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Does the NFL Point to Football’s Future?
Written by ElephantintheRoom on Monday, 26th Aug 2019 09:46

We live in strange times. Town’s embarrassing embarrassment of recent Premier League and Championship play-off bogeymen Bolton Wanderers highlighted the massive financial and ethical problems now facing football, eloquently discussed in the recent blog by Stowmarket.

Yet despite Bolton’s imminent threat of extinction (and the lack of credible opposition provided), many Town fans embarrassed themselves and the club by seeing something in a 5-0 romp that wasn’t there.

We’re cynically indifferent to clubs’ financial woes. We’ve seen it all so many times before. Most people expect Bolton to survive in some way or form – and indeed Bury, whose situation seemed even more dire all of one week ago.

But the distortion of the third division this season is absolute. There will almost certainly be at least three more farcical mismatches (banana skins in Lambospeak) to ‘look forward to’ (and gloat over if you are that way inclined).

The Premier League is to blame we are told. And it probably is to some extent – but not for the obvious reasons. Bury and Bolton’s woes, Like Town’s at the turn of the century, are directly due to financial overreach.

Bolton, like Town, destroyed themselves by getting into the Premier League and thinking they belonged there. It’s not long ago that Bolton’s fans were arrogantly agreeing with Big Sam that the UEFA Cup was not worth trying in – even though theirs was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

It’s even more recent that some truly awful players were expecting huge salaries for delivering less than very little. The much-maligned financial rewards for getting relegated from the Premier League are almost certainly self-harming as Sunderland have shown. How do you divest yourself of awful, overpaid players whose failure is so fulsomely rewarded?

Meanwhile, the eye-watering fees paid for adequate central defenders – be they Harry Maguire (or indeed Adam Webster and Tyrone Mings) cynically exposes the Premier League’s indifference to the relatively small sums that could help out financially-troubled clubs further down the pyramid that actually developed these players.

But should they? The callous indifference of Lambo and his risible talk of banana skins and insensitive Town fans who gloated so embarrassingly at the ludicrous mismatch on Saturday shows that in football’s not-of-the-real world bubble, even third division clubs are seemingly indifferent to their fellow clubs’ woes.

Embarrassingly (and conveniently forgotten), in Town’s case, we have trod this path of self-inflicted financial destruction not once but twice in recent years. The way Town and other clubs were cynically allowed to benefit from other people’s money led directly to the current slightly more stringent rules about playing fast and loose with cash that isn’t yours.

Leicester City are perhaps the ultimate poster boys for financial disrepute – rising phoenix-like from reneging on massive debts to lift the Premier League as everyone’s favourite underdog, seemingly in the twinkling of an eye. But who remembers their financial misdeeds, apart presumably from those who lost money through no fault of their own?

In some ways you could argue that Town are directly responsible for the swingeing punishment that clubs like Bolton and Bury owing relatively little (compared say to our own unsustainable debts) now face.

Where do we go from here? More and more destitute clubs unless things change. Strangely, as relatively few smart at football’s seeming indifference to Bolton and Bury’s plight, it may be the Premier League and insights from further afield that actually delivers football’s salvation.

The most successful sport in the world is arguably American football. More and more American owners are dipping their toes in English football’s deeply distorted market. And whilst financial greed and opportunism are their motivation to dabble in the Prem and Barnsley, the sporting model they are used to is competition on a level playing field through financial and sporting equality.

Sure, the owners of Manchester United and Arsenal saw nothing wrong when their faces were deep in the trough. But now they are excluded from the Champions League gravy train they are perhaps seeing things from a different perspective.

Much further down the food chain Fulham’s owner is trying to relocate his NFL team here and sees massive long-term gains through the unlikely association between one-time music hall joke Fulham and the Jacksonville JagWarrs– and probably still has more than one eye on snaffling Wembley as his centrepiece.

Heck, nowadays every new stadium being constructed seems to be with half an eye on American football. Even the slightly repulsive Twickenham has dipped its toes in the gridiron water. NFL is on the cusp of becoming established in this country. It’s almost certainly something we can learn from.

For now the Premier League is anything other than a meritocracy. It is a money-gobbling machine that ignores English football traditions and supporters almost entirely, obsesses with the Champions League and gobbles up the untold millions to be hoovered up from TV rights and merchandising to global on-line supporters.

But what if the Champions League morphs into the European ‘Super League’ it effectively is already? Or makes the jump into a global super league? The ‘big four, five or six' might be gone in the twinkling of an eye – but the not-so-big 15 remain. As does the audience. And how do you rebuild from that?

Not so long ago Bolton were one of the teams just outside the Champions League places, that nearly men status recently occupied by Charlton – and yes even, Ipswich. The churn below the clubs who have always had money, money, money is absolute. They come and go – and always have done.

But when the worst (or best) happens and the ‘big clubs’ move on what might give stability to and stimulate interest in a competition shorn of its alleged glamour clubs? Parity. It a chance for football, proper football to re-emerge from the trough and gutter.

The same income. The same opportunity. Everything shared. Every year a chance to reboot. In theory insolvency and destitution can be avoided – and there is opportunity for all.

You might scoff – but look at Ipswich Town fans today. The third division was allegedly something to be feared – a trapdoor to hell and beyond. But lo – a few wins, a few players to identify with and attendances are up and supporters are hopeful again – many are already showing arrogant, Waitrose-customer levels of entitlement. Again.

This in an era when Luton, Millwall and Charlton are playing at a higher level – and the unsung likes of Brighton, Southampton and Bournemouth are established in the Premier League.

Stoke perhaps threaten to become the new Sunderland. But give it a few years and it will all change – apart from the mini-league enriched by Europe. It was always thus – apart from the glass ceiling now firmly in place.

Maybe the answer lies with the vision of the NFL, themselves well into a decades-long expansion plan into the UK. A good few TWTD posters seem interested in the NFL. With the new season fast approaching, if you haven’t given it a try I urge you to watch a game or two. Perhaps even take a trip to London to watch one of the (admittedly now-hideously expensive) NFL matches.

They really are a spectacle and open your eyes on how to stage a sporting event. Failing that (and closer to home), The NFL Show is probably the most interesting and entertaining sports programme on television at present.

I got into NFL back in the 80s when I worked in Chicago. But I developed an irrational and enduring interest in the Cincinnati Bengals who I saw as the Ipswich of the NFL. I was probably wrong in that. The Ipswich of the NFL is almost certainly the Green Bay Packers.

Green Bay is a slightly awful, remote outpost way up in Wisconsin, population not much more than 100,000. They used to be good – and occasionally still are. Wholly owned by the fans and still competing with mega-franchises in the major cities, Green Bay Packers are a symbol of the sporting past that gives hope for the future.

They even have perhaps the greatest player of the last decade in quarterback Aaron Rodgers – a laid-back Californian plying his trade in an icy cold outpost in search of the superbowl trophy named after Vince Lombardi a legendary Robson-esque Green Bay coach of times past.

Green Bay are indeed the Ipswich of the NFL personified. Except they play in Norwich colours and they would never sell out their supporters - and their soul, to the offshore devil. Green Bay remain a beacon of unlikely hope in the chilly extremes of upstate Wisconsin.

This is of course only possible because the NFL distributes all income from all sources equally to every club (sorry, franchise). I’m not sure how such a meritocracy ever got off the ground – especially in the land of the fast buck. But when English football is forced to reorganise – and that time cannot be far away – I for one hope they take a long hard look at the NFL and restructure English football around the very core of what the game used to be about. Opportunity for all.




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Oldsmoker added 12:42 - Aug 26
I understand where you're coming from as regards the distribution of cash amongst the teams. They also have the draft where new players are chosen by the clubs in a fair way that stops the richest clubs getting all the talent.
However, there are only 32 teams in a country that has a population of 325 million. There are other Gridiron leagues in the USA but these don't have much money and some have disbanded, merged and been relaunched.
The teams are franchises that can be bought and moved. If the owner wants to move to another city then there seems to be little to stop them. There may be protests about the move but everyone seems to "move on" once its done. The animosity between MK Dons and AFC Wimbledon suggests that that model won't be accepted in this country and there's little space for brand new stadiums and little money to build them.

English football has Club academies eg ITFC Academy. The USA has college football. There is a lot of money in schools running a college football team and the players don't get paid although they get "paid" indirectly by free tuition, free accomodation, free everything really.

The structure of American Football from youth to professional is vastly different from English football in that it appears to me to be exclusive rather than inclusive.
My football life started down the park with jumpers-for-goalposts. That's the essence of our game - just a few mates and a bit of space needed for a kickabout. I saw yanks from the airbases on Felixstowe beach when I was a kid - throwing a football to each other but they weren't having a game with downs,punts etc. Nowadays, there's more kids playing soccer in the parks of the USA than there are throwing egg-shaped balls.

If the USA has just 32 top teams that get all the focus and thereby the money, then maybe England can only realistically support 2 leagues - the Premiership and the Championship. Leagues 1 and 2 will become semi-professional minor leagues with no promotion to the championship.

Our model is bust - no question. There's too much money at the top and not enough at the bottom. There needs to be a redistribution of cash to the lower league clubs somehow and I don't have that answer. Even if the EFL lost 20 clubs, there is no appetite for fans to migrate to other teams. Bury and Bolton fans are definitely not going to transfer their allegiance to the club down the road as they have been bitter rivals for their entire life.

You say English football will be forced to reorganise and that time cannot be far away and you're 100% right about that. If we keep sugar-daddy Marcus then Town will be part of that reorganisation rather than one of those teams left to wither and die.
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chicoazul added 10:43 - Aug 27
It's a fascinating quirk of sporting history that the biggest sport in the US is basically run along socialist principles.
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MBG added 20:55 - Aug 31
A very good blog. Equalisation measures are needed for the long term health of the game. The NFL has prospered by adopting such measures but perhaps the best example is Australian Rules football. The crowds relative to the size of the population beat whichever European or South American league you care to name. The league body in Aussie Rules receives lucrative amounts for television rights and from commercial sponsorship. All of the league's income is distributed to the clubs equally. Furthermore, there is a salary cap and a draft system. The earliest picks in the draft go to the teams that finished the lowest in the previous season's competition. This levels out the playing field and because the competition is so even and unpredictable it generates huge spectator and commercial interest. It all becomes self-perpetuating. They call it 'growing the pie'. In the global game of football, and the Premier League is the most egregious example, there is no concern about growing the game. Self-interest rules the day because the governance of the game is so poor. Things have to change but I'm not holding my breath.
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pablovian added 15:58 - Sep 1
The NFL is a complacent cartel. Members never go out of business because failure does not cause relegation.

The financial problems of English football could be addressed by (a) taxing Premier League clubs a small percentage of player payroll and transfer fees, and (b) distribtuing the resulting pool of money to lower tier clubs.
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MVBlue added 16:04 - Sep 7
The NFL is 32 teams. The AFL is 20 teams, lived there 3 years, (Carlton Blues fan). The football league is 72 teams, with the Premier League that chose to break away being 22. Thats an important point, its a different entity with satellite rights and a global brand. Its created the money revenue for itself. Any team in England can rise from nothing to be on the fringes of the top global league, such as AFC Wimbledon and Bournemouth. But they must do this from the old model of fan attendences, cup runs and player sales with mininal tv revenue. Yes its unfair but promotion/relegation is open to all sides through all leagues not closed off like NFL/AFL. And you are right the franchise model is new world nonsense. Ive followed the AFL, there are teams such as Hawthron and Geelong that has mastered the system to stay at the top, its not quite equal.

So, its simply a fractional payment towards young players acadamies across the leagues from top league revenue to encourage home grown players that might get favour. But much else ia unlikely due to the fact the Premier League runs its own shop after breakong away and teams have to get wise to not over stretching and teams like Leicester that abuse the finances should certainly be punished and forced to sell 1/2 players when found guilty.

Good article.
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