Money makes the world go round – but is ruining sports

Since I submitted this week Sports Talk column yesterday evening, I’ve seen a fair amount of talk on the same issue of money ruining sports: the Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson arguing that Bayern’s UEFA Champions League win kills the dreams of many teams, and Tom Byer lamenting Bayern buying up Dortmund’s players, while Barcelona – another club that supposedly prides itself on its youth development – spends countless millions on Neymar, recently named the world’s Most Marketable athlete.

Neymar: no longer promoting Chinese carmaker Chery after playing his last match for Santos

Here in China, Guangzhou’s – or more specific Evergrande’s – millions are fast making the CSL an annual foregone conclusion. In the CBA, Guangdong Southern Tigers are even more dominant, appearing in each of the last ten CBA Finals (and winning eight), though their success can be attributed to a number of factors, not just money.

Bottom line: a huge reason to watch sports live is because you don’t know what will happen – even if the match-up is massively one-sided on paper – but the more predictable games become, the less reason there is to watch. Here’s the column:

The UEFA Champions League final had an air of inevitability about it. Could plucky underdogs Borussia Dortmund beat German rivals Bayern Munich, by far the country’s richest team and set to steal one – possibly two – of Dortmund’s brightest prospects in the summer?

Despite a well-contested match that Dortmund had every chance to win, it was, of course, Munich who scored a late winner, the latest in a long line of predictable sporting results where big bucks mean trophies.

In England, where the final was held, Arsenal and Manchester United won 11 of the first 12 Premier League titles between them. The only other teams to join the winners’ club since then are Chelsea and Manchester City, spending obscene amounts of cash to do so.

In China, real estate giant Evergrande bought the Guangzhou franchise and saw their team win immediate promotion to the Chinese Super League in 2010, then back-to-back CSL titles. They are currently on course for a third straight championship.

Arguably the worst offender is Spain’s La Liga, where Barcelona and Real Madrid between them have won 54 of the 82 titles ever contested, including the last nine.

There will always be money in sports – and lots of it – but Europe, China and elsewhere would do well to look at North America as an example of how big business doesn’t have to mean predictable outcomes.

The last nine Stanley Cups, for example, have been won by nine different teams. There have been 10 World Series winners in 12 years, with the New York Yankees, the richest franchise on the continent, winning just once. Even the NFL and NBA, where several teams have built so-called dynasties, have jointly seen nine champions in the past five years.

This is largely due to a combination of the draft system and a salary cap ensuring parity, and more than makes up for the lack of promotion and relegation in their league structure.

But in Europe, competitions are balanced in favor of the big clubs. In a true knockout or single elimination tournament, any team can triumph on any given day, but the more those teams play each other – group stages, aggregate games and the like – the more the money rises to the top.

I’m all for teams being run well and profitably, but sports are more interesting when the results can’t be predicted ahead of time. Lose that interest, and the money will dry up too.

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