November 5, 2011
Political Economy of Sport

The mainstream has now reached a dominant narrative as regards the influence of money on the idealist competitive foundation of competitive sport which is strikingly Marxist in its view, and would certainly be buried under the ever-watchful Comment Is Free trolls were this narrative ever to bleed into the territory of small-p politics, supposedly the arena where ‘politics’ exclusively unfolds. Never mind that football teams’ inequalities mirrored widening inequalities of society perfectly with a 10-year lag.

The brilliant Jonathan Wilson brings statistical figures on the competitiveness of the English league to light in two parts for The Guardian which reveal the cognitive dissonance involved in the Premier League being marketed as ‘the most competitive in the world’. Football is becoming incredibly boring; watching a top club play a bottom club now is to watch the top club’s first XI rested and still put out a team able to win at a canter. 

Football’s economic system has been passed down from a naive pre-late Capitalist phase: it’s hard to imagine that when this system was put in place, in which player-commodities move freely between clubs at unregulated prices well beyond the budgets of 95% of clubs, the founders could have envisaged the problems that have emerged in the last decade. Football’s system of exchange seems to come from an irrational, prelapsarian age: that’s just always the way it’s been and there’s no changing it now. 

The reform of this system comes from the unlikeliest place: American sports. At its apotheosis in sport, the purified competition which the Neoliberal economy aspires to emulate, finds itself adopting a Socialist economic model in the United States, the world’s leading light of economic ‘competitiveness’. Not only to manage the collective success of a given sport as a whole, but to increase its competitiveness.

In football, clubs are unanswerable to any real working body with regards to their economic management: they are in competition economically as well as in a sporting sense. But as should be obvious, the teams who already have the most financial clout are able to consolidate and build upon that advantage so that the rich get richer and poor poorer, smaller clubs act as feeders to bigger clubs. Big clubs are now even buying young players they have no genuine belief could make it into their first XI, but know they could sell on at a profit to a middling club anyway. Thus economic competition stunts actual competitiveness in the substance of what clubs are supposed to be doing: playing football.

In the American sports, (American Football, Baseball, Basketball, Ice Hockey) teams or ‘franchises’ each have an identical wage budget negotiated before each season so that no team is liable to collapse financially in paying for their teams. There are no transfer fees paid; players can only be traded for others, often in the form of an established name being traded for a number of promising youngsters. The college system works as the feeder to the professional leagues and a draft lottery is held so that each team has the same random chance of having the pick of players coming out of college and into, say, the NFL. These draft picks can also be traded as commodities, so that a favourable draft pick can be traded for players.

This is an intelligent system designed to impose a reasonable equality between all teams in the league, and a quick look at the list of Superbowl winners bears favourable comparison to the list of English Football League winners in terms of its diversity of teams, from which you could make an assumption about the two leagues’ relative competitiveness over the years. 

This gives the lie to Neoliberal ‘competitiveness’ and Socialism’s stunting thereof, so that you can reverse-engineer a criticism of pre-government New Labour philosophy’s ‘level playing field’. A level playing field simply implies that the groundsmen did his job in not giving some sort of advantage to the home team via the playing surface, but this takes no account of all that happens before two teams actually walk out onto that field. The ability of some teams to buy any players they want without financial restriction, the superior scouting, training and rehabilitation at their disposal, renders the state of the playing field and any advantage to be had out of it completely moot. So you get a game like QPR vs. Chelsea where QPR’s eleven men cling onto a 1 - 0 lead and get outplayed the entire second half by Chelsea’s nine men, due to such a wide gulf in talent between the two. You’d fancy Barcelona to beat Granada playing up a pitch with a forty-five degree gradient…