What a Super Bowl!!! Although I’m relatively new to American Football, this is one of the most exciting and end to end games I have watched, and the fact it came in the biggest game of the season only adds more kudos to it. Despite the Philadelphia Eagles finishing the regular season as the number one seed, they had been underdogs throughout the Play-Offs against first the Atlanta Falcons, then the Minnesota Vikings, and finally against the New England Patriots, due to the loss of their quarter-back Carson Wentz to a torn ACL and LCL on the 10th December. Without the injury he would surely have go on to be the league MVP.
Triumph against adversity indeed, not to mention the fact they had never lifted the Vince Lombardi trophy before this, having lost twice in the big game, and as they where facing the Patriots – a team who has appeared at the Super Bowl more than any other team, and returning for the fourth time in seven years. This is American Football though, the story of the underdog, the story of the American Dream, and the league which wants to be open and competitive – a team winning their third trophy in four years is not a good advertisement for “America’s Game”. Perhaps our footballing game needs to take a look at how the American’s do it before we end up with a game so detached from the real world of day to day people and so elitist people switch off and the bubble bursts.
As underdogs, any fan around the world without an association to either the New England Patriots, or Philadelphia’s rivals, was rooting for the Eagles – perhaps more in hope than expectation. I wanted the Eagles to win, but in my head I half expected Patriots domination and the Brady-Belichick partnership to set a new record for Super Bowl wins as a coach and quarter-back combo. In the preceding week when the Patriots came from behind to beat the resurgent Jacksonville Jaguars, although the Jags led from the off and gave themselves a relatively healthy leading at the end of the first half, there was something inevitable about Brady getting the job done to come from behind to win (albeit with the assistance of the officials, stopping the Jags from a potential pick six by blowing the whistle too early). My wife said she hated the fact that the inevitable always seems to happen when it comes to the Patriots, and that it didn’t seem fair that they were able to keep doing it. I felt it my duty to remind her that as she is a Manchester United fan, this is what every other football fan in England felt throughout the 90’s and the 00’s – that feeling that United would always come back to win a game late on, and usually would get some assistance from the officials. Looking from the outside in, I hope she saw and felt my pain for the last two and a half decades. In my eyes, the Patriots have been the Manchester United of the Alex Ferguson era – conquering all in front of them with a swagger and a confidence that just makes supporters of other clubs hate them more. If the Patriots where the Manchester United in this story, the Eagles where something akin to a Leicester City or a Blackburn Rovers – an underdog who had come from nowhere with no-one expecting them to even mount a run in to the Play-offs; they have a talisman in Wentz (Vardy/Shearer), a coach daring to be brave and attacking (Ranieri/Dalglish), and fans hungry for success for a long time (never won the top division before/81 years).
‘Our’ football can learn a lot from the American variation of the game, and I think it needs to before it consumes itself with greed and elitism. The National Football League prides itself on its parity – on ‘any given Sunday’ any team can beat another team (look at this season: the Patriot’s again won the AFC Championship, but lost to the Kansas City Chiefs (who only made the Wild Card week of the Play-offs), the Panthers (also made it to Wild Card week) and the Miami Dolphins (who finished 3rd in the AFC East), whilst being run close by the Texans, the Buccs, the Jets and the Steelers before the post-season) – in a regular season of 17 games, they lost almost a fifth of their games. No team in the NFL has gone a full season unbeaten since the 1972 Miami Dolphins who are the only team in history to go the whole season and post-season unbeaten. Look at the Super Bowl finalists for the last ten years: 14 different finalists (out of a possible 20). So how do they keep the playing field so level, and what football learn from this?
1. The Draft
The NFL draft ensures that the worse performing team in the league gets the first/best pick of the eligible college football players that year. Each teams position in the draft is determined by their final standing the previous year – so for the 2018 draft, the Cleveland Browns will pick first (again), and the Philadelphia Eagles will pick last each round. There are currently seven rounds, and the draft is undertaken over a weekend. The College players don’t really get a say in where they go, but that is accepted, as they have ‘made it’, they have beaten the odds to get signed for a team in the NFL. There are occasions where the order is changed and a team may ‘trade up’ by offering a team in a higher draft place a player or future draft pick in exchange for their pick in a certain round; if there is a player a team has identified as key to their development, it is a small price to pay for the better pick. Interestingly during the 2017-18 season the Dolphins traded star Running Back Jay Ajayi for a 4th round pick – a deal seen as somewhat bizarre given how good Ajayi has been for the last couple of seasons given the low round of the pick, potentially even more bizarre now he will have a Super Bowl ring on his finger. If a player isn’t selected during the Draft rounds they become an un-drafted free agent and can sign with any team who makes them an offer – the player can’t return to College though. Players drafted through this process are known as “Rookies” and they don’t command the fees the seasoned pro’s do – that said the league minimum paid $435,000 for the Rookie Season; it sounds like a lot compared to an every day job, but consider that Alex Smith’s recent move from the Chiefs to the Redskins will see him pick up an average of $23.5m a year over four years.
The Draft system wouldn’t work in our football as we don’t operate a College system for player development and recruitment – footballers are often signed to teams from a young age and they develop and either make the first team or are sold on; there isn’t an organised ‘talent-pool’ as such where players can be picked from to give the worst team the best player. What the Draft does do is ensure that transfer fees aren’t a barrier to team development through player acquisition. By the rules, the worst team gets the theoretical best player – in football, the worst team would commonly be the poorest team, and as such not able to afford the best players, whatever age or stage of development. Think Theo Walcott leaving Arsenal aged 16 and going to Tranmere – it just wouldn’t happen.
What also isn’t conducive to the Draft system is the geography of the Football game – it is played all around the world, with an open market for players sales and recruitment. The logistics of a world-wide draft would be mind-boggling, not to mention the algorithms for working out what place pick each team should have.
However, looking specifically at the UK, there are a lot of players who, at the end of their YTS contracts, are tossed on the scrapheap and left to fend for themselves in the real world, often with nothing more than GCSEs. Soccer camps and systems like the Glenn Hoddle Academy are aimed at getting former football scholars back in to professional football after being released. There are good footballers being lost this way, maybe a Draft-like system can be adopted to try and get these players new clubs. Consider this: an NFL Combine-type event is held for all the players to showcase their skills in a range of areas during a week; at the end of the week the teams in the football pyramid are placed in order of worst to best (from say Conference level to Championship) and they can pick through a number of rounds – if a team doesn’t like the look of anyone they can decline to pick. Wages could be set at capped levels for each round of the Draft. I’m sure the players themselves would relish the chance to show what they can do and get a new club; and the clubs get a chance to scout youngsters and sign them up for agreed wages – win win.
2. Transfer Fees and Salary Caps
The NFL (and NBA) do not operate a system whereby players are transferred for vast (or any) sums of money. Instead, they are either traded for another player or a Draft pick, or their contract runs down and they are free to join whoever they like (an unrestricted free agent). In some instances, a players contract may run down but they may then be given the ‘Franchise Tag’ – the tag binds a player to the team for one more year if certain conditions are met; each team only has one ‘Franchise Tag’ – this is often used to extend the bargaining period for new contracts. An “exclusive” franchise player must be offered a one-year contract for an amount no less than the average of the top five salaries at the player’s position as of a date in April of the current year in which the tag will apply, or 120 percent of the player’s previous year’s salary, whichever is greater. Exclusive franchise players cannot negotiate with other teams. The player’s team has all the negotiating rights to the exclusive player. A “non-exclusive” franchise player must be offered a one-year contract for an amount no less than the average of the top five cap hits at the player’s position for the previous five years applied to the current salary cap, or 120 percent of the player’s previous year’s salary, whichever is greater. A non-exclusive franchise player may negotiate with other NFL teams, but if the player signs an offer sheet from another team, the original team has a right to match the terms of that offer, or if it does not match the offer and thus loses the player, is entitled to receive two first-round draft picks as compensation.
This approach ensures that no team can dominate the market by paying extortionate transfer fees which rule other teams out of potential deals. This is further supported with the ‘Salary Cap’ which every team is subject to. In a nutshell, this is a cap set by the Collective Bargaining Agreement of the league, which all the teams must stay within – if a team violates the cap rules, they could be fined up to $5m for each violation, contracts may be cancelled and/or draft picks lost. There is a also a salary floor to go with the cap. Both the cap and the floor are adjusted annually based on the league’s revenues, and as such they have increased year upon year. Each season all teams combined must spend on average 95 percent of the cap or more on salaries. If the league doesn’t reach this limit, it must pay the players the remaining amount. The Salary Cap for 2017 was set at $167m, for 2018 it will be around the $178m mark. Cap space in conjunction with player recruitment needs (e.g. key positions needing to be filled) dictates how much a bargaining power a team has to sign free agents or in salary discussions as part of trades; the greater the cap space, the more you can spend on a player (think Alex Smith going to the Redskins – this represents a big chunk of their cap space). On the other hand, think about Kirk Cousins – he was a Franchise Tag player who will likely now be released as Smith arrives, but he is seen as a more than competent quarter-back, so his options may very well be linked to who needs a quarter-back and who has cap space.
So, although you don’t see extortionate transfer fees, it does potentially lead to massive contracts for some players, potentially creating disharmony in dressing rooms. However, it does keep the playing field level, as no matter the spending power of the owner or chair-person, they are restricted to the Salary Cap and Floor, which is the same for every team. The FA and UEFA tried to do something similar with Financial Fair Play (FFP) but the richer teams just found a way around this as it was aligned to club earnings rather than a line in the sand for all the teams in the league; if anything this only served to further stretch the gap between the haves and the have nots. The current landscape in England is that the clubs at the top of the league are pretty much the richest clubs (Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea) and the teams at the bottom are the poorest – what this is creating is almost leagues within leagues, as the richer clubs only pull further and further away from the rest of the league, and from the normal world experienced by the fans.
Is a Salary Cap the way forward? In my opinion, yes. In the Premier League, the Championship, and Leagues 1 and 2 to an extent, the income of the majority of clubs is dictated by the TV money combined with the wealth of the owner – if you have the wealthiest owner, you can spend the most money on the best players which will mean you make the Champions League every year, stay in the Premier League, get richer and further pull away from the poorer sides, creating more disparity and less competition (in theory). We are at a tipping point now in football where we can go two ways – we can stick to the norm and allow the richer clubs to get richer and move further and further away from the rest of the sides in the division and potentially country, towards what seems an inevitable European Super League; or we can do something about it now and look at ways to keep the spirit of competition alive by restricting either transfer spending or wage spending, or both. Look at the Premier League this year, Manchester City have spent a small fortune on what was already an expensive side, and surprise surprise they are running away with the league. If we don’t stop cap spending the game is going to get further and further away from those who love it.
The next TV deal is around the corner and it is likely the cost of the TV rights will again go up, meaning more money for teams to keep paying the exorbitant transfer fees and wages. And although on the surface it looks like it makes our league better, does it actually? Look at this way, TV company’s have to pay more money for the games, who foots that bill? The supporter with their subscriptions. The cost of transfers and wages go up – yes TV money helps pay for this, but who else pays? Supporters in the cost of their tickets, day out at the ground and merchandise. As players and clubs get richer, the supporters who are the lifeblood of the game get poorer. We now have a Premier League which is actually a top 6 and then everyone else, this isn’t good for competition.
Do transfer fees really mean anything these days? As the numbers get more and more obscene, there looks to be no limit on what a player can be transferred for, and does it really matter for the clubs paying the money? They can afford it and more so what is the point of the transfer fee? In the last transfer window some of the biggest deals were done outside of transfer fees with Sanchez and Mkhitaryan moving without fees but for extravagant wages. On the flip side, do contracts really mean that much, with players well known for signing a new four year deal only to leave before the end of the next transfer window. Would there be something to be said for getting rid of transfer fees (similar to the NFL) and basing player movements on contract expiries and trades? It would put more emphasis on the contracts players sign and make them think twice before signing somewhere for the sake of it when they may actually already be eyeing up a move elsewhere. Add in a salary cap for each division and you could quickly bring the game more in line with the common man, whilst also preventing some clubs from over-spending and finding themselves in financial trouble, and stop the rich clubs from spending their way to glory.
3. Man of the Year
To follow on from the point of footballers being more detached from the real-world with the money they earn and spend, the NFL has the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year. This is an award presented annually by the NFL to honour a player’s volunteer work and charity work, as well as their excellence on the field. Each year the winner is selected from 32 nominees from the 32 different teams. Wouldn’t it be good to see some of the best players in the Premier League go the extra mile for charity and see some recognition for it, surely it would make them more relate-able to the average football fan?
The last thing Football can learn from the NFL is with regards to video referees and the impending introduction of VAR in to the beautiful game. Yes, in NFL it used to confirm if a touchdown should stand or not, but the players don’t like it and it slows the game down massively, in some circumstances to the point that a touchdown is scored and a team cannot celebrate for 3-4 minutes until it’s been confirmed by people watching the game thousands of miles away. Although what they do well with their video referees is display the footage to all in the stadium so they can see what is being reviewed and can better understand the final call. By not having this feature in football often means the fans at the game are left in the dark with regards to what is actually happening and what is being reviewed, and why the eventual decision is given; yet another way that the armchair fan benefits when the fan at the ground doesn’t.
The NFL and the English Football are two completely different sports in more ways than one, but at the same time there are lessons to be learnt from our American counterparts to ensure we don’t lose the game we love and to ensure we can keep it competitive – now more than ever we need to look at what we can do to keep the Premier League competitive without the risk of crippling and destroying clubs.