In 1863, the Football Association (FA) was formed in England. As part of the final rule set for football, the FA prohibited the use of hands or arms to touch the ball. They also disallowed obstructing opponents by tripping or holding them or kicking them on their shins. Those who did not agree with these rules withdrew from the FA and later formed the Rugby Football Union in 1871. Rugby Football came to be known as Rugger while Association Football was also called Soccer. In Europe, association football or Soccer started gaining more popularity.
These sports evolved when they crossed over the Atlantic and came to America. American football, which is immensely popular in the US, is considered a hybrid of association football and rugby football. It started gaining more popularity and is eventually referred to as just football. The association football, with its limited popularity, continued to be known as Soccer in America.
But the differences between American and European sports models go far beyond just the usage of the words “football” or “soccer”. These differences are evident in many aspects, such as the type of sports played, how sports programs are conducted, the type of leagues and competitions organized, and even the influence of the governments. Baseball, American football, and basketball rule the sports world in the US while Soccer, tennis, gymnastics, and cycling are more popular in Europe.
Let us take a closer look at the other major differences between American and European Sports structures.
To begin with, let us compare how sports are developed and organized at the grassroots levels. Sports in the US are primarily developed and practiced in educational institutions or commercially managed entities. This is evident in the tournaments held by the schools and colleges. It is from these school or college teams that players are picked for the major leagues. Though we can find clubs, recreational centers, and other non-profit sports organizations getting involved, they are not as prominent as the educational institutions. The government and state-sponsored bodies also facilitate sports but are not as prominent in Europe.
In Europe, we can see a similar setup with a mix of educational institutions, commercial sports organizations, and non-profit or government-sponsored institutes, clubs, and associations. But what sets it apart from the American structure is the dominance of the clubs and associations along with the state-supported entities which form the backbone of the sports infrastructure. The influence of educational institutes and other commercial organizations has been minimal in European countries. Clubs take in players at a very young age and develop their talents. In most cases, these young players play for the youth teams of the club and then go on to play for the bigger or professional teams.
Looking back, why did Europe go to the clubs and associations way while in America, educational institutes took charge of sports programs?
Looking back at the history of how sports evolved in these two regions, alongside the development of the educational system, could give us some idea.
In the second half of the 19th century, both in Europe and America, the educational systems were gaining more importance and resulted in many students attending schools and colleges. These schools and colleges became easy avenues for young people to get together and form teams for various sports. But, in the early days, these teams or sports activities were not necessarily owned/managed by the schools or colleges and were mostly club-based.
In America, these sorts of clubs faced criticism from the schools and colleges since they thought it interfered with the academics and other organized activities. The authorities claimed that the injuries caused to the students and their behavioral problems were a matter of concern. The American school authorities took this criticism so seriously that they started including sports as part of their curriculum. They knew that this would help them to get control over the sports activities of the students.
In America, the addition of such extra-curricular activities was further encouraged and driven by the students’ parents as they believed it helped them become more efficient in their jobs. Parents’ involvement in managing school policies created a deeper tie between the local community and schools and colleges in America. The institute became a source for the development of extra-curricular activities.
This is in complete contrast to what happened in Europe, where the educational institutions were not as aggressive in trying to control their students in sports activities. Moreover, in Europe, the governments’ hold on the school and college policies did not allow much room for change in the curriculum. This limited the inclusion of sports or other activities in the curriculum. As a result, parents did not have as much of a say in the school/college policies. Students would pursue their interests in extra-curricular activities outside of school/college by being part of clubs.
Different league systems
A significant aspect where the American sports system differs from the European one is the type of leagues played. America follows a closed league system. Here, the teams involved in the competitions are fixed. This follows the market-driven sports system of America as it gives more stability to the commercially oriented management. The teams will always be part of the league, making it easier for the management to deal with the financial side. Also, the fan-base will never be without a team to cheer for. This can be seen across all the major leagues in the US like the NBA, NFL, NHL, and even the MLS.
European countries believe more in the merit system and so, follow the “open” league system. As a result, if a team does not perform well in a season, they could get relegated to a lower division depending on their ranking in a division. Similarly, a lower division team could move up to a higher division if they are the table-toppers in the lower division. So, the teams playing in the league are not fixed. While this promotes the system of merit where the best performers get rewarded most, the downside is that the non-performing teams suffer financially. With finances suffering and running the risk of relegating, it is very tough for them to get back to a healthy position in the league. Their fan-base also suffers if they are relegated and move down the league divisions.
With an open league culture and the governments encouraging more and more clubs and associations to open for more participation from people, sports in Europe was getting more globalized. As more European countries got involved in sports competitions, international bodies were formed to organize, manage, and govern the events. More clubs from different European countries began joining these international associations. This was further accelerated by the government’s influence on sports in these countries.
In America, the leagues are mostly organized at the national level. Here, the competitions are a matter of the prestige of an institution in contrast to the clubs in Europe. The commercially-oriented management is better off with this market-oriented league system as it gives them more control. Also, the lack of government involvement has not helped the cause of globalization in America.
American sports have been dominated by leagues, which are run at the national level by profit-oriented management without an international regulatory body. This resulted in the quick commercialization of sports in the US. Europe has the culture of open sports competitions managed by international governing bodies. This has helped these competitions to achieve a more global appeal. The profit-driven approach of the American sporting culture has kept it away from the government’s influence. In European countries, the government actively participates in sports organizations and developments.
While these differences show two completely different sports models, things have changed in recent years. The pressure of globalization is pushing America to review its sports system. The NBA, for example, has been trying to expand into Europe and even Asia. The NBA global games have been organized since the 1980s. In the global games, an NBA team would play against another NBA team or a non-NBA club in a location outside the US. NFL had also been promoting itself through the American bowl and NFL Europe, though these are no longer active. Lately, the NFL has been trying to re brand itself in the UK with NFL London.
At the same time, European countries are accepting the reality of the need for commercialization to make the business of sports success. Clubs have become revenue and market-oriented. Record-breaking player transfers, contracts with top brands, and increased focus on fan merchandise are among the top drivers for European clubs. That being said, it won’t be easy for either of them to get out of the complexities of their existing sports model and culture.