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June 6, 2023


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How socialism boosts American sport

4 min read

Since the launch of the English Premier League in 1992, only seven teams have won the title. The champions in 27 of those 30 seasons have been Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea or Arsenal. One of that quartet is highly likely to win again this year.

Contrast that with the situation in American football where the Kansas City Chiefs’ recent Super Bowl victory was only their third such success. During the Premier League’s existence, 15 teams have won the Super Bowl; 20 have managed the feat since the first season finale in 1967. Only four current franchises, two of them created in the 1990s, have failed to reach American football’s showpiece event at all.

In English football, the top teams can afford to buy the top players; success brings in more sponsorship and television money, which in turn allows the clubs to buy more top-quality players. Calculations by the Financial Times show that in 1997 the fourth-largest wage bill in the Premier League was 50% above the league average; by 2021, it was 150% higher. Some suspect this development has not always been above board. The Premier League recently accused Manchester City, the dominant team in recent seasons, of more than 100 examples of financial rule-breaking. (City said they were “surprised” by the charges and looked forward to the matter “being put to rest once and for all”.)

The openness of the National Football League (NFL) is, in part, a consequence of its competitive structure, but it is also linked to its regulations. The league sets a salary cap for every team, which was a little more than $208m in the season just finished. In addition, the team with the worst record every season is entitled to the first pick when college-football players are drafted into the league in the following spring. The team with the second-worst record gets the second pick. And that process continues down to the Super Bowl-winners and the 32nd pick. This is then repeated over a number of rounds. The system is socialism in action. As Karl Marx almost said: “Each player, according to his abilities, is assigned to each team, according to its needs.”

The draft system is also used in baseball, basketball and ice hockey. The rules vary from competition to competition, although most are somewhat less socialistic than in the NFL, with draft picks awarded by lottery, albeit with a bias towards less successful teams. The parallels with socialism don’t stop there. Relegation is unknown in major American sports, though teams can and do move cities in search of better crowds and financial success. The NFL operates as a welfare state, in which the weakest teams are offered protection. Europe’s more Darwinian system means once successful clubs like Derby County (which won the old First Division twice in the 1970s) may be found languishing in football’s lower tiers.

Besides the draft, the structure of the NFL ensures a broader range of successful teams. In most seasons, the teams play just 17 games before a knockout stage, the very existence of which introduces an element of luck. There are 32 teams, so this means they avoid almost half their potential opponents. By contrast, Europe’s football teams must play every opponent in their division twice. These gruelling seasons reduce the importance of luck and give an advantage to wealthy clubs with strong squads. The knockout competitions are entirely separate affairs.

All this increases the chance that NFL fans across America will see their team win the main prize. No NFL team has won the Super Bowl three years in a row, and the title has been shared among teams based in 14 states. In England, by contrast, success has been largely confined to clubs from the dual footballing powerhouses of London and the north-west. Success in other European leagues is similarly concentrated. Spain’s La Liga is dominated by Madrid and Barcelona; Valencia was the last team from outside those cities to win the title, back in 2004. Germany’s Bundesliga has been won by Bayern Munich for ten years in a row; in France, Paris Saint-Germain have won Ligue 1 in eight of the past ten seasons.

European football could not replicate the NFL system, even those aspects that do not smack at all of socialism, because players are not recruited from college and a draft is unlikely to work. But Britain’s government is hoping to make English football a little more socialist. On February 22nd it announced plans to establish an independent regulator overseeing the game. Among the proposed body’s tasks will be a mandate to ensure that revenues are distributed more equally among clubs.

Other aspects of the American system might, if introduced, leave European fans disgruntled. If an American football team loses the bulk of its early matches, then the last few games of the season can be meaningless affairs. Worse still, the draft may actually incentivise a team to perform badly and get a better draft pick; in European football, such teams would be battling against relegation. And there is no American equivalent of football’s cup competitions where lowly teams can take on the game’s elite. But then, who said socialism was perfect?

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on

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