Could a draft take the heat off football?
With the wealth gap in European football reaching farcical proportions, could the game’s governing bodies learn from the NFL where a draft system is just one measure that encourages equality? Jack Davenport investigates.
Radio City Music Hall, New York City. One of America’s most famous venues. 6,000 bizarrely dressed sport fanatics screaming, cheering, booing. The top dogs, the decision makers, of every NFL team sit poised, promising themselves they’ll stick to the plan formed by years of preparation.
In a back room, 26 of the country’s finest young American football players sit together, giant frames squeezed into brand new suits, wringing their hands trying not to sweat. They’re all fully aware that what happens over the next three hours could come to define their entire lives. And they have absolutely no control over it.
It’s an event fundamentally alien to the British sporting mind: the NFL Draft. Its purpose is to redress the balance between the best and the worst teams to level the playing field for the following season. The team finishing with the worst record from the previous season gets first choice of any young player wanting to play professional American football.
There are no youth academies, no poaching promising teenagers from other clubs – any player entering the NFL draft must have completed a minimum of three years at University. Once the worst team has picked who they judge to be the top talent in the country (this year the Indianapolis Colts took quarterback Andrew Luck, rated as one of the most promising prospects in a decade), it then continues in order of ineptitude, ending with the best team, the reigning Super Bowl champions, picking last.
It’s a system that’s almost impossible to translate to European football. Imagine Wolverhampton Wanderers this season, instead of being relegated from the Premier League, were given the best 21-year-old in the country. But it’s not just the draft system that makes the NFL unique; it only works as it is supported by several other strict parity-ensuring rules.
Manchester City have just won their first title in over 40 years thanks to £325m being paid for transfers alone in the last three seasons, with a wage bill that doubles even their closest competitors courtesy of mega-rich owners. Manchester United in the past have been able to dominate financially thanks to massive commercial revenue from all over the world. This could never happen in the NFL.
There is a total revenue sharing system in place, meaning that any money paid for a Dallas Cowboys cap or a New York Giants jersey, for example, is split equally between all 32 teams. A maximum salary cap is strictly enforced, the same for every team. But fascinatingly there is also a minimum salary cap which ensures unscrupulous owners don’t just take teams for the guaranteed shared revenue while not being interested in making the team competitive. Gate revenue, i.e. people going to the game, is split 60/40 between the home and visiting team. It’s comfortably America’s most popular and profitable sport. Bizarrely, the world’s home of capitalism is home to the world’s most socialist major sport league.
The set up of the NFL has particular relevance to European football in the current climate. The wealth gap in football has reached farcical proportions, with the top clubs able to sign players just to prevent them signing for a rival, whilst those at the other end of the table pay a massive price for daring to try and compete – look at 2008 FA Cup winners Portsmouth, recently relegated to League One after their third spell in administration.
This was finally acknowledged by UEFA in late 2009, when their new financial fair play regulations were unanimously approved. The regulations could hardly be described as ground breaking, the stated aim being the rather tepidly-worded “to encourage clubs to compete with(in) their revenues.” It’s hardly the Greek austerity measures.
Their efficacy is yet to be proved. It looks like the big clubs are already finding ways around it. It doesn’t, for example, take an economics professor to work out the motivation behind the £400m sponsorship deal agreed between Manchester City and Etihad Airways. Etihad is run by the President of the UAE, Sheik Khalifa, who happens to be the half-brother of Sheik Mansour, City’s owner. All fit and proper, no doubt, to quote the FA’s own guidelines on the suitability of new owners of football clubs.
It would be hopelessly naive to suggest the NFL’s system is perfect or that it could be translated to European football. The NFL’s set up has some rather unpalatable side effects, like the notion of teams as ‘franchises’ that can be moved between cities to maximise revenue.
The hallowed ‘pyramid’ structure of football, where a tiny team can move up the leagues to eventually play with the big boys, could not fit into the draft-style system. The depressing thing is that even if UEFA or FIFA came up with something strong enough to start addressing football’s ills, the biggest clubs are now so powerful that they could threaten to break away and form their own league.
It remains to be seen whether UEFA’s financial fair play regulations are anything more than closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. Some would say the horse bolted in July 1991, when the Premier League was officially created. But in fairness to the Premier League, there are still redeeming features. TV money is far more fairly split than in Spain, where Barcelona and Real Madrid are free to sell their own TV rights, meaning they take the lion’s share of that revenue stream while the other clubs are forced to scrape by on their leftovers.
Indeed, the start of last season was delayed in Spain as the other teams went on strike to try and force a more equitable arrangement. The row in Spain illustrated the impossibility of the situation now in European football.
For a more fair and sustainable system to be put in place would require the biggest teams to relinquish their position as the big money makers and perennial top dogs. Getting owners and shareholders to give up those amounts of money and success for the benefit of their competitors? You don’t get to that position in the first place by being the sort of person who will sacrifice your own interests for the greater good.
UEFA are fully aware of this contradiction – this is the reason for the milky wording of the financial fair play regulations. Baby steps are called for, and it could be that this is the first step on this road.
A salary cap of some kind is also not beyond the realms of possibility; it’s not in the interest even of the biggest spender’s to continue the current rate of inflation in footballer’s wages. If this could be implemented across Europe it could be workable, as it’s unlikely that the top players in the world would be willing to spend the best parts of their career in the middle east or South America just for money.
UEFA have realised that something is badly wrong with football. It’s a depressing state of affairs when a small club’s greatest ambition is to be taken over by someone with more money than sense.
We could learn something from the NFL, but administering a league of 32 teams is far easier than managing football, played by millions across the globe. The question that lingers now is whether we have already had the cataclysmic event that changes football irrevocably, or if that event is yet to come.
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