National Pastime

The subtitle for this book is “How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer.” The cover has a huge soccer ball with an imprint of the globe on it and a little baseball hanging in its atmosphere. I like that imagery a lot.

I’m a huge sports fan. Inordinately large chunks of my waking hours usually revolve around participating in, reading about, and watching sports. I have time for this because I don’t do any drugs, don’t hang out at bars, don’t watch any TV sitcoms, dramas or reality shows, and don’t play video games. It’s just a values-based decision that I made a long time ago.

I’ve always found soccer very interesting because of the depth of the average soccer fan’s addiction. It’s something that I can’t match and I don’t often find that level of fandom here in the US. I thought I was a sports junkie, but I can’t carry an Arsenal fan’s jock. So one day I saw this book comparing the quintessential American game of baseball to the quintessential world sport of soccer, and I immediately knew I had to read it.

Szymanski and Zimbalist are econ professors and they set out to explain why each sport gained hold with their respective fans. They also compare and contrast the flow of cash in and out of the clubs, athletes, and media outlets in both sports. It’s a fascinating read for a sports junkie. But be warned, it reads like a text book.

Baseball is an unregulated monopoly that captivates the US nightly for about seven months. It’s on every damn night for 200+ days from April to October and it makes a boatload of money. When I say boatload, I mean a lot of coin spread across everybody involved with the sport. It’s not just the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox that are making all of the money; the Kansas City Royals and the Toronto Blue Jays are doing alright themselves. The rules of baseball are set up with the intention of increasing parity because the powers that be think this is a good thing for baseball. I can’t argue, but baseball just doesn’t interest me.

Sure, I will watch the Cubs in the playoffs, but just because I’m a sports fan – just for the drama – just to be able talk about it with other sports fans. I know, it’s a superficial level of fandom. Am I ashamed of this superficiality? Why would I be? I have my sports. I’m deeply involved in golf and college football. I do NOT have any superficiality when it comes to these sports. Hey, I gotta pick my fights.

If I lived in Europe I would be a scary huge fan of soccer. I would be a hoodlum.

The most significant difference between big league American sports and international soccer is this idea of promotion and relegation. Let’s take England for example. So you have the “major league” with the 20 best teams called the Premier League. Then right below that you have another 20 teams in what’s called the First Division. However, the First Division is not the minor league. It’s just the league below that isn’t on TV as much and for the most part isn’t as lucrative as the Premier League. Here’s the kicker – have a seat before I tell you. At the end of the season, the three teams at the top of the First Division get promoted to the Premier League and the three worst teams in the Premier get relegated to the First Division.

This is a big deal, here is what the authors say about it:

Promotion and relegation increases competition and reduces the long-term monopoly power of the big clubs. Relocation threats are not credible under promotion and relegation. Giving up because the season is not going well is not credible under promotion and relegation (unless you want to exit the major leagues). It is a hypercompetitive system in comparison with a closed system, and it shows in the relatively higher profitability and lower frequency of financial failure in the U.S. majors than in the top European soccer leagues.

Soccer is war. You think the White Sox are in a war? I think not. They basically quit playing about two months ago. They wouldn’t have quit if they had the threat of relegation hanging over their heads. Relegation means the loss of millions of dollars along with the loss of a lot of prestige. Instead, the White Sox get rewarded with a first round draft pick and they still get the same share of revenue sharing. The only people that lose are the fans. Nice huh? Where are the socialists? Right here, in American Baseball.

Besides this, there are other things that really make soccer a fan friendly sport. Here’s a little more from the authors:

Soccer has been unbalanced throughout its history, yet it has managed to become the world’s most popular sport, and in most countries where it is played it dominates sporting culture more than, say, baseball does in the United States. This is because soccer has so many other attractive attributes: the national interest, local club loyalty, local rivalry, the different levels of competition (national league, Cup and international club competition), and the excitement of promotion and relegation. Take the example of Tottenham Hotspur, which for most of the past decade has been a mid-table Premier League team with no realistic hope of winning the championship. Of the nineteen home games played in a season, most will be sellouts. Each game has its own special attraction. First, the game played against Arsenal, Tottenham’s traditional London rival, is probably the most important game of the season. Then there are the matches against the leading teams, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, which give the fans a chance to watch famous national and international stars. Then there is the prospect for qualifying for a European competition. While on the top four qualify for the Champions League in the following season, teams ranked up to sixth can qualify for the UEFA Cup, another pan-European competition that is attractive to the clubs. If, in any season, Tottenham does not have a realistic chance of finishing in the top six, then it is certainly in danger of finishing as low as eighteenth, in which case the team is threatened with relegation.

You get the idea. Baseball is so boring that you need to supplement it with football and basketball to get your charge. I guess, in a different way, soccer is so boring that you need to supplement it with international competitions, cup competitions, and pan-Euro club competitions to get your charge.

What do I know? I’m a fan of college football and golf, so none of the big three pro sports really get much of my attention. But if I lived in Europe, I would be a big fan of soccer, I just know it. I also like strong coffee, crumpets, and wearing ascots.