Should There Be a Limit on Import Players?

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.