A love note to franchise models and salary caps

From late April to the middle of June, the NBA Playoffs brought viewers edge-of-your-seat, outrageously dramatic, high-quality basketball. The world witnessed Damian Lillard’s ice-cold dismissal of the Houston Rockets via a buzzer-beater, the rekindling of a feisty rivalry of Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers and, of course, the vengeful wrath of the San Antonio Spurs against their old foes, the Miami Heat.

The NBA champions having been crowned, the world then tuned into to see the worlds’ best national teams battle it out in Brazil. In one of the best World Cups of all-time, everyone’s favorite Central American country, Costa Rica, surmounted unbelievable odds to make it to the quarterfinals, Germany made a mockery of the host nation, and the USMNT put on a great performance.

For that stretch of mid-June to the end of July, soccer was as great as it should be. But now, players are returning to their professional leagues, mostly in Europe, and we’re left with immensely boring competition until the next eminent international tournament, Euro 2016.

The off-season for both sports is in full swing. While NBA front offices are strategically retooling their rosters around the roughly $63 million salary cap, which is the maximum annual amount every NBA team can collectively pay their players, European soccer powerhouses are preparing to blow unadulterated amounts of money on whomever they want.

The NBA is a game of strategy that is won by general managers who correctly evaluate and draft talent, weasel lopsided sign-and-trades and build teams based on an exciting analytics movement that seeks to distinguish the truly valuable players in basketball. Unfortunately, soccer leagues throughout Europe are won by those who spend the most money, and because of this, they produce a garbage product.

The superior quality of the NBA largely arises from its operating upon a franchise model. The poor entertainment value of leagues like England’s Premier League or Spain’s La Liga can be attributed to their adherence to a relegation-promotion model.

An exciting league is a good league, and the franchise model’s main mode of ensuring excitement is maintaining parity. The annual NBA Draft is one of the primary mechanisms for keeping the league on a level playing field. By instituting a draft lottery, the league provides teams with the lowest records from previous season the highest chances of selecting highly-rated player in the Draft.

Another measure for equality is the salary cap, which prevents big-market teams from spending the vast wealth at their disposal and allows small-market teams, like the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder, to contend.

Relegation-promotion models instead strive for excitement by providing two focal points — the battle at the top, and the battle at the bottom.

The perennial powerhouses vie for qualification to the UEFA Champions League, an annual tournament between the top teams in Europe, while the lower-level teams are playing to avoid relegation back to a lower division. The financial powerhouse clubs, like Real Madrid or Chelsea, stay at the top of their leagues because of their ability to attract the best players with high wages.

Because there are no serious measures taken to institute parity, the less wealthy clubs are left with no real chance of ever winning the league. Therefore, the champions in each of the top four European soccer leagues — England’s Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga, Spain’s La Liga, and Italy’s Serie A — are almost always won by only two or three teams throughout a decade.

For most fans, that is an exceptionally dull prospect. How could you expect anything different when, for example, a Spanish team like Real Betis with a payroll of a mere 19 million euros tries to compete with the 220 million euro payroll of Real Madrid?

The result is top-heavy, predictable leagues. Because there is so much competition to prove a league’s quality in the Champions League, no European soccer league would implement a salary cap, even though it would improve the quality and balance of their own league. Any movement toward balance would require bringing down the quality of top teams, therefore sacrificing Champions League prowess.

Unless there are some changes made in the structure of professional soccer in Europe, I think I’ll stick with basketball.


Reach the columnist at bjmurph2@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @MurphJamin

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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