Three ways baseball should be more like European football (soccer)

No league, no enterprise, no product is perfect. Even baseball, with its divinely inspired 90 feet between bases, has warts. So too has football (“soccer” in the USA, but since I am writing about professional European—mainly English—leagues, I will defer to their name for the sport), of course; something of which few Americans need reminding.

There is little point in comparing their on-field products and rules of the game. The pace, the scoring, the use of tie games or not are part of each’s identity. Nor is this an admonition that Major League Baseball’s off-field structure should replicate, say, the English Premier League’s.

But baseball does suffer from (at least) three problems.

First, the game is struggling to embrace its growing international status. Professional leagues are popular across Latin America and Asia but an MLB team has yet to play a meaningful game against a foreign team.

Second, stadium building is an utter waste of public resources and goodwill. Using public funds to help build stadiums leads to a host of evils: the corruption of officials, the indebtedness of cities and the footlooseness of franchises.

Third, MLB should be more competitive. MLB is currently a legal cartel which restricts entry, exit and competition. Some areas have too few teams and others have too many. Some existing teams would offer a better product to their fans and extract fewer profits if incentives were properly structured.

Each of these problems has a solution, drawn from the way that European—and, more specifically, English—professional football is structured that would make the professional game more fun for fans. However, it could lead to resistance from one of the other major stakeholders, either the players or the owners.

However, in concert, each of these proposed reforms offers something substantial to players or owners so that if all three reforms are jointly pursued, all stakeholders could gain from their joint adoption. That said, no number crunching has been done and it cannot be said definitively that the gains from one reform would necessarily outweigh the costs of another to either the owners or the players. In some respect, the devil would be in the details. But each of the three would improve the game for fans. None are individually novel.

Challenge #1: Deepen and widen the professional game
Reform #1: “FA Cup” and “Champions League,” shorten the MLB season and lengthen rosters

Baseball has the best minor league system of all the major professional sports in North America but is one of the worst at capitalizing on it. It also has huge followings internationally with leagues in South Korea, Japan, Mexico and Venezuela, among others (and, of course, Cuba, which is essentially closed to MLB currently).

(American) Football and basketball both have thriving symbiotic relationships with the NCAA, which shows that there is a taste for competitions even if the level of play is below that of the top professional leagues. Minor league baseball is not nearly as popular, nor are the television contracts and media coverage as lucrative nor as extensive.

Most minor league teams are not autonomous. They exist to train talent for the major league level and so winning championships has secondary emphasis. When major league teams’ rosters expand at the end of the season, they only sometimes consider their minor league affiliates’ postseason competitiveness when calling up players.

The World Baseball Classic is also unsatisfying. On its own, it is a nice way to see international talent that has not made it on to American TV screens, and without Olympic baseball, it is the only way to see nations compete. However, it is infuriatingly occasional and uncoordinated. Players from MLB come into winter competition in spring training form. Rosters are thrown together and playing time often is used to soothe egos.

European football offers solutions. Within a country, there are FA Cup-like competitions, and across countries there is the Champions League (and the runner-up UEFA Europa Cup) competition for professional teams.

Most countries in Europe have their own leagues with their own regulators. The top league in England is the Premier League. Germany has the Bundesliga, Italy has Serie A, and Spain has La Liga. Beneath these leagues are lesser leagues and beneath them still more leagues and then semi-pro/amateur leagues. Top professional teams often compete for several different trophies in each season. They compete for their within-league trophy, their within-country trophy and also one of the across-Europe trophies. Inter Milan, an Italian team, last season accomplished the rare feat of winning all three of their potential trophies by winning the Copa Italia, Seria A and Champions League.

Most countries have a within-country competition for all teams in that country. In England, it is called the FA Cup. Nearly any team can qualify for it, with the better teams receiving byes into later rounds of the competition. “Minnows” end up eventually playing Goliaths, though, and English fans annually are treated to potential “Miracle on Ice, USA vs USSR”-type upsets.

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This season, United Manchester, a club team with mostly local players, fell just short of the chance to play against Manchester United, arguably the most famous professional team in the world. It is easy to see how a similar scenario in baseball would be hugely appealing: some former college players or low-level minor leaguers getting the chance to play meaningful baseball against the Red Sox in Fenway Park.

And meaningful baseball it would be if the sport adopted the FA Cup policy of granting the winner a spot in the European-wide competition (in baseball’s case, this would be the worldwide competition). Top teams do not always play their best players in FA Cup games, but they do play to win. Top baseball teams would likely follow similar strategies: the Red Sox might not pitch Jon Lester against lesser teams, but they’d probably bring in Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth inning if they were only leading by one run.

More important to teams would be the worldwide competition. In Europe, the Champions League is just that – a competition with all the top teams from the top leagues. For instance, the top four teams (out of 20 total) from the English Premier League qualify for the Champions League. Making the Champions League means a huge pot of money for teams from TV revenue and tickets. The better the team does, the more money it makes.

Likely revenues from similar inter-country play in baseball are hard to forecast. TV markets in the various likely countries are disparate, as are typical household incomes and, thus, ticket prices. But it is hard to imagine that a three-game series with the Nippon Ham Fighters from Tokyo versus the New York Yankees would fail to earn oodles of money.

Like the Champions League, the appeal of inter-country professional baseball would not be huge at first. But with revenue and international rivalry come team and fan interest. Most English football fans would prioritize winning the Premier League Title (i.e. the World Series) over winning the Champions League, but not by much. Baseball would have a long way to go to get that kind of sentiment, but it has to put another foot forward besides the World Baseball Classic if it hopes to get there.

What would the likely stakeholders feel about internationalizing and deepening professional competition?

Fans: Fans obviously win here. They get more competitions, more interesting baseball and more interesting stories. Unlike now, local teams at all levels have a chance to play against the big guys without paying for a fantasy camp.

Owners: Owners also obviously win here. More games are played, meaning more revenue. Internationalization, in particular, has been a goal of the Bud Selig regime. By adopting these competitions, they’d reach new markets across other countries, but also within the USA.

Players: Players actually are winners here, too, though it will require contract negotiations. Clearly they will rightly demand their share of the increased revenue that these games will bring in.

On the downside for the players, seasons will be longer (though perhaps some of spring training could now be sacrificed) and travel demands higher. However, superstar players will be payed more—potentially much more—for these high-revenue international games (or even just the possibility of helping the team qualify for such games). The more profitable the owners find success, the more rewarded superstars become.

With longer seasons, superstars, particularly superstar pitchers, will be leveraged. The best players will be played more often in high-impact games. As in European football, when good teams play games against lesser teams (even in league play), they will not always use all of their best players. So the players will not necessarily play many more games on an individual basis.

Furthermore, if teams are allowed to lengthen their rosters, then many more players could see high-level action. The best players play in the best games and journeymen get more chances to play. Minor leaguers who have never been, and may never otherwise be, in the spotlight also would get an opportunity. So players of all abilities win.

Lastly, since so many of the players are from other countries, at the very least this would be a chance to play in front of a hometown crowd. But by enabling serious inter-country professional baseball and the concomitant revenues, it may also allow hometown teams to compete on the international player market, increasing salaries and the likelihood that foreign players can remain in their home market at a competitive salary.

Challenge #2: Stadiums built with public money; teams threatening to abandon cities; teams underspending in old stadiums
Reform #2: Privately financed stadiums

If expanding competition within and across countries was a win-win for players and owners, privately financed stadiums are lose-lose. But they would be win-win for fans and the non-fan public.

This is not the time to prove that public financing for stadiums is a boondoggle (see JC Bradbury at the http://www.sabernomics.com or this essay ). There are plenty of reasons why stadiums might be a public good – one that triggers extra employment and other benefits for a good value – but none of them turn out to be true or, at least, large enough to justify anywhere near the amount of public funding, through direct subsidies, concessions and tax exceptions, that goes into these urban Colossuses.

Moreover, other countries show that there is a purely private alternative. England provides little, if any, public funding for stadiums but has no shortage of them: London has twice as many large stadiums as New York City (including both American football and baseball stadiums).

Alas, there’s no easy way to implement private funding. Public funding increases baseball’s profits. Private funding, by decreasing the amount of money to be split between owners and players, would mean less money for each of these stakeholders. Neither the players nor the owners would push for such a reform. Many public officials have been all too willing to enable the public funding of stadiums, in part due to kickbacks (ticket-related – or not), press connivance and public misunderstanding.

So banishing public funding faces an uphill battle, which is a shame because the gains to the public are large. For one, the public would save money. For another, there would be (slightly) less corruption of public officials.

But there would also be large gains for fans in particular. Without owner-versus-government haggling, owners would have only themselves to blame for old stadiums. Gone would be the basis for Florida Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria’s excuse for low investment in players. Furthermore, owners that had debt-financed stadiums (or a lot of equity in a stadium) would be much less willing to move their teams to new cities, abandoning their old stadiums and incurring new debt with a new stadium.

Privately-financed stadiums are not a free lunch for fans. Some ticket prices would probably go up but not many, most likely, as owners are nearly monopoly providers of tickets already. Some teams may be forced to scale back on expenditures when their debts become large, as some Premier League teams have been forced to – but better the teams than the local government.

Challenge #3: Competitive balance
Reform #3: Relegation and promotion

MLB has a competition problem. The solvable problem is not at the top end of the spending spectrum. Rich teams will always be better off, at least without more revenue sharing. The problem instead lies with teams that can choose to remain dormant for years, spending little on free agents. These sleeping teams (examples include San Diego, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Florida and Kansas City) can become competitive for several seasons with the right draft picks and other high-risk good fortune, but bottom-of-the-standings finishes are far more frequent.

Tastes vary as to how many abysmal seasons are forgiven by a playoff-bound season, and perennial losers suffer as much from poor management as from financial deprivation, but fear is a powerful motivator. No team in the English Premier League dares come into the season expecting a “re-building” year and a last-place finish, and that is due to fear of relegation.

In all of the European football leagues, the worst teams (the bottom three out of 20 in the Premier League) are sent out of the top league and into the second league (and likewise for the worst of the second league into the third, etc…). The best teams from the lower league then move up a league. This is relegation and promotion, and it is profoundly healthy for the sport’s ecosystem.

Relegation and promotion means that new teams from growing areas can earn their way into the top leagues. It means that teams in huge markets will face more competition for fans – an entrepreneur could buy, for instance, the Brooklyn Cyclones and invest in them and a few winning seasons later find his or her team in the Major Leagues. Moreover, new teams would not be at a huge competitive disadvantage if older teams did not have huge subsidized stadiums.

Owners have every incentive to avoid relegation. The revenues from the top football leagues are orders of magnitude larger. Relegated teams open up markets for other teams. If the San Francisco-Oakland area truly was not large enough to sustain two teams, then one would eventually likely be relegated, helping the other get enough revenues to be competitive.

Fans win with relegation and promotion, though, of course, in any given year a few teams’ fans will face the disappointment of relegation. However, each season, their teams will be forced to compete. And each victory for bad teams will still matter, keeping seasons interesting until the end.

Fans in cities or areas without major league teams will have more exciting leagues to follow due to promotion. Lower, minor league seasons will matter – even moreso if there’s also an FA Cup-like competition. Moreover, Major League owners will not be able to shop around cities so easily, threatening their teams’ fans and their cities’ public officials, since the candidate cities for a new team will already have teams at other levels looking to earn their way up.

Players can actually gain from relegation and promotion. More excitement in lower leagues means more money for lower-league players. The risk of relegation also means mediocre teams with mediocre players are significantly better off than bad teams with bad players. So mediocre players are rewarded more. And players are rarely stuck with bad teams that are not trying to compete.

Relegation does not usually directly impinge on players, either. Relegated teams usually trade or allow many players to resign with teams that stay in upper leagues as their talents and salaries are usually more appropriate for the higher league.

Current MLB owners would obviously lose from relegation. Right now, bad teams are at little risk of killing their golden geese. Of course, would-be owners gain a lot from the opening up of the club. And this would spill over to current owners that also own part of minor league franchises. These teams, in Brooklyn, Las Vegas, Pawtucket and elsewhere, suddenly become more valuable with the possibility of earning their way up and the higher excitement that these rejuvenated leagues would provide.

Conclusions:

Three football-like reforms—Champions League and FA Cup competitions, ending publicly financed stadiums, and relegation—can improve the game of baseball for fans. Owner and players would lose from some of the individual reforms, but the long-term gains from the others would be large enough if the reforms were structured properly. Each of the reforms, particularly ending public financing of stadiums, could be carried out without the others. But each’s effects on owner incentives and fan interest would be much stronger with the other two.

Intra-league competition via an FA Cup would be better with the proper minor league teams that would come about due to promotion possibilities and relegation threats. Inter-league competition via a Champions League would offer substantial revenues to successful top league teams and thus the necessary rewards for all teams in the league to justify competitive spending.

Private stadium financing with little possibility of profitable relocation would force owners to invest in their current team in the current city or sell to someone willing to invest. Fans would have the opportunity to follow a team from a low league up all the way to international competition over the course of many seasons but also each season have hopes for Cinderella victory in the FA Cup.


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Steve
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Steve
The only one that is somewhat feasible is item one, to promote international competition.  Privately financed stadiums?  Surest way to have contraction in MLB.  No owner is going to invest a minimum of half a billion dollars in a stadium these days.  Those with old stadiums will look to get out.  I’d love to see it, but I don’t see it happening.  And regulation/promotion is impossible.  As someone said, you’d have to blow up the whole structure, starting with the draft, all the way to every minor league team and the player development scheme.  Then, if it is, as you… Read more »
ralf
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ralf
Why does baseball need to be fixed?  It’s taking in tons of money and there’s been plenty of year-to-year turnover among playoff teams over the last decade.  Just a couple of specific points:  I, for one, really don’t want to see international competition intrude on the current MLB regular season/postseason format.  The WBC is a nice diversion, and that’s fine.  Privately financed stadiums?  Yes, please.  But how are you going to enforce it?  MLB isn’t going to make a rule against it, and neither is the federal government.  Besides, there are what, two or three teams talking about new ballparks… Read more »
Warren
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Warren
I don’t know if this would work as well for baseball as basketball or american football, but I think you’re overlooking another very interesting twist to how the football league’s work: TV money. TV money comes in by league-wide contracts, and elaborate formulas go into deciding who gets how much – but a good chunk of it is based on how much you win. The better you do any given season, the more money you get next season. This is also why qualifying for europe-wide competition is such a huge deal for teams – it means more money (or not… Read more »
Warren
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Warren

Sorry, I meant “so there’s NO opportunity for a team like a Tampa to build from within.”

Now, imagine if you could buy and sell players for straight cash in American sports?

MikeS
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MikeS

Relegation is frequently a popular idea amongst people with short memories and those who don’t think the idea all the way through.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the Yankees and Red Sox were not the behemoths they are today.  There was a time (most of the last 100+ years) when the Cubs would have been in danger of relegation on a yearly basis.  How would MLB (and especially their broadcast partners) feel if one of those teams got relegated? Even for a single year?

Jason S.
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Jason S.

I like suggestion #2.  I’m tired of politicians acting like they have no choice and must provide free or nearly free homes to sports teams.  I’m less enthused about the other suggestions though.

Fat Ted
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Fat Ted

I liked article, but also like the comments as well. International play seems the most likely out of all, but not sure how it’ll be implemented. Thank you to the other commenters for pointing out the flaws in delegation.

Mark
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Mark

I think Halket is dead-on..unfortunately Baseball is too hidebound and beholden to the status quo to ever change its current structure for the betterment of the game..

gbewing
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gbewing

Good article to stimulate thinking and conversation. Ideas 1 and 2 seem very doable and worthwhile-= though #2 may require some cities to be sacrificial lsmbs for standing up to owners. I am not oppossed to idea 3 so much but the entire current system would need to be blown up. Current MLB teams afterall own and supply the talent to minor league teams. Would the Yankees allow Columbus into MLB with Yankee players? No how would Columbus field a ML team then?

Jonathan Halket
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Jonathan Halket
Thanks for all the comments. Several thoughts: – I completely agree that in some or all of these proposals are challenging to implement.  Entrenched interests are always hard to uproot. Though I could see a way through them, particularly if Congress got involved and reexamined the nature of baseball’s anti-trust exemptions, I am not forecasting nor advocating any particular path to adoption. – I also agree that all of these ideas are already “out there” and have been chewed over.  The novelty, if any, here is how using all three can compensate the losers from any one. And also a… Read more »
Matt
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Matt
As a soccer fan myself, I must say I hate the way all the various championships dilute the meaning of each.  The World Series is the grand prize and because it is, it is so very special.  I love the idea of MLB slowly incorporating franchises in other countries, perhaps beginning with Latin America (although they would have to dramatically change baseball’s finances to allow 3rd world countries to be able to support a team), but to make the World Series just one of many championships would be sad indeed. I must admit the idea of a smaller AAA city… Read more »
Kent
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Kent
Thanks for the debate.  I agree with some here in that baseball really doesn’t need “fixed.”  Yeah, there are issues/problems, but this can be said about all professional sports.  (Personal bias: I can’t stand the NBA and can’t imagine how anyone could watch or care about most of the league’s teams.)  What’s more, the only division with a real imbalance, if you will, is the AL East. I’m a soccer nut from way before it was a niche sport in this country and I follow a team (Real Betis—avoid at all costs for a lifetime of sorrow will follow you)… Read more »
Z
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Z

I completely agree with your idea #2.  No government should subsidize profesionL sports stadiums in for-profit leagues.  Hower this must be driven by government or the people, not sports leagues which are the obvious beneficiaries of these subsidies.  This could be mostly accomplished by a treaty among the states and perhaps larger cities and counties of the country.

Andy Everett
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Andy Everett
I’m a UK national who lived in Philly for a while, makes regular trips to the US, Japan, Cuba to watch baseball. With the greatest respect to ideas #1 and #2, idea #3 is so completely incorrect its unbelievable.  Since the Premier League (EPL, whatever) was formed in 1992, only 4 teams have won it and one of those only once.  Italy isn’t much better, Spain similar.  The Bundesligua works because of the financial limitations those clubs operate under and revenue sharing, both ideas already adopted in the States. Apologies for being a pedant but it’s FC United of Manchester,… Read more »
Tom Cavileer
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Tom Cavileer

The Champions League works because Berlin is closer to London than New York is to Chicago. Tokyo, on the other hand, is 10 time zones away from the East Coast of the US.

If ESPN really needs more “meaningful” Yankees games, feel free to replace inter-league play with an in-season “Champions League” involving only the previous year’s playoff teams.  I doubt MLB is making all that much money off those Pirates-Royals games anyway.

Ross
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Ross

Wow. First time I have heard anyone other than myself express this sentiment. Imagine if a semi-pro team from an average town had a slim but realistic chance of winning the North American Baseball Championship? Every small town in England has a soccer team, and once in a while, one of them makes a surprising run. These ideas would be great for professional baseball in North America and Asia.

cktai
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cktai
To look at the European football leagues for competitive balance is a joke. The promotion/relegation system only works to perpetuate traditional powerhouses. Teams are punished for ending low and rewarded for ending high so it is easier to stay up then it is to move up. You can see that when you look at how many teams have won their league since I was born (26 seasons): MLB: 17 teams, Yankees have won 5. English Premier League: 7 teams, Manchester United have won 11. Spanish Liga: 5 teams, Barcelona and Real Madrid combined won 22. Italian Serie A: 8 teams,… Read more »
cktai
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cktai

The main point was to show that by allowing teams to lay dormant, you allow them to reconstruct. This will lead to broader competition and more challengers for the title in the long run.

Rikki
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Rikki

The “Champions League” situation is eerily similar to that in cricket. Such a tournament has existed there for two years, spearheaded by India (analogous to the US). Two teams each from India, Australia, England and South Africa participate (compare US, Japan, Korea, Taiwan (or Cuba)), along with a few others.

The biggest problem for both is finding   a scheduling spot.

What I may rather want to see is an “Ashes” series between the US and Japan every two years in November.

Phil J
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Phil J
As a Manchester City season ticket holder for the last 20 seasons, combined with being a fervent (if geographically distant) fan of Baseball (and other US Sports) I was interested to see what you were going to come up with here. What we really have to appreciate here is that the foundations of baseball and the foundations of football are completely different, with the concept of the “franchise” system being the complete opposite of how football teams are set up – ie, you form a team, get them into a feeder league, and if you keep winning, 10 or so… Read more »
MsFan
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MsFan

One GLARING problem: the Premier League has been dominated by the same four teams. Much worse than baseball has been dominated by the Red Sox and Yankees. Relegation kicks out the bottom teams and brings in a new, future set of bottom teams. But it doesn’t hurt the teams at the top. In fact, the bottom teams having trouble making money makes them LESS able to compete with the top teams.

Jonathan
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Jonathan
Thanks again for these comments.  I think a comparison of the two leagues would be very interesting.  It is hard to say at first glance which league is “more competitive” (which needs defining as well). 2 wrinkles: 1) The best teams in the regular season win in football as a matter of definition – they get the trophy.  In baseball, being the best in the regular season just gets you into the playoffs – winning from there can be quite random.  So if baseball keeps its playoffs, there could still be the same “competitiveness”, even with relegation/promotion, etc….  2) I… Read more »
Phil J
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Phil J
Re:“the Premier League has been dominated by the same four teams. Relegation kicks out the bottom teams and brings in a new, future set of bottom teams. But it doesn’t hurt the teams at the top.” – recently, perhaps – 3 different teams have won the last 14 Prem titles, and the top 4 has been dominated by Yan-eye-tid, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool during the last decade – however, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. This lack of movement around the top 4 is not related to the concept of promotion and relegation, as p&r have been around for 120… Read more »
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