The Leaguers: The Making of Professional Football in England, 1900-1939

By Matthew Taylor | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
League Football and the
Question of Equality

Competition is an inevitable and essential prerequisite for the survival of any modern sports club: without opponents there would be no product, no audience, and consequently no revenue. Even in the early stages, prior to the creation of cup competitions and leagues, clubs were necessarily dependent upon one another and had established economic as well as sporting ties that were crucial to their continued existence. At the most basic level, the creation of a league merely formalised these relations. However, economists of sport have gone a step further by arguing that professional sports leagues operate in the same fundamental way as industrial cartels. They can be seen as 'a coalition of teams with restrictive practices in both product and labour markets designed to protect the interests of member clubs' with 'a central structure … for developing rules and enforcing controls'.1 Where sports cartels arguably differ from industrial ones, however, is in their basic functions and objectives. P. J. Sloane has observed that while conventional firms usually combine in order to prevent potentially damaging price wars, the objective of combination among sports firms is to ensure both the production of the common product and the equality of playing competition between clubs.2

Modern economists and contemporary observers have stressed the economic value of preserving a relative equality between clubs on a match-by-match and longer-term basis. In short, it is assumed (though it has never been convincingly proven) that attendances are higher when the result of a match is uncertain, and thus that a league's viability depends on keeping clubs as equal as possible in terms of playing strength.3 Many League officials, club directors and football writers certainly subscribed to this 'uncertainty of outcome' hypothesis, and positively encouraged the adoption of measures designed to minimise inequality. Compared with the elite county cricket and rugby league tournaments, the Football League remained a highly competitive and relatively open competition throughout this period.4 Yet it is argued in this chapter that equalisation policies, though generally accepted and

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