America's Egalitarian Edge over Europe

World Cup 2014 competition resumes this week, with 32 teams in eight groups competing for 16 spots. Each group features four teams in a round-robin format, so every team will play three matches. The two top point-earning teams in each group will advance to the round of 16. (The Americans’ prospects for advancement appear somewhat but not altogether bleak.)

European football has always puzzled me in comparison to American sports. Europeans often pride themselves in advancing a more egalitarian society in which opportunities for success are widespread rather than concentrated. By contrast, the Americans, they argue, allow for great disparities and inequalities of income and wealth. (Some argue that the facts do not support this fulmination against income inequality, but leave that aside for purposes of this argument.)

The basic impulse of this criticism is a desire to promote equality of outcome, rather than greatness. If some at the top have to be moved down a notch or two, we may sacrifice magnificence at the top, but we will provide greater and more widespread opportunity overall.

The reason I find this puzzling is that, when applied to sports, Americans tend to prefer egalitarianism – known in sports as parity – when compared to their European counterparts. All joking about the Yankees and Lakers aside, championships are more widespread in American sports than in European football.

A quick snapshot illustrates. In the last 25 years in the NFL, thirteen teams have won the Super Bowl, and no team has won more than three times (the Giants, Patriots, Cowboys, and 49ers). The last 25 World Series have produced fifteen different champions, with the Yankees winning five. The NBA has featured several dynasties and less parity over the same period, but there were still eight different champions (with MJ’s Bulls winning six of those titles).

By contrast, since the founding of the English Premier League in 1992 (the most popular European football league), each year only five teams are serious championship contenders: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, and Manchester United. Four of these five teams have won 21 of the 22 championships since the EPL was founded (Liverpool have never won, and Blackburn Rovers won in 1994-95 by a point over Manchester United). In other words, the same four or five teams battle for the EPL championship every season, and the remaining ¾ of the league are playing for position behind the leaders.

The German top division, the Bundesliga, features the same lack of parity. In the last 25 years only six different teams have won the Bundesliga. Eighteen of those 25 championships were captured by Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund alone. The pattern holds for all the top European football leagues: in Spain, La Liga is dominated by Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, and Atletico Madrid; Italy’s Serie A is dominated by four or five teams, most notably Juventus, Inter Milan, and A.C. Milan.

In short, American sports “spread the wealth around” (figuratively and literally) when compared to European football, which is surprising given that the situation is reversed when it comes to income equality. To reinforce the point, the American soccer league (MLS) is defined by parity rather than the dominance of a few great clubs. Since its founding in 1996 nine different clubs have won the MLS Cup.

Two factors, I believe, promote these different outcomes. The first is the lack of a salary cap in European football, in contrast to American professional sports. The second and more interesting factor is the method by which champions are crowned in European football versus American sports.

Americans love playoff tournaments. They like to see underachieving teams knock off teams that were dominant during the regular season. Just think of Americans’ (arguably) favorite playoff format of all: March Madness. Teams that barely scratch the top 25 based on regular season performance often make it to the championship. In 2014, seventh-seeded Connecticut and eighth-seeded Kentucky played for the title. It would be impossible to argue that they were champions, if by that term we mean the most excellent team over the course of a season. But they played the best at the end, and in NCAA Basketball that is all that matters.  Several recent World Series winners were “Wild Card” teams who did not even win their own division over an 162-game stretch (Incidentally, if the pattern holds the ongoing shift towards a playoff system in college football promises to yield the same leveling results.)

European football could not take a more different approach. The champion of the EPL is the team that accumulates the most points over the course of the season. Many years the championship is decided before the final weekend, which to Americans is anti-climactic, but the system rewards consistent performance and ensures that the great teams rise above the mediocre. It is a highly meritocratic system for designating a champion.

European football produces great teams which are consistently better than their competition. American sports produce parity and spread around the fruits of success. (One interesting corollary here is that Americans tend to de-value finishing well but failing to win a championship, while many European clubs define success as finishing at a certain level – the top four, top half of the league, etc.)

Ironically, to reiterate, these situations reverse when it comes to economic outcomes. Europeans love greatness at the expense of equality in their sports, but not in their economics, and Americans love equality at the expense of greatness in their sports, but not in their economics. In sports, Europeans favor meritocracy to a greater extent than Americans. I don’t know why this is the case, but if anyone has thoughts on this I would enjoy reading them in the comments.