Is Unrestricted Free Agency a Model that Soccer Should Consider?

Editor’s note: This is part two of a series of articles written by Stephen Lucey. Part one, released earlier this week, focused on whether a salary cap could save the Premier League from itself. Part two, here, discusses unrestricted free agency and compares the NFL model to the Premier League.

Portsmouth FC are near-mortally crippled by their wage bill, and are left to wander the Arabian deserts with their shower caps extended for oil soaked charity. The Premiership has been seduced by potential riches, and borrowed itself into a black hole filled with bank notes to pay down and creditors to to foil. UEFA’s report released yesterday attributes a 56% controlling majority share of European football’s debt to the Premier League. Obviously, competing in Europe is paramount for English football, but creating a sustainable economic model has to become as important a priority going forward.

Here I’ll acknowledge a concern from some of the previous commenters: Yes, the EPL and NFL are different entities with different structures, competitive factors and concerns, but they are also similar. The Premier League seceded from the Football League in 1992, establishing a corporation with each club holding a vote and equal stake in the partnership, and the NFL functions in much the same fashion. While opinions on revenue sharing in the NFL would vary owner to their contribution, it has been widely acknowledged as their best solution for a financially healthy league.

When the NFL introduced the hard salary cap in 1994, it did so on the back of unrestricted free agency, a policy adopted just a year prior in 1993. After a player had reached four years’ accrued service, he was free to sign with any team at the expiration of his contract. The speculation and anticipation of potential player moves bedded in nicely with the cable sports 24 hours a day news cycle, keeping loud, sometimes punch-drunk ex-players in paychecks, and ensuring interest in the league would only gather steam over the offseason.

An economic success for NFL franchises is the ability of a team to terminate a player’s contract at anytime, based on performance, age, health, or any other reason a millionaire might have to save some scratch. An NFL team can also claim one player with a “franchise” tag, compensating that player with one year’s salary averaged from the Top 5 paid at their position.

The transfer window system unnecessarily forces teams into long-term planning while the nature of sport is in immediacy and reaction. Restricting player movement only ends up restricting the potential quality of play, which is what we, as fans of great competition, should all care about. It is hard to say whose interests are greatly favored by this policy, which makes its skin tight oppression all the more confusing to a neophyte.

The hard cap created a new commodity in the NFL: cap space. Where transfers in the Premier League generally involve cash and credit transactions, NFL franchises value taking a player’s salary off the books when factoring out how older players’ contracts are dealt with. A lot of young NFL players will receive their biggest payday before they’ve entered the prime of their playing career. World football’s balance sheets are plagued with that one last payday for an aging, but perhaps outward star with a haul of credentials.


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