Fixing Professional Sports Leagues in the U.S.

In the U.S., we have all these leagues for our sports. NBA for basketball, NFL for football, MLB for baseball, NHL for hockey. I follow pretty much all four leagues for the most part. But over the course of this past year, you start hearing things of teams being unlucky for not making the playoffs because of schedule of strength or being in a tough division, teams choosing to bomb their season for the sake of a draft pick, or other such non-sense. However, it hasn’t been going on just this year. It’s been going on for a long, long time. Teams losing steam or motivation to do well. The same team winning year after year. Scheduling unfairness.

Because of all this, it’s given me a bit more appreciation of the way that the European football (soccer) leagues are run. Let me explain this model in a manner that people can identify with as possible. It’s one of the simplest, yet effective ways of determining a league champion and also bringing other aspects that encourage and drive teams to play to the very end.

You play each of your opponents twice: Once at home. Once away. With the whole regards to schedule of strength, this removes that aspect of the game. Teams don’t get punished and have no chance of making the playoffs bceause they have to play everyone on their home turf and on their opponent’s field. No longer do we have the Steelers having to fight every single week playing a difficult team each week or the Arizona Cardinals breezing through the NFC West. You don’t have to worry about being punished for being in a difficult or weird division to travel in, like the Northwest division in the NBA. Oklahoma City… in the Northwest. Right…

No divisions, but rivalries are still there. One of the things about having few games is it creates more drama and build-up leading to the game. So when things get a little intense, say with controversial calls or fisticuffs flying, it makes the next meeting that much more exciting and vital to win. If you meet four times in a season, the emotions die quickly because you’ll have two or three more times to get your revenge and win.

No playoffs, but rather “Winner takes all”. This one is one of the better aspects, probably one anyone other than soccer purists won’t appreciate as much. There are eighteen or twenty teams in each league. Like I said earlier, you play two games against each team, meaning that your team will play either 34 to 38 games, depending on the size of the league. After that, you determine the league champion by playing in an eight-team playoff right? Wrong. Whoever is at the top of the standings wins the trophy. Simple as that. It makes each game of equal importance. You can’t have a bad night because that loss might cost you in the end. You can’t make it up like you would in a 82 or 162 game season like the NBA, NHL, or the MLB. Make it count.

Last place means good draft pick right? Nope. It’s relegation, sucker. Right now, the Detroit Lions are 0-13. It means that they’re lined up for a pretty solid draft pick in 2009. Same with Cincinnati and Seattle (due to tiebreakers). But in European soccer, if you’re in the bottom three or four, it means you’re getting sent down to a lower league (think of it like the minor leagues of baseball). It means less money and less air time on TV. There are no drafts. It’s a fight for survival and you have to play out the entire season to ensure that you stay in the top league.

Teams earn money for their finishes. This is simple enough. Depending on where you finish in your league, it can make a huge difference in the amount of money you receive at the end of the season. That money goes to help out in paying to bring in new players, new coaches or staff, or even expand or build your new stadium.

Can’t win your league? Well, there’s always the league cup. While only one team can win the league championship, there’s other trophies you can play for. Each country has their own country-wide tournament. Think of it like a nation-wide NCAA basketball tournament but almost anyone can play in. It’s single-elimination for the most part, but think about it… You might get the opportunity to play against a professional team at least once in your lifetime, even though you might not be a pro yourself. But in any case, it’s a consolation for many teams to win their country’s cup as they can say they managed to be the last one standing in their country. It also gives you an opportunity to play in something bigger too…

European bragging rights… I think this is the coolest aspect of soccer in Europe. Even if you’re no longer in the race for the league title, you still have something to fight for. That being a shot at your place in a huge tournament.

The top three or four teams in each country’s top league all get rounded up and compete in the ultimate tournament: The UEFA Champions League. There’s a few qualifying matches that teams have to play in order to get there, depending on their country’s performance in tournaments and so forth (as there are 51 or so countries in the entire federation).

It eventually comes down to 32 teams in a group stage, then cut down to 16 to have a home-and-home elimination tournament (play one at home, one away, team with most goals advances, away goals in the case of a tie), all leading to the final in some large venue in Europe, whether it be London, Paris, Madrid, Moscow, or somewhere grand. Famous teams battling it out, contrasting styles of play, and your favorite players from all over the world all on the same field. Sure, World Cup is cool, but nothing of this sort.

And there’s a smaller version of it in the form of the UEFA Cup (to be called the Europa Cup), for those teams that finish in fourth of fifth place, depending on their league, as well as league cup champions (assuming the’re not in the Champions League).

That the way that a lot of our leagues are organized and structured, there’s that sense of boredom or apathy at some point. Because of such long seasons and so many games, they’re sometimes not as important as others, so the smaller games, people aren’t as likely to come to. And if you’re doing so horrible, you might as well just shut down operations for the season and get that nice draft pick. How is that fair to your paying fans that come to watch your team? There’s no benefit for playing a strong lineup either if your team isn’t doing well enough to make it to the playoffs nor poorly enough to get a solid draft pick because of the potential for career-ending injuries. Again, no incentive to play out the entire season, even if it is just for the fans, which teams and their owners don’t really care about. It’s about the money that they can bring in.

Playoffs are pretty cool because it creates new energy and revives people’s desires in the league after the long boring season. But in doing so, it negates the purpose of the regular season. Why? Because everyone starts all over again. Your regular season record helps you determine your seed, but if you did well against that team, seeding doesn’t matter in the first place. There ultimately is no incentive other than home-field advantage (playing one more game at home) and playing in front of your fans in finishing first. Think about the Lakers playing the Hornets last season. It was a blowout in that playoff series, despite the fact that the Hornets had home-court advantage. Why spend all that energy playing 82 or 162 games to negate it playing your worse match-up? This is also where the complacency and apathy towards playing out the entire season comes in. If you’re in, you want to prepare for the playoffs, thus you rest starters and play your bench. How is that fair to fans that want to see your star players near the end of the season?

And the way that the schedule is structured and organized, sometimes, it might screw your team over. Like the Steelers in the NFL this year. They not only have to face teams in the AFC, but also arguably the hardest division in the league as well in the NFC East with Philadelphia, Dallas, Washington, and the N.Y. Giants. And yet, the Arizona Cardinals are playing in NFC West, where they have six of their sixteen games against teams with records of 5-8 or 2-11. Note that five of the Cardinals wins are from the division alone and that they’re 8-5, with still one left to play against Seattle. Not so in the European model.

And ultimately, there’s no incentive beyond your league. In the end, you’re going to be there regardless of what happens, good or bad. You know that you’re the best team in the league by winning the championship? Cool. That’s it. There’s nothing left to really go after… except another one the following year. I think that’s what the European tournament does that the U.S. model will never be able to achieve. It gives teams something even higher to fight for, beyond their domestic leagues. Not only that, but it brings in more revenue as well. More of these games, more air time, more money. How wrong can someone go with that? And it truly brings the ultimate title of “best team in the continent” and puts more foreign press focusing on your sport.

While radical reformations of these leagues are out of the question due to the sheer controversy and problems that would result from it, there has got to be some changes that can push teams to try harder as the season progresses or at least not lose their interest over its course. Why is this? Maybe it’s something else. Maybe it has to do with team management. Maybe it’s the players. Maybe it’s the way the leagues run. There’s so many different things we can point at. But maybe we can take a look at the European soccer model for ideas to start off. While the current league models in the U.S. have been succesful, there still can be a lot of improvement to them.

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