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Football, Sport

A flight of fancy – or the annual ‘could an NFL-style draft work in English football’ comment piece

The NFL Draft: Image Marianne O'Leary

For a country in which some hold the view that free health care is tantamount to communism, the US does a brilliant line in socialism when it comes to sport.
The NFL draft is underway. For the last two nights, I’ve watched, bleary-eyed, as the multi-billion dollar industry enacts its own socialist principles of the distribution of wealth. In this case the wealth is player talent.
It’s an odd contradiction for a sport in which billionaires own the teams populated by millionaires, yet to pick the best new talent, the cream of the annual college crop, they try to base the system on fairness and equity.
For those unfamiliar with the draft its like a cross between the X-Factor and the way kids pick sides for playground football. It works like this. Each of the NFL’s 32 football organisations get to select one player in each of seven rounds. Each team gets one pick per round, the order of these selections are based on the previous season’s playing record.
The team with the worst record goes first (stand up the Carolina Panthers) the team with the best record (Superbowl champs Green Bay Packers) choose last in each of the rounds.
Teams  will also swap trading positions with other teams in order to get the player they want.
The team with the worst record gets to choose first, the Superbowl winners the Green Bay Packers, choose last in each round.
So the fact that the Carolina Panthers are such a bad football team, meant they got to grab hot quarterback prospect Cam Newton, the best player in college football last year.
Leaving aside the machinations and the political horse-trading that goes on, the draft was designed to ensure the league is competitive, that even bad teams like the Panthers can rebuild their organisation every year with the best new talent.
Every year the draft takes place, you can be assured that in British football as soon as massive transfer fee follows massive transfer fee the same question is asked. Could the draft system work here? So I thought I’d add my twopenneth.
There’s been a lot made recently that the English Premier League is the best league in the world, anyone can beat anyone, its ultra competitive.
Really?
Since the inception of the EPL (hate the acronym, but its easier to type), that’s 18 full seasons of football, the competition has been won by just four clubs. Manchester United 11 times, Arsenal three times, Chelsea three times and Blackburn Rovers once.  In the same time span the Superbowl has been lifted by 11 different teams.
The influx of money into the EPL has altered the competitiveness of our national game, but unlike almost all other major sports – football has done little to try to address it.
With the additional money that sides get for competing in the Champions league (currently the top four EPL sides) it means the battle for the title is pretty much over before a ball has been kicked each season. It’s between Man Utd, Arsenal and Chelsea.  To those that counter with the Spurs, Manchester City and Liverpool as rivals. They’ve been competing to finish fourth. This will likely change thanks to the cash available to the three, especially Man City, but we’re left looking at a league of six truly competitive teams.
The other 14 are left are trying to avoid the drop, hoping the big four don’t take the FA Cup seriously and the prospect of the Europa League. If it was so competitive, there would be full houses at each and every EPL stadium. This currently doesn’t happen.
So why not a draft?
The argument goes that it’s impractical; we don’t have the infrastructure to support a draft. True. In the states the best NFL talent is drawn from college football and we’ve nothing remotely similar here.
But what if we could use the Academy system? Currently each English club has a youth set up or academy. The club is responsible for nurturing this talent from schoolboy age through to professional level.
The costs for this are borne by the clubs. But what would happen if these academies could be funded independently and run under the umbrella of the FA?
Each of the clubs becomes a geographical base for nearby talent, responsible for providing facilities and kit. The coaches are funded centrally and the academy teams function as now. But  let’s say at the age of 18, they enter the draft. This could also be split between an EPL draft and the  football league divisional draft.
The draft could take place in the week after the end of the season and is split by division. The EPL teams select from the ‘EPL academy’ system, Championship from the Championship and so on. The team with the worst record gets to pick the best new emerging talent. This new talent has to stay with the club for five years giving it a platform around which to build.
Based on last season Chelsea would pick last in each round, Hull City first. It means that the distribution of talent is more widely spread, it allows teams to create a platform on which to build.
For those that suggest young players can’t make an impact on a team think how differently things might have turned out for Southampton if they hadn’t been forced to sell Bale and Walcott.
Implementing a draft system wouldn’t get do away with transfer fees or replace the need for an effective scouting network,  but it might enable a league to be more competitive.
It’s not as if these issues aren’t already a concern. Experimentation is already underway to address the issues of financial stability and competitiveness. English  League Two clubs have followed the likes of Rugby league and Rugby union with the implementation of a salary cap.
League Two clubs are only allowed to spend 60% of income on player wages. It’s designed to safeguard not only the financial viability of teams but another way of enabling competition.
It does all sound far-fetched, and I would imagine that its unlikely to have been a regular topic of conversation around the Premier League, but competition is the fuel that drives interest in the game.  If fans think the clubs they love have no chance of winning, they tend to vote with their feet.
Today competition and cash goes hand-in-hand, but the NFL is one of the richest sports competitions in the world. It recognises the need to encourage competitiveness; it has systems in place to ensure it has just that. Perhaps one day English football might follow suit.

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