Keeping sports weird
An argument against pro-rel, UEFA keeping the clubs happy but not equal, and a bunch of cycling stuff you'll hate.
Welcome to the latest edition of SSWOS, the Sick, Sad World of Sports, where sports is the mechanism by which we learn about the depths of shithousery and assholery and dipshittery of the human soul.
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Keeping sports weird
A fair bit of Discourse around European soccer’s Super League was devoted to the prospect of Americanising the sport. Particularly in the Anglophonic part of the dispute, the breakaway clubs heavily featured American owners - specifically the Tampa Bay Bucs’ Manchester United, the LA Rams’ Arsenal, the Boston Red Sox’s Liverpool - as well as the Manucnian PR arm of Abu Dhabi, the nominally English-owned Spurs, and the now persona non grata ownership of Chelsea by Roman Abramovich (which is also likely to end up in American hands).
The proposed immunity from promotion and relegation for founding members was a nod to American sports’ passion for franchising. Had the concept been allowed to develop, we would have undoubtedly had strictly and yet arbitrarily defined conferences. This Americanisation was to be resisted in favour of a more puritanical European approach to sport.
The influence of Americans in non-American white culture is almost always presented as a bad thing, which probably arises from a combination of parochial resentment, the steamroller of globalisation and the economic and cultural hegemony of America since the end of World War 21. Of course, the corrollary, the Europeanisation of culture, if ever mentioned, is usually considered a good, more refined, thing. We should probably consider Europe’s historical record in “exporting” their culture to other people across the globe when falling into this cliche.
I, for one, resent the Europeanisation of sport2 and, in this specific case, the structure of the men’s road cycling. On the face of it, it seems like an odd complaint, not least because that sport’s culture is historically predominated by five western European countries3 but the UCI has recently introduced a promotion and relegation system for the men’s road teams and I hate it.
Perhaps if relegation were more selectively applied, it could be used as a mechanism to keep the elite tier of sport running at a certain standard but it is not. Relegation is applied to all teams who do not win sufficiently often, irrespective of the reason or even sometimes irrespective of the quantity or quality of winning and losing. We do not normally punish people for being stupid, poor, weak or unlucky to the extent of removing them from society and denying them opportunity - and when society does, it is a gross moral negligence - and yet the JEOPARDY OF RELEGATION is used as a cudgel to force lesser teams to spend big to secure talent, to the benefit of the teams who already hold the talent.
Moreover, the mechanism of promotion does not guarantee that a better calibre of organisation will rise to replace the relegated, as evidenced by the fact that very few manage to stay in the top flight. Instead, the stability afforded to the teams at the top of the league, whose power and finances originate through accidents of history, only further empowers them, perpetuating a cycle that may be described as fair4 but not as equitable. The only way to disrupt this dynamic is to hope someone really, really rich and ethically compromised is willing to shovel their cash into a furnace of player salaries and agent fees for dubious and ephemeral benefits. Wonderful.
Road cycling, unlike soccer, does not benefit from a deep well from which to draw new teams. It wasn’t that long ago that the UCI had more World Tour licences than teams that wanted them, which is what prevented the previous attempt at implementing pro-rel from getting off the ground.
If team sponsorships are predicated on that team appearing at the Tour de France, the commercial colossus that drives the entire sport, then relegation is likely to spell their extinction as their participation can no longer be guaranteed. And for what? There’s always teams that are going to lose and it’s not like there’s cash to be had just for participating in the World Tour. In fact, the stability of teams in the World Tour has probably been its greatest asset. More than half of current licencees have been present since 2009 and it’s set to be undone. Losing is enough punishment, why add exile?
Deeper questions should be asked. If the incentive of participating in World Tour races and a guaranteed invite to the Tour de France is not sufficient for all teams to want a licence, instead choosing to bypass the World Tour to compete at a lower tour where their sponsorships are geographically relevant and relying on big name signings to guarantee a wild card invite5 (see: Cofidis, Alpecin-Fenix), then that suggests an issue with the way the World Tour is configured and a misunderstanding of the commercial nature of the sport.
Large squad sizes with minimal financial regulation ensures that teams that can spend big will do so to soak up athletes and then can almost guarantee that they avoid relegation and build on the commercial certainty that provides. Meanwhile, the league is dominated by a handful of teams to the detriment of actual sport. I’ve forgotten if I’m talking about soccer or cycling here.
It’s not at all clear why men’s road cycling even has the structure it does. A sense of globalisation (unusccesfully trying to get China and India to host races), as well as season-long narrative-building (unsuccessfully mimicking the nature of the F1 world championship) is the legacy of the Pat McQuaid era at the UCI. During his tenure, the
ProTour WorldTour World Tour was introduced in 2005 and then reformatted several times, as it became apparent that gloalisation was a fantasy6 and European race organisers, the real powers in the sport, had no interest in ceding control to the UCI.
The physiology of cycling precludes there being a standard unit of competition that all riders could participate in on an equal footing7 (c.f. the grand prix, the grand slam, the majors) and several burned commercial bridges later, and there’s not much to show nearly twenty years on. The UCI’s vaguely stated goals have not been achieved by this structure so its time for a rethink, not to simply implement soccer’s mechanisms and hope for the best.
This is starting to pick at some larger ideas to be had:
the cosy guild of robber barons that run the major US sports along communist lines and the European sporting preference for a Victorian facsimile of meritocracy, contrasted against the actual politics of those places8
the cultural and economic zeitgeist when professional sports were formed, how that has impacted on what we take for granted about the way pro sports are organised and what might be different if that ‘when’ was different
if there’s an ideal league structure to be had and what its nature might be
What It All Means
But that 2,000+ words will have to wait for another time. Where I wanted to land with this essay is the idea that homogenising all sports to the same end is boring, whether that be the American or the European or the F1 model. All sports should have their own quirks that they celebrate because if we’re going to lean on conservative tradition to provide legitimacy to anything, we may as well go in 100%.
If cycling actually wanted to embrace the very real nature of the sport, team sizes might be capped at a dozen (down from 31 now), each built around one or two star riders, with teams and race organisers being left to sort their own calendars and participation agreements out. The UCI could imlement spending and salary caps to ensure some sense of stability, that sponsorships go further and to prevent stars from accepting well paid super domestique roles in lieu of their own leadership. The UCI may provide a rider and team ranking mechanism, which would be largely for novelty purposes because we all know there wouldn’t be any real prize money attached. The churn and chaos of this approach should be embraced and while that doesn’t fit neatly into how modern sports are packaged and marketed for broadcasters, it’s also incumbent on race organisers (who do the TV negotiations, not the UCI, another stark difference to F1) to deal with this. After all, people aren’t necessarily tuning in for the cycling:
Market research shows the single largest audience segment in France tunes in to watch the Tour de France… for the scenery. French TV executives even refer to the Tour sometimes as La France vu du ciel, “France seen from the sky” because the images attract a wider audience not always interested in sport.
This is just one ultimately very messy vision of what cycling could be. It’s not even necessarily the right one and would have second order consequences I haven’t considered because I’ve put about five minutes thought into it. But at least it would be different and wouldn’t pretend to aspire to goals it cannot meet.
The grace, the beauty of sports
No bloopers here… fine, here’s a bonus:
Following on from Splinters 1:
Very normal things
More interestingly coincidental timing than anything, being only a few weeks apart. I assume they build the platforms for a trivial cost and can use them as a stick during negotiations for more lucrative broadcast deals and if that fails, then that’s the fallback to ensure people can access the sport until they find a new sucker.
I don’t know enough about the old or new rules to really say what impact they will definitely have but it’s clear those regulations were more designed to stop clubs from collapsing under their own neutron star of financial pressures to compete than to install any sense of parity9.
The new Champion’s League model has a lot of room for clubs that largely made up the Super League breakaway to remain within the walls of the continental elite competition, which satiates broadcasters, who want those clubs for eyeballs, and the clubs themselves, who will benefit from more money than would have previously been the case.
The idea that UEFA would use these opportunities and the fallout of Super League to implement any equalising measures is ridiculous. Not only is that antithetical to soccer’s whole deal, that would imply that UEFA is unhappy with the big clubs soaking up the prestige, money and interest. The opposite is true, so long as those clubs swear fealty to UEFA. That was UEFA’s issue with the Super League: not that it existed but it existed outside their control, where they would be unable to capitalise on the broadcast revenue such a competition would generate. It’s another angle in the Cold Civil War.
If the fans don’t like it, then doesn’t really matter if the clubs and UEFA are on the same page. If fans want to effect real change, they’re going to have to accept that they need to walk away in sufficient numbers. They did it for Super League but I doubt they’ll get up for this.
You might have had enough cycling stuff but it’s my newsletter. I think the above overstates the drama facing track cycling, which is less existential thanks to the Olympics and more a meandering journey to find a commercial home. I quite like the Track Champions League as a solution though. It had some presentation problems but those are easily fixed and I’ll just have to accept the disproportionate amount of sprint compared to endurance events. I haven’t watched the documentary yet, mostly because I didn’t know it existed, but I’ll be surprised if it can generate the exact synergy of interpersonal drama, sporting action, glamour, etc that F1 can generate in Drive To Survive. In fact, that goes for everyone trying this incredibly lazy strategy on.
People are, of course, happy to accept the upsides of such an arrangement, e.g. giving NATO any military teeth, the US dollar’s reserve status funding a US trade deficit, etc.
Which is not to say the American model is free from criticism.
The last grand tour winner any of those countries (Belgium, Netherlands, France Spain, Italy) produced was when Tom Dumoulin shat himself on the side of the road at the Giro d’Italia in 2017. Since then, it’s been South Americans, Slovenians and the occassional Brit.
In a very narrow, bootstraps, trickle down sense of the word.
Wild card invites are at the discretion of race organisers. I suppose one of the reasons for the WT was to overrule organisers’ parochial preferences to invite teams from their own nations over more deserving operations but when the top tier of the peloton has three French teams, one Spanish and no Italian teams, that seems like a non-issue.
Except as an opportunity for sportswashing.
At least not without a really radical rethink of what the sport is and how it works. It would possibly be too far even for me.
This is not the first time this observation has been made.
Otherwise they wouldn’t be built around percentages of revenue instead of absolute quantities.