Is Globalisation Good for Soccer?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to turn into Franklin Foer. But economist Dani Rodrik raises an interesting question with regard to the global consequences arising from the massive influx of African players into Europe in recent years.

Consider that soccer fans have loyalties not only towards individual clubs but also to their national teams. So one question is what has the presence of foreign players in Europe done to the quality of the national teams. Following the disappointments of the English national team in recent games, some have suggested that the culprit is the dominance of foreign players in the Premier League and have recommended reintroducing quotas.

Or consider the quality of domestic leagues in Africa proper. The complaint that the exodus of players has hurt these leagues has been around since the 1970s. But I do not know of any serious evidence on this, and I would love to know.

In any case, it is likely that the globalization of the industry has (a) increased the quality of African national teams relative to European national teams; and (b) reduced the quality of domestic leagues in African leagues relative to club play in Europe. So how do we evaluate these outcomes in terms of what ultimately counts: the enjoyment of the fans?

Let’s consider that, after the jump.

I’m not sure why Rodrik picked Africa as his example, as South America would seem to be an easier situation to analyse. Leagues that have flourished in the past have been decimated by the constant drain of talent, which is starting at an earlier age than ever. There are more Brazilians in Europe’s Champions League than any other nationality. This is not good for the South American leagues, despite the cash they rake in from it.

Still, for Daniel Drezner (an academic blogger), this globalisation works out for fans — apparently presuming all consumption is more-or-less equal. Bear with us as he starts using annoying words like ‘utility’.

If we’re really thinking about the fans, then I think Rodrik is omitting a missing utility. Clearly, the migration has improved the quality of the play of European club teams. Furthermore, for most fans, the consumption of sports is a nonrival good — i.e., I don’t lose any utility from others watching or listening to a game.If African fans value high-quality play, then the decline in African domestic leagues can be offset by paying attention to the European leagues. This certainly happened with baseball, as the importation of players like Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka have caused Japanese baseball fans to pay more attention to American baseball.

Admittedly, an improvement in the quality of a foreign sports league is not a perfect substitute for a domestic sports league. The globalization of consumption, however, suggests that the fans do not suffer as much from a decline in local sports leagues as Rodrik suggests.

Certainly, it’s wonderful that around the world, those of us who can afford to can tune into La Liga or the Premiership regularly, and watch the best players in the world. I’m grateful for that myself, living in a country with a relatively weak league. Fans do so globally to a remarkable degree, as we know, feeding the dominance of the top European leagues in world culture.

But admitting this kind of consumption is not a “perfect substitute” for a quality domestic league is absurd. For a start, unlike baseball (where we can see pretty much everything that matters at all times on the screen), soccer on television is a vastly inferior “product” (I’m going to stick with his sort of lingo) than soccer in person. Even in High Definition widescreen, just considering the game itself on the pitch, you’re missing out on so much in terms of understanding and enjoying the game. It’s like comparing watching a movie on a video ipod to an IMAX experience.

Secondly, Drezner ignores everything we talk about on this site surrounding supporter culture in domestic leagues. It would be a crying shame if all the passion we see everywhere but the Premiership died; the stadiums need to be full in leagues around the world for the sake of passionate local fans all around the world, and they won’t be if all the good players are in three or four European countries, with all the regular soccer fans sitting at home watching them on television.

Baseball is also a terrible comparison point, as there have never been dozens of good leagues in different countries in that sport: just Japan, as Drezner mentions, and they have only lost a relative handful of players to MLB. If Japan lost almost all their good players as soon as they were of age (or earlier), as is happening to many countries in soccer, their league would surely be in serious trouble too. I’m sure more Japanese baseball fans would then watch MLB, but would they really enjoy baseball more? (Incidentally, a comparison point more apt to the discussion of Africa and soccer would be the way MLB teams interact with Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic, where much of the talent now comes from.)

There’s obviously a lot here I haven’t gotten into, including questions about the impact on national teams such as England and the disturbing exploitation of young African players by Europeans — surely it’s not only the fans that matter, as both Drezner and Rodrik seem to presume. Perhaps we can cover that in the future, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this.

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