- Professional athletes in the U.S. enjoy WAY longer offseasons than European soccer players.
- Somewhat surprisingly, U.S. franchises are also valued significantly higher, despite playing shorter seasons and having far smaller global fanbases.
- This suggests that “less is more,” and if the soccer world wants to emulate this success, it will need to be open to some radical changes.
Estimated reading time: 6-12 minutes
Last week, we examined the sheer volume of soccer Europe’s elite players are expected to play, and the implications this has on their injury risk and the quality of matches. We also examined how deeply embedded the notion that, “More hard work is always better,” runs within the culture of the sport. For this reason, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that the soccer off-season is never longer than three months, sometimes as short as six weeks, and practically non-existent in the years when there is an international summer tournament like the Euros or World Cup.
This week, we’ll tackle how different the offseason looks compared to U.S. sports, as well as the somewhat surprising economic implications of this reality.
Let’s begin by looking at how much more rest athletes in the three biggest U.S. sports receive.
Quickly, we have to take the concept of playoffs into consideration, first. Because European soccer leagues award the league title to the regular season champion and the cup competitions all feature one-and-done knockout rounds, teams must act as if every game matters. For example, in three of the last five Premier League campaigns, a nine-and-a half-month marathon of a season concluded with first and second place separated by the points equivalent of less than two victories. That’s not much room for error.
But in U.S. sports, that’s not the case. In the MLB, 12 of 30 teams (40%) make the playoffs. In the NFL, it’s 14 of 32 (44%). And in the NBA, thanks to a recently-expanded playoff structure, a whopping 20 of the 30 teams (67%) enter the postseason. Suffice it to say, players in these leagues can occasionally afford to “half-ass-it” at certain points during the regular season.
Each of these leagues also has a way longer offseason.
Professional baseball, basketball, and American football players who don’t make the playoffs enjoy over six months between seasons. Those who make it through the entirety of the playoffs to the championship game or series still receive at least a four-and-a-half month break before the next season officially starts. This is a notion Europe’s elite footballers could only dream of.
Plus, these long breaks offer an additional bonus…
I’m always slightly bemused by the fervor surrounding the beginning of the NFL season. But then I remember…it’s been seven months since fans last watched a game! That allows football to feel fresh and exciting again, special due to its limited nature.
Honestly, soccer could take a lesson from that. I worry that when it comes to footy, we’re verging on too much of a good thing. Between the nearly 10-month regular season and major summer tournaments at least every other year, there’s hardly any time for fans to take a break. This level of ubiquity can lead to apathy.
Missing the Boat
Obviously, the primary reason behind so many matches is financial in nature, because soccer’s TV rights deals have reached historic proportions. So, higher-ups at major clubs have made the calculation that if they play more matches, they’ll receive ever greater compensation. Clearly, they haven’t read this article, about the importance of determining how much money is “enough!’
These billionaire owners may have made a fundamental error, however. I learned something fascinating when researching sports teams’ valuations for this piece. There are only eight teams in world soccer valued over three billion dollars. By contrast, the least valuable of all 32 NFL teams is worth over four billion dollars. Additionally, only 17 soccer teams have a calculated valuation of a billion dollars or more. Every single team in the NBA and MLB is worth at least that.
The math is similar at the very top, as well. Real Madrid is listed as the most valuable soccer team, worth just over six billion dollars. However, a total of ten franchises between the NBA, MLB, and NFL are worth more than that. The most valuable of all U.S. sports teams, the Dallas Cowboys, is worth $9.2 billion, which is over 50% more!
When I read this, I was slightly dumbfounded. Teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester United have fans numbering in the hundreds of millions. They’re playing far and away the world’s most popular sport, supported by individuals in hundreds of countries. How can they be worth so much less than, from a global perspective, second-tier sports in regional markets?
Could it be that the relative scarcity afforded by the U.S. leagues makes their products more valuable? The growing prevalence of American owners in European soccer leagues suggests I’m not the only one asking these questions. Perhaps it’s also the paradoxical embrace American sports give to socialist economic policies, compared to the cutthroat capitalism of European sports leagues. Here’s a deep dive on that, if you’d like to check out one of my favorite articles I’ve ever written.
Regardless, this economic data suggests that for soccer, less may be more.
I feel quite strongly that the quality of the product (soccer matches) would improve tremendously if players played less often. Because I like to offer solutions rather than simply point out problems, here are a few ideas, ranging from least to most radical.
Idea 1: Minutes-based or appearance-based limitations.
FIFA could impose a global cap on the number of matches or minutes in which all players can appear in a club season. There could be slight increases allowed for teams in European competition and for international players. More successful, larger clubs who feature in more competitions would probably cry foul, but I don’t see a problem here. The larger teams likely to run into these limits have bigger, deeper squads, anyway. Start using them. Plus, imposing a degree of squad rotation would give elite managers another interesting way to outwit their rivals, as well as non-starters more opportunity to prove their worth.
Idea 2: Scrap the domestic cup competitions and reduce the size of the domestic leagues.
If leagues were cut to 16 teams from the typical 20, and all of the domestic cups were turned into youth-only competitions, fully professional players would play anywhere from 10-15 fewer matches per season. The first part of this proposal would likely cause fans to riot, but there is a precedent. Less than 20 years ago, the English Premier League contracted from 22 teams to 20, so this type of thing isn’t unheard of. Plus, most of the big clubs treat the domestic cups as youth or reserve team contests until the quarterfinals anyway, so why not make this an official rule?
Idea 3: Change the domestic season so that teams only play each other once rather than twice, and remove international breaks.
League seasons would now consist of nineteen games rather than thirty-eight. I favor this final idea because it’s the cleanest. The club season would be noticeably shorter, probably able to be completed in roughly six months. This would allow for international soccer to carve out its own unique three-month window rather than annoyingly squeezing itself in throughout the year. International breaks disrupt clubs’ preparations and subject players to the extra stress of multiple long-haul flights. Fans hate them too, and nobody would miss them.
Having an “international-only” three-month window would allow national team managers to work more closely with their teams. Plus, after all of that, we’d still have time for a full three-month offseason for the players who do participate in internationals. Non-international players would get a six-month break. All of this would improve the quality of games at both the club and country level.
Now, I’m under no illusion that this idea wouldn’t be met with massive resistance.
The first counterargument is that teams would lose out on half their stadium gate receipts. To that I say, too bad. The vast majority of income is made from TV money, anyway.
Speaking of TV money…
Wouldn’t fewer games mean less television-rights money for clubs? Not necessarily. The NFL’s TV rights deal is worth nearly double that of the Premier League. Let me remind you that this far more lucrative deal is for a globally much less popular sport, with a season that consists of fewer total games. So no, I don’t buy the argument that fewer matches would spell financial doom for soccer clubs. It could be the exact opposite.
Next, there’s an argument to be made about sporting integrity. With only 19 regular season games instead of 38, some teams would have ten home matches while others would only have nine. Also, the possibility exists that due scheduling randomization, certain teams would have to play more of their away matches against tougher opposition. However, I simply don’t think this is a big deal. In American sports, teams don’t play identical schedules, and nobody seems to care. Hell, in the NFL, each team only plays against half the league each season. And it’s completely random. Inevitably, in some years your favorite team’s schedule will be easier, and in others it will be harder. That’s part of the fun.
In European soccer, a similar level of randomness happens, it’s just disguised better.
Each season, all teams will go through good and bad runs of form. So, depending on quirks of the calendar, you may face a typically strong team in the midst of a rough patch, or a weaker team who’s temporarily caught fire. The winter transfer window complicates this further. Teams can sign new players during the entire month of January, so your team may be unlucky enough to face an opposing squad after they’re integrated a game-changing new signing or two. This adds an element of unfairness even if it initially seems like every team is on a level playing field.
I believe that having some yearly variance between which teams you play home and which you play away would add some spice and unpredictability. Plus, and I say this tongue firmly in cheek, it could give tribal fans one more excuse to diminish a rival’s overperformance. “You only won the league because you had such an easy run of away games!” or “The scheduling algorithm is clearly biased in favor of Manchester United!” and the like.
Most importantly, as a result of this proposal, the quality of matches would dramatically improve. Players would be fresher, more explosive, less prone to injury, and enjoy longer careers. Like with American sports franchises, perhaps this increased standard of play would even be reflected on soccer clubs’ balance sheets. Everyone wins, off the field at least. And who wouldn’t want that? So, here’s to hoping soccer’s “powers that be” get the message, and decide to take some steps to increase the beauty in the beautiful game.Before you go, I’d love to hear from you. Why do you think U.S. sports teams are, on a whole, so much more valuable than their better-supported European soccer counterparts? Also, do you think my proposal for fewer matches is feasible? If not, what solution would you suggest? Reply to this email and let me know!