I admit it, I am a TV jock. I like to watch sports on TV. I’ll watch almost any kind of sport instead of a blank screen. You might think that one team sport is essentially much like any other team sport, but that isn’t so. Watching such a variety of sports has allowed me to isolate a large number of differences between team sports in North America and team sports in the rest of the world. And, so we are clear, I am talking here about major team sports — soccer, American/Canadian football, cricket, rugby, baseball, ice hockey, basketball.
1. Sports as Business Risk
Virtually all team sports outside North America are played in a series of hierarchical leagues where a team’s position in the series of leagues is dependent solely on their success or failure in the previous season. To use British soccer as the exemplar, there is the Premier League at the top of the heap. Below that is the Championship League, followed by League Division 1, League Division 2 etc. If you finish in the bottom three of the Premier League in one season, the following season you will be relegated to the Championship League. Your position in the Premier League is taken by one of the teams that finished in the top three of the Championship League in the previous season and were therefore promoted. Three or four bad years in a row and you can quickly find yourself several levels below the top flight. This system, or something very similar, is the case for soccer, rugby, cricket leagues all over the world. Even the ancient Japanese sport of sumo operates in the same way.
To be clear in the basest North American manner, the level your team plays in determines everything to do with money. A soccer team in the English Premier League will make tens of millions of dollars a year more than will a team in the Championship; and the diffference is similar between the Championship teams and those in lower leagues. There are genuine financial incentives for doing well, and significant financial penalties for doing badly.
In North America, there are financial incentives in doing better than the next team, but there are NO penalties for bad play: you can play really badly for decade after decade and still be in the major leagues. There is no chance of a Triple-A team being promoted, and no chance of a major league team being demoted. The entire business risk based on sporting chance has disappeared. Every part of the system — from TV-revenue sharing to bottom-up drafts — is designed to bring equality. It is an oddly non-free enterprise system, socialist in its implications.
2. Always a Winner
In all of the North American major league team sports there must always be a winner in every game. If one team cannot win in the regulation time, then you keep playing in some form or another until someone DOES win: extra time, shoot outs, etc.
In team sports outside of North America, a draw or tie is a perfectly acceptable result for all but a tiny proportion of matches. In fact, where a weak team is playing a stronger, their tactics may well be to aim for a draw and thus secure something rather than lose everything in a winner-take-all scenario. This is a legitimate management option.
In the contact sports — American/Canadian football, hockey — the trend in North America is to increase and improve body armour. Steroids help too.
In the contact sports — rugby, soccer — the trend in the rest of the world is to minimize equipment to free up the athlete. Looking at a moderrn professional rugby player in his kit is to imagine that he put on the team shirt and then stood in some vacuum packing device so that the uniform is almost moulded to the player’s body. Muscles are what you see, not padding and straps and metal.
4. The Viewing Experience
There are a number of cosmetic differences in watching these team sports. For example, in the rest of world, in every kind of team sport (including baseball, football, basketball and hockey) the home team is listed first, the game clock shows how much of the game has gone, and the teams keep the same uniforms wherever they play (with a few minor exceptions). In North America, the visiting team is always listed first, the game clock always shows how much time is left to play, and the home team is always in the darker uniforms.
None of these things are, perhaps of any importance by themselves. However, together they change how a game is watched and experienced, especially on television. Why these particular small things are reversed is a mystery to me. Is it psychology? marketing? chance?
5. The International Perspective
Finally, North American major league team sports are entirely insular at the club level. They play all of their games and competitions against one another, no outsiders are wanted. This leads to the embarrassing situation where, say, a team in Ohio plays a team in Georgia for a “World” series or a “World” championship.
In the rest of the world, major team sports find every excuse to play different leagues, to challenge clubs from all over the globe. These international leagues and competitions sit on top of the national leagues and become a further incentive to good play. T o use English soccer as the example once again, the top four teams in the Premier League get to play in the following year’s Champions League against similarly successful clubs from all over Europe. The teams that come fifth to eighth in the English Premier League qualify for the Europa Cup. It is estimated that winning the Champions League is worth $100 million to a club, while winning the Europe Cup might be 20% of that. Similar high value competitions exist in rugby and cricket, and for soccer in other continents.
Major league sports teams outside North America do very well, thank you very much, both in terms of money and quality without any of the protected Trust-like setup that North American leagues feel the need to erect. They operate in a completely free market, where talent rises to its own level against peers from every corner of the globe. They are the true capitalists, while the Major League owners are more like a Stalin-era Politbureau stamping out competition.