Big brain essay #4: The World’s Games
It’s BiG bRaIn EsSaY week on pythagonrl.com. I’ve written a series of approximately 75% thought-out, unpolished essays about somewhat obvious and/or somewhat unhinged things that probably belong on The Roar but I’ve decided to use my own platform to get off my chest.
If I know my audience, you are likely Australian and likely have an interest in at least one, if not several, of European soccer and major North American sports leagues. While this is true for an increasing number of Australians, the interest does not flow back the other way. Europeans and Americans aren’t tuning in large, or even small, numbers to watch the AFL or NRL. Fuelled by huge broadcast deals and a pre-eminent position in G20 economies, these behemoths have the commercial and cultural power to cross borders and span the globe. Moreover, they have resources and, most importantly, the patience to do the work required to take over the world.
In the near future, European soccer is going to follow the US sports model. There is simply too much money to be made to do otherwise. The irony is that while many will complain about the Americanisation of their sport, as if the Football League wasn’t soccer’s answer to baseball’s National League, they will still tune in. The only questions that remain are when, which clubs add value and how much destruction will be done to existing institutions along the way. All this to feed the ever rising player salaries, and corresponding debt loads, of a sport that won’t accept regulations that American sports have long considered essential.
The NFL will take a huge leap in the near future, either by relocation or by creating new franchises, to expand into places like Mexico City and London, where the NFL has been laying the groundwork for decades. The NFL’s biggest obstacle in London is not logistics, which they absolutely have the power and money to overcome, or getting people to turn out for games but rather that many UK-based fans already have an allegiance to a franchise and the NFL is not sure if they’ll all come together to support a new London team. While the NFL has lost money on its trips to London, its earned some, if not all, of it back in improved broadcast deals.
The others in the US’s Big 4 may or may not follow. NHL already has a significant presence in both the US and Canada and has a counterpart league that spans from Riga to Beijing. Basketball is, depending on who you ask, either already the second or third most popular sport in the world and the NBA is its centrepiece.
Still, if the money is there, these leagues will find it, facilitated by an economic and political environment that demands that they do. The world seems to be structured to allow the economic winner to take all. Given there are only so many sports consumers in the world with a finite supply of money and interest, that spells disaster for the losers.
Cricket is riding a huge rising wave. The proliferation of T20 leagues across the world has been driven by the growth of the Indian Premier League from nothing to one of the most valuable sports commodities in the world in just twelve years. An influx of private investment to replicate that success has followed, raising existential questions: How much cricket is too much? How does cricket balance internationals, domestic and franchise commitments? What gives cricket its meaning?
The T20 explosion was predicated on the assumption that, if nothing else, Indian people will indiscriminately watch cricket and if enough stars can be incentivised to turn up, the rest will take care of itself. The subsequent failure of many these startup leagues puts paid to that lie but these are likely just teething issues as we see the emergence of a new order. It’s not too difficult to imagine a world where the primary actors in T20 are a dozen or more IPL franchises who simply operate year-round in different countries, under identical branding and shuffle their expensive talent to suit, taking the cream of broadcast deals to cover costs and then some, throwing a stipend to each of the national cricket boards.
That’s just one model but its main benefit is that it would be sustainable, not just financially but also in terms of fan interest. The end result would be less T20 (and the extinction of other very short forms of cricket) but it would be broadly centrally controlled so that it can be balanced with other more meaningful, but perhaps less commercially lucrative, formats and the institution of cricket would now be stronger for it. The tumult we see now is almost irrelevant – indeed, it is necessary to weed out solutions which don’t work – as cricket powers edge their way to the arrangements that will take their sport through the 21st century.
The grandest irony is that the Super League ethic, which created rifts in rugby league that still aren’t fully healed twenty-five years later, has been best reflected in the fortunes of the rival Super Rugby competition. Super Rugby created new professional franchises in an international competition and undertook a heavy programme of expansion to establish or further entrench union in markets outside of the traditional hubs of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Union’s commitment to its traditions, specifically by ring fencing Test level talent in their home nations (creating gross competitive imbalances) and by organising the sport according to hemisphere rather than time zones (making teams difficult to follow regularly and ensuring that a substantial portion of the broadcast content is effectively worthless), has undermined and temporarily halted this enterprising attitude as union is forced to reconsider its approach. It seems unlikely that something equally stupid wouldn’t have undermined a similarly progressive Super League, had that ever existed.
At the very least, union has shown an understanding of how the world around them operates, in contrast to their pre-professional ethos. Their reward will be to maintain their position as the King of Rugbies, a position Australian league fans tacitly acknowledge by referring to, and insisting others do likewise, union as “rugby” and league as “league”.
Australian Rules, Irish football and Canadian football make a direct connection to their respective national identities by giving people “their” game, which has had varying results. This puts an obvious limitation on the potential growth of these sports that is nigh-on impossible to break through without an historically important empire backing it. Baseball expanded from a local phenomenom in New York state in the early-to-mid-19th century to a professional sport in several east Asian nations that coincidentally house large numbers of US troops by the end of the 20th century (rugby league’s expansion to Papua New Guinea came about for similar reasons). Contrast this to the CFL’s spectacular failure to expand into the US in the mid-90s because it offered nothing that the NFL or college football didn’t already.
It was in vogue in the mid-to-late 2000s for road cycling to think it needed to model itself on Formula 1. Presumably, the UCI, cycling’s governing body, had engaged a marketing firm that basically told them this. In short, the season is too confusing, with too many events and too many different teams. There’s no narrative and star riders don’t turn up to every race. Further, cycling needed to globalise, which was code for running events outside of western Europe paid for by governments looking for a dusting of magic from being in proximity to road cycling, one of the world’s most corrupt sports where riders will openly negotiate on the road to exchange the right to win for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars. Never mind the doping.
To address this, the UCI deleted the long standing World Cup, which united a dozen or so one day races under a season-long banner, and created the ProTour, which was going to include all of the biggest events, including one day races, week long stage races and the three Grand Tours with the biggest teams entering every race. The race organisers hated it, preferring to invite teams at their discretion. Some of the teams hated it, with their sponsors having no use for marketing their consumer debt products or flooring or mild sheet steel to China or Australia or California and so had very little interest in travelling halfway around the world for a new race with no prestige.
The UCI wanted to introduce a ProTour leaders jersey. The major race organisers refused to allow it to be worn. It was, in short, a disaster. It reached its peak when the UCI ran two simultaneous ranking systems: one for the ProTour and a separate ranking that included that and then other races because the ProTour was so hamstrung that it wasn’t won by the best rider in the world, even though that was kind of the point.
Even up to this year, the UCI has more World Tour (what they ended up calling the merger of the ProTour and world ranking systems) licences than World Tour teams. The sport is fundamentally different to motorsport in a way that is obvious to everyone with a cursory knowledge of either. It then made little sense to borrow F1’s solutions, thinking they will fix cycling’s alleged problems, like the structure of the season, while ignoring cycling’s actual problems, like corruption and doping. The UCI and other powerbrokers should have come up with their own ideas.
I think there’s a lot to be learned from looking at other sports, particularly if you had an interest in a suburban cottage industry sport that consistently fails to capitalise on opportunities or understand its place in the world. Indeed, these vignettes superficially teach us about lots of things – culture, history, tradition, politics, economics and all the other strands that makes up being human – at an angle that allows us to perceive insights that might otherwise be obscured by a more direct, and de-humanised, approach.
While I’m no marketing expert, I would think that trying to sell an identical product to a pre-existing and much better known one is an exercise in futility. My wife doesn’t know why there’s a difference between rugby league and rugby union, so I don’t know why we would expect Americans or anyone else to be across it. Without being cheaper or obviously better to the untrained eye (Americans aren’t comparing league and union, they’re comparing rugby to the NFL) and lacking a superior (or any) market position, how exactly is rugby league meant to differentiate itself from rugby union?
Can we at least talk about changing the name? Is an effete English private school a sensible place to derive the name of a sport which is barred from similar institutions around the English speaking world and has traditionally sought an audience in the working class?
You might argue that league is fundamentally more entertaining than union and that should be enough. I would then respond by gesturing vaguely at rugby league’s 125 year history of that marketing strategy, which has brought us to this point. Indeed, if you consider the world’s biggest sporting events – the Super Bowl, the F1 World Championship, the Tour de France, the World Series and all of soccer – being boring might actually be a pre-requisite to success and on field action is antithetical to a sport’s growth.
So if you were running a sport that considers itself separate to its very similar looking relative but has almost no presence outside of a handful of scattered locations and is in a life-or-death struggle with every other professional sport in the world to find a way to sustainably exist, how would you ensure its survival? Would business as usual suffice?