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“No” To Americanization Of European Football

Sun, 11 May 2008

In reply to

I hope I’m not opening a can of worms here, but has a salary cap for professional teams in Europe ever been seriously considered? …. Having a cap would prevent a select few teams from hording the very best players and it would level the playing field for everyone. Of course, for every Didier Drogba, there is an Andrey Shevchenko. ….

There was a discussion among MLS fans about whether or not they preferred 2-4 Super Teams in the league here, or the parity that seems to be playing out each year. Right now, the two best teams are Chicago and Columbus, while defending playoff champion Houston and regular season champion DC United are languishing near the bottom (but the season is still young). Chicago last won the MLS Cup in 1998. Columbus have not made the playoffs since 2005. MLS has a salary cap for its teams, although each club is allowed to pay more for up to 2 “Designated Players” like David Beckham, Cuahotemec Blanco, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, and Juan Pablo Angel. For the past two seasons, Houston have won the MLS Cup (playoff champions), while DC United have won the Supporter’s Shield (best regular season record). Both teams qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League, but both were eliminated at the semifinal stage both times. Personally, I like parity. It’s good to see teams like Columbus and Colorado that usually struggle, getting off to good starts in 2008. As most of Europe winds down its 2007-08 campaigns, we’re just getting started over here.

and

I’d love to see a salary cap, and I think it is pretty much the only mechanism that will level the playing field (aside from UEFA scrapping Champions League money). If they ever introduced one, it should be set at a level which a significant number of top flight clubs can feasibly afford (e.g. based on attendances of 30,000 or something).

I would oppose a salary cap.

Why shouldn’t footballers be paid what the market is prepared to pay for their services?

Why should footballers’ salaries be capped when those of other skilled entertainers, like singers, musicians, pop bands and actors, or other highly paid individuals, such as top company executives, lawyers, accountants, bankers and brokers aren’t?

Historically, there has been a strong socio-economic dimension to the issue of footballers’ salaries in Britain.

The 19th century class antagonism between the Victorian gentleman amateur and the working class professional has been alluded to in the first quote in the first post above in this thread. You can read more here. Working class men could not afford the luxury of playing for leisure.

Even after the FA reluctantly legalised professionalism in 1891, they insisted on a maximum wage, which remained in place until 1961, when it was finally removed through the efforts of the then Chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association, Jimmy Hill.

In 1891, the maximum wage was set at £4 per month. Before it was abolished in 1961, it was £20 per week.

However, there continued to be restraints on footballers.

Even after the maximum wage was abolished in 1961, the Football League continued with a retain-and-transfer system.

“At the end of each season, the details of all transfer-listed players and the fee required in respect of them would be sent to the League. The complete list of all the players who were available for transfer would then be circulated to all the clubs. A player’s registration could be transferred once the fee had been paid (or a lesser one negotiated), but so long as a player was on the transfer list the club was under no obligation to pay him a wage. In these circumstances, a player was actually in a worse position than his nineteenth century predecessors had been. He was not entitled to payment but, equally, was not free to join a new club. …, he could not move to another League because retain-and-transfer now operated in virtually every country where the game was played professionally, and most Leagues respected the others’ rules on player movement. ….”

The retain-and-transfer system was abolished in 1963 when George Eastham won a case against Newcastle United in the High Court.

Other restraints on players in the European Union continued until the Bosman ruling in 1995.

My own view is that salary caps in US sports are in reality used more to keep wage costs down rather than any overriding desire to maintain a level playing field. However, the latter is useful when justifying salary caps to the broader public.

In any event, protecting employee rights is not as important in the US legal framework as it is in the European Union system. You can expect any attempt to introduce a salary cap in Europe to be challenged in the European Court of Justice, which would explain the reluctance of the football authorities to discuss the issue.

In any event, why should professional sportsmen bear the brunt of ensuring a level playing field? Professional sportsmen have a limited time at the top. For example, the professional footballers are looking at being paid to play from the age of 16 to 40 at most.

How many of us would accept rules that limited what we could earn in the employment market?

The way to ensure a level playing field between competing businesses is to ensure that they are competing within the same parameters.

Market distortions cause an uneven playing field:

  • Setting aside the randomness of domestic cup competition (the luck of the draw, cup upsets and all that), the top clubs have two sources of revenue (Europe and the domestic league) while the remainder of the top flight have only one (the domestic league).
  • Clubs relegated to the second tier have parachute payments, which the rest of the second tier do not have.

Salary caps also engender corruption. Before 1961, clubs and players tried to circumvent the maximum wage from time to time by under the table payments. When these came to light, there would be scandal, and players and officials would be suspended or banned. For example, the first great Manchester United team was formed around players from the first great Manchester City side who were suspended in 1906 for receiving illegal payments.

“Winning the Second Division in 1899 gave [Manchester City] its first honours and promotion to highest level in English football, the First Division. The club went on to claim its first major honour on April 23, 1904, beating Bolton Wanderers 1-0 at Crystal Palace to win the most prestigious knockout tournament in English football, the FA Cup, and narrowly missing out on a League and Cup double by finishing runners-up in the League. In the seasons following the FA Cup triumph, the club was dogged by allegations of financial irregularities, culminating in the suspension of seventeen players in 1906, including captain Billy Meredith. To the chagrin of City fans, most of the players who were suspended went to local rivals Manchester United, forming the basis of United’s first successful side.”

Billy Meredith and another Manchester United player, Charlie Roberts, were instrumental in finally setting up the precursor to the Professional Footballers’ Association in 1907. The PFA is celebrating its centenary. You can expect the PFA to also oppose any salary cap, as they would or should see it as a regressive step.

A salary cap is not the solution for Europe.

(First posted on Tony Kempster’s Non-League Forum)

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5 comments

  1. In reply to

    As the Prem has gone a long way to ape American Football’s style with squad numbers, names on shirts, ridicuous numbers of subs, ridiculous amounts of money, non-logical no. of games (39th anyone?) and similar, is it about time we took one of their better ideas, i.e. the draft system?

    The draft may be justified in America on sporting grounds, but it’s primary motivation is commercial considerations. American sporting franchises don’t want to get into a bidding war for new talent, which will push up the costs of players across the board.

    American sports are by and large structured as oligopolies – an exclusive franchise system, without promotion and relegation.

    The businessmen who run these franchises want to keep player costs down, so they have agreed on the draft system (in conjunction with salary caps) to prevent bidding wars breaking out between them. Players may be paid very well, but the number of players who get selected is still very small compared to the numbers who come through the system in Britain and Europe, where there are far more clubs vying for their services.

    Oligopolistic market forms are highly advantages to business owners, but of little or no advantage to employees (players) or customers (fans).

    British and European football is based much more on the free market and competition, and what is sport without competition?

    How many of us would accept industry practice to cap our salaries at a level lower than what the market would determine?

    A draft system or a salary cap would be a step back from all that the Professional Footballers’ Association has achieved over the past 100 years, and you can expect the PFA to oppose any such move.

    In reply to

    “without relegation…. (a super league)… will soon stagnate and die” sort of brings me back to the NFL point. The NFL “super league” hasn’t stagnated and died despite lack of promotion/relegation. Would a Euro soccer league with similar isolation be able to do the same ?

    You cannot ignore the cultural differences between British/European football on the one hand and American sports. Americans love mega-entities taking on each other. Even Pepsi v Coca Cola can inflame passions on that side of the Atlantic.

    There is much more a sense of community and history in British (and European) football.

    My proposal would address promotion and relegation. When I finally put it together in a more formal / structured document, my main target will be the European Union and the European Club Association, rather than the domestic and international football associations.

    (First posted on Tony Kempster’s Non-League Forum)


  2. In reply to

    I hate the idea of the americanization of our sport – but it seems to be heading that way fast – so my original point was around the idae that if we are going to become a clone, we may as well take on a good financial control system rather than suffer more Ronaldo-type stories

    As explained in the links in my above post, I think a European League is a better solution than the Americanization (or further Americanization) of European football. At least it’s still European!

    (First posted on Tony Kempster’s Non-League Forum)


  3. Interesting articles/chapters on the maximum wage:

    An article on contractual conflicts in English professional football by a research fellow at De Montfort University.

    An article from the Independent on 22 January 2001.

    A chapter in a book entitled “Sports And The British”.


  4. [...] 1961 also saw the abolition of the maximum wage. [...]


  5. [...] market will sort itself out, in the longer term if not in the short term. You don’t need American-style salary caps, or FIFA’s daft 6-5 [...]



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