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Sports and the Market

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Calvin Coolidge’s maxim that the business of the American people is business holds true in sports from the high school level to the NFL, but does the structure of professional leagues undermine the American capitalist ideal?

Back in June when the soccer World Cup was in full swing and even the incessant sirens of Washington, D.C., seemed to be drowned out by the vuvuzela, Marc Thiessen of the American Enterprise Institute published a blog post asserting that soccer is a socialist game. It was flippant, tongue-in-cheek, and, above all, provocative, to judge by the chorus of outraged diatribes that sounded from across the blogosphere. With a nimble piece of footwork, Thiessen went on to find a helpful ally for his thesis, quoting soccer veteran John Barnes in his support. Barnes said: “The teams which embrace the socialist ideology rather than having superstars, are the teams that are successful.” Barnes’s comments were undermined somewhat by the result of the final, when the industrious but dull Dutch were undone by the superstar-heavy Spanish team.

Thiessen wasn’t the only American to ruffle feathers. Richard Epstein wrote a piece for Forbes magazine suggesting a number of rule changes for soccer borrowed from hockey and basketball to “transform a flawed game.” I would have expected a libertarian scholar like Epstein to have a greater respect for the market. By measures of participation and fan following, soccer is arguably the most popular sport in the world today, and its rules have barely changed since they were published by the English Football Association in 1863. Having said that, the England-Germany game showed the necessity of introducing goal-line technology to correct refereeing mistakes, so I yield to Epstein ever so slightly.

The teams Bill Shankly coached eschewed narcissism and produced superstars from within the team rather than at the team’s expense.

Barnes’s comments on socialism are worth considering. As a player, he was one of the finest, but I fear his grasp of political theory is unfortunately closer to the dire rapping ability he displayed in England’s official 1990 World Cup anthem. Just Google “John Barnes rap,” and you can hear the horror to which I refer. By citing socialism as a strategy in soccer—and as a former player for Liverpool Football Club—Barnes was probably evoking the memory of the late, great Liverpool coach Bill Shankly.

Frankly, Mr. Shankly

Shankly, the man who took Liverpool from a middling football club in 1959 and sent them on their way to becoming the most successful team in English history, did indeed cite socialism as part of his sporting philosophy:

The socialism I believe in … is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day. That might be asking a lot, but it's the way I see football and the way I see life.

Only by considering the context of his words can we better appreciate what he meant.

The Britain of the late 1950s would be unrecognizable today for its class divisions. Soccer was predominantly a sport played and watched by the working classes, and a large part of the unionized working class supported the explicitly socialist Labour Party en masse. The equivalent sport of choice for the upper class was rugby union, the then-amateur form of the game, which had evolved from its origins at an elite Victorian high school, Rugby School. This is the origin of the popular cliché that soccer is a game for gentleman played by ruffians and that the inverse is true for rugby. A professional code of rugby, “rugby league,” was played in working-class communities to allow players who needed compensation for missing work to be paid, something considered vulgar by the segment of society landed and wealthy enough to regard with distaste being paid for playing games. Cricket is the only game which, according to the saying, is both designed for and played by gentlemen. In fact, in cricket amateurs and professionals played alongside each other, sharing teams but often having separate dressing rooms, and always with an amateur as captain, until the anachronism was finally eliminated at the beginning of the 1960s.

That was the background to Shankly’s comments. That world no longer exists, and the popular socialism of Shankly’s day has been so discredited that only a diehard minority even in the Labour Party still believes in it.

Sports and Social Mobility

One of the most appealing aspects of British soccer leagues is how they allow for a form of social mobility, i.e., the potential for clubs to be promoted and relegated between different tiers of the league depending on how they finish in the end-of-season rankings. This struck me when I recently attended a pre-season friendly match between Morecambe Football Club and Kendal Town Football Club. Morecambe are fully professional and currently play in League Two, which is the fourth tier of soccer below the Premiership, the Championship, and League One. Kendal, who are semi-professional, play three levels below Morecambe. As long as Morecambe and Kendal win enough over three and six seasons, respectively, gaining enough points to win consecutive promotions up through the league structure, nothing prevents either of these teams reaching the pinnacle of the English game. It is not easy, but neither is it impossible. Many of the most illustrious clubs in English sport had lowly beginnings.

One of the most appealing aspects of British soccer leagues is how they allow for a form of social mobility.

By contrast, let us consider what happens in the socialist cartels of the U.S. professional sports leagues. Teams that perform poorly are rewarded by being given higher draft picks for recruiting college talent. There is no tiered architecture to the system, so that failing teams cannot be relegated to a lower status and replaced by deserving teams from beneath. Leagues control television and marketing revenues and equalize them between franchises in an attempt to “level the playing field” of financial competition. The National Basketball Association (NBA) even has a luxury tax that is un-American and anathema to patriots.

In a stunning indictment of this welfare socialism, some teams, despite being propped up by the professional leagues, fail so badly that they have to be unceremoniously wound up, stripped down, relocated, and rebranded. This is why we have the Lakers basketball team, once of the land of 10,000 lakes, now located in the desert of Los Angeles along with the “trolley” Dodgers, formerly of streetcar-laden Brooklyn. This is why the Washington Nationals parachuted into the city as part of an urban regeneration project, when in a former life they were a failing franchise in Quebec dedicated to carrying on in name the glory of the 1967 Montreal International and Universal Exposition. Socialism’s inevitable failures lead to the most brutal outsourcing and dislocations. The notion of a team forsaking its roots is almost unheard of in the capitalist United Kingdom.

Sport As Microcosm

It is tempting, when considering sports, to make all kinds of spurious comparisons with wider society. American football, with its bursts of frenzied violence interspersed with frequent committee meetings, is said to represent a microcosm of American urban life, and so on and so forth. As temptation is hard to resist, allow me to continue.

Baseball has the closest thing in American sports to the tiered ancillary structure of English soccer, namely the minor leagues.

Baseball offers a remarkable mirror to American life. Many an old sage has remarked to me that I won’t understand America until I understand “inside baseball.” With a bewildering array of statistics and a rich, many-seamed history, baseball is a true fanatic’s game. A great friend and hero of mine once wrote a book that used a succession of elaborate formulae to uncover the greatest player. After months of painstaking statistical modelling and poring over convoluted algorithms the answer emerged: Babe Ruth. Few would have argued with that. Indeed baseball analysis is not unlike contemporary economic analysis: lies, damn lies, and statistics; with a few simple truths staring us in the face.

Baseball may be the great American pastime, but it is also a sport blighted by corked bats, human growth hormone, and a World Series famously fixed in an example of typical Chicago corruption. I don’t wish to single out baseball here. Even cricket, the hardball game traditionally held to a higher moral standard in its homeland (“it’s just not cricket”), has had its share of match-fixing scandals, as well as suffering endemic gamesmanship at the international level.

Having thrown off the Old World notions of aristocracy, the United States has also turned its back on the Corinthian ideal of the gentleman amateur.

The title “World Series” puts many non-American noses out of joint as it applies to the North American Major League Baseball (MLB) competition. To critics it reeks of an insular worldview. I imagine many Americans enjoy the braggadocio “don’t-give-a-damn” swagger of the title, but it is a curious designation when you consider that baseball is played enthusiastically all over the non-cricketing half of the Caribbean as well as in Japan, where it predates the post-war U.S. occupation.

Baseball does, however, have the closest thing in American sports to the tiered ancillary structure of English soccer, namely the minor leagues, which act as feeders to supply players to the two big leagues of the MLB.

It seems that the minor leagues in baseball, together with the NBA Development League, have a similar function to the top-level college competition in football in at least two ways. Firstly, they help to fill in spaces in the country where populations don’t have ready access to professional sports franchises. There are several of these gaps when you consider there are 50 U.S. states and yet only 30 to 32 teams clustered around the most affluent conurbations in the major professional leagues. Even at the remotest point of the mainland United Kingdom you are never more than 80 miles from a professional team, although admittedly a not very good Scottish one. The second function is to provide what is effectively a shadow network of professional sport behind the top level leagues. The minor leagues are explicitly professional. The top colleges are de facto professional while attempting to maintain the illusion that most top sports stars are capable of earning a credible college education. That coaches like Jimmy Johnson and Pete Carroll can move so easily between college competition and the National Football League (NFL) shows that they are two sides of the same coin.

John Barnes’s comments were undermined somewhat by the result of the final, when the industrious but dull Dutch were undone by the superstar-heavy Spanish team.

In fact, American sport is almost entirely professional. Having thrown off the Old World notions of aristocracy, the United States has also turned its back on the Corinthian ideal of the gentleman amateur. Professional training attitudes are inculcated right down to the high school level, and the highest remunerated stars strut at the top of their game like plutocratic demigods on their own prime-time ESPN specials. Calvin Coolidge’s maxim that the chief business of the American people is business holds true across the sporting spectrum. It’s no accident that the most influential sporting book of recent times is Moneyball by Michael Lewis, a writer who made his name dissecting Wall Street deals.


What Shankly really meant by “socialism” in team sports had nothing to do with economic theory. Rather, it was the elimination of prima donna attitudes that concerned him. The teams he coached eschewed narcissism and produced superstars from within the team rather than at the team’s expense. If that’s socialism, then it’s a form of socialism to which few conservatives would object.

With a bewildering array of statistics and a rich, many-seamed history, baseball is a true fanatic’s game.

Perhaps the Green Bay Packers, with their glorious heritage and the unbroken thread that links their current successes at Lambeau Field to their early origins, are the NFL team most closely analogous to Liverpool. They also, of course, had a formative Shankly-esque coach in the legendary Vince Lombardi. In 2008, I attended quarterback Brett Favre’s last playoff win for the Packers in the snow and ice at Lambeau Field. What happened subsequently to Favre is instructive. After backtracking on his retirement plans, the Packers informed Favre that they had moved on to Aaron Rodgers, who had served for several seasons as Favre’s deputy. Subsequently, Favre found new homes at the Jets and the Vikings with some success, yet the man who was once the iron man of the ice bowl is now referred to by the sports press as a diva. What the Packers indicated to Favre by sticking with their plan to use Rodgers is that no man, not even an all-time great, is bigger than the club.

How socialist is Liverpool FC today? Well, its main sponsor is an international financial services company. It is owned by a pair of Americans who purchased the club using highly leveraged finance. It has a thoroughly corporate business structure and a sophisticated international marketing operation, not to mention players who earn five times the annual average wage in a week’s pay packet. Not much socialism there then.

However, at the time of writing, there has been on-again off-again media speculation that a business man backed by a sovereign wealth fund from Red China is in negotiations to buy the club. Perhaps in the future millions of sibling-less Chinese comrades will be chanting in unison: “Come on, Liverpool!” Perhaps before long it will be time to worry that soccer is going communist.

David Archer is a business risk analyst.

FURTHER READING: Archer previously discussed “What Dubai Can Learn from Vegas.” Christina Hoff Sommers criticized those who foolishly intend to “Take Back the Sports Page” for women, and Roger Bate said baseball is “As American as... Cricket.” Sommers also explores “The Threat in Title IX,” while Richard Vedder and Matthew Denhart explain “The Real March Madness.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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