Association football (soccer) and American football can sometimes seem like polar opposites.
American football is a brutal, physical sport, while soccer is lampooned for how its players exaggerate contact. In soccer, almost every player on the field plays with the ball at their feet, with sparing use of hands, while in football almost all contact with the ball is made exclusively with a player’s hands, with only specialty use of their feet.
Perhaps what is most perplexing is the fact that soccer is a popular sport in almost every country besides the U.S., reflected by the five leagues in five different European countries which are considered the cream of the crop, while football is not popular in almost any country outside of its homeland, as shown by how the NFL has cornered the professional football market.
On a professional level, the differences between the two sports extend to the structure of their respective top leagues. These structures influence the distribution of wealth among clubs and players and ultimately the parity between teams on a season-long and long-term basis.
So, what exactly can the top five leagues of European soccer (England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, Germany’s Bundesliga and France’s Ligue 1) learn from the league structure of the NFL?
There are no constraints on how much a European soccer team can pay its players. As a result, the three or four clubs in the biggest markets and with the greatest financial backing in any given league essentially create a monopoly on all the best players. This is in stark contrast to the NFL, which sets a strict salary cap every season. Teams must remain under the cap or otherwise face harsh punishments such as fines as costly as $5 million or the cancellation of player contracts. The salary cap prevents teams in larger markets, such as the New York Giants, from outpricing small market teams, like the Green Bay Packers, when offering players contracts.
The NFL also evenly distributes its revenue between all 32 teams at the end of every season. According to CBS Sports, the league made $8.1 billion in revenue in 2017, meaning each team received about $255 million from the NFL. This ensures that every team has the money available to pay for top-notch personnel. If European soccer leagues adopted this method, it would go a long way towards allowing each team to pay competitive wages and keep their best players. Often, smaller soccer clubs lose their best players, after a successful season, to richer teams because they can neither match the salary offer or the allure of a prestigious winning team.
The financial regulations and distribution of wealth seen in the NFL coupled with the league’s playoff structure leads to a more competitive and unpredictable product on the field. In the NFL, 12 out of 32 possible teams make the playoffs every season. The initial matchups in the playoffs are determined by seeding, which is a result of how well a team did in the regular season. The playoffs are basically a tournament where a team is knocked out after just one loss. The “one and done” nature of the tournament lends itself well to upsets and generally makes picking winners unpredictable.
In the 2019 NFL playoffs alone, there were five upsets out of 11 games based on regular season seeding. This is in contrast to the way European soccer leagues determine their champions. Winners of these leagues are determined by a point system: three points for a win, one for a draw and none for a loss. Whichever team has the most points at the end of the season wins the title. This model rewards consistency over an entire season, whereas the NFL model rewards teams for getting hot at the right time, during the playoffs. From a fan’s perspective, the greater chance for upsets in the NFL playoffs, compared to soccer’s point system, makes these games more exciting to watch.
From a long term perspective, the league structure of the NFL is superior at ensuring that the same teams are not successful season after season after season. In the past 10 years, eight different teams have won the Super Bowl, compared to the English Premier League where only four different teams have won the championship in the last 10 seasons.
This difference can largely be attributed to the NFL draft, an annual event which rewards the worst teams from the previous season with the highest draft picks, which allows them to select the best college prospects. Although predicting which college players will thrive in the NFL is not an exact science, the draft model obviously works well at distributing the next generation of NFL talent evenly. This lies in clear contrast to the way promising young players are often scooped up from smaller clubs by larger teams in the European soccer landscape.
If the top five leagues of European soccer were willing to adopt a few, or all, of the structural policies of the NFL, it would go a long way towards increasing competitiveness and financial equality among teams in those leagues. Ultimately, all major sports leagues are big businesses, and if the aforementioned European soccer leagues want to create an even more tantalizing product, they could learn a lot from the NFL.