In reverse chronological order, the last eight champions of Portugal’s top soccer league are Benfica, Porto, Porto, Porto, Porto, Benfica, Porto, and Porto. In Scotland, the list reads Rangers, Rangers, Celtic, Celtic, Celtic, Rangers, Celtic, and Rangers. In England, the same three clubs—Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea—have won all but one Premier League title since the competition was founded in 1992. La Liga, the top division in Spain, has ended 51 seasons by crowning either Real Madrid or F.C. Barcelona.
Winning a title in European soccer, like having fox-hunting experience or standing near Charlotte Casiraghi, is largely a matter of pedigree. Europe’s top divisions are dominated by two- or three- or four-club blocs, groups of old-guard status-quo titans who manage, year after year, to win just about everything. (This season’s front-runners in the leagues listed above: Porto, Celtic, Manchester United, and Barcelona.) There are exceptions—France and Germany are both somewhat more egalitarian—but they don’t so much prove the rule as huddle irrelevantly alongside it.
For a smaller club hoping to dislodge one of the soccer world’s doorstops, the odds are exceedingly grim. Not only do the domestic superpowers have the advantages of tradition and popularity—their fan bases are bigger, they sell more replica shirts, and the top players and coaches tend to fall right into their wallets—but the leagues themselves are often designed to protect their interests. In soccer, money is destiny, and destiny’s not distributed equally. The bulk of the game’s revenue comes in the form of television-rights income, a sizable chunk of which, in many countries, is handed out according to factors like a club’s league standing, the size of its supporter base, and the number of times its games were shown on TV. The clique of ruling teams is guaranteed the largest share.
The Premier League, in fact, began when a breakaway faction of top English clubs decided to stop sharing their television money. And even within that protected class, there are large disparities. Chelsea took in $30 million more in TV revenue last season than their London neighbors and Premier League rivals West Ham. That’s cash the larger club can instantly lavish on fresh superstars, making it that much harder for West Ham to catch up. (Keep in mind that, like most soccer leagues, the Premier League has no salary cap and no draft.) The clubs that finish highest in their divisions then qualify for the Champions League, where even greater riches await. Soccer’s not fixed, but it’s a little fixed.
For American fans raised on revenue sharing and luxury taxes and the idea that the least successful teams should get the first crack at new talent—all mechanisms designed to keep the little guy in the race—it can be startling to realize that many soccer leagues are out to crush the little guy under a boulder. Consider the new TV rights plan in Spain. In the past, Barcelona and Real Madrid negotiated their TV contracts individually. Now, they’ve agreed to join a collective with many of the other top clubs, a gambit that should increase the overall revenue pool. But as a condition of joining the group, the two goliaths demanded 34 percent of the TV proceeds for themselves. Over the life of the deal, this will grant them hundreds of millions of dollars more than even the third and fourth best teams in Spain. Their ongoing supremacy has essentially been written into the rulebook.
The old joke about soccer and American sports is that mild, single-payer Europe somehow gave birth to ruthlessly capitalist sports leagues, while laissez-faire America coughed up socialist ones. In light of the systemic inequalities facing soccer clubs, it might be more apt to say that European leagues are feudal aristocracies—a free-for-all for the lords, not so free for the peasants. American leagues include built-in social mobility: The NFC has sent 10 different teams to the Super Bowl in the last 10 years. Even the Yankees and the Red Sox, the most European-style franchises in American sports, have their dominance checked by Major League Baseball—imagine how mangled they might have left the rest of the league without the luxury tax and the last-place-team-picks-first MLB draft. With no such enforced equality, the only clubs to break into, or even threaten to break into, the ranks of the English soccer dynasties in the last decade are Chelsea and Manchester City, clubs bankrolled, respectively, by a Russian plutocrat and the royal family of a Middle Eastern emirate. For a nouveau richeclub to break into the landed gentry, it needs a whole lot of riche.
All of which leads to the big question: Should fans worry about any of this? Clearly, it’s a maddening situation for supporters of second- and third-tier clubs, teams that are effectively barred by law from achieving great success. (Especially in the smaller soccer countries, it’s not uncommon for fans to support both their own local club and one of the national giants—there’s no contradiction, because they’re competing on different planes.) From the perspective of neutrals, the question is more complicated. It’s a matter of sacrificing one source of excitement for another.
We don’t usually think about sports in these terms, but a league is a design problem—an aesthetic problem, really. A professional sports league has to balance distinct and often contradictory priorities, and how it does so helps to determine, before a player sends a single ball moving through space, the sort of experience it will offer fans.
One reason people like to watch team sports is to witness intensely competitive games—contests between evenly matched opponents in which the outcome hangs in doubt. Another is to watch extraordinarily gifted players play the game at the highest level. If you engineer a league to have an even distribution of talent—tightly regulating player movement, enforcing spending limits, funneling cash and talent to the weakest teams—then you encourage close games. But because the best players are spread out across more teams, you discourage fantastic displays of skill.
If, on the other hand, you build a league to concentrate talent among a few top teams—lifting spending limits, making sure the elite take the lion’s share of revenue—you might see transcendent teams push the game to unprecedented heights. You will also send the competition spiraling in the direction of one-sidedness. Watching Madrid in full flight can be breathtaking … but who were they playing again? (Sid Lowe pointed out last month that Madrid and Barcelona had won 119 of their last 140 games against teams outside their duopoly, losing—collectively—six.) At one end of the scale is a slot-machine tournament. At the other is the Harlem Globetrotters.
The old chat-room debate about parity vs. dynasties, in other words, is deeply embedded in the structures of sports leagues themselves. American and European leagues have taken radically divergent paths in resolving that debate, mostly for economic reasons. The closed, cartel-like American leagues favor stringent equality, while the messier, less tightly controlled European leagues are more susceptible to what a politician would call “powerful interests.” In America, when a team like the Miami Heat acquires three world-class players, it provokes a nationwide meltdown. In Europe, Real Madrid frequently leaves three world-class players on the bench.
For fans, or for me anyway, each approach offers something that the other gives up. I love the crazy steeplechase of the NFL season, but there’s some justice to Bill Simmons’ complaints about the era of “perpetual putridity.” I wish more soccer games felt important, but I also love the larger-than-life, consistent-across-seasons personalities of the top teams, which lend them a quality of glitzy myth—the Iliad plus tabloid headlines.
So how do you find the right line? Would it be worth achieving greater parity in soccer if it meant breaking up Barcelona? (Is it OK if I answer no?) By the same token, imagine if American leagues had developed along the lines of European soccer. Would it have been more fun to watch the Lakers trample the Bucks by 40, back in the day, if the Lakers had a roster as stacked as the 1992 Dream Team? At least in soccer there’s the Champions League, where the various god-behemoths finally groan onto the field against each other. The NFL, by contrast, is the only high-level American football competition in the world (sorry, Finland). Does it need extreme parity in order to keep the stakes high, or—after five straight years in which the defending Super Bowl champion has failed to win a playoff game—would it be more exciting for fans to have a reliable standard of excellence?
As a practical matter, these are irrelevant questions as long as the money keeps rolling in on both sides of the Atlantic. Philosophically, they make an absorbing conundrum, and how you answer it depends on whether your list of supreme traits in sports includes excitement, suspense, intensity, and drama—or beauty, beauty, greatness, greatness, and greatness.