European vs North American Sports

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North America and Europe have much which separates them culturally as well as geographically. One of the biggest differences is in the area of sports.

Not just which sports we play, but in how sports are organized. Many people on either side of the Atlantic have no clue how sports are organized on the other side, or at least have major misconceptions.

Learn more about how sports are managed and operated in Europe and North American on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

In comparing North American and European sports, I think everyone recognizes that the sports they play are very different.

The two largest professional leagues in North America are the National Football League and Major League Baseball. Neither American football nor baseball is played at any serious level in Europe. Likewise, soccer is played in North America, but not nearly to the degree to which it is followed and played in Europe. (and yes, I’m going to call it soccer for this episode just to avoid confusion with American football) 

I’m primarily going to focus on how sports are structured because the differences are quite profound. I don’t think either system of sports is “better”. I think each system has serious benefits and serious drawbacks. As an American, I can look at European sports and see things that I wish we did, and likewise, I can see things that I’m glad we don’t do. 

The first thing we need to clear up is the use of certain words. In particular the terms club and league. 

There are subtle distinctions between a club in Europe and a club in North America. A team like the New York Yankees or the Dallas Cowboys is often called a club, but in reality, they are a franchise. They are a company that is part of a larger organization and they own a membership stake in that organization. The number of franchises is set and teams can only be added or removed by a vote of all of the teams. 

Occasionally, a league will expand and when it does a new team will be added to the league. These teams are brand new teams that never existed before and were started from scratch. They have no history or traditions.

No matter how good or bad a team is, they can’t get kicked out of the league based on performance because they have an ownership stake in the league. 

In Europe, a club has a very different meaning. A club might be owned by someone, but a club doesn’t have a right to be in any particular league. 

Manchester United plays in the English Premier League. However, their membership in the Premier League is dependent on their performance. If they don’t perform, they will get kicked out of the league. The team will still exist, but they will have to play in a different league.

Brings us to the first and biggest distinction between Europe and North America: Promotion and Relegation. 

I’m going to use the English Football system to illustrate my point, but the same applies to most sports leagues in Europe.

The English Premier League has 20 teams. Every year, the bottom three teams are removed from the league and they are relegated to the English Football League Championship, which is an entirely different league. Likewise, three teams from the EFL Championship are promoted to the English Premier League. 

This system in England has three professional levels below the Premier League: Championship, League One and League Two.

What happens when someone at the bottom of League Two gets relegated? They get sent down to the National League, which is a professional/semi-professional league.

The ladder of leagues keeps going town to serious amateur clubs, down to local clubs playing in cow pastures. There are 12 different levels going from the top teams in the world all the way down to friends who play together on weekends. 

The closest thing to this which exists in North America would be minor league baseball. The difference being that the teams do not move up and down between leagues. Each team is fixed in each league, and the players move up and down. Each minor league team is usually, but not always, associated with a major league team, and they move players around between them.

The great part about the promotion and relegation system is that there is always something to play for. A middling team that gets promoted to a higher league can be a huge accomplishment and potentially a lot of money. Teams at the bottom of a league have to play for their lives. 

No one really cares about who wins a minor league baseball championship. Minor league teams don’t really have fanatical followers because the teams don’t exist for their own sake. 

With some differences, most countries in Europe have a similar system. There is a national system of leagues, with one professional league at the top. How good the professional league usually is, is often dependent on the size of the country and the amount of money involved. 

Many of these top tier leagues you might have heard of: The Bundesliga in Germany, La Liga in Spain, Series A in Italy, and Ligue 1 in France. Not coincidently, these are the biggest countries in Europe. 

There is a league above all of these in Europe, called the Champions League. This consists of the top teams in all the European Leagues, and everyone must qualify for it every year. 

The downside to this system is that you almost always wind up with just a small number of teams which have any chance of winning a championship in any given year. 

In the Scottish Premier League for example, only two teams have won the championship in the last 35 years: Celtic and the Rangers.

Likewise, there are really only 2 or 3 teams every year in La Liga in Spain which have a chance at winning: Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atlético Madrid dominating almost every year.

In the English Premier League, there might be five teams with a real shot, with similar small numbers of France, Germany, and Italy. 

In North America, because the economic model is different, the league as a whole has a vested interest in parity. There are several checks which ensure that one team can’t have too much of a competitive edge over its rivals.

The biggest thing would be the draft. Because most North American sports are either played nowhere else, or the highest level of the sport is found in North America, the leagues can place restrictions on who plays where. This is mostly done via a draft. 

When a player enters the league for the first time, they usually will do so via the draft. In the draft, the teams in the league will select players in reverse order of how well they performed in the previous season. Hence, the worst team will get the first pick, and the champion will get the last pick in each round. 

The goal of this is to ensure that the best teams don’t keep getting better and it keeps competition in check. 

A downside of this is that some teams will now purposely do bad for several seasons to amass high draft picks over several seasons, to then try to compete a few years later. This was used with great success by the Houston Astros who went from being absolutely horrible to winning the World Series.

The other mechanism which keeps teams in check is the salary cap. North American leagues all have some form of soft or hard salary cap which limits the amount which teams can spend on players. In baseball they have a soft cap. Teams can spend as much as they want, but over a certain level they have to pay a tax back to the other teams. In the NFL it is a very hard cap which limits total team payroll. 

The result of this is that you have much more parity in North American sports. In any given year, about half the teams have some sort of reasonable chance of winning. In the last six years, six different major league baseball teams have won a championship. Likewise, five different teams have won an NBA title in the last seven years, and 10 different NFL teams have won a super bowl in the last 12 years. 

Another major distinction between Europe and North America is how champions are determined.

North American sports always determine a champion in a championship game. There is a regular season, of which the only purpose is really to determine who makes the playoffs and the seeding in the playoffs. That means that the best teams throughout a season might not be the team which wins the championship. 

In 2001 the Seattle Mariners had the best record of any team in baseball history, and didn’t even make it to the World Series. In 2007, the New England Patriots had a perfect season, only to lose in the Super Bowl.

For most European leagues, the regular season is the season. There is usually a double round robin schedule where every team plays every other team home and away, and the team with the most points is declared the champion. 

However, European leagues will often have a separate competition during the season in the form of a single elimination tournament, which often involves all of the teams across all of the different leagues. 

These tournaments not only allow smaller teams a chance for greatness every year, but it adds more trophies a team can win each season.

The Football Association Cup in England has hundreds of teams from level 10 all the way up to the Premier League which compete every year. Granted, it is almost always a Premier League team which wins, but everyone is still part of the event.

This leads to some teams in some seasons who can win a double or treble, when they win multiple trophies in a single season. 

A tournament like this has been proposed for both baseball and basketball, but nothing has come of it yet.

Before I end I should make a special note about Major League Soccer, a popular European sport but a North American League. Four of the five largest sports leagues in terms of revenue are in North America, with only the English Premier League edging out the National Hockey League.

Surprisingly, the MLS is now the 7th biggest professional soccer league in the world behind England, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, and Brazil. However, unlike the other soccer leagues, it does not have a system of relegation and promotion, nor do they have any desire to do so. Recent expansion franchises spent over $100 million to buy into the MLS and don’t want to get relegated to another league after that investment.

However, unlike other North American teams, the MLS doesn’t have a global monopoly on top talent. They do have a draft for American and Canadian talent, but it doesn’t mean much because those players ca go sign anywhere in the world if they want.

In 10 years, the landscape could change drastically if the MLS can get a major TV deal. If they can even reach the same level as the National Hockey League, they would be larger than every other major soccer league in the world outside of the Premier League.

Right now, the MLS is where old good players who played in Europe go to make money in the last few years of their career, but it could soon be where top players go in the prime of their career. Because the US and Canada don’t have so many lower level teams to divide fan loyalty and money, you could see the MLS becoming a major player in world club soccer in the not too distant future.