In light of the continuing financial problems swirling around Scottish football (oldco/sevco/Hearts/Dunfermline) the media and fans often cast admiring eyes across the Atlantic to the NFL - undoubtedly the most financially stable and successful sports league in the world - for a solution.
Most people will have a superficial knowledge of the NFL, they will have heard of or watched the Superbowl and may know the league has a draft system and a salary cap and see these conditions as a panacea for the SPL. It is far from that and looking to the NFL for the answer to the problems faced in Scotland is shopping in the wrong part of town (we are TK Maxx and they are Bond Street) for a number of reasons which just don’t apply to our game.
1) The NFL has a unique control on labour.
- (i) The US college system produces its workforce it with no development cost to the league or its teams.
- (ii) It is the professional option for players, there is no competitive league for them to play in.
- (iii) The players arrive as 'ready-made stars', already known to the fan base, sponsors and TV companies. Marketable commodities and professionals.
- (iv) Anti-trust exemptions allow them to bypass normal employment law and operate as a cartel, controlling costs and imposing a salary cap.
- (v) Contracts are non-guaranteed: don’t perform - goodbye.
2) They sold their soul to TV.
The NFL plays games on Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays. They have and will continue to be rewarded very well for it. TV accounts for the majority of revenue earned by every NFL team.
3) They struggle to get bums on seats. Despite the success of the league, every year several teams give tickets away in order to meet minimum requirements on capacity because they haven’t sold enough tickets and the game won’t be on TV if the minimum isn’t met.
4) Competitive Balance/The Draft: this goes back to the control of labour as discussed earlier in this piece. The draft is the system which allows players to enter the league and teams to select their players.
It is however, far from the perfect system it is portrayed to be, but allowing the worst teams to (notionally) pick the best young players does offer all of the teams the chance to get a transformatively talented player and hopes to ensure that all the teams remain relevant. Even if it doesn’t always work that way.
Some recent problems that have presented themselves include:
- (i) Every team, but specifically bad teams, have to spend a disproportionate amount of their available salary resource on unproven professionals. Imagine Smith, McManus, Low et al being the highest earners at Pittodrie.
- (ii) Not every player is going to be good enough or become a star; if you fail, it sets you back a long way.
- (iii) Teams choose to diminish their in-season competitiveness in order that they have the worst record and the opportunity to draft a ‘can’t miss’ player, these campaigns gain traction within fans, take on a life of their own and even nicknames such as ‘Suck for Luck’.
5) NFL teams do not share all revenues. It is only league revenues which are shared. TV, league sponsors, business partners, etc.
Teams in larger markets still retain a revenue advantage over those in smaller cities/regions. This can also influence player movement due to personal marketability opportunities.
6) It is a closed shop.
There is no external competition to the league. No relegation if you don’t perform. The teams are franchises who each own the same stake in the NFL, whether your team is based in Green Bay, Wisconsin, or New York City.
Having said all of the above there are still lessons which the SPL can learn and apply from the NFL.
1) If you have TV partners and not someone who just broadcasts your games, it makes a huge difference. They are invested in your success and act in so many ways as a de facto PR machine for your product. It comes at a price as mentioned previously, but the positives far outweigh the negatives.
2) If (as it must) TV is the financial engine which drives the train, it is free to make demands on who plays, when and where. But you had better get paid!
3) Developing your own properties (media/licencing, etc) is important, developing your players into stars enables you to sell your product and those stars, they understand this.
4) Games take place between two teams, one team is onanism.
The NFL fundamentally understands this, regardless of ratings or city size.
5) The collective will is the strength. They sell as one - TV, league-wide sponsors, league-wide replica kit contracts, etc. They market as one - the league controls the message on behalf of its teams and its sponsors. They act as one. If the owner goes ‘rogue’ or ‘off message’ the league quickly brings that person back in line.
6) The commissioner runs the game. For good or ill. One man makes pretty much all of the decisions. (For the record he got paid $29million last year.)
7) 40 percent of ticket revenue goes into a pot shared equally by all teams. It really is 'we’re all in this together'.
So can the SPL be run along NFL an model? Well, no I wouldn’t say it could. The market conditions just aren’t the same and there isn’t the opportunity to create them, so constantly looking west for a panacea is to some degree foolhardy and redundant, but there are many elements of what they do and fundamentals of how they conduct their business which can be applied to the SPL/SFA/SFL.
It starts with one body and it starts with one man (or woman) who is given a remit, the power and tools to act in the best interests of the game, not in the best interests of a few.
It starts with a belief in the product of Scottish football and both an ability and desire to sell it to the world. Not just its bigoted elements.