• The Big Post About Why Europe’s Sport Structure Is Better Than Ours

    by Tyler Dellow • November 15, 2012 • Hockey • 34 Comments


    The legendary Bukkake Crew, the hardest firm in all of Germany.

    I went to eight soccer games in Europe over the past two weeks, which did nothing but further convince me of the superiority of the European soccer structure to that of North American professional sport. Some of this is obvious: for example, in Europe, soccer teams play full seasons every season, as opposed to engaging in a cycle of lockouts and strikes. As a person who prefers watching sports to watching hopelessly conflicted journalists engage in increasingly desperate attempts to hide the fact that they are utterly in the bag for one side or the other, I like this. Not all of the advantages of the European system are so obvious though and, as there’s no hockey to write about, a stab at explaining the more subtle advantages of their setup seems to be in order.

    (I really need to set up those Grantland-style sidenotes so that I can move the extraneous stuff out of the main body. Not all European sports use a system of promotion/relegation. I believe English rugby doesn’t. It’s well established in soccer. The concept does extend beyond soccer though: the Elitserien, for example, sees the two lowest placed teams enter a post-season tournament with the four highest ranked teams from HockeyAllsvenskan for the right to play in Elitserien the following season.)

    I saw eight games while in Europe that I’m going to reference while doing this and stood outside a stadium in pouring rain for an hour before a ninth, before finally concluding that finding a ticket would be impossible and that I should repair to a bar to watch the game. They were as follows:

    St. Pauli 3 Dynamo Dresden 2 – 2.Bundesliga
    Schalke 04 3 SV Sandhausen 0 – DFB-Pokal
    Fortuna Dusseldorf 1 Borussia Monchengladbach 0 – DFB-Pokal
    Borussia Dortmund 0 Vfb Stuttgart 0 – Bundesliga
    NAC Breda 2 RKC Waalwijk 1 – Eredivisie
    Sheffield Wednesday 0 Blackpool 2 – nPower Championship
    Celtic 2 Barcelona 1 – Champions League
    Blackpool 2 Bolton 2 – nPower Championship
    Manchester City 2 Tottenham Hotspur 1 – Premier League

    Probably easy to guess which game I couldn’t get beg a ticket for.

    Nine games, seven different competitions. For those unfamiliar with the intricacies of European soccer, four of the nine games that I saw involved teams that aren’t in the top league in their country: St. Pauli, Dynamo Dresden, SV Sandhausen, Sheffield Wednesday, Blackpool and Bolton all play in the second divisions in their respective countries. I’m as much of a hockey fan as I am a soccer fan and yet it’s impossible for me to imagine doing something similar with hockey. In the past few years, I’ve gone to watch the Marlies a few times: all involved either a) a friend playing for them, b) the Marlies playing the Oilers’ farm club or c) the Marlies playing in an outdoor game in Hamilton.

    Judging by the attendance numbers for AHL hockey, I’m not alone in not being particularly interested in the second tier product. The Marlies, who were good enough to go to the AHL final last year, drew 5,280 per game in 2011-12. OKC drew 3,684. Hamilton drew 4,848. Abbotsford, to pull in another Canadian team, drew 3,545. St. John’s drew 6,297.

    Contrast that with the attendance numbers for the second tier soccer teams I saw on this trip. St. Pauli drew 23,219 in 2011-12. Dynamo Dresden drew 26,215. SV Sandhausen drew only 2,611 per game but there probably needs to be a caveat on this, as they were playing in the third division and Sandhausen has a population of 14,556. Blackpool drew 12,747 per game. Sheffield Wednesday, in the third division, drew 21,308 per game. Bolton were relegated from the Premier League last season, but have drawn 17,539 per game so far in 2012-13.

    It’s worth noting that the European soccer teams I’m referencing face much stiffer competition in terms of the availability of first division soccer than do most of the AHL teams I’ve referenced. St. Pauli play in Hamburg, which is home to Bundesliga team Hamburger SV. Dresden is fairly isolated. SV Sandhausen have TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, FSV Mainz 05, Eintracht Frankfurt and Vfb Stuttgart all within an hour by train. Blackpool and Bolton are both within an hour of Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Everton and Wigan. Sheffield Wednesday have Manchester United, Manchester City and Stoke within about an hour by train. Sheffield Wednesday also shares Sheffield with Sheffield United, who drew 18,698 last year in the third division.

    England has 92 teams in its top four divisions, all of which are fully professional. Two of those teams are Welsh; exclude them. That leaves 90 teams servicing 53MM people, or something like one professional team for every 588,889 people. Germany has 56 professional soccer teams servicing 81MM people, although this comes with something of a caveat – the vast majority of these teams are located in the former West Germany. The former East Germany has only eight of these teams, most of whom are at the lower levels – only four teams in the former East Germany play in the top two tiers of German soccer, which consists of 36 teams. The former East Germany’s almost a different country; lots of economic issues persist and there are cultural differences. Still, many, many more professional teams exist and thrive in both countries.


    Dresden away support.

    Maybe Canadians just don’t care about hockey the way that the English and Germans care about soccer? I suppose that’s possible. Although, the NHL generates north of $1B annually here from just seven teams. Canada also somehow supports 52 major junior teams. Eight of those teams drew more than St. John’s, the best supported AHL team in Canada did last year. Eleven of those teams outdrew the Marlies. There seems to be more of an appetite for major junior hockey in Canada than there does for AHL hockey, which is weird, given that junior hockey is, objectively, a much worse product than the AHL. As we all know, TSN does crazy business with the World Junior Championships as well, routinely drawing massive TV numbers.

    I think you’d be hard pressed to argue that Canada doesn’t like hockey as much as the English and the Germans like soccer. Why, then, do we seem to have such a limited interest in professional hockey played by men (as opposed to amateur hockey (at least for the players) played by boys) relative to the English/German interest in soccer? My argument is that it’s because European (I’m just going to use this as shorthand for English/German) teams are organized on a club basis, whereas North American ones are organized on a franchise basis.

    A proposition: it is objectively stupid to have your favourite North American hockey team be a non-NHL team. If you were to support such a team, you’d be cheering for a team which exists almost entirely to service an NHL team. Players can be called up or sent down from the parent club on a whim. The team can’t aspire to grow and achieve bigger things. If you were a fan of an AHL team a decade ago, you’re almost certainly a fan of an AHL team today. By way of contrast, if you were a Fortuna Dusseldorf fan a decade ago, you were watching your team play in kits sponsored by a band called Die Toten Hosen and playing in the fourth division. Two weeks ago, you would have seen your team, now in the Bundesliga, beating Borussia Monchengladbach, a local rival, in the DFB-Pokal, which is a German knockout tournament. This was followed by 55,000 people singing Die Toten Hosen’s Tage Wie Diese and waving Dusseldorf flags.


    Tage Wie Diese and little Dusseldorf flags.

    (Aside: Germans LOVE singing in public. A year ago, I was sitting on a boat in Majorca with my girlfriend and another couple. We were anchored in a sort of cove, with dozens of other boats anchored around us. As night fell, the air was full of Germans singing old English pop and rock songs. You haven’t heard “Summer of ’69″ until you’ve heard it sung a capella by a boatful of Germans.)

    Fortuna Dusseldorf’s story isn’t that unusual – of the 18 teams in the Bundesliga this year, seven of them weren’t there a decade ago. Seven of them weren’t there five years ago. 51 teams have played in the Bundesliga since it was founded. There’s a lot of turnover. Supporting a club in a lower league isn’t necessarily a foolish thing to do because you can reasonably expect that your club will someday get a shot at taking on the titans of German soccer. This turnover isn’t limited to Germany either – the Premier League has had 45 teams spend at least a season in the league since it was founded in 1992.

    The relevance of clubs in both leagues is reinforced by the presence of a national cup competition (two, really, in England). As I mentioned, SV Sandhausen were a third division team last year and this year are new to the second division. They got to play a game against Schalke 04, who are currently second in the Bundesliga and leading a Champions League group that includes Arsenal. They lost – deservedly – by a 3-0 score but it was a pretty great moment for their fans, getting to see their team get a shot at one of the best teams in the world in front of 52,000 fans in Veltins-Arena. And, of course, there’s always the possibility of an upset. I got a shirt celebrating such a win when I was at St. Pauli – St. Pauli knocked off the then European Champion Bayern Munich during the 2001-02 Bundesliga season, an event known as weltpokalsiegerbesieger, which I’m told means something like “the beaters of the Cup champions.” None of this is possible in North America.


    Klaas-Jan Huntelaar finishes off Sandhausen with Schalke’s third goal of the night.

    My belief that support of what North Americans would think of as minor league clubs is due to the fact that those clubs are independent entities that exist for their own reasons finds some support in the experience in countries that permit entry of a B team into a lower level. England doesn’t permit this and the Germans only permit entry of a B team at the fourth level on the pyramid. The Spanish league, however, admits B teams to the second level on the pyramid. The two lowest attendances in last year’s Segunda Division belonged to the two B teams playing in the division, Barcelona and Villareal. Barcelona’s A team drew 84,000 a game; the B team fewer than 3,000 people. The pointlessness of minor league teams is the best explanation I can come up with for this phenomenon, both in Europe and here.

    The superiority of a club system to a franchise system doesn’t just manifest itself in terms of legitimizing following a team in the second division or lower. It allows room for a far more diverse set of tactics to be tested out. Blackpool kind of made their (recent) name with a relentless attack, producing goals at both ends of the field and refusing to change just because they happened to be facing a large club. There seems to be more room for diversity of tactics, with guys like Zdenek Zeman in Italy committed to a sort of ludicrous attacking style.

    North American sport doesn’t really seem to have the same space for tactical innovators – people in hockey are still talking about Roger Nielsen, for example. Bill Belichek’s decision to go for it on fourth and five against the Colts a few years ago, despite being clearly sensible according to the math, was hugely controversial. Jonathan Wilson of the Guardian has a piece on the website today talking about why there are more goals being scored these days, something he attributes in part to the influence of a guy named Marcelo Bielsa. Hockey, to pick just one North American sport, is awfully bland tactically – there aren’t a wide array of teams trying a wide array of things.

    Large league structures with independent teams provide more opportunities for guys who are prepared to be tactically innovative, which only serves to benefit the sport as whole. It’s easier to take tactical risks and try something if you’re running a second or third division team that needs to find an edge than if you’re working for a minor league team that exists only to service a major league club. If it works, your team gets a temporary competitive edge, until it’s adopted elsewhere and you make a name for yourself. The Oilers aren’t interested in having Todd Nelson try things and experiment with the game in Oklahoma City; they’re interested in having him turn out hockey players who will play for the Oilers. Todd Nelson’s interested in some day working in the NHL. His chances of doing that will be reduced if the Oilers fire him because he’s pursuing different things tactically. Wanting a coach to produce NHL players and a coach wanting to work in the NHL aren’t necessarily bad things but they kind of combine to reduce the chances of innovative tactical things being tried in a space in which they’re most likely to be attempted.

    The club system also results in clubs playing a far more important role in the community than teams do here and to reflect the community to a much greater degree. Celtic and Barcelona are both pretty well known focal points of nationalist movements for the Irish and Catalans. A Celtic game is basically a nationalist Irish gathering and that’s with it having been toned down considerably in the past few years. (This is, of course, both good and bad. It’s undeniably interesting though.) Barcelona isn’t just a representative of the Catalan community but it has, in the past, served as a sort of focal point for opposition to Franco, which was of considerable importance to Catalans. Even today, Barca is owned by its supporters and operates as a democracy, with the board of the club being elected – democracy is a value of importance to the club in part because of the fact that it existed for 40 years or so in a Spain with no democracy.

    Then there’s St. Pauli, which has a pretty cool history of its own. It’s located in the St. Pauli quarter of Hamburg, a few blocks from the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s red light district, which is actually kind of lame. In the 1980s, St. Pauli were doing pretty poorly and soccer in general in Europe was a bit of a right wing cesspool. The British were dealing with National Front recruitment at games and, from what I’ve read, Germany had a bit of a neo-Nazi problem at games itself. St. Pauli was having terrible attendance as a result of the decline of Hamburg’s docks and a lot of left wing types started to move into empty housing in St. Pauli. They also started to come to soccer games.


    The St. Pauli crowd gathers pre-game.


    The Maple Leafs may not sell heroin but German capitalism is alive and well.

    The club itself changed as a result of the fanbase changing. They banned right wing displays at the stadium and worked hard to create an atmosphere of inclusiveness for people of different ethnicities, women and LGBT people. European soccer in general is a pretty male environment – my girlfriend once learned, much to her dismay, that there are no women’s washrooms in the BJK İnönü Stadium in Istanbul. Even outside of Turkey, you don’t see nearly as many women at soccer games or sporting events as you do in North America. The crowd at St. Pauli was notably different, with women my mom’s age showing up on bicycles and, as my girlfriend pointed out, a shockingly high percentage of girls aged 7-13 or so relative to North America. She was also thrilled to see that they had women’s washrooms. Fanladen St. Pauli, the local fan club, continues to do all sorts of social work.


    Art on the walls inside St. Pauli’s Millerntor-Stadion.

    My point is not that North American clubs should all support political causes but that it’s cool when sport is able to be a place in which advocacy for social change can happen or where the team is about something more than leveraging $50MM into a bunch of free public money. It can build an incredible relationship between a team and its supporters too. North American sports teams know this and try to take advantage of it but because they’re big business and therefore inherently conservative, what you end up with is teams engaging in showy displays of supporting issues that nobody who might someday give them a nickel could find disagreeable. Even then, if they’re inept, you end up with commercials on TV about how they built a room for child witnesses to wait in before giving evidence in court that kind of gives you the impression that they’re using abused children to burnish their corporate image.

    A lot of my Maple Leaf fan friends are proud of how the Maple Leafs have become really pro-LGBT issues since Brian Burke’s son came out. It’s praiseworthy, I suppose, but it shouldn’t be confused with them taking any sort of a risk on the issue. Where were the Maple Leafs 15 years ago? The Maple Leafs, and other teams, got comfortable with the issue when they were convinced the benefits of doing so outweighed the cost. Supporting gay rights is along the same lines as supporting soldiers these days – it’s risk free. A marketing move, as opposed to a sports club being about something bigger.

    Which brings me to the issue of ownership, more generally. I’m not going to delve into this too deeply but the German league has a cool rule that requires that 50%+1 of the shares in teams are held by the fans of the club. This is, I think, a good thing and one which is more likely to produce teams that are run in the interests of the supporters. German teams are notorious for having cheap ticket prices – the face value on the tickets we purchased for four games there totalled €91. Beer is about half the price that it is in Canada. Food at the game is cheaper too. All four teams we saw offer cheaper tickets for children – Borussia Dortmund sells a season ticket for kids to watch one of the best teams in the world for €75, which works out to an absurd €3.75 a game. While you can certainly buy expensive tickets to a soccer game in Germany and the cheaper tickets aren’t always available as a one-off, watching high level sport does seem to be more within reach of the average person than it is under the NA cartel system.

    Shifting gears, the structure of soccer in Europe seems to provide a lot more games that matter. At the top level, within the context of the league, teams are competing to win the league, qualify for the Champions League, qualify for the Europa League and, if all of that fails, to avoid relegation. Teams in lower leagues are playing to win the league, get automatic promotion, make the promotion playoff or avoid relegation. As mentioned, there are also cup competitions that run during the season, producing more meaningful games for fans to watch with something at stake. The cup competitions also throw up interesting games for the neutral fan to watch – just yesterday, results in the FA Cup produced an AFC Wimbledon-MK Dons game.

    It’s not just the variety of things that teams are competing for that results in more interesting games; it’s having fewer regular season games. In most leagues, the season is run on the basis that you play each team home and away, resulting in a season that ranges from 34 games (Germany) to 46 games (the Championship). What’s the principle that governs how frequently NHL and NBA teams play? Providing guys who own arenas with content? The biggest teams in Europe will play more games than that when you factor in all of the competitions that they play in – Chelsea, who won the FA Cup and Champions League, played 61 games last year. If you’re a hockey fan, or a basketball fan, or a baseball fan, this probably sounds horrible to you: why would you want your team to play way fewer games than it does? Except…I think that there’s a good argument to be made that it has a lot of awfully good side effects.

    First off, there aren’t, as far as I know, any local TV deals in the Bundesliga or Premier League. One of the problems that MLB, the NBA and NHL have, in terms of creating massive financial disparities between teams, is local TV deals. The NFL doesn’t have this problem, given that there are no local TV deals, although I understand that there are some issues with other local broadcast streams. If you play a shorter schedule, you can have all of the games broadcast nationally.

    Second, I’ve kind of been pondering for a while a point that John Collins raised last season in an interview with Bruce Dowbiggin:

    “I see a lot of parallels between Americans and football and Canadians with hockey,” he says. “CBC wants as many Leafs games on Saturday night, because people watch them. Just the way ABC would have taken Dallas-Washington every week on Monday Night Football.” But this concentration has a downside come playoff time. “If the Leafs aren’t there for CBC, the Canadiens aren’t there for RDS, we can’t have Canadian fans turning off the lights, going to the cottage.


    “How we change that is tell more stories, give more balanced coverage of the other teams around the league so people who are interested in that can have it. It’s not a criticism of our current partners. TSN does hockey as well or better than anybody. But you’re watching trade deadline day and they say, ‘Let’s talk about how the seven Canadian clubs are in the Rick Nash sweepstakes.’ I understand it, but as somebody responsible for the shield, it should be a unifying force in Canada, not a bureaucracy in a New York office.”

    Good luck to Collins but I’m pretty sure that he’s doomed to failure here. I agree with his point that the NHL has a problem in terms of fans tuning out when when their team is eliminated but I’m pretty convinced that having fewer Leafs games and more Predators games on TV on Saturday night isn’t going to result in more people excited to watch Nashville when they make a playoff run while the Leafs are inevitably sitting at home in May. It’s going to result in fewer people watching hockey on Saturday night and more people watching hockey whenever it is that the Leafs play.

    The problem is this: people would rather watch a team in which they’re invested, even if that team stinks, than a team in which they have no investment, even if that team is good. This is compounded by the fact that people only have so much time to watch sports. Say you prefer to watch the Oilers play over any other team. The NHL regular season takes place over about 190 days. You are awake for 16 hours a day. That’s 3040 hours. There are about 205 hours worth of Oilers hockey available during that time. The soccer season runs from about mid-August to mid-May. Call it a 270 day season or 4,320 hours worth of waking time. Games take about 1:45. If you’re a Chelsea fan – and they probably played more games than anyone last season – there was 106.75 hours worth of Chelsea soccer available for you to watch during that time.

    In other words, the NHL, NBA and MLB provide so many games involving your team that it’s quite understandable if people have a tendency to only be invested in the team that they follow. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the NHL and MLB both fight with TV ratings dropping during the playoffs. The NBA does too, to a lesser extent – they’re saved a little bit because of the extent to which the elite players in basketball control the game, which makes it more likely that the best players, guys like Lebron James and Kobe Bryant, guys who transcend the sport, will go deep in the playoffs. The NFL, with a 16 game schedule, doesn’t have this problem. It does huge business in the post-season.

    Bringing it back to soccer, it’s a lot easier, with a reasonable investment of time, to have some sense of what’s going on around the world of European soccer. You’re more able to follow the league as a whole, as well as specific teams in other leagues in which you have some interest. If there were controversies about who should be in the lineup in Florida or Tampa or Carolina last year, I knew nothing about them and I probably follow the NHL more closely than most. I don’t particularly have a favourite team in the Premier League at the moment, but I’m up on what’s going on around the league because Blackpool don’t fill the soccer space in my life to overflowing the way the Oilers do with the hockey space. Like the Super Bowl, the Champions League Final in Europe is massive. If you like watching football or watching football, you can achieve a degree of investment in teams other than your primary team.

    It’s probably also worth noting that a ridiculously long season limits the number of cities that can support a team. Blackpool, with a population of 150,000 or so, have enjoyed a year in the Premier League. NAC Breda (population of Breda: 316,000) play in the Dutch Eredivisie and have enjoyed a couple of UEFA Cup runs. Schalke 04 are located in a reasonably small city (Gelsenkirchen) albeit in an area with a significant population.


    Electronic scoreboard notwithstanding, home goals in Breda are also communicated by way of a flag that is run around the stadium with the score.

    So what the long season of North American professional sport creates is a) enormous additional financial power for popular clubs through the sale of local TV rights, b) enormous difficulty in following the league as a whole, c) limits on the number of cities that can support a professional team and d) a glut of utterly meaningless games. Just how meaningless are those games? We can do an experiment. Imagine that the NHL operated on a home and home basis. Every team in the NHL played every other team twice and that was the regular season. If you run it through for last year (counting the single games against non-conference opponents double), you get standings like this:

    Not all that different. As you add games, you necessarily delete meaning from those games in terms of the final standings, although you do provide the arena operators with additional nights of content, if you get excited for that sort of thing. If the NHL operated along European lines, you might have four twenty team leagues, with a single knockout Canadian Championship and American Championship played throughout the regular season involving all of the teams in the various leagues, followed by an eight team Stanley Cup playoffs at the end. More relevant hockey teams in more places with more meaningful games and a fanbase that has some investment in teams outside of their own.

    Of course, none of this will ever happen. It’s a matter of taste, I suppose, but it sure seems to me to be vastly preferable to what we have. There are some criticisms of the European leagues, mostly along the lines of the same teams being dominant but these don’t strike me as being criticisms that specifically relate to the structure of the sport but more to do with the allocation of money generally and TV money in particular – La Liga, for example, doesn’t sell TV rights collectively, so Barcelona and Real Madrid get an extraordinary amount of the TV rights money, which is basically a variant of the problem discussed above with local TV rights, only worse. The Champions League also sort of exacerbates this – teams that make it from England, Germany, Italy and Spain rake in TV money, which allows them to further ensconce themselves at the top of the table.

    With that being said, this is a structural issue, capable of redress by sharing money more equitably. Alternatively, you can conclude that this isn’t really a huge problem and that the league structure provides more opportunity for fans to choose what they really want – if you’re a racist who needs to cheer for a team that is perpetually good, cheer for Chelsea. If you just enjoy bland excellence and the company of horrible frontrunners, Manchester United and Bayern Munich are available. If you want a team that tries to further certain social values, it’s available. A team with a commitment to playing a certain way is available. There’s considerably more variety.


    The Schalke fans wait for the game to start.

    One last point: the atmosphere at European soccer games is approximately a thousand times better than the atmosphere at North American professional games. Some of this is cultural – as is noted above, Germans are less reticent than North Americans about singing in public and there’s more of a culture of vocal support at games. Some of it, I suspect, has to do with there being a lot of meaningless games involving teams between whom there is no bad blood. Some more of it probably has to do with the type of people who can afford to get into the rink – the Toronto investment banker entertaining clients isn’t interested in creating atmosphere at the game.


    You probably would not be allowed to hang a leg out over a ledge in the North American nanny state as these fellows are here.

    In short (uh…) the European system provides more meaningful games, more opportunities for meaningful teams to exist (imagine the Leafs playing a team centered in Scarborough or, even more improbably, Hamilton), teams that are more relevant in the communities that they’re part of and more opportunities for people who aren’t pulling down six figures to attend games on a regular basis.

    Oh – and they’re playing games at the moment. If nothing else, they’ve got that.

    Email Tyler Dellow at mc79hockey@gmail.com

    About Tyler Dellow

    34 Responses to The Big Post About Why Europe’s Sport Structure Is Better Than Ours

    1. Doogie2K
      November 15, 2012 at

      Isn’t Celtic a Scottish club?

      • Randall
        November 15, 2012 at

        It was founded by Irish Catholics living in Glasgow, and is still heavily supported by that group, both within Glasgow and internationally. The rivalry with Rangers is very sectarian-based (Rangers supporters are predominantly Scottish Protestants) and consequently, can get pretty violent, though both clubs have taken steps to reduce that in recent years.

        • Doogie2K
          November 17, 2012 at

          Ohhhh, alright. That makes sense. I knew it was a Catholic v. Protestant thing, but didn’t realize it was Irish Catholics, specifically.

    2. Vic
      November 15, 2012 at

      Excellent piece. Having been a fan of European soccer for many years there are some flaws in their system as well, as you pointed out. Germany, and to lesser extent England, are exceptions to European soccer in that their 2nd divisions, and England’s case 3rd division, attract more people than some leagues 1st divisions.
      To me Germany is the ideal setup because their competition has a little more parity, yes I know that can be seen as an ugly word, but it makes for a better competition as a team like smaller clubs like Hoffenheim and Mainz can make pushes for the top, or a down on their luck team like Eintracht Frankfurt can every once in a while make a push for the team. I think the 50+1 rule really helps out. However, some would argue that as a result of the parity, or restrictions on ownership, German clubs suffer a bit in European competitions.

      The big thing coming up in European soccer is if the Financial Fair Play rules go into effect. This could have massive consequences in a number of countries. The Germans, however, already implemented similar rules in their league and I know the Dutch have also begun to do the same. Will be interesting to see the results in England and Spain.

      • KeithC
        November 15, 2012 at

        Vic -

        FFP may or may not be a big deal. There’s a little footnote towards the end that folks like Swiss Ramble and Daniel Geey have mentioned that says a team can be cleared to receive the UEFA CL license if their finances ‘are headed in the right direction’ (or something along those lines). More practically, it’s tough for me to see Platini (or whoever is in his position in five years) actually standing up to a PSG or Man City(*) and holding back their license. Perhaps I’m just being cynical.

        (*)The latter probably isn’t a good example. Given the new EPL TV deals as well as the stadium sponsorship, I have to guess that City will be in, or close to, compliance.

        Good read, Tyler. I’m thinking of doing one of these trips in the near future, and it seems to make financial sense to hit a bunch of games rather than just one or two. Outside of the CL game, I’d like to know how you bought your tickets. Did you buy in advance through a Stub-Hub of sorts? Purchase there, on the day of the game?

        • Tyler Dellow
          November 15, 2012 at

          St. Pauli – emailed the Fanladen; game was sold out.
          Schalke and Dusseldorf; bought at the gate.
          Dortmund; bought off scalpers as the game was sold out.
          Breda; bought at the gate.
          Sheffield; had a friend pick us up tix.
          Celtic; stood outside in the rain and didn’t get tickets. Scalping’s illegal in the UK, as I understand things, although I bought an Old Firm derby ticket outside Parkhead last year at Christmas at face value. Barcelona is an incredibly tough ticket on the road; all the more so on the 125th anniversary of Celtic, which it also was.
          Blackpool; bought at the gate.
          City – got them day of the game from the club when some tickets were turned back.

          As a general rule, if you’re going to make the trip over, I’d get as many tickets in advance as possible, particularly in the UK, where scalping’s not really allowed. Germany makes it very difficult to buy tix online and scalping’s legal; you can take your chances a little more there although any really big games, I’d figure out how to buy ahead.

          • RiversQ
            November 23, 2012 at

            Huh, I never had a problem buying Bundesliga tickets online. Of course I had a German address at the time, so that could have been it. I had good luck buying on eBay too. We got sweet box seats at Veltins Arena with free food and beer for 30 Euros each in 2008.

      • Tyler Dellow
        November 15, 2012 at

        Vic -

        As with most things, I think there’s probably some middle ground that works. I’m not really wild about the NHL system, which has kind of just produced 30 plastic franchises. Teams that actually compete in their marketplace and build a fanbase (as opposed to just buying one from the cartel), I do think there should be some sort of a financial reward for it. That said, I like the parity too. Something between what the NHL has and what Europe has would be fine with me. Split the gate receipts between the teams playing on the day and split the TV money equally? Something like that would be fine with me.

        As far as Germany’s alleged lack of success in the CL goes, I tend to think that these things are cyclical. Munich have been in three of the last eleven finals and Dortmund are looking awfully good this year. I’m with you in that I’d prefer a solution along the lines of the PL and La Liga weakening the financial power of their big clubs to strengthening Munich and Dortmund.

        The fan owned structure otherwise is brilliant, I think. Truth be told, you don’t really need a lot of capital to run a sports franchise. The reason the Oilers cost so much to purchase on the open market is because of the profits that can be taken out of them, given the cartel and the labour agreement.

        • Vic
          November 15, 2012 at

          I guess I’m coming at from as a fan of smaller big teams like an Ajax in the Netherlands. I know UEFA has made a killing with their Champions League but it was almost at the expense of smaller nations, while competitive in the past, are too small to exert any financial wherewithal in Europe. I mean many saw it coming. The odds of a homegrown team like Ajax in ’95 winning the Champions League again, and to some extent even Europa League these days, are pretty slim unless you catch lightning in a bottle. Even the days of a Porto-Monaco final like in ’04 will be rare. So you’re reduced to celebrating taking points from a Man City which kind of seems hollow. I kind of wish it was a true Champions League where only the champion of every league was allow to compete, but that isn’t going to happen ever again.

          I also wonder if there will come a day when a Super 16-18 league comes into effect like has been proposed in the past in lieu of domestic leagues. Or if the PL won’t allow promotion/relegation like some of the new owners have proposed.

          I know one of the hidden secrets of British soccer is that while you support your community team, you also have a PL team you support. I wonder if something like exists in Germany?

          While I like the club system in Europe, if that was introduced in North America, you’d open a whole can of worms. I think it would work in Canada/US with hockey much like the past when NHL teams were affiliated with various junior teams but in the day. Though I think the NCAA would object to something like that even though MLS teams, soccer in general in NA, is moving in that direction with the academy system. But some would argue that there is no “safety net” for players coming through an academy and signing a pro deal at 16-18 and then getting cut. (see FC, Toronto and their recent cuts)

    3. November 15, 2012 at

      Well said. Maybe now is the time to blow up the NHL and start pro hockey over again from scratch, eh?

      I’m looking forward to NBC Sports airing more Premier League games here in the States, unless you pony up for extra channels or want to watch on your computer, it’s difficult to follow what’s going on overseas. I was interested in following Blackpool a couple years back when they made the bigs, but ended up seeing just one game of theirs all season on ESPN.

      • Tyler Dellow
        November 15, 2012 at

        Yeah. I’m sure someone’s done some writing about this in some context but I quite like Germany. I like the way that the society’s organized – it’s not just soccer. Maybe there’s something to be said for just levelling a society every so often and starting again from scratch.

        • November 15, 2012 at

          Some of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve had were on business trips to Sweden and Denmark several years ago. The tens of millions of pig-headed Americans who instinctively reject any suggestion of building upon European examples could do with an exposure to the way of life over there.

          Maybe I was just naive, but it struck me that folks with relatively low-skill jobs could still enjoy a proud, decent life. Sidewalks were swept because stores kept people on staff to do that work. When I drove across Denmark, I couldn’t believe how immaculately maintained (and frequent) the public restrooms were along the roadside. As I get ready to load up the minivan for a holiday season full of highway travel between Tennessee and Indiana, I can tell you that I’d certainly rather drive through Scandinavia than Kentucky.

          • November 18, 2012 at

            I lived in Copenhagen for six months and everywhere could do with being more like the Danes.

    4. November 15, 2012 at

      Teams reflecting the community and thus, maybe, taking on some political meaning?

      My oh my, imagine that, I’m sure the hockey media would embrace the notion, said this francophone Canadiens fan.

      • Passive Voice
        November 15, 2012 at

        What I’d give to watch a Montreal derby between a team with Separatist supporters and one with Federalist…

        • November 16, 2012 at

          @Passive: hopefully, at some point in the future, you get to understand the difference between “francophone” and “separatist”. Otherwise, I suggest you avoid the internet.

          • Doogie2K
            November 17, 2012 at

            There was no equivalence stated, so I doubt there was any intended. I don’t think anyone here’s ignorant enough to suggest Franco and separatist are 1:1 by any stretch.

      • Tyler Dellow
        November 15, 2012 at

        I bet the Madrid media don’t like Barca’s nationalist leanings either. I view irritating the media as a feature rather than a bug.

    5. Lee
      November 15, 2012 at

      Enjoyed the article Tyler and have no doubt after reading it that you would make a formidable defense attorney. We’re hearing all the wonderful attributes of your client and none of the downsides which are considerable.

      European football in all its many facets IS a wonderful product and initial exposure to the game particularly in a live setting is likely to cause one to question what’s wrong with North American sports. But as you rightly postulate, it’s all a matter of taste, and European football does have its dark underbelly.

      A bit of background: I lived in Europe for 10+ years as an Canadian expat. During that time, I had the good fortune to take in some live matches (a Champions League match btw Schalke and Barca at the Camp Nou was a definite highlight) and many more in the pub surrounded by fellow Arsenal or Barca supporters.

      Here’s a few of the more important items you’re glossing over IMHO.

      1) You give short shrift to the competitive disparity and economic issues that are plaguing the Euro game. Just because they don’t result in labour stoppages doesn’t mean they aren’t real issues.

      The reality is that unless you’re teams been recently purchased by a Russian Oligarch or a conglomerate willing to suffer £millions in losses to capture trophies, your team has virtually zero chance to capture any meaningful hardware. This is not a good thing for any sports fan.

      The lottery shot offered to lower tier teams in open Cup competitions like the FA Cup is just that, and typically results in a game wherein the top tier side trots out their bench players(saving their best side for the league contests that actually matter) with the final result typically a one sided and humiliating one nonetheless for the lesser side. David vs Goliath may be a romantic notion for footie fans but it rarely results in compelling entertainment worthy of the price being charged.

      Because only Man U, Man City & Chelsea can reasonably contend for the EPL title or Barcelona & Real Madrid in La Liga, what is has been engendered is a culture of bandwagon jumpers. Most Brits and Spaniards I know do cheer for their local club side, but cognizant of the fact they can’t win anything of significance, they’ve also adopted one of the prestige clubs so they can have an actual allegiance by proxy when the ‘important’ games are played.

      Whereas an Edmontonian can simultaneously cheer for the Spruce Grove Saints, Edmonton Oil Kings and the Oilers, and reasonably hope and expect that all of these teams could theoretically contend for a title in their respective leagues. More importantly, each of these teams can pursue the best players in their chosen leagues without being trampled under by the massive economic disparities that define European football at the moment.

      When a relatively rich club like Arsenal can’t even afford to retain a player like Robin Van Persie who was groomed in their youth system, you know the competitive balance is severely out of whack.

      2) Yes, the fan experience can be exhilirating…

      As an aside on this, I took in a Canes game with a British colleague during a business trip to Raleigh. He was struck by how ‘manufactured’ the NA fan experience is with so much reliance on volume and production values as opposed to actual engagement with the on-ice product. It occured to me that it would’ve been much better if he’d seen his first NHL game in a place like Montreal, Edmonton or Vancouver.

      ..however, again you are glossing over the dark underbelly of European football. At the first EPL match I attended (Chelsea vs West Ham), I was amazed at the level of resource that had to be allocated to security to prevent the hooliganism that is systemic to competing English sides with long tribal histories. West Ham fans literally had to be
      escorted into the match early and then leave late, with riot police at their side. Hardly a family friendly environment. And this is between two English sides. You don’t want to even consider the racial ugliness and violence that always results when countries trot out the sides that represent their historical proxies for Europe’s war torn history. Germany vs England will always result in ugly fan incidents. Nice that we don’t have to say the same thing about Canada v Russia.

      3) And the singing, perhaps it’s illustrative to talk about what fuels this and where it originates (i.e. more than a few pints in the pub before the match). Unlike a US football fight song, many of the chants you hear at European football games really speak to the cultural nuances integral to the sport. Some of them are passed down through the generations (I’m forever blowing bubbles!) but many of them are developed almost as impromptu comedy routines in the pubs pre-match. Often, these impromptu songs are topical, and focused on the headlines of the day. More often than not, they’re heavily laced with profanity and designed purely to insult a specific member or manager from the opposition. Thus they range the gamut from jeering Wayne Rooney’s wife after he’s cheated on her to calling Dider Drogba a monkey with a few bananas thrown on the field for good measure.

      All that aside, I do like the singing (when it’s not racist) and wish NA sports events where more communal, but it’s important to mention that this isn’t always the positive it’s portrayed as being.

      4) Finally, if you’re looking for a reason why lower tier football matches are so well attended, aside from the obvious local and historical allegiances, one explanation might be that the 2nd division on down represents one of the few opportunities for fans to see local content in a professional setting.

      It’s a sad reality of the EPL that among the elite sides, very few Englishmen can be found playing on these sides (Theo Walcott is now the exception rather than the rule). When the entire world plays ‘your’ game, and your league represents a very lucrative option for global talent, the end result is top drawer entertainment at the expense of grass roots development. Whereas Jarome Iginla or Taylor Hall can reasonably entertain the dream of playing their chosen sport in the province of their birth, that is becoming a rarer occasion for the British born player. Thus, while England boasts the most watched club league in the world, the downside is a dearth of true elite players for the national side and continuing disappointment in European and World Cup competitions.

      Yes, NA sports could learn a lot from our European brethren, but just as our sports have their flaws, so to do the European ones.

      Btw, looking for an easy way to aggravate a Brit? Refer to the World Series or Super Bowl winner as ‘World Champions.’ Drives them absolutely batty. lol

      • Tyler Dellow
        November 15, 2012 at

        1) This is a relatively recent phenomenon in England. As I discussed in the piece, it’s nothing that can’t be addressed by a more equitable sharing of money. The system that’s in place there does not bar sharing the money more equitably. Also probably worth mentioning that the Champions League, which is the closest analogue to the NHL has been won by Chelsea, Barca (3), Manchester United, Inter, AC Milan (2), Porto and Liverpool in the last decade. That’s a reasonably open competition – Barca aren’t winning it because of their crushing financial resources, they’ve developed a ton of great players.

        The leagues with more problems in terms of competitive balance are the national leagues. It’s fixable. And, people seem to be happy to support their clubs notwithstanding this.

        2) Edmonton’s a terrible place to watch a game right now. Just like a library, just like a library, just like a library etc. As for the general state of things in Europe now, I’m not sure when you lived there but I’ve been to something like 30 different stadiums in the past three years. Yes, there’s security but I don’t think that the problems are currently as significant as you’re describing. And, we may well have to deal with some of those issues here if we didn’t just “solve” things by ensuring that teams are too far apart for significant away fans. Oh AND, there’s probably a bit of a class thing there too.

        3) Racism’s bad. Other than that, not sure what the problem is. Again, been to a ton of games there, haven’t noticed crowds are noticeably more drunk than NA crowds.

        4) I don’t really buy your theory about why the lower leagues are so well attended. Germany’s lower leagues are well attended too. I don’t really get the sense that the second division stadiums are full of people in the UK desperate to see some local boys instead of Johnny Foreigner doing some razzle dazzle.

        • James
          December 18, 2012 at

          Just on point 4)

          It’s not about seeing local boys play, there are plenty of foreigners dotted around the lower leagues throughout the UK. It’s about history, it’s about generations of people growing up and living and breathing a team through its up and downs. The closest I have ever come to experiencing this is with Cleveland fans (poor souls) and Leafs and Habs fans.

          Having lived in the States and being an Englishman, I noticed that, particularly with the NFL, allegiance to the area is often half-hearted. The base notion that a team can up sticks and move to another a city is almost unheard of over here (i think it’s happened about 3 times in the modern era). They are teams, not franchises (the very word itself suggests business and not sport), they are as tied to their locale and their fans as the fans are to them.

          Essentially, it is history and community that keeps people going back to see division 2 football. If the US sports leagues prevented teams from moving markets, I think it would help the ethos and culture of grassroots sport in general.

          (I also think that the college game and subsequent draft system effectively prevents a relegation system in the US but that’s for another day)

    6. Josh
      November 15, 2012 at

      Just curious (and I don’t mean this by any stretch as some over-arching critique of your post, which was fun to read): Wouldn’t your way mean the end of junior hockey as we know it? I mean, at least in the sense of 4-figure attendance, a reasonable TV deal and so on? Do you envision pro teams in Sudbury, Rouyn and Brandon in your way?

      • Tyler Dellow
        November 15, 2012 at

        Yeah. You’d end up with pro teams running academies, most likely, or with junior teams being affiliates of professional clubs. Something like that. I would absolutely envision pro clubs in Sudbury, Rouyn and Brandon.

        • dawgbone
          November 16, 2012 at

          Owned by who? who would they play?

          One of the benefits of Germany and England are that you are just a few hours by car/rail to anywhere in the country. Sudbury’s closest major city is 4 hours away (Toronto).

          Germany and England are smaller in size than Ontario, but have 7 and 4 times the population respectively. That, more than any other factor, is what allows European soccer to operate in the manner that it does.

          Some sports in North America might be able to work like that (namely football and more specifically in the United States), but I don’t think hockey would. The Sudbury team could never compete with the Toronto area teams. And if Sudbury is in a 2nd division, who do they play against? You’ll find more games for them if you increase the travel distance, but then that increases the cost.

          The only way for it to work here is to abandon the areas outside of the golden horseshoe(from Niagara to Durham). Aside from that, I don’t see how this would work, specifically involving hockey and Canada.

    7. sacamano
      November 15, 2012 at

      Hi Ho, Sheffield Wednesday . . .

      If you don’t take your shoe off you’re a Blade.

    8. Roke
      November 15, 2012 at

      Great piece. A shame you weren’t able to get into the Celtic match. That would have been something to see in person.

      You’ve brought up the event games in soccer before but it’s still interesting to me. In particular, I think soccer and the NFL benefit from having specific days where matches are played rather than having them spread throughout the week. Except when international breaks or the FA cup pop up I know there will be Premier League soccer Saturday and Sunday mornings, Champions League takes place on Tuesday and Wednesdays, Europa League Thursdays, etc. The conversation around the sport is concentrated rather than spread throughout the week.

      I did some lazy Googling back in September when the NHL locked out the players. As far as I can tell, Germany and England have never had a work stoppage due to a labour dispute, though it probably would have been a good idea when England had the wage cap or the pre-Bosman restrictions on movement were still in effect. Spain and Italy have had 4 stoppages delaying (not canceling) 12 weeks worth of matches. A heck of a lot better than the North American sports leagues in the last 25 years, and when it comes to the NHL I expect another lockout in 7-10 years unless the fans don’t come back or the NHLPA suddenly finds a way to develop leverage.

    9. Lee
      November 16, 2012 at

      1) Tyler, I’m not sure how the Champions League which is an international competition involving the best teams from multiple leagues is either the closest analogue to the NHL or proof against the issues of economic disparity? The winner of this competition tends to be a team that is among one of the richest in its respective domestic league. Until NHL teams start competing against teams from the KHL, SEL, ELH, etc., hockey has nothing comparable to the Champions League.

      2) Completely subjective conclusion on your part. I’ve been to Oiler playoff games where the atmosphere was off the charts. I’ve been to La Liga matches that were dead boring. I do agree that NA sports could do more to instill a communal vibe but I think this is more the result of cultural factors than anything. Canadians are reserved people. We don’t tailgate, though perhaps we should.

      3) Didn’t say it was all bad, simply that it’s not ‘all good’ either as your original post might lead one to conclude.

      4)Well I did say local and historical allegiances are contributing factors as well and those cultural ties ARE probably the largest factors, but being able to see the local boys play for the home side certainly can’t be hurting attendance figures for these matches.

      At any rate, really did enjoy the post. Excellent food for thought.

    10. Tyler Dellow
      November 16, 2012 at

      1) The Champions League is the closest analogue because it’s a league that takes place over a massive population base, with teams from different jurisdictions. If, for example, Canada operated hockey precisely how Europe operated soccer, we might have ten leagues in Canada, from which the best teams would make a Champions League. Leafs, Oilers, Sens, Habs, Flames, Jets and Canucks would probably be constants in the CL. They’d probably win their leagues most of the time too.

      2) Yes, well we’re not talking about the extremes of each. Oilers games do tend to be pretty jacked in the playoffs, but then the vast majority of Oilers games ain’t that. Meaningful games = pumped up crowd. Maybe play more meaningful games.

    11. Rick
      November 17, 2012 at

      I’m an expat living in England now. As a proud member of Appleton’s Tangerine army and someone who lives in Arsenal country I have been to a number of matches here at different levels. The top 3 divisions of English football are well supported and each receives a good amount of media coverage. Championship and league 1 games are on TV weekly and each team will appear in national news if the transfer rumours are big enough. When the greatest manager in football history moved from Blackpool to Crystal Palace last week it was discussed on national radio and in papers even though it involved to championship teams.

      I very much agree with you Tyler that the system over here is much better, and that Germany in particular is a great example of what leagues should aspire to be. The entire culture around professional sport here is different. Corporations are not allowed to write off tickets as a corporate event and as a result tickets are cheaper and games are attended by normal people who are fans. Since the vast majority of people attending games are doing so because they enjoy the game, matches are about just that, the game. None of the BS of corporate north American sport with their commercial breaks, jumbo trons and pumping music. The atmosphere here is created by the fans and is far superior. The championship playoff final at Wembly last year was a simply brilliant atmosphere created by fans alone. At the NFL game in Europe I was reminded what it’s like to go to a north American regular season sports game. Music blasting before the game, long commercial breaks with jumbo tron entertainment segments like ‘meet my dog,’ it was insufferable at times.

      I would love to see a more euro type system in north American sport. I think it would be the most successful and interesting in something like baseball. Evil owners like Jeffry Loria could no longer do what they do and make money, they would be demoted. After 80 MLB games, half the teams are pretty much done, introduce relegation and it’s suddenly a lot more interesting on the low end. A cup competition in baseball would also produce all kinds of stupid undeserving teams with tropheys if it was a one game knockout.

    12. KeithT
      November 18, 2012 at

      In 79-80, the NHL ” regular-season schedule was set without regard to divisional affiliation. Each team played each of the other 20 teams four times in the year, twice at home and twice on the road.” Mildly interesting factoid.

    13. November 18, 2012 at

      Terrific post. The Champions League might be the finest competition in all of sport today. It would take a massive overhaul to see a competition like that in North American sport though. Hockey could do it, but the task of changing the system is overwhelming. On my bucket list is attending a CL match at Nou Camp in Barcelona. Very jealous of the author for attending the fixtures he managed to get into.

    14. Thomas Pratt
      November 23, 2012 at

      I very much enjoyed this read. I do wonder about a European style club set up and player wages and benefits. I suspect the top players still get their cash, but what about fringe players and reserves? Do teams have the freedom to set up their own work rules, and if so, do they take advantage of that freedom to provide less than adequate medical care?

      I think I would welcome a club for North American hockey, but not if it meant clubs could treat players worse.

    15. James
      December 18, 2012 at

      Just a quick note, English Rugby does in fact have a relegation/promotion system. It’s somewhat odd because it is not as popular as soccer, it still is somewhat grass roots in the country and many stadiums are not built to match top tier rugby. Thus, upon promotion to the premiership clubs stadiums must be assessed for safety and suitability or they won’t be granted promotion. Nearly happened this year with London Welsh.

    16. Derek
      December 18, 2012 at

      Greatly enjoyed the post, and as a long time proponent of this kind of structure, I appreciated some of the details of the Euro system that I was fuzzy on.

      However, there is one point you didn’t mention and I didn’t see mentioned in the comments: the geographic factors. You repeatedly mention about how people can pick and choose what teams they want to root for based on different factors. While something like this could go on in North American hockey, it just isn’t as easily accomplished as it is in Europe. In the current NHL, the majority of fans attending games choose the team they support based on geography. Even with a Euro-style system in place, I would wager that would still be the case. There would be very few cities that would be able to support enough teams to allow people to make a choice and still be able to regularly attend games. North America is just too spread out. Even with 60-80 teams spread across the four leagues, too many fans would still only end up with a couple reasonable options.

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