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The NFL: Corporate Teams, not Community Clubs

One thing I don't like about the NFL: They're not real ball clubs, but just professional organizations.

For soccer, the vast majority of clubs (at least in other countries) are community-owned organizations - you can actually be a member of that club, and go do various sporting activities with them (even FC Bayern Muenchen, which also happens to have 187,000 members. So being professional, essentially corporate entities, the vast majority of NFL teams have no loyalty to their cities (or their fans, really), as can be shown by the number of teams that have changed cities either because their owner felt like it, or because they couldn't extort enough money from their current city of residence. It also makes for fewer teams, and therefor fewer games - since it's a corporate organization, rather than a community organization, it seems it's in the NFL's best interest to keep the league relatively small (32 teams compared to the Bundesliga with its 53 professional teams, and countless amateur teams that can actually make it to the first tier with enough work, as was proven this year by Paderborn).

But, *is* it in the NFL's best interest to remain small? By revenue, one might be able to argue that: The NFL's 2012 revenue was €6.6 billion (about $9 billion) (and why the hell aren't they paying taxes, damnit!), averaging €206.3 million per team, making it the most profitable sports league in the world. The Bundesliga’s Tier 1, on the other hand, which is the sixth most profitable sports league in the world (behind MLB, the NBA, Britain’s Premier League, and the NHL, in respective order), cashed in at €2 billion, averaging €111.1 per team. BUT! This is *only* Tier 1 Bundesliga, Tier 2 made €384.5 million, an average of €21.4 per team, and tier 3 made €104.4, or €5.2 per team. We’re seeing a much larger distribution of wealth this way – 53 teams are getting to cash in rather than just 32, and in a country whose population of 80 million is a quarter of our 320 million – but the Bundesliga’s revenue, including all three tiers, is over a third of the NFL’s. One would expect there to be a bigger discrepancy since the NFL has a theoretically larger customer base from which to draw revenue.

But, given that they aren’t community teams – but more companies that operate within a city until they either get tired of it, or decide they can get more money out of another city (via a larger input from that city into a new stadium), I’m led to wonder how the hell the NFL manages to inspire the fan loyalty that they do. Why are Oakland Raiders fans so fanatical (especially when the Raiders have changed cities twice and are strongly considering changing cities again. And the Cardinals have also changed cities twice – starting in Chicago, then moving to St. Louis, then Phoenix. The Rams have been in four cities – Cleveland, Los Angeles, Anaheim, and now St. Louis. The Tennessee Titans started out as the Houston Oilers, then moved to Memphis, then Nashville. And that’s not all: of the existing NFL teams, The Colts, Chiefs, Chargers, Redskins, Lions, and Bears are all residing in a city other than the one in which they were founded (and most of them have changed names as a result). It could also be argued that the Ravens are not in their original city, though technically by the terms of the agreement reached by owner Art Modell, the NFL, and the City of Cleveland, the Ravens are a separate franchise.

And perhaps they *don’t* have the fan loyalty that we think they do. The NFL has the largest per-game and total attendance of any sports league in the world: 68,397 and 17.4 million respectively. The Bundesliga is second in the world with 43,502 per game, and a total attendance of 13.3 million. But, remember! By percentage of national population, Bundesliga attendance TOTALLY blows the NFL’s out of the water: 16.6% of Germany’s population attends a Bundesliga game at some point in the year. The NFL, on the other hand, sees only 0.05% of the American population attending a game at some point in the year. And that’s *just* comparing Germany’s first tier, not the entire league. If you include the entire league – second tiers has a total attendance of 5.5 million, or 17,888 per game, and third tier has a total attendance of 2.3 million, or 6,162 per game. That totals out to a sum of 21.1 million Germans attending a Bundesliga match at some point in the year (a full quarter of the German population, and almost 4 million more than the NFL sees). Which tells me that the fan loyalty in the US may not be as high as we think it is. The NFL is just able to squeeze more money out of those fans.

And I think it comes down to this. The one thing you’ll never get to have with an NFL team, is the feeling of belonging you can have with a Bundesliga team by actually *being* a member of the club, actually going to the club and working out, or participating in sporting events organized by the club. You can get an immediate sense of belonging. People join the clubs as little kids, and train and play with the club their entire lives. Heck, every sport club in Germany, whether they have a Bundesliga team or not, holds an event called a Volksmarch once a year where they invite people from all over the world to join every member of the club in a hike and beer tent party. The NFL has tailgate parties, but they’re really nothing on the scale of the Volksmarch.

Here’s one other effect of the clubs of other countries being community oriented rather than corporate oriented, they have a larger talent pool from which to pull. With the NFL, it’s only those people who were lucky enough to get into the string of events and training (usually making their High School’s varsity team, then getting into a college team) that end in their getting drafted by the NFL.

Will the US’s own Major League Soccer achieve similar profits to the NFL or either the Premier League or Bundesliga? Or as wide a popularity? I honestly don’t think so unless they start taking a community-oriented approach. If they try to copy the NFL’s corporate approach (which I think is what they’re going to do, since that seems to be the way to go in the US – the NBA and NHL do the same thing, and the MLB does some weird amalgam of the two approaches), they simply won’t be able to achieve anything approaching the popularity of soccer clubs in other countries, or even NFL teams. They need that sense of community.

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