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On football, fussbal and futbol [Commentary]

When the National Football League draft kicks off Thursday night, last year's worst teams will get to pick first — and ostensibly best — under a principle that's guided the draft since its inception in 1936: that there should be competitive parity among teams.

It's an equality model that we can't achieve in our economy — something Europeans delight in pointing out. And it's exactly opposite the approach used "across the pond," where the abilities of their professional football teams — soccer to Americans — can vary widely.

Germans in particular are far more tolerant of football inequality than the U.S.

"Bayern Munich," the perennial powerhouse of the German Bundesliga, that country's primary football competition, is this year's champion … again. Bayern has won the championship 23 times in 51 seasons. This season is still ongoing, mind you, but the Bayern steamroller clinched the title on March 25, with seven games left to go — the earliest any team has mathematically wrapped things up (the Bundesliga, like most domestic leagues in Europe, has no playoffs). Opposing German clubs don't just drool at the talent Bayern lines up in its starting 11, they covet the stellar leftover talent that rides its bench as well. The league's smaller clubs barely spend one-tenth of what Bayern does on players.

By contrast, America's NFL — supposedly putting on a more brutal game in a more cut-throat winner-take-all society — is a socialistic paradise relentlessly striving for parity. The league has perfected a strict salary cap and a revenue-sharing plan that levels the playing field between teams, regardless of their owners' wealth or their cities' size. Add in the consoling of weaker teams with softer schedules and higher college draft picks, and it becomes hard to think of another institution of any type that has followed the old Marxist maxim of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" as successfully as the NFL.

In Europe, it isn't only the Germans that embrace uneven playing fields. Spain's "La Liga" is essentially a duopoly consisting of Barcelona and Real Madrid, with occasional guest appearances by third clubs like Valencia, Sevilla or, this year, a surging Atlético Madrid. In Britain's Premier League, the haves dribbling circles around the have-nots is slightly bigger: Five or six teams have realistic aspirations at the start of each season there.

But in Germany, a country we don't often associate with crushing inequality, Bayern stands in a league of its own when it comes to talent and resources. A year ago, when fellow Bundesliga squad Borussia Dortmund met Bayern in the European Champions League final (the super-league where the top clubs from each country play each other), Forbes noted the grotesque mismatch of resources being fielded, with the Bayern outspending Dortmund 4-to-1 on payroll. Munich prevailed then — and has gone on to sign two of Dortmund's top stars.

The Bundesliga continues to attract more fans to its games, on average, than any other European soccer league. Why do Germans bother following a league so lacking in Chancengleichheit (what Americans call equal opportunity)? Wouldn't it be endlessly frustrating being a Stuttgart or Freiburg fan, knowing year in and year out that things are hopeless? And wouldn't it get old being a Bayern fan, knowing they purchased their wins?

"Americans have this notion that there must be competitive balance to keep things interesting," says Stefan Szymanski, co-author of "Soccernomics" (Nation Books, 2009) and a sports economist at the University of Michigan. "But what fuels sports fans' interest is a compelling story, and that can sometimes be the opposite of parity," he adds, citing Tiger Woods as a draw for golf when he was at his unbeatable peak. People want to see a master at play, to see how long dominance can be stretched.

And European soccer teams have "so much more at stake for fans beyond trying to win a championship," Szymanski points out. Survival, for one thing. Instead of boosting the worst teams with all sorts of competitive advantages as the NFL does, the Bundesliga, like most other soccer leagues around the world, features the nifty Darwinian tool of "relegation." Each season, the worst-performing teams get flunked down to a lesser league, whose champions ascend. Some teams never come back.

Americans clinging to their version of football's radical parity — especially fans in places like Oakland and Cleveland, where they heavily on redistributionist policies — had better hope that the NFL never is tempted to embrace the Darwinian inequality of European football. Not only would it consolidate all success in a handful of teams, it also would deprive us of needed ammunition to counter tiresome European lectures about American inequality.

Andrés Martinez writes the Trade Winds column for Zocalo Public Square ( http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org), where he is Washington editor; a version of this piece appeared there first. His email is andres@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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