Why Americans do it better
Twelve reasons why American sport is better than European sport. Or 'oh say can't you see that they've got the right idea . . .'
1 The Salary Cap
The USA may be the land of capitalism red in tooth and claw but they make an exception when it comes to sport. The National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League all operate systems where the amount of money a team can spend on wages is capped so that a handful of wealthy teams do not have the ability to bury their rivals under a torrent of money.
Over here, on the other hand, the idea that an elite few are entitled to buy their way to success is so endemic that you get fans of a big-spending club like Manchester United complaining that the Glazers aren't forking out enough cash as though some basic human right has been violated. Meanwhile, Liverpool fans and players alike seemed to imply that it was hardly worth the bother of turning up if the team couldn't massively outspend most other teams in the Premier League. Americans would find this attitude utterly bizarre.
2 The Draft System
Another great system by which the weak can compete with the strong, and eventually become the strong. In the NFL, the team with the worst record from the previous year gets to pick the best new player entering the league. In the NBA and the NHL, there is a lottery to decide who gets first pick, but this lottery is confined to the teams who failed to make the play-offs the year before, the weaker half of the leagues in other words. Imagine a situation where the most talented teenage protégés entering the Premier League ended up not at Manchester United or Chelsea but at the likes of Blackpool and Wigan Athletic.
In America, it means that a team can be transformed from zeroes to heroes in the space of a few seasons. In 2004, the Arizona Cardinals got the chance to draft gifted wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. In only two of the previous 20 seasons had the Cardinals won more games than they'd lost. Within four years, they made the Superbowl with Fitzgerald starring. LeBron James, the hottest property in basketball, joined a Cleveland Cavaliers team with the worst record in basketball in 2003 and within four years had them in the NBA finals. There are many stories like this in America and none in Europe.
The big American sports leagues aspire to the goal of 'parity,' which means that as many teams as possible have a shot at winning trophies. This is why the Salary Cap and the Draft System exist, because Americans think sport is too important to be left at the mercy of something as crude as unrestrained market forces. The result? Number of different NFL champions since 2000: Eight. Number of different NBA champions since 2000: Five. Number of different NHL champions since 2000: Eight. Number of different Premier League champions since 2000: Three. Number of different La Liga champions since 2000: Four. Number of different Serie A champions since 2000: Four. And these bare statistics don't even say anything about the way that our title races are basically two or three-horse races whereas the Americans can usually name at least a dozen serious contenders at the start of their seasons.
4 Tailgate Parties
There they are hours before their big sporting occasions, breaking out the barbecue and the cooler full of beer bottles in the car park, making a day out of it, enjoying themselves. Meanwhile, we're getting fleeced by dodgy hot dog stands and in-stadium prawn sandwich vendors.
It is customary for us Europeans to sneer at the hype and glitz surrounding a big American sporting occasion. But look at the Superbowl which offers the fans a chance to see U2 or Springsteen or Prince or Stevie Wonder live and ask yourself what's wrong with that? There's nothing particularly inauthentic about providing world-class entertainment for the fans. And then there's those cheerleaders waving their pompoms at you.
6 Family Crowds
Look at the crowd shots during a World Series game and you see people of all ages, the old and the young together, moms and dads with their kids, young couples. Look at the crowd shots during a Champions League game and what do you see? Almost exclusively grumpy looking bunches of men in their 20s, 30s and 40s who look like they're waiting for a fight to start.
Sports Illustrated is by a country mile the best sporting publication in the world for starters. And the history of great sportswriting is by and large the history of American sportswriting, of Red Smith, of Frank Deford, of AJ Liebling, John Feinstein and Gary Smith, of books like Friday Night Lights, The Boys of Summer and Paper Lion, the likes of which have never been written on this side of the pond. We're very quick with the jibes about supposed American stupidity and lack of irony but not in a million years would we come up with anything as intelligent as The Sopranos, The Wire, The West Wing, Frasier (insert your own favourite here). American sportswriting stands in the same relation to the European variety as The Wire does to that current RTE thing about gougers larging it in the inner city.
Maybe this gets your goat but me, I like to see a player giving thanks to the man above after he's done something spectacular. It at least gives the impression that he's not perpetually marvelling at his own wondrousness. The most exciting young sportsman in America at the moment is a rookie quarterback named Tim Tebow, one of the greatest college football players ever. Tim spends time every year doing missionary work in the Philippines. You wouldn't get it from Wayne Rooney.
There is a notion out there that the big American sports are played by nobody but Americans. Not so, though American football does remain a pretty exclusively nativist concern. But among the brightest stars of baseball are Ichiro Suzuki (Japan), Albert Pujols (Dominican Republic) and Omar Infante (Venezuela). Basketball has Pau Gasol (Spain), Dirk Nowitzki (Germany) and Manu Ginobili (Argentina), ice hockey the likes of Henrik Sedin (Sweden), Alexander Ovechkin (Russia) and Antti Niemi (Finland). Basketball is a world game, ice hockey and baseball have as much claim to be considered one, and probably more, than rugby, cricket or horse racing.
The USA is a more violent society than ours. However, the opposite is true when it comes to sport. The big pitched battles between soccer supporters are conspicuous by their absence Stateside. Which may explain points 4 to 6.
They really are very keen on this in the States. 'Simulation', by which they mean diving, is almost unknown and when it does occur usually draws a lighthearted comment about World Cup soccer. American Football, a game of quite frightening physical intensity, is remarkably free of brawls, which may have something to do with the strict discipline imposed by the referees.
And the dissent which carries on throughout a big soccer or GAA game isn't there in the States. Even blatant mistakes by the refs, which don't happen as often as they do over here given that the Yanks invented the video replay and employ it to the fullest extent, are passed over with a shrug and a sigh. That's how they do it.
I have before me a copy of the Sports Illustrated 50th anniversary anthology. It contains pieces by William Faulkner, Don DeLillo, John Steinbeck, Garrison Keillor and Jim Harrison. Nearly all major American writers wrote well about sport, whether it was John Updike writing about golf, Norman Mailer writing about the Ali-Foreman fight or Hemingway writing about bullfighting. And what do we have? Nick Hornby and blokey stuff about soccer. That's because sport cuts across boundaries in America.
I spent time in an artists' colony in upstate New York once, full of people whose levels of intellect and culture made me feel like a junior footballer marking an inter-county star. Almost all of them loved their sport. A similar group of people over here wouldn't be half as bright and most of them would come out with the "football is 22 men kicking a bag of wind around a field" line.
US television sports coverage is predicated upon the fact that you want to hear someone telling you something intelligent about the game. British television sports coverage starts from the presumption that people want to switch off their brain when they watch games so the whole thing must be treated like a schoolboy jape.
God Bless America, y'all.