- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005

Those of us who remain in the press box long after the last ball has been kicked at a D.C. United game see RFK Stadium slowly transformed from a soccer venue into a baseball park. By the time we’ve packed away our laptops, the goal posts are long gone and the pitcher’s mound is taking shape. It’s a somewhat surreal sight. Here we have baseball and soccer co-existing so closely together but culturally worlds apart.

While baseball is known as America’s pastime, soccer has been called the world’s pastime. Soccer has been accepted by much of the world, but baseball’s influence around the globe has been limited. The impact of these sports and their strengths and weaknesses, are examined in a fascinating new book called: “National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and The Rest of the World Plays Soccer” by Stefan Szymanski and Andrew Zimbalist (Brookings Institution Press, D.C., 263 pages).

Szymanski, who teaches economics at the Imperial College in London, offers the soccer perspective, while Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College in Massachusetts, gives baseball’s side.

Baseball and soccer began at about the same time in the 1850s, as upper-middle class leisure sports, which soon spread to the lower classes. And both sports modeled their rules on cricket, which had developed its rules a century before.

The authors analyze what they term the “open” system of soccer and the “closed” system of baseball, and how these systems affected the sport’s influence around the world.

In the “closed leagues” of baseball, owners control the number of franchises and locations of teams, and mediocre clubs are offered security. In contrast, Europe’s big soccer leagues are “open leagues”, where poor teams are relegated and replaced by promoted clubs. New teams also have the chance to advance up the ladder of the divisions in the league. As soccer teams move up and down, baseball teams stay put.

For example, Wigan Athletic, a small team from the provinces that entered the four-division English League in 1978, is making its first appearance in the lucrative Premier League this season, while Nottingham Forest, once the champion of Europe, has slipped down to the third division.

However, while the system of promotion and relegation expands competition and prevents long-term monopolies, it can also produce dire economic consequences and uncertainty.

Wigan had to spend heavily on players in hopes of staying in the Premier League, while Forest had to sell all its stars to survive financially. It may be a long time before the famous club returns to the top flight.

There is also no territorial exclusivity in soccer. Giant English clubs Liverpool and Everton are divided only by a mile of parkland. But the Baltimore Orioles think the Washington Nationals, 44 miles down the parkway, are much too close.

Some have even questioned the wisdom of relegation and promotion in an age when enormous fortunes are invested into soccer clubs. Imagine the financial consequences if Manchester United was relegated from the Premier League after Malcolm Glazer has invested more than $1.2 billion in the club. It’s highly unlikely, but it could happen. United was relegated in 1974 but won promotion the following year.

It should be noted that the MLS is a “closed league” with no relegation.

Baseball’s “monopolistic industry” has maintained tight control over profits and avoided the financial insecurity that has plagued soccer, a sport that has been slow to organize the business side of the game. For many years, soccer stadiums were shabby places, while baseball stadiums were state of the art. Even today, many clubs in England are flirting with bankruptcy and many critics believe the Premier League is built on sand.

Still, soccer’s popularity dwarfs baseball internationally. Following a number of unsuccessful overseas tours in the late 1880s, baseball largely gave up on its attempt to convert the world. Baseball looked inward, as soccer spread outward, largely through the work of British expatriates.

Today, FIFA, soccer’s governing body, boasts 207 members, four more than the Olympic movement and 15 more than the United Nations. The International Baseball Association has 112 members. Baseball recently was voted out of the 2012 Olympics.

In their conclusion, the authors believe both sports can learn from each other. Soccer could certainly study baseball’s financial plan, while baseball could take a page from soccer, if it wants to expand its influence around the globe.

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