What can the English Premier League learn from NFL?
American sport has long been pseudo-equal on account of the draft, an annual parade of the Next Big Things who are selected by the 32 National Football League (NFL) franchises to add to their existing squads, or ‘rosters’ as they are called over there. In 2011 Cam Newton was the first of these Big Things to be picked by 2010’s worst team. A cross between LeBron James and Usain Bolt, Newton could become a global superstar if his team Carolina Panthers beat Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl 50 on Sunday, 7th February. He ended up at Carolina because they were the worst, and now they have spent a season losing only once.
Who needs a draft when the window’s open? Jonny Brick takes us through a unique comparison of NFL and the English Premier League as the Super Bowl fever reaches its peak
I say ‘pseudo-equal’ because at the top there are always Yankees, Patriots and Bulls, with their well-salaried superstars who deserve those huge pay packets on account of their extraordinary ability. The non-Jordans are college kids and journeyman pros on short-term contracts who can be traded for even better picks at every draft. Think of it, in Football Manager (a soccer management simulation) terms, as picking the best ‘regenerated’ players (new players generated by the game with random attributes) and getting rid of the thirty-year-old centre-back on a free.
The lower a team finishes in one season, the earlier they can pick from the draft. In gridiron, according to the NFL website, “each of the 32 clubs receives one pick in each of the seven rounds of the Draft”. So even if a team has no hope of winning their division, and play what in soccer would be ‘dead rubber’ matches, they still have the possibility of getting a better pick in the draft, even if it’s 62nd instead of 63rd. But wait! There’s more! The league body itself can assign ‘compensatory free agent picks’ which enable clubs to fill vacant slots in their roster (the American term for ‘squad’).
As in the movie Moneyball, the teams only have a short while in which to make their pick, decreasing from ten minutes in the first round, seven minutes for the second round and five for the other rounds excluding the final one, where they just have four minutes to make their seventh pick.
The NFL draft is televised over three nights, with the star picks chosen and paraded on the opening night to ensure visibility. After all, these are the future stars who will one day replace the old ones and keep the sport (in spite, respectively, of racism in basketball, doping in baseball and concussion scandals in gridiron) ticking over, making money, and creating ‘how about them [insert team here]’ introductions in offices and at bars.
And so, after those paragraphs, to English football in what I call Generation Live on Sky Sports, or Generation LoSS.
Whoever has the most money, pays the most in wages, and offer the most abundant bonuses wins. In Germany it is perhaps closest to American sports because of the 50+1 rule that states all fans own half the club plus one share. It means that the other 50-minus-one share of the club is dependent on how much money the backers have. So, alas, money leads to more money.
In France couple of years back, Paris St-Germain were handed a heavy monetary penalty for overspending. That hardly matters when their Qatar based owners can pump in millions manipulating some loopholes. Even in Spain, where in 2015 Barcelona received a year’s ban from bringing in players, they aren’t short on promotable young talent. Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules try and punish clubs who operate with huge net losses, but in the long-term I think Manchester City could afford a smaller European squad for eight weeks given that they could spend £100m on two of Europe’s best attackers when the time was right. This is especially true because their £200m academy, the Moss Side La Masia, is a way to groom their own talent which, as occurs at Barcelona, can be sold at huge profit.
What startles people about Manchester United this season is just how far they have dropped since the departure of their old manager. Many fans of FC United of Manchester have had their wishes come true, and shout with schadenfreude about how the debt-financed Glazer era was disguised by continuing brilliance on the pitch, guided by the gruff Govan-born gaffer. Today United are as much in the business pages as in the sports pages, with every new injury to a player buried somewhat by the announcement of a new sponsorship deal to pay the wages of that player for a few months. Crisps pro quo?
Despite Watford FC being up the road, I was a Manchester United fan in the Sir Alex Ferguson era because the team kept winning with style. The excitement came from seeing the talents like Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Ola Gunnar Solskjaer and Wayne Rooney. I didn’t know about the proposed takeover by Rupert Murdoch’s BskyB, which was blocked due to anti-competition regulations (‘Dad, why are United on Sky again?’ never got to be asked). I did know that red shirts looked good in the playground, and that Peter Schmeichel had a red nose like Rudolph.
Money, though, can only get you so far. Paul Hayward, the sportswriter who helped Sir Alex write his second set of memoirs, made it clear that there’s little point building a brand if the brand isn’t attractive enough to the outside world of fans and investors, if the soul cannot be monetised or protected. United appear, to Hayward, to be “a deal-making factory with a football team attached, rather than a football team so good that sponsors are desperate to hook their cause to the wagon.”
The words ‘football club’ were removed from the club’s badge in 1998. CEO Ed Woodward has been promising to restore it since 2013, but Adidas’s new range of merchandise (part of their £750m ten-year contract) has had the last laugh.
United, like Bayern Munich and the big two Spanish clubs, have grown rich thanks to their recent fame that reflects well on past glories. In the era of the Champions League, those four clubs have won the tournament more than once and have at times (but not exclusively) dominated their domestic divisions, spending prize money on the wages of players who want to play with top professionals and are thus more likely to be called up for their country.
Sometimes, notably at Manchester United and Barcelona, young talents get the opportunity to become famous at the club they were schooled at. Manchester City have spent a lot of money attempting to build their own version of it (come back in 2022 for the results) and so attractive is it that even children of Manchester United legends are trainees at City’s academy.
Banks and consultancies school their workers, and it is in their interest to retain their talents, who always have the option to move to other banks and consultancies, either by being headhunted or by considering their options. The difference, of course, between a footballer and a banker is an agent, discussion of which could run on to lots of pages. Agents take commission from every move their client makes. Why should a client be happy at his current club when he can move on and make me a bob or sixteen, thinks the agent.
This creates a climate where top footballers can only be afforded by other top clubs: witness Arsenal, whose long-term economic plan means they can sign in successive summers Mesut Oezil and Alexis Sanchez from the two big Spanish clubs, and agree to sign Petr Cech with a year of his Chelsea contract left. All three are bankable stars, and seem to be enjoying their work.
As a fun aside, Cech’s former teammate Ashley Cole took a pay cut to join Roma, but was kept out of the team by Jose Holebas. In turn, Holebas left Roma to join Watford in June 2015, where he has been kept out of the team by Nathan Ake, on loan from Chelsea. Cole is training to be fit for the start of the 2016 Major League Soccer season, where he will replace the retired Todd Dunivant for the left-back spot for the Los Angeles Galaxy and be reunited with former England teammate Steven Gerrard.
Without wishing to discuss the fickleness of players (or bankers), the point of this article is to praise the English Premier League. I was amazed by the Tottenham Hotspurs-Chelsea game on the first day of 2015, when Harry Kane kickstarted his year with netting two goals and setting up two more against a Chelsea side who looked impregnable under Jose Mourinho. Chelsea’s story over the last decade – two Champions League finals with one success, countless other trophies, one captain-leader-legend throughout – is about their owner’s money and their star manager’s swagger. Of their possible draft picks, or equivalent, many of them are farmed out to other clubs, such as Ake and Patrick Bamford, the latter cutting his loan spell with Crystal Palace short because he was not playing football, and he dreams of playing as Chelsea’s number nine.
Manchester City’s story over the last five years was told by David Conn in his book Richer Than God. Conn has followed City through the highs and lows of the last forty years while writing about the business of football (his work is perceptive and shocking, as in The Beautiful Game?) He (like the authors of Soccernomics Messers Kuper and Szymanski) illuminates the world of spreadsheets and Prozone behind the kicks and shoves.
Someone will write the story of Brentford FC one day, but how will it end? Matt Benham, their chairman, made his money in the world of betting, and has brought techniques from that world into football. After seeing Mark Warburton guide his team to within two games of promotion to the Premier League in 2014/15, Benham replaced him with three men, the third being Dean Smith who had been manager of Walsall just short of five years. They are now the ones to watch in 2016, along with Brighton, who have a big stadium and in Chris Hughton an experienced manager with great contacts in the game.
There is room for statistics in football, as pioneered by Sam Allardyce at Bolton. But money conquers all: omnia vincat pecunia. Or does it?
The brilliant thing that many Premier League followers are waking up to in 2016 is that the best players at what used to be called ‘also-rans’ (your Southamptons, your Watfords) will likely stay with their employers in the next two transfer windows. Unless your ambitions lie elsewhere as a player, why would you move to a bigger club when the team is in the top division, marveled at all over the planet, and you have such a good bond with teammates and staff?
“Simple business maths” was Troy Deeney’s response to queries over the future of his friend and attacking partner Odion Ighalo. Why would Watford’s owners, Deeney pointed out, want to earn £20m or £30m from selling their Player of 2015 when staying in the Premier League ensured a nine-figure windfall? Ighalo, however, grew up as a Manchester United fan in Nigeria, so if United did offer him a chance to play understudy to Anthony Martial, would he move to Manchester? Or would he be loyal to the men who have paid his wages since 2008, one of only a few players to have worn the shirt of all three Pozzo clubs (Udinese, Granada and Watford)?
Gridiron has its one-club men, or players at one club for a length that used to get footballers testimonials: Peyton Manning, now at Denver, was at Indianapolis for 14 years; his brother Eli has been a New York Giant since 2004, winning two Super Bowls to Peyton’s one. In English football, players can do a Carragher, a Scholes, a Le Tissier or a Tony Adams and remain at one club for their entire playing careers, but rapacious agents are to blame for the paucity of these men today, and it makes it remarkable when an American footballer stays at one franchise for his whole career, or for many seasons.
Back to better things. In 2015, Leicester City lost three leagues games out of 28. Nigel Pearson and Claudio Ranieri, assisted by Craig Shakespeare, have galvanised a group of players in their eighteen Premier League months, not least Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, the names on every fan’s lips. Both were signed for next to nothing, but have thrived in the top division. The Thai owners who pay their wages can pay them more, but if either fancies moving to Arsenal or even Real Madrid, they would carefully consider their professional and personal viewpoints, just as Southampton players have done in the years since Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale headed to London.
Since the freedom of movement and the abolition of quotas on foreign players, coupled with Rupert Murdoch’s money, English football has gained so much in what I call Generation LoSS (Live on Sky Sports, but the ‘loss’ means something too). This has been, by common consensus, the most exciting and open season at the top level of English football in at least ten years.
Overall, for every complaint and taint, there has been a moment of genius and celebration; for every Cellino there has been a Pozzo; for Bolton and Northampton’s woes, there has been the brilliance of Bournemouth, the Oakland Athletics of English football (the A’s were the subject of Moneyball).
As to the Super Bowl, with Coldplay playing the half-time show, let us hope the game is better than the last few World Cup finals, including the USA’s demolishing of Japan in the Women’s World Cup Final of 2015.
In American football things seem equal because each team always pick a host of new players from the pool of college graduates. There is also a salary cap, and equal distribution of TV money. In England’s top division the equality comes from TV money but there isn’t (and never will be) either a draft or a salary cap.
Let’s celebrate the Premier League before financial entrenchment occurs and Manchester United win everything again. And let’s pay attention to the Super Bowl and the NFL to see how sport can be done sensibly.
Cover Image: Vice.com