Globalization and sporting nationalism

Despite being much over-hyped, globalization is a genuine phenomenon in sports. Absent barriers (legal, economic or cultural) to mobility, talent will migrate to where it is valued most highly. Thus MLB sucks in talent from central America and Japan, the NHL raids northern and eastern Europe, and the NBA searches for tall people everywhere. In the soccer world Brazilians and Argentines migrate via Portugal and Spain into Italy and England, and an increasingly large share of the top talent plays in England thanks the Premier League’s economic dominance. This happens to coincide with the migration of substantial numbers of Poles (and other East Europeans) into the UK (and you wouldn’t expect to find me complaining about that).

Yesterday’s Independent newspaper carried a very good article on the parallel between general economic migration and soccer migration from the managing director of HSBC. One complaint about soccer migrants in to England is that they have deprived English players of the chance to play at the highest level (less than half of Premier League players are eligible to play for England). The article points out that England’s performance has not in fact deteriorated, and raises the puzzle as to why second rate English players have not looked for opportunities abroad.

There are broader issues here. Economic migration occurs because the wage rate at which domestic supply meets domestic demand is much higher than the equilibrium wage rate abroad. In this sense there is no difference between middle class Californian families wanting to hire Mexican gardeners than Arsenal fans wanting a team that will win the Champions League (except that there is some evidence that fans will pay a premium to watch the skills of Brazilian stars even if a cheaper domestic alternative is available). In my experience club fans couldn’t care less about nationality, as long as their team wins. Furthermore, since in team sports there really are only club fans in the USA, no one there seems to care about nationality.

However, some people do care about the national team in soccer, rugby and (all right, I know I keep banging on about it) cricket. These people want restrictions on migration to support the development of the national team. Who are these people, and how much do they really care? In soccer there are relatively few national team games, and I think interest in the Premier League far exceeds interest in the England team, even if it does become a national obsession at World Cup and European Championship times (when there are no EPL games). One might ask whether the tail should be allowed to wag the dog.

On the other hand, in rugby and cricket the national team game is far more important than the club game, and so preparation of national team players matters more than the health of any one club. But, I would argue, one factor that has strangled the club game in rugby and cricket is precisely this phenomenon. National team games fail to create a large loyal fan base because there are so few games played; local loyalties are strangled because the best players get snatched away at critical moments. Only soccer has managed the trick of sustaining interest both at club and international level because of the underlying strength of the club game. Perhaps we need fewer concessions to the sporting nationalists, and more support for the grassroots – the clubs that play the game regularly.

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Author: Stefan Szymanski

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