Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Path dependence in sports history

We are finishing another edition of the course on soccer and economics at the Study Abroad program of the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Most students are from the USA and one of the groups just presented their essay about the limits to soccer success in their country. Of course, a key issue is that resources are already being spent on other sports, such as American football, baseball and basketball. Although soccer is increasing its popularity because of the expansion of demographic groups such as hispanics and women's soccer is very successful, most fans still see the NBA, the NFL and the MLB as the most important sports leagues. Although basketball is probably expanding and American football is declining (see an article in The Guardian by the famous former basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabar), they are still above soccer in the preferences of Americans. According to my students, one possible reason is just history: in the XIXth Century, the USA wanted to re-affirm its identity by distinguishing itself from British sports such as rugby or cricket, and that is how American football and baseball started and expanded. This gave them a starting advantage, and the era of big economic growth of the United States additionally favoured these leagues. When soccer became a global industry at the end of the XXth century, it was perhaps too late to become the leading sport in North America. It can still grow of course, and the elimination from the next World Cup should not be seen as a drama (at least, they will be in the good company of Italy, The Netherlands and Chile). Countries that do not have a strong soccer tradition can easily catch up by importing resources such as managers or veteran players, or by exporting their best players to the best leagues and asking them to come back to play for the national team, as explained by Branko Milanovic in an article published in 2006. But once they achieve a decent level, they find much more difficult to achieve excellence. Like in other industries, imitation is easy but excellence requires innovation and the creation of new styles of doing things, and this probably only comes with role models, cultural environments and strong communities transferring a passion for something from generation to generation. That is what is argued in a recent academic article by Stefan Szymanski and Melanie Krause. Perhaps that is why Messi is Argentinian and not form the USA or China -although many are trying to produce "the new Messi," in some cases with a lot of money.

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