This week, between 30 April and 2 May, one of the most important US sporting events will take place. Not a single ball will be thrown, goal scored or tackle made, yet more than 30 million people will tune in to watch American football’s NFL draft on TV: an event that mainly consists of a man in a suit walking up to a podium and reading out names. What makes it an even more unlikely US TV hit is that it is a barely disguised shrine to sporting socialism.
The draft is the method by which the next batch of graduating college players enters the National Football League: somewhere between picking teams in the school playground and the Hogwarts Sorting Hat. The draft’s first pick is a valuable prize, the chance to select the best player from the vast university ranks.
And which team is rewarded with such an honour? The team that failed most spectacularly the previous year. In the land of corporate Darwinism, it is those who need the most help that are given it, simply for being feeble. After them comes the second most pathetic and so on to the bottom, where last year’s Super Bowl winners, the New England Patriots, will languish at number 32.
The NFL also has a salary cap limiting the money that teams can spend on players and a revenue-sharing system that evens out income from the big teams in New York and Chicago with clubs based in backwater cities such as Jacksonville and Green Bay. This creates parity – and hope. Fans of teams in the doldrums know they will soon be restocked with fresh talent. This helps to explain how the New Orleans Saints could go from picking second in 2006 to win the Super Bowl just three seasons later.
Ironically, even though the political landscape on this side of the Atlantic is somewhere to the left of our US cousins, the way we structure our national sport is closer to the approach of the Republican Tea Party. Elsewhere in the States, other hugely popular sports – baseball, basketball, ice hockey and even the US soccer league – use a draft system. British football teams, by contrast, are free to spend as much as they like. The biggest teams snap up the best young players regardless of whether they intend to play them or not.
Unlike fans of the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are likely to choose the fortune-changing quarterback Jameis Winston from Florida State with their first pick this year, fans of Burnley FC, currently propping up the Premier League, have nothing but the ignominy of relegation to look forward to.
The idea of Burnley winning the Premiership in the next few years would be laughable, yet the Buccaneers were Super Bowl champions as recently as 2002. Since the Premier League was formed in 1992, unfettered spending has produced four winning teams (plus one-time wonders Blackburn Rovers 20 years ago). In that time there have been 14 different winners of the Super Bowl.
Equality lies at the heart of American football’s success. Commercially, it has gone from strength to strength, raking in millions of fans and billions of dollars. The league’s 32 teams are worth a combined $45bn and there is talk of creating an expansion team in London.
If that happens, perhaps we will learn something about redistribution and fairness from the capitalists.