The empty soul of US sports and how to fix it


In the companion piece to this post 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 which explains college sport’s popularity in the USA and lack thereof elsewhere. Another example to contrast against US 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. Cubs 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 rural sport that gives fabric to small communities and junior development which 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 up and move cities when they can make more money somewhere else. Where players come and go between franchises mid-season and there are no incentives for playing local athletes.

MLB the NBA and the NFL don’t have good 2nd division or state leagues because they are standalone business that administer their league on behalf of the team owners not the sport as a whole.

The leagues want one franchise to move every 15 years or so as the fact that a franchise can move increases all franchises worth. If an owner wants to sell his 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 where the state government has to pay a certain % of the cost to build it.

The 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) to coerce the state government to agree to co-fund a new stratum.

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 to no revenue from the top level of the game gets put back into developing grassroots and junior sports with no mechanism to improve communities or society as a whole.


Which is better?

The advantages of the Australian and European way over the US sports system is that it replaces private ownership profit motive with tradition, glory, community and altruism which 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 clubs in the AFL have remained with the same name, in the same suburb and the same uniform design and colors 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 two forces that needs to be balanced and my point is US pro sports has the balance wrong.

The solution 

So what would need to happen for US pro sports teams to have souls, passionate local fans, benefit society as a whole and all the good stuff college and Australian sports has.

  • End private ownership and make teams member owned with profits going into the local community and the running of the sport at grassroots and junior levels 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 where they would gain most of their revenue to be spent on the sport as a whole at those lower levels.
  • Incentives for teams to develop and select local players.
  • A father son rule such as is in place in the AFL where if a player’s father played for a team the son would start his career there.
  • Make player contracts longer and harder for either party to get out of.
  • 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 often 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 favourite sports?

Most of these changes would have to be imposed from without as for things to change in the current league setups the owners would have to vote for the changes which would be against their commercial interests.

Betting on US sports

Sportsbet (review) and Cloudbet (review) are brilliant for betting on all US sports including fantastic live in play betting. To see who is offering the best odds on the bet you want to make check out the odds comparisons.

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