I have spent a good deal of the last two decades living in North America (the United States then Canada).
As an Arsenal supporter it meant a lot of early starts (particularly when I lived on the west coast of the US) and a lot of bunking off work in the middle of the day to catch the ‘evening’ games.
But thanks to the universal television coverage that’s now available I seldom missed a game while living abroad.
However, while Arsenal remained my one true sporting love I was quite happy to ‘go native’ and develop an interest in those peculiar sports that so excite the Americans (rounders; rugby with armour; netball for tall people etc).
When I lived in Los Angeles I enjoyed watching the LA Dodgers baseball team in their fine old stadium. Maintaining an interest in the NFL and attending Superbowl parties became a normal thing. Living in Canada I learned to love professional basketball and had a season ticket at the Toronto Raptors (returning to the UK the season before the Raptors became NBA champions) and occasionally watched the Bluejays play baseball. I was in the stadium when Toronto FC won the MLS championship in ‘soccer’ in 2017.
I love sport, so I loved all these experiences. But there is something very, very different about American sport when compared with our football. In some ways it is worse, but in other ways it is better (or at least better than the Premier League).
The big five professional North American leagues (the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and MLS) are closed shops. No matter how badly a team performs it can never be relegated. In fact, in most sports it gets rewarded for being crap by getting first pick of the following year’s crop of talented youngsters.
This ‘draft’ system is very effective in the American context and allows a greater churn of success, with teams often having a great few years then sinking back down until they can slowly build and rise again. Salary caps and other spending restrictions help ensure that a few very rich teams are not allowed to dominate.
It’s very different to the way things operate in English footy, where a tiny number of clubs with megarich owners can win most of the prizes most of the time (yes, I know – Leicester City – but they are the exception that proves the rule).
In the English Premier League, since its inception in 1992, only seven different clubs have become champions (Man Utd, Blackburn, Arsenal, Chelsea, Man City, Leicester, Liverpool). That’s seven clubs in 28 seasons (it will be seven in 29 in a few weeks’ time).
In that same period there have been 16 different Superbowl winners; 11 different NBA champions; 16 different winners of the World Series in baseball; and 15 winners of the Stanley Cup in the National Hockey League. In soccer, the MLS started in 1996 and in the 25 seasons since then, it has had 13 separate champions.
That churn is one of the good things about American sport. Supporters of every team can feel that they will have a chance of ‘going all the way’ one day and that the deck is not permanently stacked against them.
As I have mentioned, it is only made possible through a combination of spending restrictions and the use of a draft scheme (and the draft system itself can function only because college sport is so strictly regulated and organised in the US and is seen as a conveyor belt for sending talent into the pro leagues: there is no equivalent in this country).
All of which brings us to the bombshell announcement of plans for a European Super League and of Arsenal’s participation in this revolution.
Most fans have reacted furiously, of course, and it’s obvious to see why: the idea of a European league with no relegation for the founder clubs cuts against everything we have grown up knowing and loving about our national game.
But to play devil’s advocate for a moment, I can see why some of the ‘big’ clubs are keen on the idea. Long gone are the days when clubs were owned by local businessmen-made-good who were passionate about their team. It’s big corporate business now, with all the attendant soullessness, greed and corruption.
And if you’re a big corporation and you are offered the chance of a gold-plated safety net that means your investment can never entirely collapse, then why wouldn’t you go for it? The idea that you could invest hundreds of millions of pounds into a club and see it end up in the Championship or worse must be horrifying to the super-rich owners.
My instinct is to oppose the ESL for the very reason that the corporate owners want to embrace it: namely that it is a break with one of the most fundamental traditions of the game – the never-ending elevator of success and failure, with all teams having the chance to ride it to the summit or take it all the way down to the basement of non-league.
But my opposition is half-hearted because the elevator is broken anyway. It wasn’t in great shape before the formation of the Premier League (only nine different champions in the 28 years before the EPL, compared with the seven champions in the 28 years since); and it has been even worse in the EPL era.
When the football authorities allowed the super-rich to buy up football clubs without any restrictions on spending they ensured that all but a handful of clubs would ever be allowed to ride the ‘up’ elevator all the way to the top.
There was a brief period of optimism when it looked like UEFA was going to be serious about its Financial Fair Play regulations, but with clubs like Manchester City able to spend millions on the world’s best lawyers to justify their disregard of FFP it was always going to be a futile hope.
The restrictions still nominally apply but everyone knows they mean nothing.
In that light we can see the ESL as an inevitable continuation of what was begun with the formation of the EPL in 1992: big clubs moving ever closer to ensuring they could not fail financially.
It’s all a bit depressing, but it was depressing before yesterday’s announcement anyway.
I realise this won’t be a popular opinion, but a closed European Super League with no relegation but with strict spending regulations might be more enjoyable than what we currently have (although I say this without any idea of whether they are proposing such restrictions for the ESL. If they’re not, then forget it).
A league of teams with broadly equivalent budgets might make the game more exciting, might lead to more ‘churn’ and might feel less depressingly predictable than our current “which sugar daddy team will win the title this year?” approach.
There are other obvious downsides to the ESL, not least the killer blow it would deliver to the routine of the ‘away game’ for supporters. It would end up (again) similar to American sports where fans generally don’t travel to away games.
The formation of the ESL would be the final Americanisation of our beautiful game, but it’s the logical conclusion of where it has been heading for well over a generation.