Monday, January 12, 2009

And now back to our regularly scheduled madness, a meditation on the transfer window

We are of course well into the January transfer window weirdness now. The always-excellent Dan Loney has a nice beginning to a discussion on this madness over at his site here.

I find the whole thing about the institution of the transfer window more than a trifle weird, to tell the truth. It's easy (given our history with labor issues and sports in these United States) to look at these things in terms of who benefits in a players vs. owners sort of didactic. However, the transfer window takes a multifaceted prism up to that simple us v. them and turns it into a multiple merde-storm. Who does it favor? Why the rich of course in the same way that a Bush Administration regulatory body favors those who break into hives at the thought of regulations. Only in this case, the rich includes big clubs, big (in both a figurative and literal sense I suppose) players and their agents. All of them are on the same side. As a labor union breaker, the transfer window model does a fine job, but it also splits the clubs apart.

Putting everyone on the same financial playing field in the United States can be accomplished by the simple remedy of taking all media revenue -- local, national, traditional and Internet -- and creating a giant trough of money, sport-specific, from which all clubs draw equally. Require the teams to spend X-percentage of revenue on player salaries (instead of owners' yachts), then let the competition begin. It is media revenue that separates the big and small teams in the States, not attendance, which really only pays the local bills, nor sponsorships, though that latter does help.

Of course, as we are all well aware, American sports teams (MLB, NFL, NBA. Don't know much about NHL, so I do not include them in this analysis.) have it relatively easy, having to focus solely on a domestic market in their sport with virtually no competitors. In world football, obviously the problems are far, far deeper, balancing competing economies, both national and of scale, as well as cultures and leagues. For example, while you could argue that it is good for "the sport" to have the Kansas City Royals, Houston Astros and New York Yankees all competing on a level financial pitch. How on Earth do you design a similarly level pitch among teams as disparate as Santos, Santos Laguna, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manyoo, Houston Dynamo, Gamba Osaka, Boca Juniors, Arsenal di Sarandi, Palermo and on and on and on.

Simple answer, you don't. (Wait, wait. FIFA is the single governing body right? Put them in charge of a global pool of revenues and have them dole it out in something approaching a relativistic equivalent format! HAHAHAHAHAHA (Insert insane, choking laugh track here))

So that leaves us with the same problem of something approaching something that we can all agree is a level pitch so that have-nots can build clubs without undue handicap. Hmmm, what do mean by "level pitch?" "Have-not"? "Have"? "Undue handicap"? "Club"? "Build"? Depending on your country, you of course find a different definition of all of those terms. And even more, throughout what passes for the world football multiverse.

I think I speak for all of us here when I say our ultimate dream is for MLS to compete on the same level as the Barclay's Premier League. Though I would not like the Premiership's internal de facto structure, in which maybe 6 teams (I'm being generous here) get to compete at a high level, while all the rest become farm teams in some way for the top clubs. In all reality, if you're a kickass player for, say, Tottenham Hotspur, you'll wind up at Old Trafford before too long. Let's just call this the Dimitar Berbatov Rule. In the States, you can solve this problem by sharing media revenue. In the Premiership, not so easy, as that league has competitors in Spain, Germany and Italy. The possibility of player movement abroad, as well the that of the big clubs suffering in revenue, produce a conservative mindset. No one wants to change because, while this may suck, hanging might suck more. So whatever you do, don't change. Maybes, what ifs. Whew. We're sticking with what we've got here. See, that mindset is insidious.

So where does this leave po' ol' MLS? Well, absent massive investment of capital, which in this economy would only be accomplished by fiat from our Benevolent Alien Overlords (2009 kits available on soon. Pre-order now!), MLS is not going to get an invite to that level. It ain't happening today, tomorrow or anytime soon. MLS becomes just as much a farm system for world football as Tottenham Hotspur, filled with our U23 Berbatovs that will not be gracing MLS pitches in their mid-20s, but might be back after they turn 30 or so. It would be nice to take a look at an example of a club that has broken out of this mold (Perhaps 08-09 Aston Villa? They'll have to be up for 3-4 years and have growing revenues to prove they've broken that mold, however. And a title or two wouldn't hurt either.), just to show that it could be done. The problem with analogous situations, though, as I alluded to above, is that the allusions only go so far. Eventually, you get the apples and mangoes problem of comparing leagues, countries, cultures, economies, etc. etc.

So we are now where we are, and it looks like that's where we're going to be. If there's a transfer window, the big clubs win. If there's not a transfer window, the big clubs win. So transfer window or no transfer window? With no hope of a regulated international player transfer market that protects something like mutually-agreed-upon interests of players and clubs, large and small, have the window or don't. There are no elegant solutions and institutional changes to help here, just the hope that money flows where we all would like it to flow. And, to be fair, who could argue that MLS is not better off on that front than they were a decade ago? MLS of 1999 is a world away from MLS of 2009, no matter what the IFHHS study says about the league. (Story here. Report here.) Again, it's an issue of scale, reputation and, in the final count, money.


1 comment:

playtherapy said...

To add another factor, remember FIFA is a “Federation” of National Football Associations. While it likes to throw its weight around, sanctioning this or that, its power comes from the support of participating nations. These nations have some ability to “set the tone”- though the transfer market is a product of a guy known mostly for the Hague Ruling bearing his name. Bosman won but mostly lost, getting blackballed and ostracized by teams. Rich players should give 1% of their signing bonuses to Bosman for his noble sacrifice.

While there has been some movement to reign in spending or disperse revenues “for the good of the sport”, the G14, 18 (or however many teams are invited/excluded on a given day) generally oppose anything that may lessen their financial dominance. For example, look at Platini’s attempt to empower and include lesser teams in the Champion’s League. The G14 argue this waters down the league. True in some cases, but in others, we get Cinderella Teams akin to the minnows making the final rounds of the NCAA Tourney.

Healthy? I think so, if they are given a fair chance to compete. You say the Premiership is an example of feeder teams for the League’s Elite. If you’re the best, sooner or later you play for Man U, Chelski, Liverpool, or the Gunners. This is a fairly new phenom, it used to be if you were that good, you hit the continent- usually Serie A.

The enormous revenues from Sky TV changed The Continental Drift. This sense of perpetual entitlement can be circumvented if you have a billionaire owner willing to play big spender (see Chelski).

While this may not be what we want, we also don’t want a system that blatantly rewards mediocrity. The current playoff system is a joke and devalues the regular season. We seem to feel the only way to have a Cup is make it for all the marbles. We don’t have two champs- we have the Supporters’ Shield. I’m not even sure what to make of the name- does the MLS recognize the Best Team merely for the supporters? Ummm- thanks!

To compete with the rest of the world, we need TV revenues. This will only happen ourbig sports media occasionally carrying soccer (ESPN especially) makes a concerted effort to promote its product- not with catchy commercials featuring fan faves but longer pieces on Sports Center, ensuring their flamer talking heads don’t continue to dis the sport, and making game times sacred, not pre-empting them with other sports.

As far as the MLS being a farm team for the big leagues, we supply the smaller Euro leagues as well. While greener pastures beckon to our talent- both proven and potential, the MLS expands- further watering down the domestic talent pool.

This would not be so much of a problem if we developed our players as the rest world does. Instead, we depend on a college system that stymies growth- growth of many of the shining jewels and those other player that didn’t catch the scouts’ eye.

I find it interesting how players not highly rated by domestic scouts can go abroad, play or develop for several years to the point of National Team Call Ups.

Some of this would be Euro-bias, but too often seemingly average players go abroad and blossom. My prayer is that these players do the same in the expanded MLS. Who knows, maybe they’ll do well enough to get eaten (bought) by a Premier Team.

I don’t remember who eloquently wrote we should not disparage MLS Teams’ poor efforts in the intercontinental tourneys until our teams have comparable salaries (read subs- bench rosters) as America, Pumas, et al. Until we can afford to raise the salary cap without fear of repeating NASL’s disaster, competing with the Premiership means summer friendlies and the silly All-Star Game.

Perhaps we should see investing in the MLS a foreign policy issue- it would take a speck of the amount of money ill spent while deep sixing our international reputation the past eight years. What I have found living overseas or in a Spanish speaking barrio in San Antonio, soccer bridges language, culture- creating dialogues between those who wouln't normally speak. We need these links to acknowledge our commonalities and subsequently, our humanness. I have seen soccer do this time and time again. We could do (spend)and have done (spent) much worst during the previous Adminstration's tenure. Another subject entire.