Sat. Oct 1st, 2022

NChelsea co-owner Todd Boehly put goosebumps on some of the most annoying names in English football last week, suggesting that the Premier League could learn from America and consider offering an All-Star-style game to boost TV revenue. “US investment in English football is a clear and present danger to the pyramid and fabric of the game.” roared Gary Neville with a symbolic response on Twitter. “They just don’t understand and think differently.”

In response, many pointed out that experts like Neville owe their livelihood to the Americanization of English football: without the influence of the American example, all the nonsense of the modern Premier League – as a business structured around major TV deals, endlessly medially. The spectacle would not exist as a hegemonic cultural form. Proposals such as Boehly’s are aimed at furthering the commercialization of English football; this is not “thinking differently”, it is the essence of the sport that has developed in the last thirty years.

But there is another irony here, one that warrants closer scrutiny as European football descends into a suicide spiral of wage inflation, bailouts, spending and debt. The merits of rigged matches like Boehly’s controversial North-South match are a way for leagues to live within their means while ensuring equal competition – despite the American professional sports model where spending is capped, player recruitment is tamed by pre-season drafts, and commercialization must combat a form of collectivism. presents. Beginning in the middle of the last century, America – the most densely capitalist society in the world – developed equalizing structures in professional sports, even ruthlessly exploiting every opportunity for leagues to turn the spectacle of athletic competition into profit.

England – in football at least – went in a different direction, adopting commercialization without placing American-style restrictions to ensure competitive equality at the highest levels of the sport. Quite striking cultural transformations have occurred from this separation. America – the land of 24-hour service, calorie overload and ten thousand dollar emergency room visits – is now a sports equality haven, a country that has seen 12 different winners in the last 15 Super Bowls.

In the same period, England – the cradle of socialized medicine, the local bar and the village green – had become a football oligarchy, with only five different clubs winning the Premier League. If the competitive balance is necessary to maintain the “pyramid and fabric” of English and European football, as it certainly should, the Old World has a lot to learn from the New – one point, Uefa president Aleksander Čeferin is a consistent defender, albeit unsuccessful, with Europe-wide salary ceilings accepted for.

How did these two sports cultures diverge so sharply over the past few decades? The roots of the answer lie in the timing of the relationship between labor and capital and its very specific development in each country. All three of the biggest professional sports in America are subject to equalizing restrictions: the NBA and NFL both have salary caps, baseball disciplines have expenditures through a luxury tax, and all three have a draft to ensure a league-wide distribution of young talent. To refer to it as a kind of “socialism” is one of the laziest clichés in American sportswriting. In fact, these structures emerged during the second half of the 20th century as expressions of a distinctively American form of capitalism. Professional American sport as we know it today is indebted to strikes, lockouts, and collective bargaining, as well as sponsorship, merchandising, franchising, or other negotiation mechanisms often thought to symbolize the corrupting influence of money on sport. .

Unions of workers in professional sports II. It began to emerge after World War II: The National Basketball Players Association was first formed in 1954, and football and baseball laid the foundation for similar bodies in 1956 and 1966, respectively. Sports unionism emerged in America in the heyday of the postwar contract between organized labor and the workplace, when union representation was high and the economy was widely accepted as working best when workers’ rights and owners’ interests were reconciled. The relationship between player bodies and team owners was unapologetically hostile from the start: “It’s going to be a hostile relationship,” Marvin Miller, first president of the Major League Baseball Players Association, told players in 1966. It’s not a social club. A union is a restriction on what an employer can do otherwise. If you expect the owners to love me, praise me, compliment me, you will be disappointed.”

While overall union membership in American society declined in the decades after 1980, the power and influence of unions in sport did not – and the basic organizational constitution of American professional sport as a joint business venture shaped by negotiation between players and owners remained intact. . The introduction of salary caps in both the NBA (in 1983) and the NFL (in 1993) was the result of direct negotiation between owners and unions; Collective bargaining remains a core feature of all major sports in America today, and the relationship is as hostile now as it was at its beginning. Unionization has played an important historical role in English football – the Jimmy Hill-led PFA famously had the pay ceiling lifted in 1961 – but in general, players’ unions in Europe and England enjoy nothing like the corporate centrality of their American peers.

Unionization in the major U.S. leagues came at a time when all of modern sport’s major issues—player mobility, revenue generation and TV rights, wage sustainability, and talent distribution—were tackled at the same time. In the years following the war, television rights were seen as key to the long-term financial viability of professional sports – as it is still seen today. American TV in the 1950s and 1960s was heavily regulated but managed by three independent private operators (CBS, NBC and ABC) – another distinction from the UK where ITV was the only commercial network until the early 1980s point.

In the early 1960s, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle entered into a two-year, $9.3 million exclusive deal with CBS to televise regular and postseason games. It was an extraordinary amount of money for its time, but the real genius of the deal was in its collectivity: before the teams had negotiated their own rights deals individually and with richly uneven results (the New York Giants took $350,000 before the CBS deal), the Green Bay Packers only got a tenth of that amount, while Rozelle convinced everyone to make a one-network deal and distribute it unexpectedly to all teams in the NFL. It was the agreement that brought professional sports into the modern era in America and recognized the collective good as the foremost goal of US sports administration.

But money – serious money, the kind only possible in a large, relatively competitive TV market like that of post-war America – also brought security to American sports that catalyzed negotiation over other chips on the bargaining table. The carrot of TV money sweetened the bar of salary caps and drafts, giving a kind of simultaneity – the character of a competition over everything at once – to owner-player negotiations, less evident in English and European football. When negotiations began in the early 1990s with ITV and BSkyB over the formation of the eventual Premier League, for example, issues such as transfer mobility and wage capping were already largely resolved in the players’ favor, and a solid American-style history of player-owner bargains.

The American experience was different; all these problems were solved in an instant, not piecemeal as in the UK. In 1983, NBA players agreed on a salary cap in exchange for a majority share of TV revenue. In 1993, after a series of debilitating job suspensions and lockouts, the NFL introduced a salary cap while giving players the long-denied freedom of movement between clubs. These landmark deals, combined with the league-wide parity commitment provided by Rozelle’s CBS sale, have since set the tone for professional sports management in America. As Los Angeles Lakers president Jeanie Buss said when commenting on a new NBA-wide revenue-sharing agreement in 2011, “We want a league of economically viable teams so that every team has the opportunity to compete. That makes for a healthier league.”

The American judiciary has done its part to uphold these collectivist principles. Many of the first major TV deals and collective bargaining agreements, particularly those that introduced salary caps and drafts, were challenged in court as anticompetitive. American antitrust law, rooted in the Progressive crusades that destroyed monopolies, has long argued that restrictions on trade are permissible when necessary for the success of a joint venture. Courts have upheld the legality of structures such as the draft and salary cap on the basis that the professional sports product is competition itself.

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that restrictions in the NFL may be justified when motivated by the need to maintain the league’s overall success or “competitive balance.” Competition law was also deployed in English football, particularly in 1963, to abolish the ‘grab and transfer’ system that hindered players’ freedom of action. But it is not clear how much protection British laws will provide, particularly post-Brexit, to ensure competition even in the modern game. The salary cap introduced in Divisions 1 and 2 at the start of the 2020-21 season failed a legal challenge, but this mostly seemed to reflect sloppiness in the design of the plan.

Strong unions, the multifaceted nature of player-owner negotiations in the postwar years, and the unusually collectivist tradition of American competition law: together, these three factors explain how America has evolved to have much more egalitarian structures in professional sports than England. The contrast between the two countries is not, as is sometimes claimed, between US-style socialism and British laissez-faire: it is a conflict of capitalism. The transformation of English football in the 1990s was part of the collapse of the Keynesian postwar agreement and the broader turn towards the market initiated under the Thatcher government.

Reagan’s America, of course, witnessed its own neoliberal transformation towards the end of the last century, but as it was in full swing, the essential conditions for sports professionalization were established and the factors that gave American sport its unique character – player power – , collective bargaining and a welfarist attention to the common good. , all remnants of the post-war New Deal order – no longer negotiable. English football has taken all the obnoxious commercialism of American sport, but none of its comfort in redistribution.

The results in England today are well known: runaway player salaries, ridiculous transfer fees, a new breed of billionaire owners who aren’t bothered by mundane notions of financial sustainability, and disproportionate competition where realistically only two or three clubs have a chance to win. These issues sparked heated talk about mandating a regulator to fix English football. One place to look for a solution might be transatlantic. Despite legitimate anger among fans at US-inspired attempts like the failed European Super League, America’s creeping influence in football need not be universally bad.

Of course, there are significant differences between American and British sports that make it difficult to convey the patterns precisely: promotion and relegation are foreign concepts in the United States, and there is no such thing as multi-layered professional competition in any of the major American sports as in Europe’s major sports. football nations brag. Football is also truly international, making it much more difficult to enforce equalization mechanisms such as conscription and salary caps than in smaller sports in the United States. Britain will not be able to emulate all the institutional restraints of American competition. But that’s not a reason not to try.

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