Is there a good word to be said for the gig economy – other than by the bosses who profit from Kleenex labor? Well – there indeed is one class of employees who could answer with a resounding ‘Yes!’ It’s professional athletes in the big leagues of sports. For them, it has been a boon. They are free to move from club to club to search for a pot of gold and glory even more glittering than what they already enjoy. Even contracts signed and sealed are but minor hindrances for star players – or those whom some aspiring team sees as a valuable asset who might improve their fortunes. 

This phenomenon has transformed team sports in the United States and the national soccer/football leagues in Europe. The effects register not only on the distribution of the industry’s huge revenues but also levels of competitiveness which is the essence of professional sport. Combined, they force us to reconsider what is meant by collective identity and group loyalty. 

It wasn’t that long ago when players were tied to the teams that signed them – unless traded like commodities by owners. That ended in America when Curt Flood successfully challenged the notorious “reserve clause” in the courts and won – liberating the workers in first baseball, then basketball and football. The evolutionary pattern in European football is somewhat different while the effects are the same – indeed, even more extreme in every respect over there.  

The pivot for today’s free market is, of course, money. Sport as entertainment or metaphor for life runs a distant second. Yet, this is little commented upon. Why? The answer resides in the fact that the party who loses is the fan – the spectator, the customer, the little guy – who effectively is brainwashed into accepting the unjustified claims of the beneficiaries that it is all for the best. 

The sums involved are enormous. In baseball, record high salaries keep rising into the stratosphere. Last year, two players inked multi-year contracts worth more than $300 million – guaranteed. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado had average seasons, doing little to raise the Phillies and Padres out of the mire of mediocracy. Still, the money was in the bank and the headlines legendary. Star basketball players in the NBA earn tens of millions per annum. Footballers somewhat less since the roster is much larger (53 vs 15) and teams play only 16 games. Over in Europe, the big names (and some of the not so big names) pull down several million Euros/pounds. That comes to the equivalent of $350,00 or more per game (38 + whatever international competitions their squads might qualify for). Gareth Bale, now at Tottenham, heads the list at about $800,000 for each match. Few actually perform in all of them due to (frequent) injuries, fatigue or decision of the coach. 

Why pays for this lavish spending? Nominally, it’s the team owners. On the soccer world, they constitute an assemblage of globalized billionaires: oil sheiks from the Gulf, Russian oligarchs from the Yeltsin era, a few deep-pocketed Americans looking for a new plaything, Hong Kong wheeler-dealers – or, adventuresome business consortia. In the bidding wars for top talent, the sky’s the limit. The noxious effect is that the on-going auction (which is what we are talking about) is rigged. For not every franchise in the top soccer leagues is owned by a sugar daddy. That explains the domination of just a few clubs year after year. In Italy’s Serie A, Juventus of Torino has won the championship for 9 straight years. In Germany, Bayern Munich’s winning streak is 8. In Spain, either Real Madrid or Barcelona have taken the title for the past 11 years. In France, it’s Paris St. Germain head-and-shoulders above the lowly provincials. In England, there is a modicum of competition in the Premier League. There, though, it is restricted to 6 teams out of 18: Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham (sort of). Nobody else has a ghost of a chance.  

The English Football Association did endure a shock when upstart Leicester beat them out in 2015. The powers that be vowed that it never would happen again. Their first reaction was to lure away some of the team’s outstanding players by dangling irresistible sums before then. They then launched a public campaign to convince England’s soccer world that the game would suffer financially – big time – were the game not synonymous with the globally recognized brands of ManU, Arsenal etc. It was a matter of money. A healthy revenue stream depends on the selling of television rights, and secondarily football gear, to people who recognize a few brand names. West Bromwich Albion, or Brighton & Hove, will not open the wallet of NBC, NKH in Japan, etc – or send fans in Shanghai thronging to sports apparel shops. The same goes for Sassuolo (Italy); VIB Stuttgart (Germany) or Elche (Spain) or Amiens SC (France). The avarice of the European soccer honchos is unbounded. They never miss a trick to squeeze a few extra EUROs from their dedicated fans. So, they change the design of uniforms (‘kit’) on an almost yearly basis. If you – or your kid – wants to be identify with his team and keep up with his pals, you have to shell out $125 or so on a regular basis. Imagine the American equivalent: Yankee pinstripes or Celtic green in fashion for only a couple of years before being replaced by something completely different. 

Whereas in Europe, money rules ostentatiously. Each off-season, it’s like a game of musical chairs as scores of players switch teams, leagues and countries. That covers a variety of transactions. Only a small minority are straightforward trades. Most often in involves an outright sale. That is to say, a relatively poor team exchanges desirable players for cash from an elite contender. They simply need the money to be financially viable. There is an added incentive to unload a player entering the last year of his contract because at that future date he becomes a ‘free transfer’ able to go anywhere with no fee paid his originating club. Moreover, the really big names – Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar – have such clout that they may demand being sold to another team of their choice. Their agents threaten long, costly legal action to break the existing contract, player complaints are glamorized by the media and the privilege of celebrity invoked. Just a few weeks back, the entire soccer world was in an uproar by Lionel Messi’s decision to leave Barca (where he has spent his entire star-studded career) mainly because they had lost the winning habit. 

The result of this ritualized turnover is that talent gets more-and-more concentrated in a handful of super-rich clubs; competition declines; ticket prices go up; and fans enthusiasm remains unabated despite the squad looking in effect like this year’s pick-up team. ManU, for example, has sought to vault itself back to the top after a few down years by shelling out 100s of millions of EUROS for a new cast of star players that will mean replacing about half of last year’s starters and much of the back-up. 

American professional leagues have been moving in the same direction albeit at a slower pace, with some built-in constraints; and a measure of concern about competitiveness. Hence, they have introduced various combinations of salary caps, ‘luxury taxes’ on teams that exceed them, and revenue sharing. In addition, the ‘draft’ system, which gives preference to the losing teams, spreads around the fresh talent each year. This is of capital importance in football and basketball. That has meant a far higher level of competitiveness than exists in European national soccer leagues. No American team could imagine stepping out on the field with no goal in mind other than not being unduly embarrassed. 

It is true that rich clubs – the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Dodgers in baseball – are in a position to garner a disproportionate share of the available talent. That advantage makes them perpetual contenders. Still, neither the Yankees nor Dodgers has won a championship in several years while Washington, Houston, Kansas City and the Chicago Cubs have. The main problems concern the perpetual bottom-dwellers – the underfinanced, small-market clubs – whose payroll is a small fraction of the big boys.’ The outstanding example is the Pittsburgh Pirates, followed by the Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres, Milwaukee Brewers. None has a mega-rich owner willing to spend a fortune just to have a winner. So, a team like the Pirates suffers from a succession of poverty-line owners who routinely get rid of top talent as soon as superior performance raises their market value or trades stars for prospects who never prosper. The set an historical record a while back by failing to reach the playoffs for more than 20 successive years.  After breaking the streaks by somehow managing three years of relative success, they are back to being the worst team in the Major Leagues. 

The big question raised by this devolutionary pattern is: what happens to the integrity of the sport when meaningful competition no longer exists? One would think that the situation in the European soccer leagues would have dire consequences. What is the sporting value of a Premier League game when one of the bottom 6 plays one of the top 6 knowing that they have only the slightest chance of winning? When their ultimate goal is a ‘draw’ that might help them avoid ‘relegation’ to the minor leagues next season? At times, the underdog makes a heroic effort for 20 or 30 minutes. At other times, they are beaten before they go onto the pitch and play in a desultory fashion. Fortunately, that latter phenomenon is not yet visible in American professional sports, although we might yet get there.  

The behavioral question is why athletes at this level are so mobile.  Why the itch to move – even many with families? The universal answer they themselves offer is: “I’m looking for new opportunities, new challenges.” Nonsense. If he were really looking for a challenge, he’d seek out some aspiring but underperforming team and seek to turn it into a competitor. Watford, here we come. The main motivation, of course, is money. Few big names think that they’re getting what they’re worth (often, relative to the offer recently made to another star). It’s status as much as the cash itself. The contracts for retention frequently match those from bidding rivals. Mookie Betts, MVP and World Series winner at the Red Sox, chose to leave Boston for Los Angeles for a salary gain that amounted to about 2%. For those pennies, do you pack up – leaving teammates, friends, adulating fans and a known community? So-called ‘life-style’ has something to do with it. Southern California is a lure. L.A. is the magnetic world capital of the globalized celebrity culture; not to speak of the sunshine.  That’s how the basketball Lakers were able to latch onto Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaq O’Neal, LeBron James and Anthony Davis.  (Not to speak of Meghan and Harry Markle). In Europe, Neymar found Paris irresistible – at first. 

Them there are those desperate for a championship ring before they hang up their uniform for the last time. It doesn’t necessarily work out as planned, though. Bryce Harper took his quest to Philadelphia only to watch as his former team mates on the Washington Nationals sized their fingers for a World Series ring.  

Location,  location, location doesn’t explain it all. James, in an earlier incarnation, left Miami for Cleveland. Admittedly, he’s from nearby Akron – and a serious person. Furthermore, there are odd cases of a top-notch talent moving from a world-class city to some industrial town.  Lionel Messi apparently was prepared to exchange Barcelona for Manchester; many have trekked to cross-town rival ManU from far more salubrious places. Some even choose Liverpool or Leverkusen. Guess why? 

Finally, there is an intangible element that we must take into a count. Many star athletes are condottiere at heart. They live for the game, for the competition, for the thrill of proving oneself. Everything else pales by comparison: social life, comaraderie, the gold.  In effect, they are playing and competing and battling for their own inner self=esteem. In Renaissance Italy, professional soldiers like Malatesta or Corleone didn’t give a damn whom or what they were fighting for – as long as they were well paid and honored. It was the combat that counted. That’s how a few of these Christian gentlemen wound up serving the heathen Turks. 

The intriguing sociological question concerns fan support. How do you keep the enthusiasm and loyalty of a local base when you’re a chronic loser and/or show little readiness to do what’s needed to improve? Loyalties, admittedly, are inherited and rooted in geography for the most part. To switch support was traitorous. If you were fed up with endless lackluster performances, you stayed home, shut the TV, and dreamt of next year. In cities like New York, which in the heyday of baseball, had 3 teams whose fans detested each other, sectarianism ran rampant. Inter-marriage between somebody from a Dodger family to somebody from a Giant family was tantamount to a Turkish-Greek marriage on Cyprus. Of course, that was the era of the ‘reserve clause,’ the teams were composed of pretty much the same players year after year – the odd trade causing minimal turnover. Hence, you identified strongly with individuals as well as team names, logos, and uniforms (which never changed).  

Players were not locals: just 2 Yankees and 1 Dodger, but some settled in the town where they played and were part of the community. In the early 1970s, the Knicks star Walt “Clyde” Frazer took the subway to work at Madison Square Garden – a straphanger on the IRT subway! Willie Mays lived the first couple of seasons in a small apartment across from the Polo Grounds – playing stickball with the kids in the street. Gil Hodges, the Dodger first-baseman who was from Indiana, married a young woman from Brooklyn, settled there, and worked as a car salesman on Flatbush Avenue in the off-season. A friend of mind says that the most indelible experience from his childhood was eating in a local Chinese restaurant and seeing Hodges with family there – between the 5th and 6th games of a bitter World Series against the Yankees. Imagine Cody Bellinger munching Mu Goo Gai Pan at some neighborhood joint in Torrance on the eve of the deciding game against the Nationals or Aaron Judge digging into a plate of chicken Vindaloo in Jackson Heights?  

Back to the question: how do we explain continuing loyalty to a team, even to the sport, among millions of supporters who are treated with such distain by the people who run sports? That includes star players and managers as well as owners. Let’s recall that in Spain’s La Liga both great super stars (Messi and Ronaldo) were convicted of tax fraud for neglecting to pay the Spanish treasury tens of millions. Their sentence was to pay what they owed, promise not to do it again, and a warning that a second offense under Spanish law would mean serious punishment. So, too, legendary coach Jose Mourinho. Then, at the height of the COVID-19 crisis that forced cancellation of about half of league matches across Europe, which devastated national economies, most players strongly resisted taking a cut in salaries for games not played. The shenanigans of management are even more gross – and whistleblowers get thrown into jail on specious charges (the outstanding example being the Portuguese lawyer-journalist Rui Pinto who has been given the full Julian Assange treatment). 

Sustained loyalty owes mainly to collective identity and socialization. That is why we root for one team rather than another. In a sense, it’s similar to why most Americans vote Democratic or Republican – no matter what. It’s tribalism. We stay loyal to a party despite the lies, broken promises, corruption, insufferable leaders because it’s a part of who we are as social beings. So, if your favorite team’s management skimps on recruitment, mires it in repeated failure, seems quite dense about player selection, and hikes up prices at the stadium – you still don’t join another tribe – e.g. from the celebrity Giants to the working class Oakland As just across the Bay. You may pay less interest, attend fewer games (save $400 if you were thinking of taking the family to see the Giants in San Francisco and sit in the bleachers), or – in Pittsburgh – switch attention from the Pirates to the Steelers or Penguins. But that’s about it. Enough of you will still buy tickets, satisfy advertisers by watching on TV and buy the occasional jersey to allow the parlous franchise to limp along. 


If you’re a true sports fan who cares about the integrity of the game and/or yearns to bond electronically with a few favorite players, you have two choices. One is to conserve your time and emotional energy for the championship matches; the other is to visit yesteryear on YOU TUBE.   

The text represents the point of view of the author

Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is Professor of International Affairs Emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh and Fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations SAIS/John Hopkins. His articles on international affairs and public policy have appeared in International Affairs, SURVIVAL, Foreign Policy, World Politics, Politique Étrangère (Paris) and Internationale Politik (Berlin). He also is the author of Terms of Engagement: The United States and The European Security Identity, Washington, D.C: Center for Strategic and International Studies), and Toward A More Independent Europe. Egmont Paper, Brussels: Royal Institute of International Relations, Professor Brenner has held previous teaching and research appointments at Cornell, Stanford, MIT, Harvard and the Brookings Institution.

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