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Football and Globalization: A Very Special Run of Play Report

The Earth as a marble on a table.A number of prominent economics and policy blogs have started an interesting discussion today on the effects of globalization in football. The political economist Dani Rodrik looks at the influx of African players into European leagues and considers the implications for national teams and for the quality of domestic play in Africa:

[I]t is likely that the globalization of the industry has (a) increased the quality of African national teams relative to European national teams; and (b) reduced the quality of domestic leagues in African leagues relative to club play in Europe. So how do we evaluate these outcomes in terms of what ultimately counts: the enjoyment of the fans?

The economist Daniel Drezner takes up Rodrik’s question by arguing that, while the exodus of the Drogbas and Eto’os may have diminished the quality of African domestic leagues, African fans can regain some of their lost enjoyment by simply paying more attention to the European game:

If we’re really thinking about the fans, then I think Rodrik is omitting a missing utility. Clearly, the migration has improved the quality of the play of European club teams. Furthermore, for most fans, the consumption of sports is a nonrival good — i.e., I don’t lose any utility from others watching or listening to a game. If African fans value high-quality play, then the decline in African domestic leagues can be offset by paying more attention to the European leagues, much like Rodrik himself.

This seems a little misguided to me, at least from the perspective of the individual African fan. I think Drezner underplays some of the intangible contributions of domesticity to the pleasure of the football fan. That is, watching the Premier League in Abidjan may be better than not watching top-level football at all, but there seems to be some innate preference to follow a league situated in the place and culture where you live. Drezner acknowledges that African fans won’t be able to attend European games, but says that, “for those not actually attending the game, it’s not clear to me that the consumption process is affected by where the good games are played.” But surely if the location of the games had no effect, we’d see many more Spanish fans following the Premier League over La Liga, and many more English fans following Serie A. But how many English fans can even name the top three teams in the Bundesliga right now?

Where the quality of play is equal, in other words, fans will overwhelmingly tend to follow the league in their back yard, even if they aren’t actually attending games. Which suggests that “where the games are played” does have some significant importance. I suspect that, in any number of tangible and intangible ways, domestic leagues take on the flavor of the culture in which they are situated; and that seeing culturally familiar faces and clothes in the stands, seeing familiar advertisements around the pitch, hearing the names of familiar cities in the names of the teams that represent them, and so on, has the effect of making fans identify with their domestic leagues, feel a local connection with them, even if they’re only watching on TV. And thus, even if more African fans are paying attention to European leagues as Drezner speculates, I suspect that, doing so without that identification, they are watching the games through what is always a thin screen of alienation. As an American fan of the Premier League, I have many fewer cultural differences to overcome than a fan from the Ivory Coast, and yet I know this feeling very well.

In any case, Josh Patashnik at The New Republic‘s Plank blog argues, I think convincingly, that while the quality of African domestic leagues may have gone down in relation to the quality of European leagues, in absolute terms globalization has meant that the quality of the African leagues has gone up.

Because soccer is such a big business in Europe, European clubs invest a good deal of money–in the form of sports academies, facilities, equipment, and so forth–into developing the game in places like Africa (much as American baseball teams do in Latin America). As a result, I’d bet (though like Rodrik I’d like to see some data on this question) that in absolute terms the average skill level of players in African leagues has probably gone up since the pre-globalization era, even if the best African players now end up in Europe. So the unhappy fact that fans in developing nations no longer get to see their best players in their domestic leagues is mitigated not only by the fans’ ability to see those players with top European clubs, but likely also by the reality that there are still lots of good players—particularly young ones—at home who are far better players than they’d be in the absence of European soccer investment in Africa.

This seems exactly right, and while (like all the writers I’ve quoted here) I think this subject could bear a lot more detailed study, I also think that there’s at least a possibility that the prosperity of the European leagues is raising the level of the game all over the world. And while that’s a complicated topic with a lot of different angles (again, as a non-European fan I’m acutely aware of this), for lovers of the game it’s also a reason to celebrate.


Football and Globalization: A Very Special Run of Play Report

by Brian Phillips · November 1, 2007

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