The empty soul of US sports and how to fix it


In Why college sports is only popular in the USA, we laid out what is missing from US pro sports that is present in college sports. That explains college sport’s 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 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 grass roots 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

Private ownership

MLB, the NBA and the NFL are leagues with franchises instead of clubs. Franchises that are privately owned for profit. That move cities 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.

Team relocation

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 for 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 all together, 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.

No loyalty

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 advantages 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 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 sport 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 needs to be balanced. My point is that US pro sports has the balance wrong.

The solution 

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 running the sport at grassroots and junior levels. Co-ordinated 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 like 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 agains their commercial interests.

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1 comment

  1. Adam N

    Those suggestions are good but I believe they would be only polishing the turd that is the American franchise system. As a British-American I see first hand how soulless and shallow pro sports here are and put most of it down to the single entity closed league system. For US sports to be meaingfull, local and inspire the passionate following we all like you would essentially have to re build the system from the ground up. Everything from the corporate franchise ownership, the closed league without pro rel consequence, the draft system of blandly enforced parity, it all comes from the ‘franchise system’. Something that as you rightly put would have to be dismantled in an anti trust manner by national governing bodies. Create a fresh system of open competition, local club based teams, allow for promotion and advancement, remove salary caps and league enforced drafts. essentially tear down the show business monopoly that is American pro sport and let the good people of the United States see what they have been missing all this time. Overall good write up, just glad to see someone else is aware of this.

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