What Europe's top pro soccer leagues can learn from the NFL

Roger Goodell's NFL has a business model that would would work for Europe's top soccer leagues.

This might be something like heresy in soccer circles, but there's a lot the world's game can learn from the NFL. From a business standpoint, anyway.

In the 1980s, as soccer was beginning to make real inroads in the American youth sports scene, the notion was instilled that this newfangled folly from Europe – as it was perceived, even though soccer has been seriously over here for a century – represented everything that was supposedly wrong with the Old Continent.

"I think it is important for all those young out there, who someday hope to play real football, where you throw it and kick it and run with and put it in your hands, a distinction should be made that football is democratic, capitalism, whereas soccer is a European socialist sport." So spoke U.S. Congressman Jack Kemp in 1988, taking to the House floor to announce his opposition to the notion of hosting the 1994 World Cup in the United States. We should probably note here that Kemp, one of the brains behind Reaganomics and the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1996, was a former professional football (handegg) player himself.

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Actually, it's the exact opposite.

We could argue that soccer, in its free-flowing nature and dearth of instruction, is far more democratic as a sport – whereas football is carefully planned by plays and implemented by a strict head coach-offensive coordinator-quarterback hierarchy. We could also argue that whereas soccer would allow any 11 random people who formed a club to enter the professional ranks if only they won enough games – thanks to its open pyramid structure of promotion and relegation, in just about every country – football operates in a closed market with prohibitive barriers to entry (monster expansion fees and endless demands, whenever the league actually deigns to let a new team in, which has happened just six times since 1976).

In soccer – and we'll speak of the sport broadly, and exclude Major League Soccer for these purposes, as it's the exception to the rule – what's yours is yours. Every dollar you make is for you to keep and spend as you please. In the NFL, however, the 32 teams share some $6 billion from $10 billion in total revenues. That is to say, about 60 cents out of every dollar made – from broadcast deals, ticket sales and merchandise income – is thrown onto a pile and divvied up equally. Everybody gains from everybody's gains. Consequently, the wealth gap between the richest and the poorest, while unknown, can't possibly be all that big.

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In soccer, however, the rich only get richer, at the expense of the poor, just as in most any scenario where capitalism is left unfettered. Last month, Deloitte put out its annual Football Money League, which tracks and ranks the revenues of the richest teams in soccer. As every year, it demonstrated that the gap is only getting bigger. The majority of clubs in professional soccer are struggling just to stay in business. A select few are rolling in cash. And even among this elite, a few are pulling away.

During the 2013-14 season, Real Madrid, the top earner in the game for a 10th consecutive year, generated $623 million (by Monday's exchange rate). That was almost six times as much as what it took in during the 1997-98 season: $108 million. And it was 3.8 times more than even the 20th highest grossing team in the world, Everton at $163.4 million. Just a decade ago, the gap between numbers one and 20 was a factor of 3.3.

Consider also that in the last five years, just three teams have managed to break into the top 10 that hadn't previously been in it. One, Schalke 04, was already a big, rich club that got marginally bigger and richer. The other two – Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain – were propped up by billion-dollar investments from new owners from Abu Dhabi and Qatar, respectively.

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But that can't happen any longer. Through its Financial Fair Play scheme, UEFA, European soccer's governing body, has practically guaranteed that the status quo will be ossified for all eternity. At the penalty of exclusion from continental competition like the Champions League and Europa League, teams have to break even, come close to it or prove that they're on a path towards solvency. This is a defensible ploy, designed to root out the rampant financial excess that has marred much of pro soccer. But it also prevents significant investment from ownership, ensuring that nobody can really break into the upper crust.

This has a profound effect on the sport. Most of Europe's leagues are very top-heavy and no more than a threesome of teams can compete. You can argue about the merits of parity on ideological grounds, but the truth is that much revenue comes from prize money in soccer – especially when reaching the lucrative Champions League. So the lack of competitive balance dooms the have-nots to perpetual mediocrity – at best.

Any NFL team, no matter how bad at present, is potentially just a few years away from getting to the Super Bowl. Talent is forever spread around to ensure that nobody stays good or bad for too long. But in soccer, there are no more than 10 clubs from Europe's 54 domestic leagues that could realistically hope to reach the Champions league final – just eight teams have been to that summit in the last seven years. They are also the richest clubs, rather predictably, since the correlation between payroll size and success is extremely high and those teams have no qualms about hoarding talent.

Since there are almost 1,000 top-tier clubs across those leagues, this tiny bunch is literally the 1 percent of soccer.

In his book, "Football Business: How Markets are Breaking the Beautiful Game," Dutch economist Tsjalle van der Burg tracks the game's historical arc from benevolent, socially oriented institutions to publically listed companies and argues that, left unobstructed, soccer will only polarize further. He doesn't seem to be wrong. The rich hold the power through their appeal to the TV viewer. There is no incentive to relinquish it, as short-term sporting ambition always seems to trump a view to sustainability. Barcelona and Real Madrid, for instance, are quite happy to forcibly claim up 6½ times as much TV revenue as the smaller teams in La Liga, most of whom are in dire financial straits.

UEFA president Michel Platini believes Financial Fair Play is vital for European soccer's future.
UEFA president Michel Platini believes Financial Fair Play is vital for European soccer's future.

Soccer, like all markets left entirely unregulated, threatens to devour itself. In their zeal to gobble up silverware, the rich clubs are happy to let the poor ones starve. And for years, they have made noises of breaking away and creating their own "Super League" featuring the biggest teams of every major league. This seems to have been conceived as a competitor to the Champions League, ensuring that the teams get to keep all the revenue – rather than a large share of it – while keeping others out of their select club. But it isn't inconceivable that they'd eventually lose interest in their domestic leagues altogether, leaving erstwhile peers to do business without their marquee competitors. (We're seeing a similar effect take place in big-time college sports.)

Like the NCAA having to tolerate the arms race between conferences, there isn't a whole lot that soccer's federations or governing bodies could do. It would doom all but the biggest brands in the game. But even if none of that comes to pass, the current economic trajectory the game is on forecasts a very bleak future for the 99 percent of soccer clubs all the same.

The NFL, for its many flaws, is in a constant state of competitive flux. It's unfathomable that just two teams would win its championship 26 times in a mere three decades, the way Barcelona and Real Madrid have in the Spanish league, one of the world's best. This balance in the NFL may have been achieved artificially, through all of those revenue-sharing instruments and talent-redistribution mechanisms, but it brings riches to all, not just a few.

The NFL, you might have argued to Mr. Kemp – he passed away in 2007 – is an undeniably socialist construct. And soccer, that old socialist sport, would serve itself well to replicate some of it.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.