5 February 2016

The curious socialism behind the Super Bowl


On Sunday more than a hundred million Americans will settle down in front of their televisions and partake in one of the country’s great traditions: watching grown men knocking the hell out of each other in the Super Bowl. The culmination of the American Football season, either the Denver Broncos or Carolina Panthers will be crowned champions of the National Football League (NFL).

The Super Bowl has joined Thanksgiving and the 4th of July as a moment of national unity in the annual calendar. Last year 72 per cent of all US televisions on during the Super Bowl were tuned to the game. It’s also getting a growing following in the UK which now hosts three NFL regular season games a year with talk of a London team within six years.

What is most surprising about ‘America’s Game’ is that the system underpinning it is one built more upon the tenets of socialism than capitalism. A league, whose 32, largely privately-owned, teams are worth a hefty $64 billion, is not normally associated with a socialist utopia. Yet the key ingredients of the NFL have a distinct redistributive flavour to them. First, there is a salary cap: billionaire owners itching to blow their disposable income on their football clubs have their hands tied by the NFL. Despite his $17.4 billion net worth, Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen can’t spend more than $150 million a year on player salaries to improve his team. The NFL also institutes a supplemental revenue sharing scheme, which literally takes money from the richer teams in New York, Chicago and Dallas and gives it to the poor teams in Jacksonville, Cincinnati and Buffalo. The huge sponsor-fuelled TV contracts are also split equally between the 32 teams despite the New England Patriots being responsible for more viewers than the Cleveland Browns.

But the primary tool of redistribution in the People’s Republic of American Football is the hallowed NFL Draft. Held every year in April, the draft is the only source of new players into the league. Like a football version of the Hogwart’s Sorting Hat, each team takes it in turn to select the best players graduating from the college football ranks to join their team. But rather than the winner of the previous year’s Super Bowl being rewarded with the first pick, that prize goes to the most feeble and pathetic team, the one with the worst record from last season. Next in line in the draft queue is the second most wretched all the way until the Super Bowl champions take their turn dead last. The NFL has even achieved the socialist dream of an internal moneyless economy. Rather than using real cash to buy and sell players between teams they are traded using the created currency of draft picks. And all of this is centrally run by strict rules, which, like other American sports, are negotiated through protracted labour disputes and enforced by the all-powerful Commissioner (or should that be Commissar?) Roger Goodell, who dishes out punishments at will.

It gets even more curious when you compare the situation on the other side of the Atlantic. While in the land of small government, Randian Tea Party politics and corporate Darwinism the national game is run along principles of centrally controlled socialism, in progressive Europe, where many British Conservatives are to the left of some American Democrats, the national sport looks much more traditionally capitalist. For starters clubs use hard cash to buy and sell players. There is also no salary cap, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich’s millions famously turned the middling west London club into world beaters overnight. Since then British football teams have become recreational playthings for the world’s super rich. (Some recent attempts to limit spending have been brought in through the Financial Fair Play system but with modest results). Rather than redistribution of the footballing wealth, the biggest teams don’t have to stand by and watch the best young players join pitiful teams, instead they buy them up and stock their youth ranks. The baffling thought of all the Premier League players going on a mass strike is hard to even comprehend for British football fans. Not so our American cousins.

This topsy turvy clash of sporting and economic cultures may end up coming to a head if the NFL brings the socialist world of American Football to British shores by creating a London franchise. At least local MPs Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell would be keen supporters.

Joe Ware is a writer at Christian Aid.