Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Father, A Soccer Match and An Unexpected Free Market

As I am writing this, the Kennedy family is watching Spain play the Netherlands in the World Cup. Amazingly, there are at least five players on the field that we know (as in we can name them and have seen them play). 

But the far more amazing fact in this little vignette is the fact that we are WATCHING SOCCER…or should I say FOOTBALL. (the kids refer to football (soccer) and American Football (that other game that hardly uses feet at all). 

A little more than a decade ago I wrote an article about the evils of soccer and homework. My argument with both institutions was the time taken away from families. As far as I could see kids would spend long days away from home and family while at school, then they would spend a large part of the precious remaining hours doing homework and participating in organized sports. At the time, soccer seemed to be the biggest culprit (remember “Soccer Moms”?), but I was in California at the time (that may also explain my crazy criticisms of soccer as a sport). Here, in Texas, I might complain about American football, gymnastics, or dance taking time away from families. 

As I said, in the article, my crazy criticisms of soccer as a sport, were mostly tongue-in-cheek . However, in spite of having grown up playing soccer, I had long sense lost an great affection for the game and had never really cared for the professional level. Face it, few people do…in this country. Even when we lived in the UK (minutes away from the training grounds for a famous English football club), we sort of yawned in the general direction of the soccer world. 

Then about six months ago all that changed. 

It started with Jim’s intense need for a nap. 

The perfect place to nap, for him, is on the couch in front of the TV with some long sports event playing. However, with kids around, there needs to be a vigilant monitor of the commercials, especially with sports. American football, basketball and even baseball are riddled with questionable ads that our kids don’t need to hear. 

So, one Saturday afternoon the remote control stopped on soccer. And Jim’s head began to nod. Over the next half hour he fitfully napped with one eye open waiting for the commercials. But they never came. Not until half time. A whole 45 minutes of commercial free TV. And a love affair began. 

Needless to say, the napping happened less often, and he and the kids began to know the various teams in the Premier League (highest level of UK club football), have favorite players and debate the calls. We all began to talk about memorable plays and discuss the various rules and workings of the Premier League. 

(By the way, I was just interrupted by yells of “GOOAAALLLLL!” the Netherlands have tied Spain. An amazing header!)

So the build up to this World Cup has been big for the Kennedys. Our DVR is currently filled with games to watch and we carefully avoid sports headlines on TV or the internet, since we are about a day behind. 

But one thing I haven’t avoided is any discussion of the impact of soccer on American’s and American culture. I read one article which claimed that soccer threatens American exceptionalism. Of course the author thinks that is a GOOD thing. His theory is that becoming more global will decrease our love of our own country. Hmmm.

I also saw a segment on FOX NEWS’ The Five in which two of the hosts rail agains the game of soccer itself—it’s boring ("Nil-Nil*???Seriously?!"), it’s British (and therefore unmanly?) and there is no real strategy. 

I can see now how ignorant the rants are. But, I was there once—ranting ignorantly—so I can’t really criticize. 

Rather, at the risk of having to disagree with myself at some later date, I would like to make the case that soccer (as played in the Premier League) is more American than American football. 

Yes, I said FOOTBALL was MORE American than AMERICAN FOOTBALL!!! 

Wait! Don’t go! Hear me out for a minute. 

Okay, first, a little background on the UK’s Premier League. First of all, it is what it sounds like—the PREMIER league in the UK. Which means there are other leagues that are less…well…premier. You have to make into the Premier League. Each year there are 20 teams who play in the Premier League and each year the bottom 3 are relegated back to the lower leagues and 3 new teams are brought up. 

This is big. This means that even the worst teams in the league are motivated to remain competitive throughout the whole season. No one skates. It is not unusual for a top rated team to lose to one of those lowly last five at any time during the season. 

It is a free market. There is nothing fixed. You have a team in your town and you support that team and, if they get to be good enough, they make into the Premier League. That is where they make the big money. But, they have to keep on winning to stay there. Sure, there are some teams that rarely if ever get relegated, but there are a whole bunch for whom relegation is a yearly reality. It is not so much about equality of outcome, as it is about equality of opportunity. Everyone has a chance. Even the lowly small town team. 

This past season we watched one of those lower teams, in danger of being relegated, play a top team that needed to win in order to have a chance to win the league championship. They ended up in a tie. In regular season games that means that each team receives 1 point. (3 points for a win) That one point meant that the lower team remained in the Premier League for another year rather than being relegated. And the missed 2 points for the top team meant they had little chance of winning that year. You should have seen the celebration that the one team had when they won that coveted 16th place, and the glum faces on the team that ended up in 3rd. 

(by the way, the score of the game in front of me is Spain 1, Netherlands 5. Lots of screaming going on here!)

On the other hand, in American Football, there is anything but a free market. In addition to the fact that there is a set group of teams with no chance of some new team breaking in, the team at the bottom of the league has basically the same revenue stream as the team at the top. The income is shared equally among the teams at the top and at the bottom. There is not much incentive to do better. There are also salary caps, so the team at the top or bottom end up spending a similar amount for their players. And, teams are built through the draft which means the worst team gets first draft and the most successful team takes the last pick. Everything is about equality. Not so much about quality. And this “equality” is mainly “equality of outcome”—which is socialism. 

There are lots of other notable differences between soccer and other sports that we have enjoyed discussing and debating. But this approach to competition has been the most striking. Having lived in the UK, where the nanny state is strong and active, and being Americans who value the free market economy that is currently under attack here, we found it an ironic discovery that American football has a socialist bent, and UK Football is a thriving free market. 

(* FYI “Nil" is the British way of saying zero.)