The FA Cup
I don't pretend to know that much about the FA Cup. I know it's the oldest soccer tournament in Europe and I know it's a 100+ team year-long tournament to determine a winner across all levels of English soccer.
But something happened at the FA Cup that I think is remarkable, yet at the same time an indictment of American sports in general. Let me first lay out one of the Top 10 Greatest Upsets in English history, and then we'll get into the correlation between the decline of "fun" in pro sports here in the U. S. of A.
Last week Lincoln City, a non-league soccer team in England, meaning it's outside of one of the Top 4 Divisions in soccer, beat Burnley, at Burnley, from the Premier League, to advance to the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. Using an example most Americans could probably relate with, it would be like if local Rookie League team, the Lake Erie Crushers, advanced to the fifth round of a 100 + team professional baseball tournament, then met, and beat, the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. That would be the top story on ESPN for a week.
Well the story of scrappy, little Lincoln City FC was one of the top stories in Great Britain, for about a week, while the team itself awaits a March 11 date with perennial soccer powerhouse Arsenal.
Which player does not quite look like the others?
But specifically, how is there a format that allows a story like that to exist? The Premier League plays a 38 game season with no playoff. Whoever comes in first is the champion, season over. Now if you're in the Top 4, you play in a tournament (UEFA Champions League), then there's the Europa League tournament, which I cannot explain in a single sentence, and then the bottom 3 teams are relegated to the next division down. Who replaces them? The Champion of the League Championship and the winner of yet another separate playoff. Long, confusing story short, the best players in England will play around 50 soccer matches a year, if they played in all of their Premier League Games, Cups, and National Team Qualifiers.
Remember, more or less 50 soccer games. Just this week I read a story of Wayne Rooney's burnout at the age of 31 due to playing so many high level soccer matches. Now Rooney has a few good years left, but probably not in the Premier League. Another angle is travel. England is about the size of Alabama. So all travel, home and away, pale in comparison to the travel mileage that American sports teams rack up. Speaking of travel, rumors abound that Rooney could be on his way to the Chinese SuperLeague before I'm done writing this article.
But it made me think, in American sports, is there any room for a tournament like the FA Cup? And, of course, the answer is no:
Major League Baseball: Their season is too long. With 162 games and an ever expanding playoff system, baseball doesn't even end until November now. And the morons in the league office allow television to dictate multiple days off during the playoffs to maximize ratings and lengthen the season into the winter months. (Baseball in the snow?)
In an attempt to shore up the sport's popularity across the world, baseball rolled out the World Baseball Classic, their answer to Soccer's World Cup, in 2006. Everyone agreed it was what was best for the sport, but every time the WBC comes around, no one wants their players in the Tournament. (Locally, the Indians don't want Andrew Miller in the game this year.)
NFL Football: The No Fun League? They want more games, but less injuries. Good luck with anything fun there. Let's keep moving.
NHL: Their season is too long. 82 games and a 16 team playoff. If you're lucky enough to win the Stanley Cup, but all your series go 7 games, that means 110 games, not including the exhibition season. The NHL doesn't even want to be in the Olympics anymore every 4 years. With the continued growth of the KHL, there's a natural partner for doing something outside the box, but the NHL owners aren't giving up any games for the global or national interest of the sport. Period.
NBA Basketball: Their season is too long also. Same number of regular season games and same playoff format as the NHL, They, also, seem to have a natural partner in the EuroLeague for something interesting, but here in Cleveland, the fans scream LeBron James needs a rest every time the Cavs play 2 games in 2 nights. Players barely want to play in all the games they have to play now.
Golf: Golf has a .... let me stop you right there. Golf is a rec activity. Not a sport.