Premier League vs. American Team Sports
To illustrate that US professional sports have a lot of “hilariously anticompetitive interferences in the market” compared to the English Premier League, Daniel Davies constructs an artificial sports league based on all major professional teams in “Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Washington DC” in order to achieve a comparable population and economic basis to compare to the UK.
The Mid-Atlantic region has 7 NFL teams (Ravens, Bills, Jets, Steelers, Giants, Eagles, Redskins), 4 NBA teams (Nets, Knicks, 76ers, Wizards), 6 Major League Baseball teams (Orioles, Yankees, Mets, Phillies, Nationals, Pirates) and 7 National Hockey League teams (Devils, Islanders, Rangers, Flyers, Penguins, Sabres, Capitals). That’s a total of 24 major sports teams, split up as seven each for New York and Pennsylvania, four each for DC and New Jersey, two in Maryland and none for Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia.
Using this league, he notes that the teams rarely play each other and that they’re overly concentrated in huge metropolitan areas as compared to the Premier League.
Despite the fact that I absolutely agree — indeed, take as self-evident — that drafting, salary caps, and other mechanisms to achieve parity are indeed anticompetitive, this thought experiment doesn’t buttress the argument. It’s simply not useful to make up a league and then compare how its teams play outside the league.
As Davies himself notes, “When making any such comparison, though, one has to remember that the USA is not the size of the UK; it’s roughly the size of Europe.” So, it’s ridiculous to construct an artificial Mid-Atlantic All-Sports League while ignoring that fact.
Of course Delaware and West Virginia lack teams; they simply don’t have a sufficiently large television market to sustain one. Virginia doesn’t, either, although Northern Virginia has DC’s Redskins in their market and southern and western Virginia is likely in the market for the Charlotte teams (as is West Virginia).
Similarly, it would be odd for the NFL teams in the imaginary Mid-Atlantic region to play most of their games against one another when they play in an actual League that’s spread across a giant continent. And, of course (as Davies concedes) basketball teams seldom play baseball and football teams, what with their being different sports.
It is noteworthy that the Premier League’s 20 teams for 60 millionish people is a greater concentration than seen in American team sports. Largely, though, that’s a function of scalability. If the NFL were to have a team for each 3 million people in the United States, it would have 100 teams. Even with the present 32 teams, several years may go by without a team playing a given team outside its conference. With 100, it wouldn’t be a “league” in any meaningful sense at all. And the playoffs would either have to become NBA-interminable or 70 percent of the league would be eliminated from competition very early in the season. Neither would be workable.
To be sure, there are quirks in the system that are partly a function of monopoly power. Most obviously, Los Angeles lacks an NFL franchise. As recently as 1995, it had two but refused to fund a decent stadium out of taxpayer funds and was outbid on that score by Oakland and St. Louis. Otherwise, though, there are very few metropolitan areas without a team who could sustain one over the long haul without seriously jeopardizing the survivability of a current team. Indeed, the most recent rounds of expansion and/or relocation have put teams in places like St. Petersburg, Oklahoma City, Columbus, San Jose and Nashville; it’s not at all certain that’s wise.