Why this system won’t work for football clubs as we know it
Last week James Lawton wrote a piece in the Independent, entitled ‘What the NFL can teach the Premier League about financial fair play.’ Taking Arsenal’s letter to Richard Scudamore as a chance to reflect on the way other sports – namely the NFL – organise themselves to create a league based on fair play. Lawton hinted at how the Premier League could be a more level playing field, eulogising the unity seen in American Football.
I want to look at the notion of a draft system and consider whether it could be implemented and if it were, how it might play out over here.
The draft system is a recruitment process where the worst team in any given year is given the first pick of that year’s talented crop of college stars. The Super Bowl winners obviously have less of a recruitment need and are accordingly given the last pick. In this instance, the Premier League champions would pick last and the 20th placed team get a chance to sign up the next Wayne Rooney. If the worst team in the league can make the right choice, the potential for success is huge.
Firstly, the Premier League is not a closed league like the NFL, where 32 teams compete against one another each and every year. A closed league makes it easy to spread the wealth of talented nascent superstars coming through college level and onto the professional scene. I don’t have to tell anyone of the many falls from grace experienced by countless managers, players and fans after relegation from an open league, never to reach the top flight again. Although, the relegation rule renders a draft system a pretty difficult idea to bring about.
Lets look at Andrew Luck, drafted by last year’s worst team – Indianapolis Colts – with a win/loss record of 2-14. With Luck they managed to finish the 2012/13 regular season with a record of 11-5, qualifying for the postseason and a chance to compete for the Super Bowl. The same applies to the Washington Redskins and RGIII, another bad team who made the postseason after picking the second overall pick behind Luck. These guys could potentially dominate the league for years to come. Although, there are a few anomalies in the draft, like Mr-Ugg-himself-Tom-Brady who was the 199th overall pick in the 6th round of the 2000 draft. He’s kind of like the greatest quarterback of all time (discounting the fact that he lost in the AFC Championship on Sunday night to the Ravens). Some people get overlooked and drafting isn’t a key to success – it just helps to level the field.
But imagine the Premier League is a closed league, and that young players are recruited for college teams (managed by more than capable coaches) before being drafted to the Premier League according to league position. We’re not going to come up with a solution here and the results of this fantasy game won’t exactly result in hard-hitting evidence, but it’s fun to make believe now and then. So we walk through the wardrobe and are transported to the land of drafting and fairness. Lets imagine again that when Rooney was 21, and performing pretty amazingly I might add (he scored 20 goals in all competitions and United won the league), that at 21, Rooney was picked up by last place Derby in 2007/08. Plus, he was accompanied through the doors of Pride Park by a few other key players in the 2007/08 draft, players who might compliment him in the 2008/09 season (a season where Rooney and United won the league again, by the way). Think of the difference it would make on both Derby’s season and United’s. Lets not forget that Derby finished 18th in the Championship after relegation. I feel pretty confident in saying that Rooney could’ve helped them back into the top flight if the relegation rule was still in place. Otherwise in a closed league I’m sure Rooney would help Derby compete, and consequently help to attract better players who might be at the end of their contract. What would that mean for a team like Derby? If the same theory were to be applied throughout the league do you think things would be a little more competitive? Unfortunately, it’s not possible. Why would the Premier League’s top six or seven teams agree to send the country’s top talent to the worst team? And if the relegation rule is still in place in our crazy world of fairness, would they want to see the best players go to the Championship? They wouldn’t. We haven’t even factored in UEFA, a European footballing organization with regulatory powers over Europe –but you knew that. All of the top leagues around Europe would have to agree to a draft system, leaving a lot of empty trophy cabinets and perhaps even a few empty pockets. We haven’t even brought up the EU, with the freedom of movement for workers opening up the draft to a potentially bigger market. The issue gets muddied, politicized and a little more complex the deeper you get into it.
The idea, as Lawton implies, is something that the NFL can teach us. His headline exaggerates things a little, but the implication is that we could learn from American sports. Simply put, this isn’t something that the NFL can teach us. Such drastic changes are unworkable, but it doesn’t stop a few people from paying homage to an American sport with impractical ideas. I can’t see Barcelona training up the best of the best at La Masia, only to give them up to Deportivo. We can only learn from North America on a commercial basis. But perhaps there’s another solution to make the game fairer. To start with, how about a salary cap to stop teams like Manchester City and Chelsea from stockpiling players to warm their benches. It’s a waste of talent with wider repercussions – both financially and competitively – for the rest of the teams. City wouldn’t be able to bench a player on £200,000 a week if there was a salary cap in place. Instead, you’d have to start using cheaper, younger players hungry for an opportunity. Personally, I’d like to see a little more fairness – spreading the talent around – for teams and fans who deserve to enjoy good football and the glory attached to winning silverware.