Thinking Aloud About Football

Instead, whenever belts need to be tightened it is invariably the players – the actual wealth creators – who are asked to shoulder the burden. The real lesson of Messi’s departure is of the ultimate powerlessness of the elite footballer in the jaws of unregulated capitalism, a reminder that even the very greatest are not immune to the game’s more malign and rapacious forces.

It’s not planned, two consecutive posts on the economics of sports, but it was hard to read this excerpt and not think about the parallels between what I wrote about yesterday and this sorry saga.

Jonathan Liew’s piece carries the headline “Messi’s sad exit shows players are at the bottom of football’s power structure”. It also carries this thought-provoking line: “How is it possible the greatest player of his generation – a man who has created more wealth, more content, more pure joy than any footballer who has ever lived – is denied basic agency over his career?”

So, two questions to think about:

  1. What does football’s power structure look like, and who is at the top, and who is at the bottom?
  2. What might be done to change it for the better?

First, about football’s power structure: are players at the bottom? Maybe so, although I would be inclined to disagree. I am a Manchester United supporter, and good luck trying to tell a fan of a club that has Paul Pogba within its ranks that players have no power. So while I am as sad as you are at the way Messi had to leave Barca, surely there is a spectrum at play over here?

Clubs aren’t particularly high on the pecking order of football’s power structure either. The European Super League was (is?) an idea born out of desperation, not strength.

Agents? The leagues themselves? Broadcasters? Who is, really, at the top of football’s power structure?

Or are they all just too overleveraged for their own good? Consider this, from 2018:

In the event of any general economic peril, such as a hard Brexit, future economic woes (this is a certainty, never-mind Janet Yellen), a liquidity crisis from lower attendance (due to wider economic problems) or reduction in revenue from cash-strapped owners, TV sponsors, or corporations, many of the Premier League clubs will find themselves in a fiscal crisis.

Chew on this delightful little segment…:

I don’t understand why in the United States the only thing that is really noncompetitive is sports. In Europe, the only thing that is really competitive is sports. In Italy, soccer you are the first division, second division, you are promoted or demoted, according to performance. You don’t buy your way into the NFL or the Major League, et cetera.
Here, you buy the franchise, and once you’re in, no matter how incompetent you are, you stay there, which is completely un‑American.

… and ask yourself if the Schumpeterian process of creative destruction is really so desirable when it comes to sports clubs. That is, having to compete for your very existence in a league that has relegation ends up being a zero-sum game in which overleveraging is all but inevitable.

Maybe the reason sports is noncompetitive in the United States is because one falls in love with the entities (the clubs) that are competing, rather than the process of competition? I’m happy to buy a PS5 rather than an Atari, but I would much rather watch Manchester United than any other club.

And hey, if that’s what you’re optimizing for (building a narrative around the clubs you support), maybe a franchise model is actually a good thing?

So, the answer to my two questions:

  1. It is a cut-throat, extremely competitive structure, European football, and maybe that’s not such a good thing. Nobody is at the top, and the weak (across all levels) are ruthlessly eliminated. Those that survive are likely to be overleveraged in one way or the other.
  2. I have no clue! Because I think lesser competition than now might be a good thing, but surely the ESL is a horrible thing? Turn the clock back to February, 1992?

Festina lente is (always and everywhere) good advice.