Should There Be a Limit on Import Players?

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The Dresden Monarchs of the German Football League (Courtesy of Mike Lehn - Big M Pictures Pictures)
The Dresden Monarchs of the German Football League (Courtesy of Mike Lehn – Big M Pictures)

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The New York Yankees, the most successful Major League Baseball team in history and one of the most valuable sports franchises of all-time,  revolutionized not only baseball but all of professional sports. The Yankees once went through an unprecedented period of dominance in which they won 11 World Series between 1947 and 1962, and came within one game of winning 3 more. This era of domination changed the landscape of professional baseball.

How did they do it? It was simple – they were the wealthiest franchise in the world, so they bought and developed the best players available. Hall of Famers like Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford, Joe DiMaggio, and Yogi Berra all played for the Yankees during that time.

However, an interesting movement began to take hold after the era of Yankees’ dominance: innovation. Teams suddenly began to think outside of the box and started developing sophisticated scouting systems, placed an emphasis on coaching their youth players in the minor leagues, and began creating unique ways to attract some of the better players internationally.

Meanwhile, Major League Baseball began instituting methods of maintaining competitive balance without prohibiting the best athletes from playing in the league. In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball when he suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and by 1959 every team in the league had fully integrated players of all colors. The Major League Baseball Draft was instituted in 1965, allowing teams equal access to the best talent in the world. In 1968 the Central Scouting Bureau was created to assist in supporting the scouting operations of all Major League Baseball clubs, which later evolved into the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau in 1974. Then, MLB began instituting revenue sharing in 1994, a way of spreading some of the revenues of large market teams to small market teams. Lastly, the league began instituting a luxury tax for teams in 2003. “Technically called the ‘Competitive Balance Tax’, the Luxury Tax is the punishment that large market teams get for spending too much money. While MLB does not have a set salary cap, the luxury tax charges teams with high payrolls a considerable amount of money, giving teams ample reason to want to keep their payrolls below that level.” Teams like the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Boston Red Sox don’t mind paying this tax because their budgets far exceed any luxury tax threats. Revenue from luxury tax went to fund player benefits (50%), the Industry Growth Fund (25%), and went towards developing baseball in countries without high school programs (25%). Today, the Yankees have one of the two highest payrolls in the league and have won only one World Series since 2000. The team with the highest payroll – the Los Angeles Dodgers – hasn’t won a World Series since 1988.

So, why talk about baseball on a website that’s dedicated to the growth of American football? It’s because there’s a lesson to be learned here – there are better ways to maintain competitive balance without inhibiting the growth of a sport. In the case of Major League Baseball, a long period of Yankees’ dominance created the impetus to change, which spurred innovation and improved efficiency in the sport of baseball.

National American football leagues in Europe have varying definitions of what constitutes an “import player”, however in most cases an import player is considered to be an athlete without a passport from any country within the 28-nation European Union. In Europe, almost every country has instituted its own limit on the number of import players each team can have on its roster. Additionally, most European leagues have a limit on the number of import players a team can have on the field at one time. Since most import players come from North America and are on average at a higher skill level than the average national player, national federations have elected to limit these players as a means to maintain competitive balance. Countries like the United Kingdom have even gone so far as to prohibit the payment of any players, mandating an amateur state of the game within its borders.

There is an ongoing debate about the fairness and value of this very topic, as national federations have felt that this is the easiest way to promote competitive balance in their respective leagues. To be fair, this does achieve a manner of semi-equal competitiveness as it limits the number of elite players you can have on your team. This is further encouraged at times by vocal small-market teams that struggle to compete against large-market teams in their own division.

However, most of all, these rules are acknowledging one very simple truth: that we’re too lazy to innovate. Our teams and federations are proving that they’d rather be equally pedestrian than take the chance of being equally great. Rather than elevating our own teams, we’re attempting to bring other teams down to our level. This strategy is guaranteed to result in a continuation of amateurism and it is the one thing that is prohibiting the growth of American football in Europe, bar none.

Then people ask, why are we not getting sponsors? Why don’t we have more fans at our games? Why won’t the media take us more seriously? Well, it’s because we’re not taking ourselves seriously. We want to compete with soccer, rugby, basketball, and hockey for market share, but we won’t be able to surpass or even reach those sports as long as we’re prohibiting the growth of the game here in Europe.

There are four standard arguments in favor of the establishment of import quotas. The following is a breakdown of each argument.

1. “Import quotas help maintain competitive balance”

If we are to make the statement that import quotas encourage competitive balance, we can also state that the opposite is true: eliminating import quotas improves competitive balance. Let me give you an example. Before my first season with the Brussels Bulls in 2008, the team went winless and had to forfeit the second half of its season. The following season the Bulls began bringing in multiple import players and we started challenging for a playoff spot almost immediately. The Bulls went from last place and unable to withstand a full season to one of the most competitive teams in the league in a short period of time, largely with the help of import players. It had a lasting effect too – the Bulls junior team won consecutive national championships (in part due to the coaching by import players) and the senior team made it to the Belgian Bowl in 2013, only their sixth full season as an organization. That gap would have been much wider had the Bulls not brought in multiple imports to raise the level of the team, and the national players on the team elevated their level of play by having the opportunity to compete against import players in practice.

You can also make the case that placing a cap on the number of imports you can sign prohibits competitive balance because teams that are struggling to improve are restricted from challenging for league championships. It can actually make the gap much wider between the top and bottom teams because it limits their options to improve. Sometimes you need to shake up the system to create more competition and give other teams an opportunity to play at a higher level.

2. “Import quotas enable the development of national players”

This is a prevailing thought, however it is categorically untrue. If you need proof, look no further than the sport of soccer. Countries like Spain and Germany have a massive influx of foreign players in their national leagues and boast some of the best club soccer in the world, however that hasn’t prohibited the improvement of their national teams in any way. As a matter of fact, it has improved it: Germany and Spain have dominated international soccer for the past 6 years, accumulating two FIFA World Cup championships and two European Championships between them.

So why is that? It’s because they have fostered an environment where their national players are playing against the best competition in the world, and they can do so without leaving their own country. Remember, the absolute best way to improve your level of skill is to play against better competition. The best way to do that is to bring in the best American football players from around the world so you can challenge your national players to play at their highest level.

Additionally, let’s be clear – import players aren’t suddenly going to constitute 100% of any league. The top players in each European country have the talent to compete almost anywhere in the world against any competition, and it will never be financially or commercially viable to have more import players than national players. We are in no way encouraging that, so that concern is never of any consequence.

Plus, don’t forget the value of bringing in players from different countries – there is enormous value in creating a multicultural locker room where players can learn from each other. This is directly beneficial to our players both on the field and off it.

3. “Import quotas prevent teams from overspending or going bankrupt”

Businesses often go bankrupt because they are poorly run and are not financially sustainable. That doesn’t mean that we limit how much all businesses can spend simply because some organizations are poorly run. Oftentimes it’s a good thing when businesses go bankrupt because it eliminates bad companies and inefficiencies in the marketplace and allows for markets to grow much smoother. As a result, new, more competitive organizations are established with better foundations and greater fiscal responsibility. Sports organizations are no different – there are often teams that cannot sustain themselves after several years and are forced to fold. We often look at this as unfortunate, but it can actually create new opportunities for other teams that are better run and more competitive.

Limiting the number of players that teams can pay won’t fix teams with a shaky foundation. Those problems will always be there, regardless of whether they pay zero players or one hundred. However, if new teams are entering a league that has financially sound organizations that compete at the highest level, it encourages them to enter the league responsibly and with an efficient system in place. Limiting import players on the basis of financial concerns is more likely to have an adverse effect than a positive one.

4. “Only sports like soccer can do without import quotas because they have so much money”

This is factually untrue. It is because these sports leagues bring in the best international talent available that they are able to acquire investment and sponsorships from multinational brands and corporations, not the other way around. Multinational corporations simply don’t support amateur teams – there is minimal return on investment. They want to invest in teams that have an international presence, bring in foreign big-name players, have exceptional local talent and coaches, and play at the highest level.

Similarly, fans are intrigued when a team is playing at a very high and/or professional level. Fans watch sports for entertainment, and they are most likely to be entertained by great competition at its highest level. Fans and corporations are where the real money comes from, but we can’t attract them in the way we need to unless we’re providing the best quality product we can put on the field.

If some organizations are financially superior to the rest of the teams in the league, find some method of taxing the amount they spend, not the number of players they pay. Introduce revenue sharing instead of eliminating competition. There is much more opportunity to encourage the growth of this game if we’re innovating instead of remaining stagnant.

Let’s move forward. Together.

 

 

What’s your opinion on the import quotas in Europe? Do you feel that we should do away with them or leave them in place? Let us know in the comments section below.

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December 26, 2014

Comment Rules: We're all here for the same reason, which means we all have the same goal to help grow the game of American football. Focus on what brings us together instead of what makes us different. Anything overtly negative will just be deleted. Be supportive, not critical. Be helpful, not hurtful. That's what a real community does.

  • John Van de Mergel

    Comparing a pro league to amateur leagues is already the wrong starting point!
    MLB, like NFL, NBA, European pro sports leagues is all about owners needing a quick ROI. Amateur leagues have an entirely different focus.

    1. The West-Vlaanderen Tribes WON all 6 consecutive trips to the Belgian Bowl WITHOUT import players.
    Only when an organisation is already up to a certain level, high level skill players can help raise that level.
    The danger: most import players only do it for the money, while the other 90% do it for the love of the game and pay to play. The gap between both more often destroys teams than helping them. And most times contracts are short term…when the money is gone, by that time quite some ‘local’ mainstays are gone, and the team folds.

    2. Import ‘coaches’ help in the development of national players.
    If the imported players turn out to be good coaches too, then that is true added value.
    If the money where there, I’d rather pay for a coach than for a player. The effect of having quality coaching will be more lasting to an entire organisation.

    3. Most amateur teams have an ‘OK’ foundation. Could be lots better off course.
    Once sponsoring sets in, higher demands are created. Turning to import players for a change to get quick ROI – we are now entering the ‘pro’ mentality – is often a panic reaction due to pressure from sponsors….unless like mentioned before the foundation is already pretty good. Still, the risks are often too high, fe injuries, not delivering, etc etc

    4. In short….you just can not compare pro leagues to amateur leagues.

    As to the term ‘import players’: in Belgium the limit only goes for North American players.
    Tribes this year struck a manageble deal with a Czech player. Much more realistic than getting a player from the US. We’ll see how that turns out.

  • Luis Cancela

    Amateur sports as per definition is not payable, so there is no sense to limit the number of import players. Is not fair for foreign people to not allow them to pkay with us. If we talk about going forward to professional football, then we need the best players around the globe to make it vakyeble for investors. And as it happens with soccer, it will push institutions and citizens to participate from an amateur perspective.

  • Thanks for your thoughts John! Import players aren’t paid NFL money, so I’m unaware of any imports playing only for the money. All the imports I’ve been involved with are in it for the experience of living in Europe and to continue playing/coaching the sport they love. I do agree that coaches can have a very lasting impact, no doubt about it. Though playing against import players can vastly raise your abilities as well. Most leagues in Europe are at a semi-professional status, not an amateur one. If a league desires to maintain a purely amateur status then that is their prerogative. However, assessing quotas on any league is prohibiting development of this game.

  • Good points Luis, and soccer is the proof that the system works. I also feel that there should be no limit on import players. At minimum, the quota should be raised extensively. Thanks for your comments.

  • Peter Stimpel

    Nice one, Travis. But I think you would make a mistake with killing quotas. By having at least some locals on the field, you do something for development as well, because you establish the Football in areas like Germany. Could you do with “only soldiers” on the field? The NFL-E did that somehow, by featuring mostly US-players…and failed…Do you need the locals in the non-pro teams of Germany and other “non football countries? I believe so…nice picture btw…Go Monarchs

  • Thanks, Peter. We agree that there should never be a situation where it’s an “all-import” team. Here’s the quote from the article:

    “Additionally, let’s be clear – import players aren’t suddenly going to constitute 100% of any league. The top players in each European country have the talent to compete almost anywhere in the world against any competition, and it will never be financially or commercially viable to have more import players than national players. We are in no way encouraging that, so that concern is never of any consequence.”

  • John Van de Mergel

    I know we are not talking NFL money. Still, how many would come over without getting a paycheck? Just for the experience of living in Europe and continue playing the sport? Very few imo. Do not overestimate the love of Americans for Europe, let alone living here.
    Semi-pro leagues?? Something must have drastically changed the past 5 years. To my understanding, almost all leagues and organisations/teams are non-profit organisations. Curious to know which ones are semi-pro??

  • Peter Stimpel

    But if you kill the quota, this is what will happen, ok…might happen. So you need the quota in place. If you ask for highering it…I see no reason why. The rule in Germany tells 2 players on field from American Football countries at a given time. This works quite good. Combined with french, polish, czech and australian players we (the Dresden Monarchs) had quite a mix on field. If you would raise the number to lets say 4, we would have 2 more US-players on field – for sure. This would be…crucial IMO

  • Hi Peter, I do believe it would be crucial, but on the contrary. Assuming those import players are top talent, it will raise the level of play of the team as well as the rest of the league. Domestic players will improve not only in practice but also when they’re on the field in game situations. Let’s not forget, you need a minimum of 40-50 players on a team for depth purposes (fatigue, injury, variations in formation, etc.). There are 22 positions on the field, not to mention special teams. So while 4 import players would vastly improve the level of play on the field, it wouldn’t do much to prohibit domestic players from playing.

    We’ve gotten into this habit of “protecting” our domestic players instead of challenging them to play with the best. Germany has, at minimum, some of the best American football players in Europe. However, is inevitable that some country in Europe will equal or surpass them if they don’t try to compete against the best in the world.
    Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Hi John, I know several players who have come over without a paycheck, as the team provided an apartment, job, and sometimes meals for them instead. Some even came over without the guarantee of a job. A semi-pro team is by nature a team that pays some of its top players, while the rest are unpaid. That accounts for most Division 1 teams in Europe.

  • Peter Stimpel

    Hi Travis,

    Let’s agree that having the quota in place is as hard as guessing about how the possible results would be if they change the quota. I can understand very well why the “old men” in the league authority are shy to touch it. You pointed out one important thing: no good level of competition – no progress – no money. On the other hand: if you don’t take care about the mid/low level teams of such semipro league structures, it might cause trouble as well. Right now in Germany the league consists of about 4 or 5 teams able to compete on a high level. I call Berlin Adler, Braunschweig Lions, Kiel Baltic Hurricanes and Dresden Monarchs from the North, and maybe Schwaebisch Hall Unicorns from the south. This makes it 5 out of 16. I know such a quota shouldn’t protect the lower leveled teams, but it “protects” them – somehow…If you open the quota, there maybe 2 teams left, maybe only 1. Not blaming the Lions for their sponsor-environment, just pointing out they could take most advantage out of a killed quota. From the Lions point of view it might be a move that could results in a few years of playing without any competition, therefore less interesting games. Less interesting games might cause less interested fan-base, causing less sponsor money…an evil chain if you ask me.

    We can make these turns again and again and again, this medal has more than 2 sides it seems..I hope, if they are going to touch the quota, they do it “peacefully”, step by step, by watching the results of each single move for years before doing the next…

    Btw: would love to get notified by your site via mail on new answers…

  • Peter Stimpel

    Happy New Year, btw…

  • Thanks for your comment and your suggestion Peter. We’ll look into the opportunity for readers to be updated of new answers.
    I can certainly agree with you that the Lions would be one of the teams that would benefit the most in the beginning from an elimination of an import quota. The main point the article makes is that it will spur more innovation by other teams in the GFL. Perhaps one team hires a really exceptional coach, another team starts investing heavily into scouting, or another creates a new method of attracting sponsors that revolutionizes the game. My point is that an open market spurs innovation and creates new ideas where there were few before. One of the strongest examples of this is the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, who have only one championship between them over the past 10 years in spite of being the two wealthiest teams in Major League Baseball. Innovation trumps money every time.

  • Ryan Andersen

    As an American coach based in Europe for the past 13 years (the last 6 in Denmark) I can say having limits on imports is essential for the growth of the sport from the grassroots level. Because unless your national players are doing the work and improving then you have no foundation for your team and your country will hurt as a whole.

    People will say look at Germany, they have the best club teams and one of the best national teams in Europe. But they what….5000+ players to choose from for their national team? I think countries like Switzerland and Italy are better examples of how imported players can inflate the talent level. Italy is one of more publicized leagues in Europe with several of their club teams being top clubs in Europe, but when was the last time Italy truly competed for a European title with their national team? The Calanda Broncos have dominated Switzerland and won EuroBowl recently, but if you look at their roster from that team you will see 30 non-Swiss players on their team.

    We are starting to see European football talent rising to a level where our kids will start making a big name in the States. Players like Sebastian Vollmer and Björn Werner show where our talent can go. European players are dotting college rosters all over the US now, and at the current pace football will become the next basketball. But if we just say no restrictions on imports there will be teams that will ruin the sport for the rest of us, either by filling their team with so many imports to leave no playing time for national players, or by taking competition to a level where the sport isn’t fun anymore for the amateur player.

    I like the fact now that the German, Austrian, and Swiss teams have started their own club competition. Now the “pro” teams can play against pro teams. My dream would be for a club competition where only national players are allowed…I wonder if the outcomes would be the same? Can clubs win without their imports?

  • Simone T. Paschetto

    I always tought that, beside everything, we are amateur and it’s a nonsense for us to face former NFL players….so I would limitate even more the import of players who completed their formation in HS and college, who had pro experience in US or Canada an so on.
    At the same time I thonk we should be the mst open possible to all amateurs without imitation for nationality, that’s absolutely out of time.

  • Great points Ryan. I think it’s important to have different tiers so that players can compete at a level that fits their talent. There should be professional, semi-pro, and amateur levels so that there are multiple options to choose from for both players and fans.

  • Hi Simone, I think it depends entirely upon what level someone plays at. If someone is playing in the top division in their country, they should be prepared to compete with the best. If they are in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th divisions, you’re right – it may not make sense. But if really talented players in Italy want to compete with the best in the world, I think it only helps.

  • Anthony

    Speaking as an American I can’t help but agree with Travis. It has to start with the youth. Michael Jordan did this with basketball. People all over the world began to try to be “like Mike.” Just like in America little children where inspired by Pelé and other soccer greats. Bringing more imported players in would help bridge that gap. It would create competition. Would some teams fold because of it? Absolutely. And that is the unfortunate thing about competition. The same thing happened with American football in America during its “grassroots” era. The focus at the time was the amateur/professional argument and whether or not players should get paid because it would kill the teams that couldn’t afford to keep up with the teams that could. And while yes it let to leagues closing and teams being sold, it brought the best out of the competition and those teams went on to lay the foundation for the NFL as well as the AFL (which was later absorbed and made in to the AFC.) It has to be a scary thought thinking that teams wI’ll close and I know it seems like it will kill the sport. Maybe Europe isn’t quite ready for it, but at some point that is what it’s gonna take for a cultural shift to happen. The sponsors and fans will take care of themselves once the talent is infused.

  • Excellent points, Anthony! I completely agree that there need to be football greats in Europe that young people can look up to.

  • Hugo Pointillart

    Baseball economic unfairness is the best example you could have selected. Watch bill Maher “superbowl syndrome” it shows how economic and quota fairness in football has skyrocketed the NFL to the major sport it is now when baseball is now barely watched. The fact that any team can win keeps the game interesting

  • Austin Sutherland

    What is the current quota in these different countries and leagues? I am an American that has been slighted over here in the States due to some family issues and I would love to get involved over seas and help grow the sport in any way possible. I would like to know the quote and try to get my self on a team and help my self grow as well as the team and league I am in. Look forward to your feedback, Thanks.

  • Hi @austin_sutherland:disqus, these import restrictions vary by country – usually between 1 and 4 on the roster for non-European imports. If you’re looking for a team in Europe, we highly recommend Europlayers or The Podyum. Best of luck!

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Meet Travis

Travis is the founder and main contributor of The Growth of a Game.

A former quarterback from Southern California and current sports executive, Travis developed a passion for advancing the game of American football in Europe during his three seasons as a player and coach for the Brussels Bulls. He's now the President of Premier Class Consulting, a consulting firm that specializes in strengthening sports teams and organizations of all levels.

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