In the history of sports media, nobody has ever successfully explained European soccer to an American who doesn’t care about it. There are examples more flagrantly embarrassing than others—I recall an apparently scrubbed-from-the-internet segment that ran before the 2011 Champions League Final, in which Michael Strahan mused that “in football we get a penalty for hitting with our helmet, but in soccer they score goals with their heads!”—but any attempt is, through some poisonous confluence of idiot-class jingoism and pencilneck-class haughtiness, thoroughly doomed. Understanding is impossible and yet, with the NBA spinning a scheme for an FA Cup-like midseason tournament, I find myself compelled to argue why it’s a bad idea, and to do it I’m going to have to talk about how the English Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, etc. are fundamentally different from the NBA. I resent Adam Silver for making me do this. I’ll try to get through it as cleanly as possible. In fact, let’s use numbered sections:
1. The NBA has 30 teams. Most of the big European premier divisions have 20. Those 20 teams rest atop a pyramid that is unfathomably wide. The second division in Spain has 22 teams, the third division has 80, and the division below that has 397. These teams are all part of the same system; they can travel up or down the pyramid depending on their results in a particular season. The fluidity of this setup can be overstated: it’s not like teams routinely surge from the third division into the big time, and your mega-clubs like Manchester United and Real Madrid are never really at risk of demotion, but they all technically compose a seamless whole that is Organized Soccer in Country X and fall under the jurisdiction of a national soccer association, which runs these cup competitions the NBA is so jazzed about. The tournaments are gigantic in scope. Spain’s Copa del Rey has 126 entrants, the Coppa Italia has 78, and the FA Cup has 736. (The very, very early rounds of that tourney feature what are essentially the Brit equivalent of beer league softball teams.)
2. In short, these are national competitions. Do EPL and La Liga sides usually win them? Yeah, absolutely, but they occasionally get knocked out by third-tier squads where most of the players work roofing jobs in the offseason. And that is sort of the point of them, the cinderella runs. They also afford middling teams that have no hope of winning the league title a decent shot at a trophy.
3. And I don’t mean middling in a temporary sense. Crystal Palace aren’t like the Houston Rockets going through a rebuild. They’re straight up incapable of taking the EPL crown. They just don’t have the money to hang with Manchester City and Liverpool and their ilk, and unless Sixers hedge fund whiz Josh Harris wants to take over the club as a majority owner and start pumping it full of cash, their ceiling is going to remain relatively low. If they want to win something in a given year, the FA Cup—and the Carabao Cup, which is almost exactly like the FA Cup but smaller at a highly exclusive 92 teams—are their best and only chances.
4. Tradition typically isn’t a great argument for anything to exist or not exist, except that meaning does accumulate over time and it’s not something you can create, out of nowhere. The Copa del Rey has been around in some form or another since 1903. The Coppa Italia is nearly a hundred years old. They were birthed from pre-modern structures; the people who ran the sport in various countries were still figuring out what its competitions should look like and some of the more well-known clubs in the world weren’t even playing under their current names yet. There was no grand vision—and crucially, no hulking corporate influences—shaping the now-standard schedule, where teams play league games on the weekends and tournament ones on Tuesday and Wednesdays. It just shook out that way. It’s the established rhythm of the sport, and it makes sense on an artificially intuitive level, like how four balls and three strikes seem like the correct amount of pitches for a walk and a strikeout. Could an NBA midseason tournament acquire a certain prestige over time? Could we adapt to the new rhythms it imposes? Sure, maybe, but we’ve done the regular season plus playoffs thing for so long that it’s hard to see our ideas about the value of an ancillary competition changing with less than, oh, 25 years of history behind it. For quite a while, it would be an annoying inconvenience or a dumb novelty.
5. In the end, if the NBA really wants the State Farm Midwinter Classic to happen, it’s going to happen. The play-in games were floated as a pandemic-induced emergency provision that was always going to become permanent, no matter how much it excited fans and/or bastardized the regular season. It just does not matter what we think about changes to the sport that increase revenue. Not all of them are inevitable, because owners have their own ideas about what’s tacky and what might severely compromise the quality of play, but their taste—have you seen what these people buy with their billions?—is all that separates the league from becoming a total cash-grabby farce.
6. The biggest clubs in Europe recently tried to institute their own cash-grabby farce in the form of a continent-spanning Super League. If you’re curious about the details, I wrote 3,000 words about it, but the short story is that fans revolted at a scale and with a vociferousness that simply isn’t seen in America. With one voice, they (metaphorically and actually) stood outside their home stadiums and hollered we absolutely do not want this. Within about 72 hours, the Super League proposal collapsed. It’s a more, for lack of a better term, politically engaged culture over there. They’re better-versed in collective struggle than we are. They strive to protect what’s left of the sport they love, that hasn’t yet been totally consumed by corporate interests. Americans aren’t like that. We eat what we’re served. The NBA understands our supine nature. They’ll do what they wish, safe in the knowledge we’ll enthuse or complain and ultimately make do. We don’t decide where the sport goes, not even a little bit.