I’m not much of a sports fan. I rather like baseball, but even with that I’m just as happy watching the minor leagues or little league. And given this, I don’t claim to speak for anyone. But Jonathan Chait wrote something this morning that really needs to be addressed. He is pushing back against the wave of articles defending Johnny Manziel’s autograph scandal. According to him, college sports should not become more professionalized. And that’s a fair point. But his argument makes some invalid economic assumptions about professional sports.
The key to his argument is that people only watch college football because it is amateur. He even says, “The top 500 college players could drop out and form their own league, but, like the NBA Developmental League, nobody would watch it, even if the quality of play was higher than college football.” This totally misunderstands why people watch college sports—why they watch any sports at all. People have certain connections to teams, they become fans, they watch. If it were simply about who the best players are, why would anyone watch games in the Big Sky Conference? After all, the Pac-12 has better teams.
The reason that the United States is stuck with its pathetic single league monopolies is because the owners have gotten the government (with great help from the media) to institutionalize it. Sure, occasionally a bunch of billionaires will try to start a competing league like the USFL or the ABA. But that’s hardly a free market. Major League Baseball has explicit protections against anti-trust lawsuits. If a bunch of players want to start a semipro regional league, they just can’t.
The whole situation reeks of privilege. Fundamentally, the NFL and NCAA are hugely popular because they are hugely popular. It isn’t because those players are the best—even at their own level. The truth is that a game between two well matched teams is pretty much the same regardless of how good the teams are. Amazing bits of athletics might make for great commercials, but it isn’t what people get out of watching a game.
Or think about it like this. I live in the Bay Area. Most people around here are Giants and As fans. They would still be Giants and As fans if they were only in the Northern California League. That’s what attracts people to sports: their personal connection. And that personal connection is mostly just proximity. They care about it because it is on TV. They care about it because they live near the team or they went to the school. They care about it because they like a particular player. Whatever. Chait is totally wrong that people care about NCAA football because it is amateur. Or that people care about NFL because the players are the best there are.
Another point is that the NFL is itself parochial. It is an American league. Why doesn’t that make the NFL less viable given that it isn’t global? America seems to have the best basketball players in the world, but if you watch the Olympics, you will see that the rest of the world does pretty damned well. To me a better model is soccer. That is truly a universal sport. But look at the system in the United Kingdom which, unlike the big pro sports leagues in the United States, is a mess of democracy.
America is supposedly the land of the free market. And when it comes to people on the bottom of the economic ladder, it is certainly is. If you are a manufacturing worker, you know that you are in direct competition with workers in Bangladesh. But for people at the top, there is no competition. If you are a billionaire sports team owner, you know that your billionaire friends will not allow you to face direct competition. So it’s dog-eat-dog, social Darwinism for the poor and collectivist nirvana for the rich. Welcome to the land of the free!
Update (23 August 2013 4:47 pm)
At The American Prospect, Scott Lemieux wrote a devastating response to Chait, Stop Defending the NCAA. He brings up some of the same economic issues that I did here, but goes into far more detail about the NCAA system. Also, he brilliantly points out that Chait simply has a blind spot when it comes to this stuff; Chait would never make these kinds of arguments for any other workers. Check it out!