The franchised few, or the disenfranchised masses?

Eoin Roche assesses whether or not a UEFA super-league, similar to American franchise leagues, would be good for European soccer

American sports are a bit of an oddity. All four of the biggest sports, American football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey are all played professionally in franchise leagues. Each team or franchise is located in a specific city and that team is the only team in a city in most cases, with the exception of cities that are “large markets” like Los Angeles and New York. There is no promotion or relegation as there are no other divisions above or below them. Their structure is completely different to what we’re used to in Europe. However, as soccer’s UEFA Champions League becomes more of a closed house, I want to see what the benefits of franchise leagues are, and try to predict what impacts they might have on soccer in Europe.  

Basketball is my favourite American sport and the National Basketball Association (NBA) is the basketball league. NBA players are some of the most skilled athletes I’ve ever witnessed. The NBA has such a storied history and so many incredible players and big personalities, both on the court and off of it; I’ve basically spent the last few months gorging on content. NBA players are given a great platform to be outspoken. Players regularly use the media to talk trash to other players, which is refreshing compared to the mundanity of soccer interviews. Players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant are not afraid to speak their mind on political and social issues too.

One thing I can tell you for certain is that NBA is great for neutral viewers. If you enjoy watching the de facto best players, then the NBA is your only option, and with an 82 game regular season, there are games almost every night, so there’s always some spectacular plays to watch in the morning.

Franchise leagues certainly seem to be good to team owners – the league’s success is everyone’s success. Every NBA team is now worth a minimum of a billion dollars. The salary-cap limits how much teams can pay their players which varies slightly year on year, but next year’s upper limit set to be $119 million. This means teams need to be strategic when deciding who is worth the big money contract. It also makes trading players a very political game, which can see players being traded away for statistically worse players, purely to free up salary cap space. It’s like playing a game of chess in the middle of a circus ring.

Players who are lucky and skilled enough to make it to the NBA have a lot of power. With “Player Options” in contracts, players have the option to leave their contracts in a certain year. When a player takes his option to leave or his contract naturally ends, he is allowed to negotiate with any other team. And when players demand to be traded away, it often happens. Not to mention the pay isn’t half bad either. Interestingly the NBA has a system of maximum contracts: for a player with less than six years in the league, they can earn a maximum of $25 million, $30 million for seven to nine years experience and $35 million for over ten years. The average salary stands at $6.2 million or about $120,000 per week. Players as a whole earn around 44% of the total revenue of the NBA. Unlike soccer, a player’s contract persists after trades. It’s like players are contracted to the NBA, but the teams pay. I think this provides good peace of mind for player, regardless of how they are treated by a team. Basketball is a growing sport in Europe, but salaries for European professionals are a mere fraction of what their NBA counterparts earn, with €100,000 a year representing a very well paid player. And of course all the players in Europe would move to the NBA in a heartbeat if the chance came. The NBA essentially forms a talent vacuum that sucks any and all talent from smaller regions. And ultimately that is what the NBA has done, ripped the best talent from all over the world into its league and fundamentally, has damaged the opportunity for basketball to grow organically elsewhere.

Indeed, you can argue that the top European soccer leagues do the exact same thing, and they do. However, historically, they didn’t always, for example there was a period of time, not that long ago, when Irish international players were chosen from the League of Ireland and our talent wasn’t guaranteed to cross the Irish Sea. Whereas basketball has been pioneered by the NBA around the world, and by using themselves as the best possible advertisement, there will not be that grace period where the talent gets to stay at home.

There are aspects of the NBA that I would enjoy seeing in the top tiers of European soccer, specifically salary caps and maximum contracts, which may encourage large football clubs to reinvest in their local communities, rather then adding an extra 50 thousand quid to their star player’s contract. Given time, this could help fix the balance of Europe’s top divisions making things far more competitive. Player options sound good as well, but I think it would only help to further strengthen the position of soccer agents. Of course, these will never happen as it would require more bureaucratic restructuring then the Treaty of Versailles.

Franchise leagues are the most unapologetically capitalist invention I’ve ever seen, while almost simultaneously being the exact opposite of a free market; it’s survival of the fittest but also a closed house. And UEFA wish they’d thought of it, and it’s certainly been discussed. Every few years someone will suggest a UEFA super league that would separate the biggest teams in Europe from their domestic leagues, although I think it’s far more likely we’ll see the Champions League used as a pseudo franchise league. So, what would that look like? The 32 biggest teams in Europe would play out a round-robin format of two groups of 16 teams like a NBA regular season, before something like an eight team knockout. This format would have every team play a minimum of 15 games, which would be spectacular for television monetisation. And sure, you might need to move lots of domestic league fixtures, but the Football Associations won’t mind as long as they get their share of the profits. Smaller teams throughout Europe will start to die off because the television rights deals won’t trickle down. Many lower divisions will go the way of North American Soccer League, the second division of American soccer, who cancelled their 2018 season because they didn’t have enough teams to get a license. Losing the lower divisions would mean that soccer returns to being just a hobby for thousands of players across Europe and the number of used car dealerships per square kilometer would skyrocket.

The top division of Europe’s leagues will become even more comically polarised then they already are, sixth and seventh in the Premier League will be separated by 26 points. It would be a footballing dystopia.

I’m probably exaggerating slightly. But I’ve always loved that so many people manage to make a living from football. The same can’t be said for basketball, American football, baseball or ice hockey. I really feel for the thousands of people through the years who just missed the cut. Despite all this, franchise leagues create great spectacles and I’m really looking forward to following the NBA play-offs this summer and I’d watch every second of a UEFA franchise league just the same. I’d just need to pour one out for my boy, the average player.