Christer's corner: Different approaches to sports on the two sides of the Atlantic

Photo: David Wilson/Flickr

Photo: David Wilson/Flickr


Comment by Christer Ahl
Can Europeans and Americans overcome rooted traditions and learn from each other when it comes to developing elite sport and sport for all? Born in Europe and living in America for 40 years, Christer Ahl this time discusses the very different approaches to sports across the Atlantic.

Having moved from Sweden to the United States 40 years ago, and having been involved in sports both internationally and at the local level throughout my life, it is not surprising that I often get questions, on both sides of the Atlantic, about how the sports scene compares in the two continents. I tend to respond that I cannot really claim any expertise in an academic sense but that, of course, I have some observations from my personal experience. But even at the personal level, there are some limits to my first-hand experience, as I obviously never went to school in the U.S.

Therefore, I mostly allow myself to get dragged into discussions because I find it intriguing to make some basic comparisons, perhaps in the hope that some beneficial ‘cross-fertilization’ of ideas might be possible, even though traditions and circumstances vary so substantially from one side of the Atlantic to the other, and the European scene is far from homogenous.

Often the questions focus on the differences at the senior or professional level, between the common ‘pyramid’ system in Europe and the professional leagues in the U.S. But there is also a direct link to the situation at the university and high school level. And for me personally, perhaps the most interesting aspect is how the different approaches affect health and well-being through the approach to sports and physical education in the youngest age groups. I will try to touch on all three areas.

Closed professional leagues vs. the open pyramid system in the team sports
Superficially, the main difference is often seen as being between a strictly commercial approach in the U.S. professional leagues and more of a democratic and amateur format in the pyramid system that is so typical in Europe. Here the major team sports have leagues generally run by a national sports federation, with scope for new clubs to enter and make their way up the system, replacing fledgling old teams which are being relegated or dropping out. While federations and leagues may have requirements in terms of financial stability and arena size at the top of the pyramid, essentially the system of promotions and relegations has a built-in excitement that in itself creates interest.

By contrast, the professional leagues retain the right to decide which teams, with what owners, are allowed to participate. The excitement is focused on making the play-offs and on the ability to use a system for ‘drafting’ new young talent to reinforce a team that has sunk to the bottom. Leagues in different sports are more or less concerned about equality, through rules involving ‘salary caps’ or favorable treatment for the bottom-ranked teams.  

However, I have increasingly become convinced that the differences are less related to the basic systems than to the reality that in some sports, such as basketball, baseball, American football and (together with Canada) also ice hockey, the United States is so dominant that the professional league is able to attract the best players on a global basis. This is really what creates the excitement in those sports. And it is then interesting to see that in several sports (at least football, basketball and handball) the respective European continental federations are organizing competitions which for the absolute top clubs may have taken on more importance than their national leagues. In some ways this moves us towards elite competitions which, while technically not being closed, really are only viable for the best and the richest clubs.  

To my mind, the most important difference between the clubs in the U.S. professional leagues and the clubs in the European pyramids is that only the latter have a direct vertical integration with the grassroots activities and with the youth teams. And this may in turn have an impact on the viability of club teams at the lower levels in the structure and, above all, the access to club teams for the younger players, regardless of their geographical location and level of talent.

Sports and physical education at the university and high school (‘gymnasium’) level
European observers are often enormously impressed by what they see as the enthusiasm around university sports program, with large attendances and lots of money involved in the NCAA Division I games in basketball and American football. And they see a similar fervor around both top-level and more parochial high school competition. But they do not appreciate that this a phenomenon that is completely separate from the question of access to organized sports for all students with more modest abilities, who nevertheless like and/or need to have an opportunity to participate in team sports. It is also highly questionable whether the enthusiasm around THE team of the school really does anything to promote sports involvement for the masses.

Instead, the high-level university and high school sports activities bring with them their entirely different sets of issues and concerns. The treatment of university athletes as some kind of ‘cash cows’ for their schools, without much financial benefit for themselves, and often as participants in fraudulent behavior where they are helped to avoid attendance at classes and obtain passing grades and graduation (if at all) only with the help of cheating. And the issue of cynical risk-taking with young bodies and brains in contact sports as American football is increasingly receiving the attention it clearly needs.

So American college and high-school students may find some opportunities for participation in intramural team sports if they are lucky, but otherwise they may need to depend on clubs and teams which may exist in their location, organized by municipalities or by private groups. In other words, the recourse is to a system somewhat similar to the European one, but more fragile and capricious, as it is detached from the kind of situation which clubs in the European pyramids create by routinely having junior and youth teams.

Instead, the American approach tends to function better for athletes in individual sports, such as swimming or track and field, as universities and high schools typically have facilities of a caliber that are unthinkable for the most part in the school systems in Europe. Possibly the traditions in England may have created a somewhat better situation there. So European observers are often shocked to find that world record holders and Olympic medal winners are actually U.S. high school athletes or university students. But again, legitimate questions are often raised regarding the opportunities for those who do not have the same talent. Often they have to be content with the role as spectators or cheerleaders.

Sports and physical education for younger students
I frequently hear parents on both sides of the Atlantic lamenting that the days seem to be over when you could ensure that your young children would get enough physical activity simply by going out and kicking a ball around or shooting hoops with the kids of the neighborhood. For various reasons this may no longer be the answer. Awkwardly, safety concerns may often be one reason, as parental supervision seems required to make such activities safe. But a major reason is that the children see and prefer (too) many other options for leisure activities which do not involve physical activity. And sports under primitive conditions also seem to serve as a discouragement, as more comfortable and sophisticated facilities are expected.

This comes at the same time as a cutback of time and resources for physical education in schools is having an impact. Here the Europeans always seemed to have an advantage, but in many countries the situation is now apparently deteriorating, as priorities appear to have changed and there is not much time in schedule for such activities. When schools increasingly have enough problems in ensuring that curricula are followed and new pedagogic methods are adopted, physical education is one of the first things to drop. This means that concerned parents need to use their time and effort to locate private/local clubs and facilities and then also act as chauffeurs.

Then we are back to the question of where the structure exists that best supports the desires of parents and their children to get into sports activities and healthy habits from a young age. From the stories I hear, the European sports club structure, whether connected to the pyramid of a team sport or the local clubs for individual sports, offers the better chances. Even rural or comparatively poor areas tend to provide some options. In the U.S. setting, the opportunities are not always so easy to find. Just as parents try to base their place of residence on the access to high-quality schools, I hear comments about similar searches of residential areas where the community or private initiatives make it easier to get children enrolled in sports activities. The long-term impact of this kind of situation does not seem entirely encouraging.

Bottom line
While one can discuss and debate what models and circumstances are more favorable, particularly in the important sense of getting children into sports continuously from a young age, the reality is that it would not be easy to pick up on ideas and transplant them to a different setting. Too much depends on fundamental differences in approaches to educational systems, the respective roles of government, schools, club structures and other private initiatives. What exists on each side of the Atlantic is rather deeply affected by differences in culture, values and societal traditions.

This also makes it difficult to draw clear conclusions about which system is functioning better. But the impression is that the European approach may make work better in terms of getting younger generations directly engaged in sports activities, whereas the American system may have an advantage in that it creates an atmosphere around sports which attracts also those who are not talented enough to see themselves as lifelong athletes, but rather as engaged sports fans.

  • Annelies Knoppers, 25.03.2015 16:41:
    A very significant difference between American and European sport systems is that in the USA sport is part of the educational system. This means that if it is good for boys it must also be good for girls! The USA has a law (Title IX) that requires educational institutions to provide equal opportunities for girls/women in sport. The voluntary nature of many European clubs means that there is little, if any, pressure on clubs to ensure girls/women have the same opportunities as their male counterpart.

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