The Transfer Window

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Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Dom Le Roy

Most sports fans in the United States are puzzled by the concept of the “transfer windows” in world soccer. United States fans are also used to their leagues’ “World Championships” not inviting teams from other countries and for those leagues to not answer to a worldwide governance body for their sport. For example, the NBA doesn’t answer to FIBA, and the NFL is free to make its own rules.

English fans are aware of the various cups, continental leagues, and FIFA regulations their favorite clubs are subject to, but the maze of rules around player movement in the U.S. can also be baffling. For example, it’s nothing for an English soccer team to be playing in four competitions all at the same time – the Premier League, Europa League, and two cup tournaments – but in the U.S. there’s no such consideration. An NFL team plays NFL games against other NFL teams exclusively. There’s no “American cup” to play against a college side and no “baseball cup” for major league teams to contest.
The United States’ topmost professional soccer league, Major League Soccer, is a member of FIFA and considered a Division 1 league; it’s sanctioned by, but not operated by, the United States Soccer association. This is different from the English Premier League, which is operated by the English Football Association. European fans will also be surprised to note that there’s a “salary cap” in place – a fixed amount which a team’s player wages may not exceed. This promotes equitable competition and prevents a super-rich team owner from coopting the league as has happened in Europe with wealthy “whale” clubs preventing budget-conscious “minnow” clubs from sustained top-of-table success.

The idea that there are only two periods during the year during which teams may acquire, trade or release players is surprising to U.S. fans. Even though both of the major sports in the United States has a “trade deadline” after which players can’t be moved from team to team without other considerations, they all are free at any time to sign players from anywhere else who are out of contract or place players on waivers, a process where their contracts will be cancelled and the players can be released from the team. Players can also be outright “cut” from a team at any time.

In the National Football League, the trade deadline is November 1. After that teams may not trade players to other teams. Where in soccer, players are “bought and sold,” it is rare for players to be traded strictly for cash; usually players are dealt for other players or for draft choices, where a right to select a player for future development is obtained in return for a current player. At any time during the season a player can be waived or outright released, and any eligible (non-banned) out-of-contract player can be signed to a team at any time. Teams are subject to the salary cap, which has no exemptions for any reason. A team can’t add a player no matter how wealthy its ownership if the terms of the new player contract cause the current player wage bill to exceed the salary cap. The player can either accept a lesser wage or defer the payment into the future to mitigate the cap impact. There would be no way for a team such as Manchester United to simply use a checkbook to bludgeon the rest of the league into submission because they can’t spend more than, say, Swansea could spend on players. That brings up other considerations, like past-their-prime players who are still receiving large salaries. The New Orleans Saints are paying Drew Brees an exorbitant salary despite his skills waning and the team’s urgent needs elsewhere, but his salary counts against the cap even if they release him – a concept called “dead money.” To continue the Manchester United analogy, if a broken-down Wayne Rooney’s salary takes up a significant percentage of the allowed capped amount, the team could not sign Zlatan Ibrahimovic unless Rooney took a significant wage cut or Ibrahimovic took a smaller salary deferred until after Rooney’s contract expired (which would count against the salary cap in those later years anyway). Even if they cut Rooney, his contract would still count against the cap, so the team would have cap space occupied by a vacated contract, or “dead money.”

Major League Baseball is more rigid in some ways, but far less so in others. For example, the trade deadline is not a hard deadline. Before it, players can be traded for any reason and have been traded for other players, minor-league development players, cash, and even pieces of equipment like team buses or a dozen baseballs. After the trade deadline, players can be traded but they must be subject to recallable waivers first. The team trading the player must expose his contract to being selected by another team; if this happens, the team can cancel the waiver and keep the player, or allow him to depart to the claiming team with no remuneration. There is often a strategic component to claiming waived players first; if a player is waived for the purposes of trade, and that player is to be sent to a team’s division rival to help them, the other team may claim the player to prevent their division rival from being strengthened. Players can also be sent to lower-tier development teams according to the terms of their contracts at any time during the season except the playoffs. Lastly there is no salary cap in baseball and a limited form of financial fair play called the luxury tax, in which any overage from a team’s player wage bill has to be matched in a contribution to a league revenue sharing pool to help smaller teams. If the tax threshold is $100 million, and the New York Yankees spend $140 million on salaries, then they would be required to pay $40 million into a revenue sharing fund. Even if the Yankees’ owners have the extra cash on hand, and even if their revenue streams from tickets, television and merchandising meant they did not have to leverage the club as prohibited under Financial Fair Play, they still would be required to pay. As Spurs discovered with the squander of the Garth Bale windfall, a pile of money on a wage bill does not equal success. For a number of years in the early 1990s some teams with larger budgets splurged on big-contract players with limited success. Around that time an innovative general manager from the Oakland Athletics named Billy Beane developed “SABERMetrics,” sometimes called “Moneyball.” The purpose was to analyze a player’s performance statistics at all levels, including some very abstract statistics like WAR (wins above replacement, a way to determine how the player affects win-loss outcomes), to determine the player’s true financial worth. That allowed the Athletics to choose players more wisely and in turn be more successful on the field despite a smaller budget and revenue stream and a much-smaller overall wage bill.

The other consideration to this is that there is no loaning in American professional sports. There is no nationwide minor league football institution, and once a player leaves college football he cannot return. A player can turn to the Canadian football league or to a niche league like Arena Football, but there’s no guarantee of return to the NFL. In baseball you can be sent to a minor league team, but again, your wage is cut along with the demotion, you face lower level opposition, and there’s no guarantee you will return to the major leagues. There is no direct trading between the NFL and any other league; there are occasionally trades between Major League Baseball teams and Japanese top-tier teams but because of unique player development rules in Japan, those are rare. If your backup catcher needs to play a few games to knock the rust off, you can’t simply loan him to another major league team, and if you attempt to demote him for even a few games, the terms of his contract may allow him to refuse the demotion and remain with the major league team at his major league salary. The complexity of NFL offenses and defenses make loaning players extremely impractical; if you loan your quarterback to another team, he won’t be effective there because he’ll have to learn the other team’s offense, and the other team won’t want to show him anything anyway because they would have to open their playbooks to another team’s player which could concede a tactical advantage. Soccer is a far more instinctive game than American football and there is far less rigidity in soccer, so while you could in the Premier League acquire a talented player from anywhere else, plug him in to your lineup the next day, and have him be successful, that can’t happen in the NFL because of the preparation required there. Baseball is similarly instinctive to soccer, but still loaning is not allowed.

With the popularity of Premier League football growing in the United States, American fans are learning to appreciate some of the finer concepts of the game and its management. Now that we’re past knowing that only the guy with the wrong shirt can use his hands, understanding how the transfer window builds a team lets a fan know what his team’s goals are and the kind of team they’ll be.

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