In Why college sports is only popular in the USA, we laid out what is missing from US pro sports that are present in college sports. That explains college sports’ popularity in the USA and lack of popularity elsewhere. Another example to contrast against US pro sports is pro sports in Australia and Europe.
The Australian and European way
Let’s look at soccer in Germany and Australian rules football as a couple of typical examples. Clubs in the Australian Football League (AFL) and the German Bundesliga are owned by the members and are not run for profit.
The AFL and the German Football Federation do not just run the premier competition, they are the national governing body for the sport as a whole. This allows them to have high quality and integrated 2nd division or state leagues and to redistribute profit from the top league to grassroots and junior sport. That gives fabric to communities, fights youth obesity and helps at-risk youngsters.
In the AFL there is a father-son rule whereby if a father played at a club his son will automatically start his career there. In European Soccer there are often incentives for developing and playing locally sourced talent.
The US sports way
MLB, the NBA and the NFL are leagues with franchises instead of clubs. Franchises that are privately owned for profit. That move city when they can make more money somewhere else. Players come and go between franchises mid-season and there are no incentives for playing local athletes.
The NFL does not have good 2nd division or state leagues. This is because it is a standalone business that administers the NFL on behalf of team owners, not on behalf of the sport as a whole.
The leagues want 1 franchise to move every 15 years or so because the fact that franchises can move increases all franchises’ value. When an owner wants to sell a franchise, it has a higher value in the fact that it could be moved.
The fact that franchises can move increases owners’ bargaining power with the city and state government. If an owner wants a new stadium so he can make more money from his private business, he will submit a proposal to the state government with a joint public/private funding model. Meaning the state government has to pay a certain % of the cost to build it.
Owners are able to use the threat of leaving the state altogether, taking jobs, entertainment, economic activity and tax revenues with them, while angering voters. They do this to coerce the state government to agree to co-fund new stratums.
If that sounds far-fetched look up the Seattle Super Sonics relocation to Oklahoma City or watch the excellent Sonicsgate documentary at the bottom of this page to see many of the evils of the private ownership model in action.
All of this erodes loyalty, encouraging players to leave franchises to get more money elsewhere. Why would they have loyalty when the franchise is selfish and greedy with no loyalty to them? The franchise has no loyalty to the local community and fans feel the lack of it.
Meanwhile, little revenue from the top level of the sport gets put back into developing grassroots and junior sports. There is no mechanism to improve communities or society as a whole.
Which is better?
The advantage of the Australian and European way over US pro sports is that it replaces private ownership profit motive with tradition, glory, community and altruism. This generates passionate fans who feel a group identity and part of a community because they feel represented by their club.
6 of the 8 original AFL clubs have remained with the same name, in the same suburb and in the same uniform design for the last 120 years. That will probably not change in the next 120 years.
Those Americans who disagree say I am concentrating on the Dickensian aspects of sports. I don’t apologize for advocating for the positive and life enriching things that can come from sports apart from profit.
Others say if the leagues and franchises were not run for profit the best players would play for more money elsewhere. I would not want players being attracted to my club for the money alone. I would rather it be because they love the game and the club they play for.
In truth, college and Australian sports are not run for altruistic reasons alone, and US pro sports are not run for commercial reasons alone. There is a combination of the 2 forces that need to be balanced. My point is that US pro sports have the balance wrong.
So what needs to happen for US pro sports teams to have souls, passionate local fans and benefit society as a whole?
- End private ownership and make teams member-owned. Use profits in local communities and run the sport at grassroots and junior levels. Coordinated this through the national governing body for the sport.
- Integrate MLB, the NBA and the NFL, which are currently stand-alone businesses, into the national governing bodies of their sport. For example, USA Basketball would be responsible for administering basketball from the grassroots level, junior leagues, semi-pro leagues, pro leagues and the NBA. The NBA would provide most of the revenue to spend on the sport as a whole.
- Incentives teams to develop and select local players.
- Enact a father-son rule as they have in the AFL. If a father played at a club his son will automatically start his career there.
- Make player contracts longer and harder for either party to get out of.
- Only allow teams can only relocate once every 30 years and only within their state or bordering states.
Anyone of those changes alone would improve US sports. These are questions of what is best for the fans and the community as a whole vs what is best for individual owners. Which do you want to be more important in the running of your favorite sports?
Most of these changes have to be imposed from without. Owners control the leagues and will not vote against their commercial interests.
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