Letter from Washington: In defence of American sport(s)
Would the super league have made football more American? If only.
In the 72 hours that it took for the idea of the Super League, a proposed major shakeup of European football, to crash and burn this week, everyone seemed to agree on two things: that the new league was a terrible idea, and that it was all the Americans’ fault.
Over at Unherd, Paul Marshall argued that “America is destroying the beautiful game” and called for action to “protect local communities and deter predators from the other side of the Atlantic”. The British writer Tom McTague appealed to self-loathing American readers when he explained “how America ruined soccer” in The Atlantic.
The proposed tournament was inspired by America’s National Football League, in which there is no relegation or promotion, but 32 franchises dotted across the country that do battle year in, year out. And given that all-purpose anti-Americanism always goes down well in Britain, much was made of the fact that three of the 12 Super League teams had US owners (Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United).
I’ve no real interest in sticking up for the doomed Super League. Not least because I’m not much of a football fan. And the idea of 12 teams playing one another ad nauseam seems especially unappetising. But I do want to stick up for American sport. Or should that be “sports”?
Yes, American sport is often a glitzy, hyper-commercialised affair — all cheerleaders and never-ending ad breaks. And the teams in America’s big three leagues — the NFL for American football, the MLB for baseball and the NBA for basketball — are certainly capable of acting with rapacious disregard for their most loyal supporters, yanking teams from one city to another without warning. This leads to all manner of absurdities, like the logically titled basketball team the New Orleans Jazz becoming the much less explicable Utah Jazz. This nomadic approach is nothing new. In 1957, the Brooklyn Dodgers, a storied, beloved baseball team left millions distraught when they upped sticks and moved thousands of miles to Los Angeles.
But what the top US leagues lack in rootedness they make up for by being unstintingly exciting and dynamic. As many others have pointed out, they are organised on remarkably socialist principles. In the annual draft of new players, the worst performing teams get to pick first. In professional American football and basketball, a salary cap prevents the wealthiest teams from overpowering the minnows. The playoffs — knock-out games at the end of the season — only add to the uncertainty, and the drama. All of this is designed to level the playing field, giving almost everyone a fighting chance of winning the top trophy.
This system is the product of intense economic competition between the various leagues. They are all competing for the attention, and dosh, of the American public, and they know that to do so, they must be as exciting and competitive as possible.
The Premier League, meanwhile, manages to be one of the most boring spectacles in sport. The fact that only a handful of teams stand a chance of wining the thing seems to me to be a fairly major problem. This year, like last year, it is obvious who will finish first even though there are still months to go. And when it comes to traipsing to the ground, how obvious are the joys of watching football in person given that administrators feel the need to black out televised games on a Saturday afternoon?
If you want a demonstration of dreary globalised flatness, don’t look at sport on this side of the pond. European football is where you’ll find teams owned by Gulf state sovereign wealth funds, and players in shirts with sponsors’ logos designed to appeal to consumers on the other side of the planet and in a language none of the supporters in the ground understand.
American sport is, by contrast, surprisingly parochial. In fact, it is the great exception to the country’s global cultural dominance. Unlike music, cinema, television or fashion, when it comes to sport Americans do their own weird thing while and the rest of the world more or less leaves them to it. Yes, there are LeBron James fans in Shanghai and Tom Brady worshippers in Munich, but American sport is conspicuous for its failure to fully globalise. After all, what could be more parochial than calling the winners of a domestic tournament the “world champions”, as Americans do?
There’s also something democratic about the ruthlessness with which American teams and leagues pursue the largest possible audience. In an English context, “think of the fans” is a plea to put the interests of diehard supporters first, but fandom is also a far more exclusive concept. Premier league clubs ration tickets according to loyalty to the team. Over here, everyone is a potential fan, and can walk into the game if they can afford it. The customer, not some vague notion of “the game”, is king.
Away from the big three leagues, American sport gets very quirky, very quickly. In many parts of the country, college football is far more important than the professional game. Americans will pile into 100,000-seater stadiums to watch college amateurs do battle in showdowns with absurd names (the Gatorbowl, anyone?). High school football is often at the heart of small-town life. Taken together, Texas’s high-school stadiums can seat 4.3 million people. If that isn’t a thriving grassroots, then what is?
American sport is the country at its practical, impassioned best. European football, meanwhile, is in love with an idea of itself completely at odds with the reality. Give me the consortium of midwestern tycoons over an unholy alliance of corrupt continental bureaucrats, Qatari princelings and Russian oligarchs every time.
The US has a thrilling, highly commercialised, democratic professional sporting scene and the thriving grassroots that English football bores are always fretting about. If that’s what “Americanisation” looks like, then sign me up.
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