Thursday, January 03, 2013

Three to Read-Football and Throwball Edition

Number 1 Overall Pick, Prof. Andrew Wenger
In the world of United States sports, we are used to some crazy rules, and Major League Soccer is no different, with things like Designated Players, Generation Adidas contracts, homegrown player contracts all having some or all of their salary exempt from the salary cap (or team budget as MLS calls its).  But by comparison, I suppose MLS rules are easy--I still don't get the salary cap economics of the NFL.

Well, in Europe there are not a lot of regulations on club spending for players.  But UEFA (the governing body of European football) is imposing Financial Fair Play rules.  Andrew Wenger has an excellent post about FFP rules.  Wenger certainly shows the quality of his Duke University education, shows his analytical skills that earned him a history major.  Oh, yeah, Wenger was also the #1 overall pick in MLS for 2012, being selected by the Montreal Impact.  How many #1 draft picks in other sports can put together such a cogent and relevant article?

In European soccer, [financial] regulations are largely non-existent.  Thus it is a utopia for any ambitious owner to attempt to lead their club to the apex of European soccer, the UEFA Champions League.  Many clubs have attempted to attain this goal by building a team full of talent.  Clubs have used modern financial instruments such as leveraged buyouts and excessive amounts of debt.  They have given their plans fancy names such as the “Galacticos Project.”  This sometimes-dangerous process of building a talented team is where regulation is lacking in protecting European club soccer.  In 2009, UEFA did a study of the 655 European soccer clubs and learned that half of them ran a deficit the previous year.[2]   The lack of financial regulation has recently allowed several soccer clubs to go into bankruptcy because they could not pay their creditors.  In response to such occurrences, there is increasing pressure to implement some financial regulations to help protect the solvency of the world’s game.

It is a good, well written historical account of UEFA trying to make sure that clubs don't spend themselves and their competitors into bankruptcy.

Throwball Follies
Leaving the world of Football and entering the world of Throwball (what I call American football), Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett announced the the State of Pennsylvania is suing the NCAA in order to have to the sanctions imposed by the NCAA against Penn State University's disgraced throwball program for its systematic cover-up of years of sexual abuse of boys by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.  It should be noted that Penn State accepted the sanctions and is not a party to this suit. Outside the Beltway's Doug Mataconis has a pithy summary: "Corbett’s attempt to undo those sanctions is effectively an argument that the PSU football program should not be punished at all for what it did, and I don’t see how that can be a morally defensible position."

Christine Brennan, writing for USA today, shreds Governor Corbett:

It’s not a coincidence at all that the announcement was made Wednesday, right after the New Year’s Day bowl games. Corbett said he “didn’t want to file during football season to take away from the team’s momentum.” 
He actually said those words. Something this vitally important had to wait for the football season to end? If this weren’t such a serious topic, if this weren’t so pathetic and appalling, it would be laughable. Who is running this state, Barney Fife?
Indeed, both Brennan and Mataconis note that the timing of the suit may be a last ditch effort to keep head throwball coach Bill O'Brien at Penn State rather than take a lucrative job in the NFL or at least not at Penn State.  Mataconis also notes that Corbett is up for re-election in 2014.  Being a friend to Penn State may help.

Back (to the Future of) American Soccer (or real Football)
As I noted above, Major League Soccer has a whole bunch of rules regarding player salaries and the salary cap.  One of the exemptions from the salary cap is the homegrown player, that is players that have developed in a teams Academy and affiliated clubs.  These players can be signed by the club and have their entire salary be exempt from the salary cap and if the player is sold or transferred abroad the team gets the lion's share of the transfer fee.  Over the past several years, most MLS clubs have signed multiple homegrown players to contracts, but there is an interesting demographic trend that is beginning to develop--the true homegrown and hometown player--epitomized by Columbus Crew's Will Trapp.

On December 13th 2012, Trapp signed a homegrown player contract with Columbus Crew after two years at the University of Akron and four as a pupil in the Columbus Crew academy. The Lincoln High School product heads into the 2013 season a professional soccer player, fulfilling a dream of his in more than one category. Not only does he get paid to play sports, but as well…. Wil signed a contract for the team that he has watched and loved growing up.

This year, Major League Soccer would be old enough to vote.  That means for young players like the 19 year old Trapp, he is growing up and playing in a time when he cannot remember there not being MLS as part of the sporting landscape.  As I have noted in other places, the growth of the American soccer community is dependent upon the aging of the millennial generation, of Will Trapp's generation.

There is a whole generation of boys and girls who not only play soccer, but also are fans who have had the opportunity to see live professional soccer in their own country.  They have their own heroes now.  Sure Messi, Ronaldo, and other famous players can be seen regularly on TV and occaisionally here in the United States, but they can also see Beckham, Dononvan, and others right here in the states.  That is where MLS has made significant inroads.  MLS' slow steady progression, coupled with an very public effort by NBC/Universal family of networks to boost the game has built a community the only way it can be done, slowly.  
But the game is also building an even broader fan base outside of MLS.  A good idea of the growth of the game from a fan and supporter viewpoint is found at lower levels of the game.  Even at the college level, some schools are drawing significant crowds to games.  Just this year, the University of California Santa Barbara drew over 13,000 fan for a single game.  UCSB averages well over 3000 fans a game, as do other title contenders such as Maryland and Akron.  For college games. 
Even at the high school level, while nothing beats the social draw of the Friday night football game, soccer games are drawing more fans than just the parents and family of the players.  Sure, crowds are measured in the low 100 fans, it is the fact that students are coming to support their team that makes a difference.  It is the student fans that matter. 
These students, aged 14-17, are the generation that will alter the soccer community in America.  These teenagers have grown up in a country with its own developing league, with access to world soccer unmatched in previous years.  Whether it is the fact that they are fans of DC United or Manchester United or Inter Milan, the access to the favorite teams means they learn more about the game.  They have role models to emulate on the field.  They learn the rules, the tactics, the style of play of their game and the come to follow their team.  Just like the baby boomer generation followed the Yankees, the Dodgers or the Red Sox, modern teenagers no longer abandon the sport of soccer when they enter high school.  Indeed many are embracing it because their non-playing schoolmates embrace it.  The fact that these young men and women no longer feel the stigma of playing soccer as opposed to football or baseball, they are seen as true athletes and supported as such.  
The Millennial Generation is the first in the United Statess that cannot remember a sports landscape without MLS.  they will pass on their love of the game to the next generation, so that in 20-30 years, 40,000 fans at an MLS game will not be restricted to Seattle.

The MLS draft will take place later this month, all of the players being drafted this month will be similar to Trapp, they will have grown up in America (for the most part) in which they cannot remember not having a soccer league in the United States.  That is how the game will grow.

Check out my soccer blog at Nutmegs and Stepovers

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