European Soccer Needs a Dose of American-Style Socialism

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The sport's cut-throat capitalism mercilessly punishes failure

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Manchester United's Wayne Rooney shoots to score from a free kick against Arsenal / Reuters

Last week the pretenders lined up to challenge the titans of European soccer. The result was a parade of lambs to the slaughter. In England, Arsenal traveled to the mighty Manchester United and lost 8-2. Meanwhile, the galacticos of Spanish soccer, Barcelona and Real Madrid, beat their rivals Villarreal and Real Zaragoza, 5-0 and 6-0 respectively.

The dominance of a handful of clubs in European soccer is less a dynasty and more an oligarchy. And there's only one solution for this lopsided competition: a dose of American-style socialism.

European soccer is a cut-throat capitalist world, where success is self-perpetuating. Clubs that win the league gain more revenue, purchase the best players, pay the highest wages, and then win the league again.

Since the English Premier League was created in 1992, 45 clubs have competed but only four have ever won the competition: Blackburn once, Arsenal three times, Chelsea three times, and Manchester United a whopping 12 times. Travel north of the border, and the Scottish Premier League is an even more skewed tale. Two clubs, Celtic and Rangers, have won every title in the competition's history.

Or consider La Liga in Spain, where Barcelona and Real Madrid routinely dominate. In the last seven years, only one other team has finished in the top two, when Villarreal came second in 2007-2008. Yes, that's the same Villarreal that just lost 5-0 to Barcelona.

In the British and Spanish leagues, success breeds success. In Spain, for instance, the 20 clubs in La Liga individually negotiate for television revenues in free market fashion. The predictable result is a feast for Real Madrid and Barcelona, who receive about half of the total revenues, while the other 18 clubs share the scraps from the table. In the 2009-2010 season, Real earned $190 million from television revenues, whereas their rivals Getafe received only a fraction of this amount--nine million Euros. Real's handsome bounty allowed it to buy the superstar Cristiano Ronaldo for a staggering $130 million. Ronaldo's contract has a buyout clause letting him leave Madrid--but only if another club stumps up $1.4 billion, or the GDP of Belize.

In the spirit of capitalism, the system mercilessly punishes failure. European soccer is based on a hierarchy of leagues with relegation and promotion. The worst performing teams slip down a division with potentially disastrous financial consequences.

The answer to Europe's rampant soccer inequality is to take a leaf from American-style sporting socialism. American sport is an island of socialism in a sea of capitalism. All manner of rules exist to help struggling teams, such as the draft, revenue sharing, salary caps, and no relegation.

The logic is basically socialist. The freedom of the richest and most powerful sportsmen and clubs is restricted for the good of the collective. Leveling the playing field makes more teams competitive, and helps the overall league thrive. If wealth and success were concentrated like in Europe, everyone would suffer in the end, as audiences turned to another form of entertainment. The teams hang together or they'll assuredly hang separately.

It seems to work. In the last ten years, seven different teams have won the Super Bowl, while nine different clubs have won the World Series. The most socialist American sport, with the strongest equalizing rules--the NFL--is also the most popular. Forbes estimates that the average NFL team is worth $1 billion: an impressive figure, although not quite enough to buy Ronaldo.

Americans rarely apply this socialist logic in other areas of life. If Obama announced that the top medical school graduate would be forced to work in the worst hospital in the country, people would be outraged. Restricting someone's freedom like that is un-American! But even the most ardent Tea Partier is quite happy with the NFL draft, which mandates that the top football star must join a team of losers. And this is no small impediment when an injury could end a player's career on any given Sunday.

So why is sport in the United States and Europe so different from wider society? Perhaps sport is a safety valve for Americans where they can blow off a little socialist steam. People spend a few hours watching an arena of social justice, and then fully refreshed, they get back in the capitalist game. For Europeans, it's the reverse. Soccer is a chance to release their inner Ayn Rand--before once again becoming good welfarists.

Or it could be a matter of competition. The big American sports like football, baseball, hockey, and basketball, struggle intensely with each other for the loyalty of fans. Just like in wartime, when people face a grave external danger, they'll put their individual freedom to the side, and focus on the collective good. But in Europe, soccer is the dominant sport, and there isn't the same pressure to make sure the collective body is healthy.

European soccer needs a New Deal--and a good place to start would be a fairer division of television revenues. A free market can be a beautiful thing. But in sport if nowhere else, Americans realize that freedom for the wolves often means death for the sheep.

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Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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