Hobble Chelsea

Most football leagues require participating clubs to remain financially solvent. Indeed, several teams have been relegated from Italy’s Serie A precisely for this reason. One supposes that this is not strictly for paternalistic reasons but rather for the good of the league - a club which doesn’t operate under the financial restrictions shared by its competitors will surely have an unfair advantage. The thought occurs to me that, from the point of view of a fair competition, the same surely applies to Chelsea. This club, despite its prominence, doesn’t pay for itself. Not by a long shot. Now, what is the salient difference, between a club using money extended by a bank and a club using money profferred by its sugar daddy? In each case, it hasn’t earned the money through its own success.

I am aware that this is a tricky question and it might appear to be an abritrary line to draw - whether the club earned the money or not. I am also familar with redistributionist policies in American football, where the worst teams get first bite at the promising new players but I don’t think such proposals would be appropriate for a league such as the premiership to and from which teams are promoted and relegated. It’s not so much the punishing of success that would bother me in the premiership’s case, but instead the rewarding of failure. The teams in the relegation slots at the end of the season generally deserve to be relegated, the team which barely misses relegation is rewarded sufficiently already by retention of premiership status.

Further, the success or failure of a team has a lot more to do with the manager and the board - team selections, tactics, wise or foolish transfer decisions etc. - and less to do with individual rookie players. In general, I prefer a laissez-faire approach but it’s more than just sour grapes which makes me think that something ought to be done about Chelsea’s unfair advantage. Mourinho, is probably the best manager in the league, granted and Chelsea are able to attract top players and pay them the best wages and up to that point I don’t have a problem. This merely puts them on a par with other rich European sides.

Where I draw the line is that the approximately unlimited wealth of their patron and the slippery ethics of certain individuals with the club enable them to thwart the attempts of competitors to sign the players they want. United wanted Michael Essien, he went to Chelsea and plays in their first team, fair enough. Arsenal wanted Sean Wright Phillips, Chelsea signed him and he rarely gets a run out, not quite so fair. It’s clear that Essien’s main advantage is on the pitch, while SWP’s advantage to Chelsea is that he doesn’t play for Arsenal.

These tactics are also employed for the promising rookie players, Chelsea’s underhand attempt to tear up United’s contract with Jon Obi Mikel is likely to be successful and they will do their best to try to stop Theo Walcott going to Arsenal.

It seems to me that the Premier League has a duty to deal with these types of anti-competitive tactics, otherwise, until their owner gets bored (diminishing returns will surely apply after the third on the trot) we will all have to be content to sit back and watch Chelsea’s annual procession to the title.

15 Responses to “Hobble Chelsea”

  1. John Says:

    The NFL doesn’t just redistribute the talent through the draft, it also pools all t.v. and merchandise revenues. In addition, the NFL has an unbalanced schedule where the teams that do worst play a couple of games against each other the following season. The NFL’s goal seems to be to have every team finish with an 8-8 record.

  2. Frank McGahon Says:

    Fair enough. I didn’t have all the details. I do think this makes more sense in a closed system without promotion and relegation but there is still the problem of perverse incentives. Towards the end of the season there is surely an incentive to throw games so that you end up doing better in the talent shakeout next season.

  3. Brian Says:

    “Towards the end of the season there is surely an incentive to throw games so that you end up doing better in the talent shakeout next season.”

    Well, the NBA has a way of avoiding this problem: a draft lottery. I think 14 teams don’t make the playoffs in the NBA. They put a bunch of balls into a pot. The worst team gets 14 balls, the second worst gets 13 balls, etc. down to the best non-playoff team getting one ball.

    The NBA chooses balls for the top three choices in the draft and the rest are down to reverse order of finish. So the worst team in the league can still get a pick as low as 4th.

    So while there is some incentive to not try so hard at the end of the season, it’s dimished because of this lottery.

  4. Brian Says:

    NFL does a bunch of things to ensure parity. Centralization of TV rights is a big one. All TV rights are owned by the league and TV revenues distributed equally amongst the 30 teams. There is no such thing as local TV rights.

    For example, Man Utd has an agreement with YES Network here in the US to rebroadcast their matches. That would be impossible for an NFL team to do.

    The other thing the NFL does, which I’m sure top Prem clubs are loathe to do, is the salary cap: a maximum total amount any club can spend on player salaries. This is also done by the NBA (basketball), NHL (ice hockey) and Major League Soccer (though MLS gets around it when it wants to).

    The structure of North American sport leagues makes some of the other parity-inducing measures unfeasible in English and European soccer.

    And frankly, I wouldn’t worry too much. Nothing is forever in football. Eight years ago, people thought Man Utd’s dominance would go on forever.

  5. Brian Says:

    “There is no such thing as local TV rights.

    For example, Man Utd has an agreement with YES Network here in the US to rebroadcast their matches. That would be impossible for an NFL team to do.”

    An addendum: this is the biggest difference between the NFL and Major League Baseball. MLB’s national TV rights are split equally but LOCAL TV rights are up to the highest bidder. This is what gives teams like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox a mammoth advantage over teams like Kansas City and Pittsburgh. This is also why it’s almost always the same 8 or 9 teams (out of 30) fighting for playoff spots.

  6. Frank McGahon Says:

    And frankly, I wouldn’t worry too much. Nothing is forever in football. Eight years ago, people thought Man Utd’s dominance would go on forever.

    This is true (Im sure similar things were said about Liverpool in the 1980s) and it is why I’m sanguine about Chelsea being “merely” wealthy. My problem is the sort of c***-blocking transfers and skulduggery. It’s not only that they have an unfair advantage in getting players to play for them, but also in stopping their rivals from getting the players they want.

  7. Scott Wickstein Says:

    All the money in the world won’t help you if the manager and chairman are too stupid.. see Newcastle United FC’s recent history :(

  8. John Says:

    Brian has done a great job of summarizing the various positions of the US sports leagues. I think you’re right, Frank, that most of those options are not viable in European soccer thanks to the promotion/relegation issue. (And, I saw some press in San Francisco where fans were complaining about their team’s win in the final game of the season, which cost them the first draft pick. This is not good for the game either.)

    One thing that I’m curious about - isn’t the fundamental difference between the owner kicking in more cash and the banks doing the same that if you’re relying on debt there’s a real risk that creditors will bring all sorts of legal and financial problems tothe league? I would have though that the solvency requirement has little to do with the issue of what’s fair.

  9. John Says:

    My problem is the sort of c***-blocking transfers and skulduggery. It’s not only that they have an unfair advantage in getting players to play for them, but also in stopping their rivals from getting the players they want.

    A couple of years ago the Boston Red Sox really wanted a pitcher who had defected from Cuba. They thought they had him, until … the Yankees’ owner, George Steinbrenner, okayed spending a ton of his money just so Boston couldn’t get him. That prompted the Red Sox owner to describe the Yankees as the “Evil Empire”.

    The deal was a bust for the Yankees and the guy’s pitching in Chicago now (and doing well).

  10. John Says:

    One thing that interests me is that Chelsea can carry a top player and not play him. It doesn’t strike me as a good idea for a player to agree to be seen as ’second team’.

    Also, are there limits on roster size? In baseball, each major league team is limited to 25 players with the big team. They can also have 15 others in the minor leagues, but these can only be moved up and down three times (I think that’s it) before the big club must either keep the player in the majors or let him go.

  11. Frank McGahon Says:

    isn’t the fundamental difference between the owner kicking in more cash and the banks doing the same that if you’re relying on debt there’s a real risk that creditors will bring all sorts of legal and financial problems tothe league?

    Perhaps, but I don’t see how. If a club goes bankrupt, its creditors can hardly claim against the league, or other clubs. I would have thought that fair competition must come into it somehere. There are plenty of regulations governing fair competition - this was on of the original reasons for the transfer window, there are rules against “tapping up” players from other clubs. If you are running a sporting organisation, you have to have some kind of rules against anti-competitive practice - another Chelsea tactic is to try and unsettle players at rival clubs even if they have no intention of signing them - for example Cole and Ferdinand - just for the purpose of causing trouble for those rivals.

  12. Peter Nolan Says:

    To use your own rhetorical devices, it’s just a small step which inexorably leads from intervention in the Premiership to totalitarianism… ;-?

  13. Frank McGahon Says:

    Oh, I’m not suggesting any government involvement. The thing is, a sporting competition isn’t anything like a free market. I couldn’t just establish a new team and enter it for the Premiership no matter how much money I had. Any sporting competition has rules and particularly so, rules against “cheating”. It is taken for granted that rules against drug use are a good thing (I disagree, but however), whatever advantage might accrue to a team whose players, through steroid use, might be able to train longer is trifling compared to the advantage Chelsea have over their competition.

  14. dan Says:

    Even though chelsea have all the money they need, they are stil unable to buy any player of their choice due to him not wanting to play in england, the weather, the manager or players chelsea have all down to the colours they play in.They will never be able to pick and choose who they want to buy and therefore the money they possess does not make it unfair to other teams.

  15. Frank McGahon Says:

    Of course they won’t have absolute freedom to pick whomever they want but that’s irrelevant for the purposes of deciding whether they have an unfair advantage over their competitors, who suffer those difficulties in attracting players and then some, which by being allowed to run their club as a (hugely) loss-making operation, they plainly do.

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