Bundesliga versus the NFL, Part One: Drama and Parity

In the United States, Super Bowl Sunday is a day for much of the country to gather and watch the championship game of the NFL, the professional league of American Football. The remainder spend the day announcing as frequently and loudly as possible how much they do not like football and hence shall not watch it. Whether you get your jollies from the sporting magnificence, the social aspects of the Super Bowl party, critiquing the (insanely numerous) television commercials and/or halftime performance, or the self-celebration of you’re too-cool-for-school status, it’s the most-widely celebrated non-holiday in the USA.

According to a piece published today by German football magazine 11 Freunde, last night’s victory of the Denver Broncos over the Carolina Panthers had the largest-ever German viewership for an American football game, which can likely be extrapolated to make Super Bowl 50 the most-watched American sporting event of any kind over there, but I don’t have any facts on which to base that, so . . . probably shouldn’t have written that, but I’m leaving it in! Yay, internet journalism!

In the aforementioned piece, writers Mathias Baltes and Benjamin Kuhlhoff share what they believe German fans of Fußball might have learned from viewing the USA’s largest sports-television export.

From the perspective of someone who was raised exclusively on the four-major food groups of American sports, the points-of-view of my German opposites are naturally interesting to me. Because I went from thinking American sports were unilaterally superior to anything “soccer” to my current existence of wanting to consume as much Bundesliga football as possible, I also have plenty to offer Baltes and Kuhloff to help expand their view beyond their own filters on the Super Bowl.

Hereby, I offer my own response to “Look at the NFL!” in a few long-winded pieces:

“More Drama!”

Baltes and Kuhloff start by praising the tension created by the relatively short season of the NFL and the single-game knockout playoff that follows. It is virtually impossible to deny the power of this facet of the NFL. The fewer the number of games in which to compete, the more important any single game to the fate of the participating teams.

Naturally, you couldn’t reasonably have a 16-game season for the Bundesliga and maintain a sense of “fairness” when it comes to determining a champion. This is also true for the NFL, of course, where teams play imbalanced schedules and are playing the season only for entry into the tournament that will determine the champion.

Without getting too deeply into the machinations of the NFL division system, allow me to flatly say that it sometimes results in somewhat-soft division champions to get into the playoffs over superior competition.  The best example of this from the season just ended is that of the New York Jets who sat at home with a 10-6 record while the Houston Texans went into the playoffs as division champions largely aided by the six games played against terrible divisional opponents.

The Texans were still scrambling to find a quarterback while the Kansas City Chiefs railroaded them in the opening game of “Wild Card Weekend.” The three-and-a-half-hour-plus game was pretty much over after just half-an-hour.

One and done, but did Houston really even deserve that one?

But along the lines of the “on any given Sunday” element Baltes and Kuhloff also rightly praise, these things can also go the other way. Somewhat infamously, the pre-championship 2010 Seattle Seahawks sneaked into the playoffs as division winners, prompting many to call for an overhaul of the playoff system that allowed a 7-9 team to not only get into the playoffs but to host an opponent with a better record. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had soundly thrashed Seattle 38-15 on the penultimate weekend of the regular season, could only sit and watch as the Seahawks took advantage of their home-field advantage to knockout the heavily favored New Orleans Saints in a dramatic shootout at Qwest Field.

We can now look back at that game as a portent to Seattle’s title run and near-repeat the following season, but NFL fans largely still object to such happenings.

The play that immediately turned Seattle’s seemingly certain back-to-back titles into a “just missed” situation is also a factor for Baltes and Kuhloff praising the way any NFL game can turn on a single event. Though they mention Aaron Rodgers’ two regular-season, game-winning “Hail Marys” (one of which was abetted by erroneous officiating, I might add), the Seahawks final offensive play of last year’s Super Bowl is the ultimate example of this phenomenon. Russel Wilson threw a goal-line interception in the game’s winning moments, handing the New England Patriots the Super Bowl win that appeared to otherwise be slipping from their fingers, while one of the game’s most-dangerous runners was relegated to serving as nothing more than a threat.

Without the post-season tournament, it’s impossible to duplicate such dramas in the Bundesliga. We do frequently get game-changing goals late in regular time or in added time, but when the stakes are only points in table-positioning and not in which team raises the league trophy a few minutes later, a certain amount of gravitas is naturally missing. Not even the DFB Pokal, which is a one-and-done tournament, is capable of generating that level of drama. A Cup title is nowhere near as valued as even second- or third-place finishes in the league.

But that’s also a source of strength for the Bundesliga. NFL teams are either the one “Super Bowl Champion” or one of 31 “better luck next year” clubs; there is almost no value to a division title, a conference title, or even a vast year-over-year improvement in record unless it is followed by a Super Bowl title. Even then, nobody celebrates those other accomplishments of the season that preceded the final championship victory.

Though the Bundesliga does have just the one champion, the opportunity to get into European competition offers plenty of opportunity and incentive for season goals that look slightly below the lofty heights of “champion.”

Even better, the promotion-and-relegation system brings drama to even the wrong end of the league standings. While nobody wants their club to be battling to avoid the final three spots in the closing weeks of the season, it’s undeniably compelling, especially compared to US sports leagues where bottom-feeding teams can go through as much as one-quarter of their season just playing out the string rather than fighting for something.

“More Parity!”

Well, when even people who don’t follow German football at all crack jokes about FC Bayern München clinching a league title by Thanksgiving (as has happened in my own social circles), you know your competitiveness problem has gotten out of hand. The term “Bayernliga” did not emerge from a vacuum, after all.

Baltes and Kuhloff illustrate the relative parity among NFL teams by pointing out how the first round of last year’s playoffs saw all four lower-seeded teams win on the road to advance. Six times in NFL history, a “Wild Card” team (one that did not win its own division) went on to win the Super Bowl, including the well-known 2007 game in which a New York Giants team that squeaked into the playoffs ended the undefeated run of the New England Patriots at their presumed moment of crowning glory.

We can certainly call this “dramatic” and “parity,” but would we necessarily deem it desirable? That Patriots team is remembered for the one game it lost, rather than the 18 consecutive it had won to reach the Super Bowl. The overwhelming dominance of Bayern the last few seasons has rightly been rewarded with league titles. Last year, though, they were knocked out of the cup tournament by Borussia Dortmund, who lost in the final to VfL Wolfsburg. Granted, things would have looked much different had the tournament taken place after the end of the regular season, but does even the most-ardent Bayern-hater really want a system that would have made Wolfsburg last year’s singular “champion”?

Since being the top overall draft pick in 2011, Newton has certainly helped Carolina’s rise to prominence.

Of course, the authors were more interested in the overall competitive parity, rather than specifically in a tournament format. Baltes and Kuhloff attribute this largely to the draft system through which players entering the league is distributed to teams annually by teams taking turns choosing from the talent pool based on their estimations of which players will best aid their team’s chances of improvement.

An added benefit of the draft that Baltes and Kuhloff do not mention is how it helps fill the lengthy off-season with NFL talk. Many fans started dreaming of next season well before Peyton Manning donned his “Champions” ballcap and launched his product-placement efforts to a national-television audience.

The draft system has its incredibly ugly side, too, though.

First, the players entering the draft come from collegiate sports programs. When I first studied in Germany, I couldn’t believe that the University of Wuppertal didn’t have sports teams I could go cheer in competition against other schools. At Central Michigan University, there was hardly anything better than going to home games on Saturday at Kelly-Shorts field (or at Rose Arena or Theunissen Stadium, to be honest) to support the mighty Chippewas on their way to Mid-American Conference glory.

Instead of the development of athletic talent being left to programs run at otherwise academic institutions, German football academies are where players learn their craft, which puts the fiscal burden on the clubs running those academies. Let’s just say that one system is known to be utterly rotten with corruption, while exploiting for profit the efforts of student-athletes while paying relatively little for their services.

The other is not.

But the larger contributor to parity Baltes and Kuhloff also missed is that of the salary cap. The spreading of young talent through the league certainly aids teams with holes to fill, especially if the right player at the right position-of-need is available, but it’s the salary cap that does the dirty work of keeping any one team from stripping clean the rosters of competitive threats. While you still might have a situation where Robert Lewandowski moves as a free agent to Bayern because that’s where he wants to be, in a Bundesliga operating with a salary cap, he might have had to take a huge pay cut to do it or Bayern might have had to jettison a few other star players to make room for him.

Lewandowski at the end of his Dortmund days

And as much as the salary cap is detrimental to the earning-power of the players who deserve the large cuts of the pie they get in leagues that do not have such constraints, you can’t really argue that a salary cap wouldn’t be able to help increase the competitiveness. Lewandowski staying at Dortmund would certainly helped prevent the disappointment of their 2014-15 season. Alternately, had Lewandowski gone to Bayern, forcing the champions to thin their reserves a bit, perhaps guys like Mario Götze or Arjen Robben end up elsewhere, bringing teams like Bayer Leverkusen or Borussia Mönchengladbach even closer to title contention.

As an added benefit, you would not see quality players stagnating on benches. One of the best things about the draft and salary cap is that the best players always play, even if it’s not always for the best team. How much better would Mitchell Weiser be right now had he not went to Bayern to play with their second squad for a few seasons, instead going to a team that could have used him in the Bundesliga right away? Imagine Barry Sanders leaving the Detroit Lions to play as back-up to Emmitt Smith, getting into games only on occasion. Unfathomable for US sports fans, but entirely commonplace in the Bundesliga.

Sidebar: In reality, we all know Sanders was a vastly superior player to Smith. I think Smith and a handful of Dallas Cowboys slappies are the only people left who believe he was the better running back of that era.

Of course, no individual league could afford to institute a salary cap. Even if one were able to achieve it legally, it would only send players to other leagues that didn’t have them. As it is, players are gravitating to England and now China, because the money is simply bigger and better there.

The irony would be that the more-restrictive system is the one that is popular in the country where “freedom” is a buzzword often leveraged in explaining its self-assumed world superiority. Better for league competition? Undoubtedly. Fair to the laborers? Not remotely.

You would also have to note that a salary cap would have the side effect of limiting the heights the great teams can achieve. There is something to be said for just how good Bayern has looked at times. Without the freedom to spend as freely as they please, they might still dominate, but it wouldn’t be quite to the level it has at times been.

Continue to Part Two: The Players, their Performances, and Behaviors
The following two tabs change content below.
Randall Hauk is a freelance writer living in the United States while covering German football. He is currently the publisher of Planet Effzeh, an English-language site covering 1. FC Köln. He wrote about the German national team for the Telegraph as part of their World Cup Nation coverage.