How to save football: A draft & a salary cap? | @GJ_Thomas

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has thrust the future of many football clubs across the world into doubt. In the UK it was reported that "football needs to take radical steps to avoid financial meltdown"[1] after the pandemic. The seemingly limitless pockets of some of the biggest football clubs had begun to dry up, whilst for smaller clubs, their very existence was under threat. Along with continuing rumours of potential European breakaway 'Super Leagues', some believe radical suggestions are needed to 'fix' or 'improve' football. We take a look to see if football can learn anything from across the pond.

One of the biggest criticisms levelled at football from the outside world is the money that is involved in the game. Mega salaries, huge transfer fees, swelling TV deals and billionaire owners can, at times, make the sport seem unappealing and 'broken' to many.

The birth of the Premier League saw football in England change financially beyond recognition. Whilst initially growing slowly, the television rights exploded in the 2010s as Sky Sports and BT Sport competed for airing the games, with Amazon Prime also joining the melee. The domestic TV deal stuck for the Premier League to run from 2019-2022 amounted to £1.665 billion (of which Sky and BT combined for £1.575 billion, with Amazon Prime paying £90m). This figure was for 200 live TV matches, although of course the COVID pandemic changed the structure of this as fans were kept from stadiums and broadcasters showed every game live on TV instead.

COVID-19 came as a shock to football. Professor Chris Brady of Salford University's Centre for Sports Business commented that: "Football sleep-walked into this current situation by assuming the future would be one of continual and unchallenged growth".[2] Like all of us, COVID proved that you can never take anything for granted as ordinary life was put on hold worldwide. Empty stadiums and clubs hemorrhaging money meant that this gravy train of never-ending cash was coming to a halt.

Added to this breaking of the status quo was the continued threat of a European Super League. For many years some of Europe's biggest clubs had quietly discussed the potential for them to leave their domestic leagues and unite in a closed, no promotion, no relegation dream league (very US sounding). UEFA has since responded by announcing plans for an expanded 36-team Champions League with many more guaranteed fixtures included in an attempt to convince clubs to cease their discussions. 

 ECA & Juventus Chairman Andrea Agnelli

In March 2021, Andrea Agnelli, chairman of Juventus and the European Clubs' Association (ECA) admitted that his body were considering ways of shutting down "triple-figure transfers amongst Champions League participating clubs". He said, "We could think of a double path transfer system, where clubs qualifying for specific tiers of international competition wouldn't be allowed to buy each other's players. That would improve the indirect solidarity to other clubs".[3] Again, elements of US sport seem present in these ideas, where teams in the 'Big 4' sports (American football, ice hockey, basketball & baseball) trade and draft assets, rather than sell them.

As a big Miami Dolphins NFL fan myself, I am looking forward to the upcoming NFL Draft on Friday, 30 April 2021. The draft takes place annually when college graduates are chosen by teams across America (more below). The Dolphins are in prime position to add some 'weapons' to their roster as they seek to compete for NFL's biggest prize, the Super Bowl. The Fins will have to meet the strict salary cap however, with teams not able to offer whatever they like due to a league-wide cap in place to control spending. This got me thinking, could the draft system or the salary cap ever play a part in 'saving' football?

We wanted your opinions over at The Football History Boys' Twitter, so asked the question: "Hypothetically: Could an NFL type Draft ever work in football? Exists in all American sports & MLS and as an NFL fan too think it's brilliant, but how would you make it work football (soccer) wise? Likewise could a league #salarycap work in football? (Didn't in L1 & L2!)". Here are some of your responses and the impacts it could have upon the beautiful game.


The first issue brought up by the question is the 'franchise' nature of American sports teams. This meant our suggestion did not thrill Jon (above) who replied to our Tweet, noting that it would require the "scrapping of 164 of history" and the welcoming in of "franchises". Of course, franchise football clubs as a concept, is one of immense hatred for the majority of fans. Wimbledon are so far English football's only example; in 2002 being given permission by the FA to relocate from South London to the town of Milton Keynes some 50+ miles away. MK Dons kept the history of Wimbledon before them, but in 2007 this was renounced.

AFC Wimbledon, a new club, was founded on 30 May 2002. The club started in the Combined Counties League Premier Division, but quickly progressed through the tiers to finally reach the Football League 2 in 2011. On 2 December 2012, Wimbledon would face MK Dons for the first ever time in the second round of the FA Cup. Despite it ending in a 2–1 defeat for AFC Wimbledon, the sides have met many more times in league action, Wimbledon earning promotion to League 1 in 2016. 

Wimbledon v MK Dons is now a fierce rivalry

The fallout from that relocation still continues, with the rivalry between the two still bitter. In December 2017, AFC Wimbledon were charged by the EFL for failing to fully refer to the MK Dons on their programme for their league fixture. Just calling them "Milton Keynes" or "MK", Wimbledon maintain that the 'Dons' name was theirs and, in their eyes, taken from them. MK Dons fan Harry Wright labelling it as "a rivalry no other fans can relate to".[4] 

This franchise concept is something very different when compared to the American sports. Take the NFL, with the Oakland Raiders the most recent relocation, moving from California the 500+ miles to Las Vegas in 2020. This move is the latest in many that has included the Rams moving from St. Louis, Missouri to Los Angeles (1,800 miles) in 2016, and the Dallas Texans from Texas to Kansas City (550 miles) in 1963.

Despite it being far more common, it is still something that hurts fans across the USA. Nick Dimengo of the Bleacher Report has some advice for fans of relocated franchises, from "forever boo that team until eternity" or "pick a nearby city's team to root for", to "secretly cheer for the team that moved". Dimengo even suggests that some fans may "give up on the sport and root for another team in your city",[5] turning their back on their favourite sport for another of the 'Big 4'.

Will London get an NFL franchise one day?

It is certainly the element of American sports that seems the most alien to football (soccer) fans. The feature to 'relocate' even being built into the 'Madden' video game too, where gamers can pick a city, build a new stadium, choose a new name and even select a new uniform (kit) for their franchise. 

The prospect of a London NFL franchise still remains too. For many years the Jacksonville Jaguars have been linked to a move across the pond. Shahid Khan, owner of Fulham but also the Jaguars, has brought his team to the UK many times over recent years, the Jags one of many teams playing 'home games' at Wembley, Twickenham or Tottenham Hotspurs' new stadium. Khan has denied the move, but "it is no secret that he will be an important figure in bringing an NFL team to London on a permanent basis".[6] On this matter, it is very much - 'watch this space'!

The Draft

Tony (above), did see there as the potential for a draft system for "players who had rejected professional contracts", with a chance for a combine too (the yearly event where college players show off their 'measurables'. For those who have no knowledge of US sports though - what is the draft?

The draft takes place in all American sports each year, based upon where the side finished in the previous season. Again using the NFL as an example, the 32 teams' draft order is based upon performance. The bottom ranked team, this year the Jacksonville Jaguars, will get first choice of college graduates across 7 rounds. Super Bowl winners, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will select 32nd in each round. 

In theory, the draft should keep the league balanced and fair, with no team able to build an unbeatable roster. In place of transfer fees, franchises are able to trade draft picks and players, this draft system being such an important way to develop your squad. This year, the Miami Dolphins traded the 3rd overall pick (which was a previously traded pick itself), to the San Francisco 49ers for pick 12 and future first round picks, which they then traded to the Philadelphia Eagles to move back up to pick 6 just half an hour later. It may sound confusing, but to fans of American sports, these trades can bring excitement beyond belief!

Clemson University's QB Trevor Lawrence is set to draft #1 overall

All players entering the NFL (or any other Big 4 sport) must enter via the draft, meaning players have no control over the place they may end up playing their sport. This April, Quarterback Trevor Lawrence will almost certainly be taken #1 by the Jaguars, the man being called a 'generational talent' will end up at the NFL's worst team. It is a system that should allow the Jags to get better, but an NFL roster is 54 men and whether Lawrence will make that desired impact is something we will find out when the new season returns in August.

The hype surrounding the draft is a far cry from the early draft, first conducted in 1936, the brainchild of Philadelphia Eagles co-owner Bert Bell. He wanted an annual draft to help even out the league with the Eagles struggling to attract players to his city.[7] Only 90 players were up to draft that year, compared to the estimated 3,500 players who are eligible to draft in 2021 (although just 259 will be selected). 

So would it ever work in football (soccer)? It seems impossible perhaps but Major League Soccer (MLS), the American and Canadian league have an annual draft just like their Big 4 counterparts. The first MLS College Draft was in 1996, merging with the 'Supplemental Draft' (of non-college graduates) in 2000, to make the SuperDraft. 

This draft continues to be a route for players to enter MLS and one of the most famous English draftees was Leeds United's (on loan from Man City) Jack Harrison. Harrison spent parts of his youth career with Liverpool and Manchester United before moving to Black Rock FC, Massachusetts at the age of 14. Harrison then switched to Manhattan SC, New York and with his stock rising moved on to Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Harrison did not complete his college career and entered the 2016 SuperDraft early at 19. He was drafted #1 overall by Chicago Fire, who then traded him to New York City. New York City offered him the opportunity to head to Man City, where on loan at Leeds he has since taken the Championship and Premier League by storm. 

Leeds United midfielder Jack Harrison is a former MLS draftee

In the 2021 SuperDraft, 27 teams made 75 selections over 3 rounds. Like Harrison before them, there was still British representation at this year's 'SuperDraft'; Middlesbrough born Calvin Harris was selected #2 overall by FC Cincinnati after leaving Wake Forest University, whilst Kimarni Smith, formerly of the Sheffield United academy, graduated Clemson University and was drafted #4 overall by D.C. United. 

This bring up the problem of academies. In football worldwide, academies are the lifeblood of football clubs and how players start their journey to professionalism. Clubs such as Exeter City have used their academy to develop and sell on big talent such as newly-capped England international Ollie Watkins, Wales international Ethan Ampadu and Swansea City's Matt Grimes. In recent years, MLS clubs have also invested heavily in academy systems and Sports Illustrated have noted how this had led to the SuperDraft "dwindling" in importance, as "teams turn to their own academies for youth prospects and place more emphasis on the global market to find top players".[8]

Realistically, for any Premier League/European style draft to happen it would have to be along Tony's way of thinking. With players having left clubs or rejected professional contracts in an attempt to enter the draft and better themselves. Imagine it though, players unhappy or believing they can end up at a 'top club' could turn down a contract and chance their arm at a draft. Sky Sports would definitely be all over it!!

Dean (above) does make an interesting point, the hiring of players, what we call transfers, is "part of the competitive foundations for all businesses". It is something that is ingrained with the modern game of football and the excitement of big money signings or even bargain basement transfers grips fans of all clubs. Add to that the incentives of clubs to develop 'home grown' players (more on that later), and perhaps a draft would struggle to gain any traction at all.

A Salary Cap

Dean does think a potential salary cap is something that could be worthy of consideration. His interesting suggestion is a 'fantasy football' style system with players given a central valuation. As Ian (below) points out though, a "salary cap only works if there is a limited set of teams". Closed leagues and the lack of competition from other nations allows the cap to work in the 'Big 4' sports. Implement it in the Premier League for example, and as Ian says, the Championship, Spain, Germany, Brazil, China or even Middle Eastern leagues like Qatar would become tempting for talent to earn more.

"How does a salary cap even work?" I hear you ask. Well, in all American sports, including MLS, teams are strictly capped at their annual outlay. Back to my favourite, the NFL, and the 2021 salary cap has been set at $182.5m. Contracts are structured and spread out over the course of the years signed for, varying in value and cap impact each year. Teams are able to carefully restructure deals and offer players money in incentives rather than straight salary to meet the cap, but the theory of a cap is again, like the draft, to maintain equality across the league. It doesn't stop mega-money deals for superstars. Kansas City Chiefs Quarterback Patrick Mahomes, 25, being tied down for 12 seasons, via a 10-year contract extension worth up to $502.631m.

Patrick Mahomes, worth up to $502.631m over 12 years

Mahomes' salary ('cap hit') counts as $24.807m for the Chiefs against the $182.5m 2021 team cap, with the Chiefs also needing to pay another 53 players within that cap. In 2027 Mahomes' cap hit will be up to $59.95m,[9] meaning the Chiefs will have to cut some other players to stick within cap limits (although the cap is due to explode in the coming years with a new mega TV deal set to kick in soon). 

Turning to football (soccer) again, and we have a list of times a salary cap has failed or been lifted in England. The most famous time being the ending of the £20-a-week 'maximum wage' on 14 January 1961. This was following a long battle from footballers to be paid what they felt they were worth. The maximum wage had first been set in 1900 at £4-a-week, and this prevented players, "regardless of talent or experience" from negotiating higher wages with their club. Welsh Wizard Billy Meredith was one who rallied against this, demanding "contractual and financial freedom" for footballers.[10] 

In the 2020/21 campaign, clubs in the EFL Leagues 1 & 2 were subject to a new salary cap. Clubs voted for a limit of £2.5m for League 1 clubs, and £1.5m for teams in League 2. The PFA called the cap "unlawful and unenforceable", and on 9 February 2021, the cap was removed upon review by an arbitration panel. Despite an uncertain financial future for many clubs, the salary cap was rejected and the PFA declared that it was: "in the best interest of the leagues, the clubs, and the players to work together and agree on rules that promote financial stability".[11]

The Collegiate System

Sue (above) hits upon an important factor of the American sports system, the links to colleges and education. Sue continued with her view of the benefits she sees of the collegiate system: "Kids work so hard in school to get to college with lots of scholarships offered, and then again to get into the draft. Ok academic standard maybe lowered but creates a discipline we just don’t have!". 

So how does the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) work? In short, high school sports stars are offered scholarships to some of the US's most prestigious sporting universities. They embark on a 3-4 year degree course that allows them to combine their growing talents with their education. In theory this provides all athletes with the opportunity to have a 'back up plan', should their sporting careers not turn out as they hoped. Alongside this, 3-4 years worth of scouting by professional teams allows for players to be fully evaluated before they enter the draft. This offers the students to develop in character, education and discipline, with many-a-player finding their 'draft stock' fall significantly for behavioural misdemeanors. Likewise sports stars are now reaching the pro-leagues at perhaps a more mature age, 21-23, rather than hitting the big-time at 17-19 like so many footballers do today.

This also has an impact on the financial side of things for draftees. To the NFL once more, where future #1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence, mentioned above, will pick up a rookie 4-year NFL contract worth $36,793,592, which includes a signing bonus of a jaw dropping $24,118,976. Tampa's final pick, #259 ('Mr Irrelevant'), will earn a 4-year contract worth $3,556,248 with the signing bonus being a more modest $76,248.[12] Now, for pick #1, #259 or the picks in between, the figures are still stunning, but surely better off going to a 21-23-year-old, than a teenager?

LSU's Tiger Stadium, Louisiana, a staggering capacity of 102,321

And my word are college sports popular too! The Guardian wrote as to why, "the United States is a sport-obsessed country but its sports are local... College football thrives in the towns, cities and regions that professional sports have neglected".[13]. With just 32 NFL teams in a country of 310 cities with populations of 100,000 or more,[14] it is no wonder why (American) football mad fans pack out college and even High School stadiums in their tens of thousands on a regular basis.

Paul (below), highlights some further negatives of the collegiate system and its tight control of the rights of players within it. "Kids get screwed over by the colleges", with their school making vast sums of money from the talents of their players, whilst the youngsters are banned from making a dime. He continued: "The NCAA doesn't pay the players, yet uses their image rights to rake in at least $900m from tv deals... Whereas if you're on a music scholarship you're allowed to release and make money from an album for example". 

As a NCAA athlete in the US, you are banned from representation by an agent, banned from sponsorship deals and banned from taking any money your college makes from your skill. This is a hot topic in American sports at the moment, with Michigan forward Isaiah Livers wearing a t-shirt declaring he was "#NotNCAAProperty" in March 2021. 

College is not the only route into the professional game. Take basketball's LaMelo Ball, the now-19-year-old who skipped college to make a name for himself with Prienai (in Lithuania) and the Illawarra Hawks (in New South Wales, Australia). The unconventional route into the NBA was a major risk, but his talents still saw him being drafted #3 overall by the Charlotte Hornets in 2020. Ball's decision paid off, but for college players of all sports, reform is desired to see them rewarded for their abilities. Livers telling the New York Times the reason for his protest: "We’re doing this for future athletes, we’re doing this for our future kids".[15]

This raises yet another question, should players be paid whilst obtaining their university education? Infact as I write this, I am watching some NCAA March Madness basketball on BT Sport. University students playing to a worldwide audience, earning their colleges big money in TV and sponsorship deals. The athletes play for nothing, doing it to one day earn a shot at the big time. Some would argue this is fair enough, others, that something has to change. Will it? Well, Livers and the like will keep fighting to see things improve.

Michigan's Isaiah Livers protests for NCAA reform

So will a collegiate style draft system work in football? No, probably not. What about a salary cap? Nah, not that either. Still... fun to consider though! 

By Gareth Thomas - The Football History Boys (@GJ_Thomas & @TFHBs)

[1] Mark Ogden, ESPN, 03 September 2020, here.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Simon Stone, BBC Sport, 08 March 2021, here.
[4] Sky Sports, 07 September 2019, here.
[5] Nick Dimengo, Bleacher Report, 19 January 2016, here.
[6] Graham Moody, SW Londoner, 23 July 2020, here.
[7] The NFL Website, here.
[8] Sports Illustrated, 09 January 2020, here.
[9] Tadd Haislop, Sporting News, 09 November 2020, here.
[10] The PFA webiste, here. Also, read more in our own Billy Meredith article, here.
[11] Sky Sports, 09 February 2021, here.
[12] Over The Cap, here
[13] Brandon Lilly, The Guardian, 10 October 2012, here.
[14] World Population Review, here.
[15] Billy Witz and Alan Blinder, New York Times, 18 March 2021, here.

©The Football History Boys, 2021
(All pictures borrowed and not owned by The Football History Boys)


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