Friday, 1 February 2013

Superb Owl

Here is a list of the Superbowl champions for the past fifteen years.

Grand. Now let's look at is an equivalent list of the most recent champions of England’s Premier League, the top tier of English soccer.

The Superbowl has had ten different winners in the past fifteen years, and twelve in the past twenty.
The Premier League, meanwhile, has had just four different winners in the past fifteen years, and only five in the past twenty.

WAIT, I hear you cry, is that statistically significant? Well, let’s look at similar tables for Spanish soccer…

4 winners in the past 15 years

…Italian soccer…

6 in the past 20 years

…and worst of all, Scottish soccer.
For fuck's sake.

Every top-tier soccer league looks more or less the same. The best two or three teams dominate year after year, with occasional outliers popping up to steal some glory from the big boys. 

The Superbowl, on the other hand, tells a different story. Teams go through waves of success, sure, but that makes sense. If you win the Superbowl one year, you should still have a pretty good team the next year or two, and a reasonable shot at winning it again. But no team dominates year after year after year in the style of Manchester United or Barcelona.

¿Como se dice "bored"?

Let’s take the San Francisco 49ers as an example. Between 1989 and 1995, they won three Superbowls. Three in a seven-year span. Enough to be thought of as a “dynasty”, to use American parlance. This weekend they go back to the Superbowl for the first time since that 1995 triumph. In that seventeen-year wait, they’ve run the full gamut from decent to mediocre to atrocious and back again. As recently two years ago, they had a record of 6 wins and 10 losses. 

Hey, remember when we were terrible? Oh yeah...two years ago.

For Brits, it would be like Blackburn suddenly challenging for the title again (an appropriate comparison, seeing as they won the league in 1995 and were mediocre in 2010), but that’s about as likely as a complete disintegration of the laws of physics (note: Blackburn aren’t even in the top league any more, but more on the concept of “relegation” later).

That's Latin for "Usually Shit"

The NFL is a unique league. Any given year, pretty much any team can, in theory, challenge for the Superbowl. If you finish the year with a terrible record, you get first pick of the best new players in the annual “draft”, and a chance to rebuild your team into a Superbowl contender.  In soccer, the best players go to the best teams. Almost always. One of the most stark examples of recent times is Everton getting maybe one and a half years of the teenage Wayne Rooney they’d trained since he was a child before he left to win countless trophies with Manchester United. If you’re a smaller club with a world-class player, don’t plan on holding on to him for long.

"Once a blue, always a blue." Ummm....

The TV money in the NFL is also split evenly 32 ways, as opposed to European soccer. In fact, just to show how stark the difference is, here’s Guardian correspondent Sid Lowe on the Spanish league: “It is well-documented that TV deals are signed individually in Spain. Real and Barcelona make three times more than Valencia and Atlético, the next highest earners. That is not the only source of their income, but it is the most significant. €120m against €42m a season may not sound like much but season after season after season, the impact is gigantic.” And indeed it is. Not only do Barcelona dominate every season; they’re close to dominating every single game. “There is a difference between the same two (or three, or four) teams winning the league and the same two teams winning virtually every game. It is not normal for four- or five-goal victories to be more common than one- or two-goal victories, but that is what is happening. Last season, Valencia finished third. They were 39 points behind the champions.” 39 points. Thirteen wins out of a 38-game season. That is a colossal chasm. In another article, he warns about Spain becoming the "new Scotland". Yikes. 

This article has a fantastic breakdown of how TV revenue is distributed in the major European leagues. Nowhere matches the NFL for parity.

The upshot is that, in the most capitalist country in the world, somehow the richest, most popular, most commercialised, and most televised sport…is essentially socialist. It is pure bottom-up economics.

Over in supposedly socialist Europe, meanwhile, its most popular sport has become the quintessence of free-market economics, the perfect example of unregulated capitalism, complete with the illusion of competition amidst the ever-growing gulf between not just the rich and the poor, but between the super-rich and the very-rich, like Bill Gates looking at the Hamptons and laughing derisively at their tenement houses.

"I'm Mitt Romney, and I approve this soccerball thing."

Man, remember that guy? Heh.

Anyway, it's obvious how this has happened. Success draws in fans, which means more ticket sales and TV revenue, which means more money to afford the best players, which means more commercial and sponsorship revenue, which means more success, which means…and so on. There is nothing to curb this, no laws that can't be bypassed via loopholes (again, you'll notice how it's a perfect metaphor for the economy in general). 

Fans, meanwhile, cling to the naïve hope of player loyalty, fantasising that their star player might value his hometown club over the wealth, success, and glory that Manchester United or Real Madrid might offer him. Yeah, like the Rooneys of the world. You can probably count such players on one hand.

The only hope any “lesser” team ever has is a wealthy benefactor coming in who can pull out the trump card. “Sure, you might want to join Manchester United, but join my team and I’ll pay you three times as much.” Manchester City and Chelsea are two such teams, and the only ones who have come close to competing in recent years. City pay some of their players £300,000 a week. A WEEK. Last year, unable to offload the problematic striker Emmanueal Adebayor, they paid him over £200,000 per week to play for another team

At the same time, historic clubs like Portsmouth FC go bankrupt. And in the spirit of unregulated, free-market capitalism, not only is this allowed to happen, but they are actually punished for doing so. Anyone who’s been fined for being in their bank overdraft knows what that feels like:

Portsmouth likewise have repeatedly been docked points for, essentially, not having enough money, which relegates them further down the leagues, which means they have less money, which means they get docked points...and so on. This year they are on the brink of relegation to the fourth division of English football, the equivalent of the Boston Red Sox facing the prospect of playing Single-A baseball next year.

Now, relegation is one of the things I love about soccer. It adds a whole other level of tension to the season. Imagine if the Oakland Raiders or the Dallas Cowboys went into the final game of the season needing to win to avoid being sent down to play with amateur teams. It would be glorious mayhem. Unfortunately, it also accentuates the gap between rich and poor. When a soccer team fails, it fails catastrophically because it loses the TV money it gains from being in the top league. There is no safety net like in the NFL, no pick of the best players in next season’s draft, only the bleak reality of lower-league soccer and the haemmorraghing of players, drop in ticket sales, and financial ruin that often comes with it.

Obvious Metaphors R Us

Money is the only thing that talks in modern-day soccer. How much the latest shirt/stadium sponsor is bringing in, what percentage of the TV revenue my team is getting, how much cash the board is making available to buy new players, if can we afford to up our star player’s contract to stop him joining a larger club, if can we finance the debt on our stadium expansion……and on and on and on. The league is bought every year by whichever club has been able to afford to purchase it. Fans of clubs lower down the financial tree (or “league”, as it was once called) are faced with the fact that, realistically, they will never, ever see their team crowned champions.

It strips sport of its very essence. The thrill of competition. The hope that this year might just be your year. And unless you’re a Chicago Cubs fan, it’s a feeling that American sports fans get every year.

"There's always next season." - every Cubs fan since 1909

So even though it pains me to say it, that’s why handegg is better than football.