Wednesday, October 31, 2007

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A hidden utility of sports globalization?

Dani Rodrik posts about the migration of talented African football soccer players to European club teams. Here's how he tallies up the costs and benefits:

Consider that soccer fans have loyalties not only towards individual clubs but also to their national teams. So one question is what has the presence of foreign players in Europe done to the quality of the national teams. Following the disappointments of the English national team in recent games, some have suggested that the culprit is the dominance of foreign players in the Premier League and have recommended reintroducing quotas.

Or consider the quality of domestic leagues in Africa proper. The complaint that the exodus of players has hurt these leagues has been around since the 1970s. But I do not know of any serious evidence on this, and I would love to know.

In any case, it is likely that the globalization of the industry has (a) increased the quality of African national teams relative to European national teams; and (b) reduced the quality of domestic leagues in African leagues relative to club play in Europe. So how do we evaluate these outcomes in terms of what ultimately counts: the enjoyment of the fans?

If we're really thinking about the fans, then I think Rodrik is omitting a missing utility. Clearly, the migration has improved the quality of the play of European club teams. Furthermore, for most fans, the consumption of sports is a nonrival good -- i.e., I don't lose any utility from others watching or listening to a game. If African fans value high-quality play, then the decline in African domestic leagues can be offset by paying more attention to the European leagues, much like Rodrik himself.

This certainly happened with baseball, as the importation of players like Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka have caused Japanese baseball fans to pay more attention to American baseball.

Admittedly, an improvement in the quality of a foreign sports league is not a perfect substitute for a domestic sports league. African soccer fans are much less likely to be able to attend a UEFA game than one from their local league. However, for those not actually attending the game, it's not clear to me that the consumption process is affected by where the good games are played. Indeed, the globalization of consumption suggests that the fans do not suffer as much from a decline in local sports leagues as Rodrik suggests.

Of course, I don't know if Africans actually have paid more attention to the European leagues, and this is an important data point. I hereby request all African readers of to submit comments about whether their athletic attention has migrated, along with their players, to northern latitudes.

posted by Dan on 10.31.07 at 08:56 AM


Well i'm not African but I think the experience of Irish soccer supports your argument.

In Ireland, soccer is the most popular sport and in theory we offer very favourable conditions for players and fans alike. However, our domestic soccer league is in complete tatters. The sports institutions and organisations (the FAI and others) that deal with soccer here are incredibly badly run. It is quite a puzzle our our football league is so badly organised yet our other popular sports - Gaelic and Rugby don't suffer this fate. Our Rugby players are happy to remain in Ireland and play in domestic leagues here.

What has happened is that all our good players have left for English teams and so have the fans. It has gotten to the point that some UK clubs now have more Irish fans than English ones! This is quite unusual considering that many Irish people hold very hostile views towards England (inherited from the war of independence and the IRAs terrorist campaign). Some hardcore Irish nationalists happily follow English soccer teams and regularly travel to attend games. Institutions matter.

posted by: Michael Breen on 10.31.07 at 08:56 AM [permalink]

One of the side benefits is the exposure core fans have to other cultures, in other words I'd be real curious how much awareness of Africa and it's issues in Europe has been influenced by these imported players and as an extension what influence say Thierry Henry ( top Arsenal scorer ever ) has had on the Arsenal fans opinions of France & the French.

posted by: Nigel on 10.31.07 at 08:56 AM [permalink]

I think the remittance issue is relevant here. Dikembe Mutombo has made far more money in the NBA than he would have made had he stayed home, and this has enabled him to build a hospital (funded largely with his own money) in his home country, among other things.

posted by: nodakdude on 10.31.07 at 08:56 AM [permalink]

This was such an interesting discussion that I've addressed this post (as well as Dani Rodrik's original post and the follow-up on The Plank) on my soccer blog, The Run of Play ( Briefly, as an American fan of the English Premier League, I argue that there are more inhibiting factors than Dan addresses in using the quality of a foreign sports league as a replacement for a domestic one. The loss of peripheral cultural identification, I think, means that the enjoyment fans derive from watching a foreign league (and there's a lot of enjoyment, as I know very well) is always to some extent mitigated by an intangible alienation.

Yes, I said "intangible alienation." But really, it's a laugh a minute over at my blog, I promise.

posted by: Brian on 10.31.07 at 08:56 AM [permalink]

I have no personal knowledge of Africans and football, but the Economist had an article on that topic this very day...

posted by: Will on 10.31.07 at 08:56 AM [permalink]

Thierry Henry is not African is West Indian.

posted by: JLS on 10.31.07 at 08:56 AM [permalink]

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