When I started writing college football columns while studying for the bar exam in the summer of 2000, part of the appeal was to get feedback from readers.* Having just spent three years learning through the Socratic Method, the idea of having other fans test my arguments and theories appealed to me.
* - The columns were for PigskinPost.com, which was subsequently bought by CollegeFootballNews.com. Thus, the columns themselves are gone, although I can occasionally find pasted versions of the piece that I did comparing college football teams to European soccer clubs. That piece needs a little updating, which I suppose is the point of this little mental exercise.
Over the course of the next two years, I wrote pieces roughly once a week and three columns stood out as generating the most heat. One was a piece in which I had the temerity to state that I personally believed that Alabama had paid for the services of Albert Means. Needless to say, I learned the lesson that Alabama fans’ support of their team runs on the hotter side of the spectrum. A second was a piece that I wrote criticizing the NCAA’s penalties levied against the Crimson Tide, a column that led the same people who derided me as a biased, yellow journalist to proclaim that I was one of the few people writing about SEC football who had any credibility. Go figure. And the third was a piece defending Mack Brown at the height of the “Mack can’t win the big one” meme after Texas lost the 2001 Big XII title game to Colorado.* My thesis was simply that Mack had taken Texas well beyond where it had been under his predecessors and that a number of coaching legends – Bobby Bowden, Tom Osborne, Joe Paterno, Dean Smith, and Mike Krzyzewski, to name a few – had all had the “can’t win the big one” tag, which just establishes that the label is a crutch for lazy analysts. Despite repeated losses to Oklahoma, Texas fans were quite happy with Brown ten years ago and they wrote in to say that they loved the sentiments of the piece.
* - For those younger readers, there was in fact a time when Colorado fielded a competitive football team that could, on occasion, win championships.
I suspect that I would not get the same reaction today if I wrote a piece defending Mack. In his fifteenth year in charge in Austin, Brown has all of two conference titles and off to a 2-2 start in conference play, title number three does not appear to be over the horizon. Brown is now 5-9 against Bob Stoops. Stoops recently added a picture of a scoreboard reading 63-21 to the 55-17, 65-13, and 63-14 shots that no doubt hang over his rocky mantelpiece. It’s one thing to lose to a rival; it’s another to be humiliated on a semi-regular basis at a neutral site. Texas then followed that humiliation with a 56-50 win at home against Baylor, further cementing the fact that the gap between the Horns and their traditional whipping boys in Waco is too small for comfort.
And yet, despite the fact that 2012 will mark a third straight season in which Texas is clearly outside of college football’s top tier, the consistent popularity of Texas football ensures that the UT athletic department remains the most profitable program in college sports, earning roughly 12% more in revenue than second-place Ohio State. Mack Brown’s teams may struggle to bring hardware to Austin, but Horns fans have remained steadfast in their willingness to pay high ticket prices and make huge donations for the privilege to see their teams lose to Oklahoma. If the ultimate referendum on a program is winning conference titles and contending for national titles, then Brown’s Texas has been a mild disappointment (at least once the measuring stick is Texas’s natural advantages and not the tenures of John Mackovic, David McWilliams, and Fred Akers). If the ultimate referendum is the willingness of fans to part with their cash, then Brown’s Texas is unparalleled in its success.
In this respect, Texas has a direct comparator across the pond (and a fitting one, given the state’s love for firearms): Arsenal Football Club. Arsenal are one of the three most popular clubs in the English Premier League (Manchester United and Liverpool are the other two, although the latter is debatable), the most popular sports league in the world. In Deloitte’s most recent money league rankings of European clubs, Arsenal finished fifth in revenue generation behind Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, and Bayern Munich.
However, while Arsenal generate cash like other superclubs, they don’t win on a commensurate level. Arsenal have not won a major trophy since the FA Cup in 2005; they haven’t won the Premier League since 2004; and they have never won the Champions League. By contrast, in the same time period, the four clubs above them on the revenue list have won major trophies (their domestic league, their primary domestic cup, or the Champions League) regularly. Barca have nine major trophies since 2005-06, Bayern Munich have six, Manchester United have five, and Real Madrid have four. In short, Arsenal are great at revenue generation, but they have not been able to turn those financial advantages into trophies in the cabinet. Does that sound familiar, Texas fans?
Texas and Arsenal supporters find themselves in a similar bind: “am I supposed to buy a t-shirt based on my team’s profits from last season?” Texas fans like the fact that their team wins consistently under Mack Brown, but rightfully wonder whether a program with the recruiting and financial advantages that Texas enjoys should be winning a conference title every six or seven years. Arsenal fans like the fact that Arsene Wenger keeps their club in the Champions League and has created a youth system that churns out top quality players, but they wonder whether they should be entitled to a major trophy every now and again, especially as they are paying the highest ticket prices in Europe. Both fan bases are stuck on the question considered by Andy Staples – what do we do with a coach who is good, but not great? – but they have the overlay of their teams being financially successful. Does all that lucre mean that we give our coach more time because our team is healthy or does it mean that the coach is squandering an advantageous position?
No analogy is perfect, least of all one between two different sports on different continents. Soccer clubs can win by pouring money into talent acquisition. If Arsenal spent more in the transfer market and they upped their wages so as to retain players like Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie, then they would win titles. Although Nevin Shapiro may disagree, the NCAA has rules against paying for talent, so the effect of Texas spending money is more indirect. DeLoss Dodds can spend on the stadium, workout facilities, academic centers, and the best coaches that money can buy, but all of that expenditure is an indirect way around paying the players directly. On the other hand, Arsenal’s problem is that their owners do not plough money into the club. The Swiss Ramble explains:
The price of Arsenal’s self-sustaining model has been to regularly sell the club’s best players, while charging the highest ticket prices in the country, so this is not quite the financial Utopia that has often been portrayed in the media. For the fans, it must be particularly galling that the club’s two majority shareholders, Stan Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov, are both billionaires, but there is little sign of either making any investment into the squad.
Arsenal’s financial results are undoubtedly impressive and they have done well to consistently finish in the top four, but whether the current strategy is enough to bridge the gap to the leaders and actually win an important trophy is debatable.
Texas, on the other hand, has no issue with wealthy benefactors spending money on the program. In the end, Arsenal fans who do not want to blame Arsene Wenger can point their fingers at the club’s owners for not giving him money to spend as the billionaire owners at Chelsea and Manchester City do; Texas fans who do not want to blame Mack Brown can point their fingers at the NCAA’s efforts to restrain a free market.