Drafts and trades v transfers
When Neymar joined Paris St-Germain from Barcelona in the summer for just less than £200m, it was reported his annual salary would be approximately £28m.
PSG paid out plenty to secure an established world-class talent, but in America, pro sports franchises pay top dollar to sign rookie players straight out of college.
Markelle Fultz of the Washington Huskies university team was the number one pick in this year’s NBA Draft.
He will earn a maximum of $33,727,701 over the course his first contract with the Philadelphia 76ers, including $15,366,120 guaranteed during his first two years.
All that cash for a promising talent who only played one season for the Huskies and may not have what it takes to become a consistent elite-level performer in the NBA.
Welcome to the world of US sport, where money is spent on wages, not transfer fees.
It’s a strangely egalitarian world, too, given the rampant capitalism which characterises most other walks of American life.
In the NBA and NFL draft system, for example, the previous season’s bottom team get first pick of the potential superstars produced by the US college system.
In reality, teams often trade early picks for more in later rounds of the draft. But in theory, the very best player could join the very worst franchise (according to last season’s standings).
It’s all about balance and trying to avoid one team dominating for years on end, but the other key thing to note is money – as in player transfers – is simply not a factor.
The draft system, in which (technically) amateur athletes join professional teams, sees most of those millions of dollars invested in player contracts and salaries.
The same goes for trades between clubs for established players. Cash rarely changes hands; it’s all about swapping one talent for another (or in some cases several others).
Level playing field
The biggest trade of the NBA off-season saw Isaiah Thomas signed by Cleveland from Boston, with Kyrie Irving going in the opposite direction (much to his displeasure).
Boston reportedly agreed to give Cleveland a second-round pick in the 2020 draft to seal the deal. Thomas remained on a $30m-a-year deal, with Irving keeping his $20m annual salary.
In football, such exchanges are extremely rare, and even when they do happen usually involve player+cash (or more likely cash+makeweight player).
And any highly-prized footballer in the prime of his career would be looking for a salary upgrade when agreeing to be transferred – and possibly a bonus for signing in the first place.
Supporters of the American system argue it does its job by keeping the playing field relatively level in terms of team strength – although there will still be ‘dynasty’ franchises that rule the roost for several seasons.
The Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers have both dominated in the NBA in recent decades, while the NFL’s New England Patriots have won five Super Bowls since 2001.
Proponents of the draft system also claim it encourages young players to get a college education as they seek a career in professional sports. For every player who ‘makes it’, dozens fall by the wayside, and others who join the pro ranks find their careers are short-lived.
‘When they are released – as the vast majority are – they are ill-equipped to cope with life outside of football’
So gaining a degree, the argument goes, gives those individuals an alternative career to pursue if their dream of playing professionally fails to become a reality.
In truth, the pressure is on young players to turn pro as soon as possible – and maximise their earning potential.
In recognition of this, the NBA now stipulates that they only have to wait a year before becoming eligible for the draft – and don’t even have to attend college in that period.
LeBron James, arguably the game’s biggest star, joined his hometown team Cleveland in the 2003 draft without spending anytime at university.
Footballers are often part of the youth set-up at a professional club from a very young age and work their way through its age-group teams until – if they are one of the chosen few – they are offered a professional contract. More often, they are devastated to find they are not being offered one.
Although education is a mandatory part of their life as young players, critics claim being involved with clubs from early childhood encourages unrealistic expectations that they are already on the path to success, fame and riches, leading them to effectively switch off from gaining qualifications.
So when they are released – as the vast majority are – they are ill-equipped to cope with life outside of football, and many are at risk of mental health problems or going off the rails.
When it comes to young players being transferred for vast sums of money, the pressure on them to justify their new club’s outlay is immense – and sometimes damaging to their career.
Pros and cons
So which system works best overall?
In theory, football’s transfer system rewards clubs for developing young talent, or getting the best out of players.
‘Since the Premier League was launched in the 1992-93 season, it has been won by just six teams’
For smaller ones, selling players to bigger clubs offers a lifeline that may be the difference between financial stability and going out of business.
The risk – and reality – is that the very best players tend to end up at the biggest, best-supported and wealthiest clubs, and those clubs form a self-perpetuating elite which tend to win all the titles and trophies.
Is it that different in the US? In the NBA, only five teams have won more than three championships since the league began in 1947. On the other hand, those five account for 70% of the titles, with the Boston Celtics leading the way with 17, closely followed by the Lakers on 16.
However, eight different teams have won the NBA since 2000. In the NFL, the title has been secured by 12 different franchises since the turn of the century.
Since the Premier League was launched in the 1992-93 season, it has been won by just six teams.
So maybe there’s something in the thinking behind the US system after all…