By J Hutcherson (May 11, 2021) US Soccer Players – If you’re looking for the European equivalent of talking about promotion and relegation as an answer to American soccer’s problems, it might be salary caps. Except in Europe, the people most likely doing that talking are already in positions of power. For example, FIFA president Gianni Infantino. In an interview with AS circulated across other outlets, he returned to that favorite subject.
“I have been saying a few times that we should think if we can introduce some sort of salary caps, transfer fee, and squad size limits and other rules that can help to control a spending spiral which is harmful for the game even if we live in an ever more globalized world,” he said. “Of course the controversy over the Super League took over the debate but this should really be an opportunity to focus on the key issues of football and its future. Concentration of power and money in fewer and fewer. Competitive imbalance getting worse and worse nationally and even much more internationally. Salaries, transfer fees, and agent fees exploding to unhealthy levels.”
None of this should come as a surprise. It’s not just Infantino “saying a few times.” It’s people with administrative and economic influence in the game asking why they can’t follow the North American model and agree to rules that limit spending alongside economic risk. All of the North American major leagues have either a salary cap or a luxury tax to control spending. It’s a parity mechanism in closed leagues as well as a way to prohibit teams from spending themselves into trouble. For them, shaky economics will always be a problem rather than a commitment to winning at ridiculous costs. The last major North American professional sports team to go bankrupt happened a decade ago and almost always involves the league stepping in and a sale of the franchise. It’s a rarity in North American sports for a reason.
While it might be tempting to look at like-for-like when talking about the same sport, the idea that European soccer authorities gaze fondly at the MLS version of cost control would need some clarification. Single-entity isn’t the model for the bigger North American pro sports leagues. They have owners, not investor-operators. What they choose to share in terms of broadcast rights and sponsorship happened after forming the league, not as part of the original business model.
European soccer adopting cost controls would likely be closer to that than Major League Soccer. Without a series of breakaways, it’s tough to see European soccer reforming around shared ownership of clubs. That’s more of a wall than a hurdle. Instead, what Infantino describes would rework European club soccer into something sort of like a North American league with one fundamental difference. That’s the transfer system to buy and sell player contracts rather than trading players.
Infantino mentioning transfer fees is about scale rather than concept. Still, it’s worth asking why people are so casual with a system that amounts to selling players for cash. Apply that to any other industry or business, and it’s clearly a problem. In European soccer, that’s standard business practice. Other places that should know better latching onto it doesn’t make the transfer system justifiable. It’s an archaic way of doing business that speaks to the worst aspects of pro sports. It’s also a primary driver of the financial problems even major clubs are currently facing.
Like too much in European sports, the appeal to history is deceptive. The Athletic’s Matt Slater put soccer’s transfer system in context earlier this year. That included showing that the ideal of a small club developing an elite talent and selling him on for a fat fee and immediately solving all of the smaller club’s problems is no longer realistic. Player identification has gotten to the point that most eventual elite talents are already in the pipeline early in their professional careers. Even then, this version of soccer’s trickle down economics needed FIFA enforcing solidarity fees. It amounts to a collective stubbornness keeping the transfer system in place.
Stubbornness is an easy catch-all for what’s at the root of the financial problems across European soccer. The grand attempt at change that was The Super League spoke directly to that. It wasn’t a league, it wasn’t a breakaway, and it only reworked participation and finances for one of the competitions elite clubs expect to play in each season. There was no fundamental reworking of what it means to be a soccer club right now. Given how many stakeholders there are across European soccer, it’s unlikely we’ll see anything close to that prior to the system beginning to break.
Whether or not that happens is the risk scenario European soccer seems comfortable playing through. Even when it’s some of the biggest clubs in Europe pointing to economic demands that could wreck their businesses, somehow, they still end up as isolated cases. Instead of turning them into the example for necessary reform, they’re a collection of one-offs with very little in common. It’s an open question how many of them would have to be in fundamental trouble at the same time for European soccer as a whole to decide to act in unison. That’s what it would take for the kind of revamp to soccer economics that the situation in Europe may demand sooner than later.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson:
- Mourinho’s move to Roma
- Will The Super League collapse change European soccer?
- Finally, it’s a Super League
- MLS and the money league
Photo by Brad Smith – ISIPhotos.com