Sunday 6 February 2011

Vince Lombardi versus Brian Clough: why the case for America's sporting socialism endures

Socialism never got very far in the United States, defeated by the meritocratic promise of the American Dream which gives the US perhaps the most class-stratified society of all of the major western democracies. Except in sport, where socialist redistribution to keep the playing field level is seen as just as American as the Stars and Stripes.

Martin Tiedemann at Left Foot Forward says that the success of "small town team" of the Green Bay Packers make the case for a better micro-model of club management.

A much broader argument can be made about how the role of redistribution to narrow inequalities and ensure a US sporting meritocracy keeps the playing field level.

The 'draft' gives the weakest teams the first shot at the best new talent, while salary caps head a whole host of interventions aimed at keeping a competitive balance. The US system has its downsides. Its a 'closed shop' so promotion and relegation are unknown. (And I wouldn't want to emulate the US "franchise" model of sporting teams upping sticks and abandoning generations of fans. Killing Wimbledon FC to give their place to Milton Keynes remains the worst governing decision in English sport in recent years).

The evidence for America's sporting socialism in achieving the meritocratic goal is very strong - and contrasts especially sharply with the experience of English football in the Premiership era, where there has been a very sharp narrowing of sporting chances to the biggest clubs.

Four different sides have won the last four Superbowls since 2006, while there have only been four winners of the English Premiership since 1993.

Indeed, the NFL proves that it is quite wrong to claim that big money sport is bound to destroy a level playing field. Everything depends not on the amounts of cash swilling around, but on sporting governance - and how the resources are distributed. And the multi-billion dollar NFL of today is just as open as it was in the early years of the TV era, as the SuperBowl Champions roster shows.

There were seven different Superbowl winners from 2000-2009, six different winners in the 1990s, seven in the 1980s and seven in the 1970s. The runners-up extend the pool of potential winners too - sixteen different teams have contested the last ten Superbowls.

By contrast, English football has seen a steady collapse in competition, with nine different champion clubs in the 1960s, six in the 1970s, four and five in the 1980s and 1990s, and three champions from 2000-2009. A range of broader trends conclusively demonstrate that this collapse of "football mobility" in English football is undoubtedly a structural one.

The league runners-up and even the Cup winners are almost always now from the pool of champions too. So only five English teams shared the 20 chances to win the English Premiership or the FA Cup in the last decade - the only silverware winners (Portsmouth) from outside the era's "big four" financially imploded from the overstretch. Despite Harry Redknapp's efforts at Spurs, we have upward mobility primarily by Russian oligarch or Qatari sheikh at Chelsea and Manchester City, and downward mobility through the Anfield-style implosion of over-leveraged hedge fund borrowing.

So it is English football's tragedy that the loss of the level playing field means that another Brian Clough, however good, could never win the league and the European Cup for a club like Nottingham Forest today as he could 30 years ago.

Meanwhile the Green Bay Packers from a town with a population of just 100,000 remain the most successful side in Superbowl history, and have just as much chance of winning the Superbowl tonight as when Vince Lombardi won the first Superbowl, and had the trophy named after him.

So America may be the most unequal of western societies.

But, as its Superbowl Sunday, let's raise a beer to its commitment to equality on the sporting field at least.


Coventrian said...

'Socialism never got very far in the United States, defeated by the meritocratic promise of the American Dream'

I suppose a combination of the FBI and thee Mafia wrecking Unions and having its leaders e.g. Joe Hill executed or thrown into prison like Eugene Debs had nothing to do with it?

Dave said...

You can add the debt factor too.

With household incomes, rising inequalities are temporarily massaged are through the poorer taking on debt. That way, the declining share of national income going to the lower groups was masked economically, and ultimately politically.

In football too, the most indebted clubs are predominantly clubs who have incurred debt to fund operating losses. man Utd get headline for their debt figure, but its atypical in the extreme. Most debt in football isn't funding gross extravagance, it's to vainly try and paddle harder as the ship you're keeping up with sails further into the distance.