Saturday, 22 May 2010

Why social democrats should cheer for Bayern

One of the dilemmas of social democracy in the 1990s was how to address the challenge of whether greater domestic equality was compatible with global competitiveness.

This can be rather a self-serving point in the British and US debates. There are very good examples of economically competitive, relatively egalitarian societies.

As ever, football can offer an important illustration of the issues at stake.

As the Fabian Society has demonstrated, social concerns about falling social mobility have been mirrored by a stark collapse of "football mobility", from the level playing field days when Brian Clough lifted the European Cup in 1979, very much mirroring the broader social mobility debate. English football was the most open of the major European leagues, but is no longer.

The most competitive league in Europe is now the German Bundelsliga. They have not seen anything like the same level of stratification as in England, Spain and Italy.

Gabriele Marcoti made the point at the end of last season in The Times - that you can have a more existing football season, bigger crowds and more sustainable finances, but may risk paying a price on the European stage.

To all this you might ask: “Yes, but are they any good?” Well, the answer is that it depends on what benchmark you use. If you take Champions League success, the answer is a resounding “no”. In the past seven years, Bundesliga sides have provided only four representatives to the last eight of the world’s premier club competition; by contrast, the Premier League has had 17 quarter-finalists.

But that’s only one guide. And it measures the achievements of the very best, not top-to-bottom quality. And if there is one thing that seems certain, it’s that this is one of the most balanced leagues in the world. Wolfsburg won the title at a rate of 2.03 points a game, a rate that was bettered by each of the top three sides in England.

Seven teams have finished in the top four over the past two seasons; while the Premier League has featured the same top four sides for the past four years (and six of the past seven).

At a European level, the Champions League is very competitive at the level of individual clubs. But the chances of victory are now much more limited, particularly to the biggest clubs from Spain and England, and sometimes Italy.

The European dominance of Ajax and Bayern Munich in the 1970s, even the victory of Jose Mourinho's Porto, now seem to belong to a different age, to say nothing of the ability of clubs such as Celtic, Aston Villa and Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest to conquer Europe.

As with bank bonuses or a Robin Hood tax, rebalancing the football playing field will require international coordination, at Michel Platini's left foot at UEFA.

In the meantime, showing that greater fairness and global success are not incompatible makes the social democratic case for supporting Bayern Munich against Inter Milan tonight.


David said...

I very much agree that inspiring greater parity must take place at an international level. However, that will likely never take place. One can look to the American sports leagues as varying examples of leagues that create different levels of sporting mobility of success. However, much of what is successful there will not be succssful in football because of the relegation model and international competition.

If you look at the "Big 3" American sports leagues, you see varying levels of parity in the way teams are built and the way championships are determined. Both the NBA and NFL have weighted entry drafts that favor losing teams and draw from feeder systems in collegiate athletics where prospects are subjected to strenuous evaluation. As such, teams that were long time losers such as the Cleveland Cavaliers or Orlando Magic have become league leaders because the draft let them leverage a singular game changing talent like Lebron James or Dwight Howard. Similarly, the Indianapolis Colts have been a superb for the better part of a decade because they were able to draft Peyton Manning, a Hall of Fame Quarterback.

However, the past decade and a half has also seen the rise of the salary cap in both leagues. With player salaries rising, and with widespread expansion (the NBA has expanded from 23 to 30 teams since the late 80s, the NFL from 28 to 32). As more roster spots are opened (an average NBA team would have 12-15 players, an NFL roster goes to 100), the talent on each individual team diminishes. Moreover, each quality player costs more and becomes impossible to fit under the cap. The NFL no longer has dynasties like the 1980s San Francisco 49ers, who won four Titles in 10 years, or the 1970s Steelers who won four in six. The NBA's drop off is even more glaring. From 1980-1989, only five teams made the NBA Finals from a league of 23: The LA Lakers, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons, and Houston Rockets. By comparison, the years 2000-2009 saw eleven different teams in the Championship round. From 1980-88, the Celtics or Lakers won all but one title. Those teams together had multiple Hall of Fame talents: Bird, Magic, Abdul-Jabbar, Kevin McHale, James Worthy, Dennis Johnson, Bob McAdoo, and Robert Parish. Now, there's no way they could afford them, and afford to keep them together for a decade.

Baseball, in contrast, has zero salary cap. As such, there are massive disparities in payroll. The New York Yankees spend $206 million in payroll, $44 million greater than the second place Boston Red Sox. By comparison, the Pittsburgh Pirates, have the smallest payroll with $35 million. Of the 30 teams, only 8 have payrolls greater than $100 million, and $84 million is the median. Yet, from 2001-2010 there were nine different title winners. The difference here was in the post season format. The free spending Yankees made the postseason every year but 2008. However, save for 2010 they lost postseason series to other teams. They only made the championship round three times, and lost as a better seed in 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2006. If the title went to the team in the league with the best record, they would have won the title in each of those years. However, they lost short series each year to "lower teams." Over the course of the 162 game season (as it is in the 38 game Premier League season), superior talent and resources win out. But in a short series, a lesser team can win. However, you have to make the post season to have a chance to win. Teams trapped in the AL East with the Yankees and Red Sox, such as the Baltimore Orioles, Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays, have been left behind.

David said...


Another contrast between teams is in television contracts. For the NFL, the television contract is a national one where each team's 16 games are all aired on national cable or broadcast networks and the money is shared evenly among the teams. By contrast, most baseball games are aired locally, and each team has their own contract. Teams like the Yankees, Mets, and Red Sox are able to own local cable networks that air their games, and leverage those cable fees from large markets to boost their resources relative to their competitors.

So, what does this mean for football? Namely, not much. No salary cap could work for any football league because of overseas competition. The American leagues are either the premier ones for their sport (Baseball, Basketball) or the only one (American Football). Even with caps, they still offer the highest salaries and greatest prestige for their athletes. By contrast, there are many leagues of equal prestige and power in football. A Premier League salary cap would see talent flight to Spain and Italy. In addition, it is hard to equalize resources. In American sports, there are no dangers to relegation and no change in the composition of the league from year to year, something that makes long term revenue sharing contracts and a hard salary cap possible. In addition, the Premier League is built to reward success while the American Leagues help failure. If you finish last in the EPL, you lose your spot in the league and with it oodles of resources that will be helpful on your way to the top. If you win the league or finish high enough, you get a spot in Europe and with it both more television revenue and more home fixtures to earn gate receipts. By contrast, in the American Leagues you finish last you gain a good chance of signing a top class talent that can change your team's fortunes, you sign him to a rookie salary scale that makes him, if successful, an absolute bargain. (For example, this year's NBA scoring leader Kevin Durant, a third year player, was paid $4.7 million. Lebron James, the runner up, made $15.8 million as a 6th year player.) By contrast, defending champions automatically pick last in the rounds of the draft, getting lesser talents than the earlier. Unless you can change the way that football is run on a global scale (and if all of Europe agreed to a salary cap, capital would run not to Spain or Italy but to South America or the US), the rich will only get richer in football.

mopti said...

One way of looking at it. I suppose Diane Abbott might point out the way in which I.M. has been successful at integrating immigrants.