Book twenty-four: Tailgating, Sacks and Salary Caps by Mark Yost

An article in today's Observer says that the Premier League now averages fewer goals per game than any league in Europe. English football used to be known for its fast pace and goal-filled matches, so why the decline? According to the players and managers interviewed in the article, this new conservatism is a result of the dominance of the big three clubs: Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United.

Now it's by no means a given that more goals means more exciting football but, if it does, then this is another symptom of how the lack of competitiveness in top flight football is damaging the game. It's a topic I touched on here at the end of last season.

As I said back then, competitiveness has not been a problem for the NFL. There are 32 teams in the NFL and in the last ten years 14 of them have appeared in a Super Bowl with seven different teams winning.

The primary purpose of Mark Yost's Tailgating, Sacks and Salary Caps is to explain how the NFL managed to remain so competitive while also becoming one of the world's most financially successful leagues in the world. Yost identifies three main reasons:

1. The draft, in which college talent is distributed to NFL teams based on how the teams performed last season. The team with the worst record gets first pick and the Super Bowl winner goes last. Thus, if teams choose wisely, talent is distributed to the teams with the greatest need.

2. The salary cap, which places a limit on how much teams are allowed to spend on paying their players. However much revenue a team generates - and there are large discrepancies between the top and bottom teams in the NFL - there is a limit to how much they can exploit their advantage on the field.

3. The revenue sharing agreement which ensures that every team in the league receives an equal share of TV money and merchandising revenue, for example. Other revenue, such as gate receipts and sponsorship, are also shared, ensuring that the gap between the richest and poorest in the league doesn't get too big.

The secret is that the NFL is designed to achieve success for all teams, which are competing with each other on the field and with other sports off the field. How much more enjoyable would the Premier League be if its members thought the same way?

As Yost frequently points out, this collective approach makes the NFL sound like a very socialist operation. He mentions that fact a lot, so it's funny to read the introduction in which Jack Kemp - a former player and former Congressman - rails against those who say the league is "socialistic".

"Nothing could be further from the truth," writes Kemp, giving the impression that he didn't bother reading the book at all.

Still, political nuances aside, Yost does a good job of explaining some very complex issues. The chapter on stadiums is particularly good, explaining how many teams have managed to get their stadium financed, at least in part, by taxpayers. To do this, they usually threaten to move to another city if they don't get their way.

But Yost provides strong evidence to suggest that a football stadium is never a good investment for local authorities; they don't come even close to getting their investment back. Not only that but, Yost shows, having an NFL team in your city doesn't bring much financial benefit either. Still, as long as there are sports fans,  there will be pressure to spend taxpayers money on what Yost calls "welfare for billionaires".

It's a fairly short book - 250 pages - and its weakness is that Yost often leaves questions unanswered. For example, when Yost explains that 'minimum wage' in the NFL is $275,000 per season, I wanted to know what proportion of players are making that money. Is it a theoretical minimum that almost nobody earns or are all but the stars earning the basic level? Yost doesn't elaborate.

He also repeats himself a lot. You'll be told many, many times about how important the 2006 Collective Bargaining agreement was in safeguarding the league's future - it comes up in almost every chapter. Still, it doesn't diminish the effectiveness of the book.

You'd have to be a fan of American football or economics books to enjoy it but Yost's book is very well researched and very informative.