. The interwar years were even kinder to its team – the Packers – than to Huddersfield’s. They won five titles (before it was called the Super Bowl) and were runners up three times.

But then things started to shift. Huddersfield declined and, with the exception of two seasons in the early ‘70s, they have spent 60 years outside of the top flight of English football. The Packers, by contrast, have been champions a further eight times and beaten finalists twice more. As I write, in early January 2015, they are only one win away from yet another Super Bowl appearance.

So what changed? How can it be that Huddersfield, despite finally being back in the Championship, are as far away as ever from winning the Premier League while Green Bay remain perennial title contenders? How can Huddersfield have been locked out of football’s elite while a team based in a town that’s not even in the top 250 US cities by population was able to survive the dawn of televised sport and superstar players?

The answer, according to Bob Harlan, a former club president of Green Bay, is simple. “There are only two reasons we can exist [in a town of this size]: NFL owners share profits…and the salary cap.” It’s striking that he says nothing about history (the team has fans across the globe), fan base (the waiting list for season tickets is decades long) or ownership (it’s the only NFL club owned by its fans). The conclusion is pretty clear: sporting inequality of the kind we see in English football isn’t a natural state of affairs. It’s a conscious choice that results from the way the game is administered.

And this is the first thing that we can learn from the NFL: competitive balance is possible in every sport, provided it is an agreed objective of the game’s stakeholders.

It all starts, as Bob Harlan said, with TV money and the salary cap. In the NFL, TV money is shared equally – no bonuses (as in the Premier League) for finishing position or how often you are televised, because those reinforce the dominance of big teams. (There is no financial reward for a team winning the Super Bowl, just a trophy.)

The salary cap, meanwhile, is rigorously enforced and set low enough that all teams can afford it. At a stroke it becomes impossible to have a star player at every position. For example, when Baltimore won the Super Bowl a few years ago, they made their out-of-contract quarterback 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 City winning their first title in decades and then funding a huge new contract for Agüero by giving free transfers to Nasri, Kompany and Silva.

The NFL salary cap has remained pretty much static for the last five years, allowing teams to spend a maximum of about £77m ($120m USD) a year on wages. It’s not as much as it sounds. The £77m has to cover the best paid 51 members of the (53-man) roster. Shared equally, that would be about £28,000 a week per player. Halve the salary cap to reflect the Premier League’s 25-man squad limit and it would translate to less than £40m per Premier League team. The only clubs who spent less than that on wages in 2011/12 were Wigan, Wolves, Norwich and Swansea.

The salary cap, then, along with the draft (of which more later), continually work to rebuild the worst teams and to gently restrain the best. They don’t prevent dynasties, but they makes them less likely and less long-lived.

Elsewhere, the NFL has shown itself repeatedly capable of tackling the problems that footballing authorities proclaim beyond them. Take young players getting paid a fortune before they’ve really done anything. A few years ago, the NFL negotiated with the players (who have a real voice in the game’s running) a new system of ‘rookie contracts’ which 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. (No more Winston Bogarde situations.)

All of this slashes wage inflation, levelling the playing field considerably. 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.

But even if your team doesn’t win the big prize, the financial set up allows you to retain some hope and dignity. Because no team can afford to stockpile talent, every team can expect to hold onto their star players. In the NFL, small town legends like Steve Bull or Matthew Le Tissier are a fact of the game, not a nostalgic memory.

There are dozens more examples of how the NFL gets it right – TV blackouts to drive attendances, not sacking managers mid-season, better TV analysis, the Rooney Rule to improve the managerial hiring process, fewer midweek games, a better induction process for young players, a longer path from playing to managing. The list goes on, but I want to talk about two others – the draft and team acquisition – not because I believe that football can simply copy them, but because of what they tell us about a bigger issue: culture.

The draft, where the worst teams get the first pick of the best new players coming into the league, would be completely impractical and probably illegal over here. But 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.

And then there’s team ownership. In the NFL, the average team has been owned for more than 34 years by same person or family. Unlike in England, where you have only to find someone who will sell you a team, the NFL constitution mandates that the NFL commissioner himself must investigate any potential sale and that a new owner must be approved by at least three-quarters of current owners.

Imagine what it does for a sport to have a long-lasting, mutually approved set of owners. However rich and powerful they are as individuals they have no choice but to spend time together, to hear each other’s point of view, to get on and to cooperate. Over time it creates, even among some of the nation’s most avaricious people, a culture of custodianship.

This, more than anything, is what football can learn from the NFL. The inequality we see in our game, the financial mess, the starving of the grass roots isn’t an accident. It’s the outcome of conscious decisions by people who can and must be replaced.

We need to learn, too, that even the most intractable problems can be solved by proactive administration rooted in a belief that competition on the field can only be as strong as cooperation off it. The solutions themselves will need to be specific to the sport and the UK legal system, but it will have to start, not with tinkering, but with wholesale reform.

With the eyes of the world on Fifa, and a growing recognition that football has been corrupted by wealth, there has never been a better time to attempt this. English football, then, needs nothing less than a constitutional convention to re-found our institutions; a new set of rules, structures and appointments designed to create a culture of fairness and mutuality.

We need to retrace our steps all the way back to the crossroads and take the turning we missed first time round; the path that leads to Green Bay. Because, if we don’t, what English football will learn eventually from the NFL is this: things could’ve been different, but we left it too late.

 

Martin Calladine

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.

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