A League Of My Own
November 27, 2012 8:27 PM   Subscribe

Help me find professional baseball or soccer leagues for me to follow that don't suffer from the same issues that bother me about American sports.

After hearing this piece on NPR today about the death of the guy who brought the free agent system to baseball, I got this burning desire to find a better league out there.

I'm so sick of American sports. There must be some other place out there that does it better than we do. Where is it? Ideally, I'd watch baseball (can I see Cuban or Nicaraguan games online? Would I even want to do this)? Should I investigate Japanese baseball? If I can't find what I need, I'm willing to become a soccer fan.

Here are my issues:

*We have waaaay to many games during a season
*I feel like I'm watching the money instead of watching the game---the richest teams usually win.
*Everything is dominated by stats and "moneyball." It's all gotten a bit too scientific. I don't need to see the greatest athletes in the world. I want heart, soul, drama---entertainment!
*I'm not quite sure how this has been dealt with in other leagues---I can't think of the best way---it's always bothered me that teams don't really reflect the cities in which they play. There's very rarely an historical tie, and players come in from all over the globe, play for a team for a season (or less) then follow the money. I'm under the impression that some European leagues prevent this. I'm not sure how they do it, and it would be a bummer if it winds up contributing to nationalism/racism.
* The MLB is too bland. I'd like to see more politics in sports. I'd like to see games with great political significance. The significance doesn't need to be global. Regional will do.
*Ah! I remember hearing that some soccer teams in Spain are somehow funded by the fans themselves. Did I misshear this? How does this work? This seems like an interesting way to tie fans in with the game. I'd like to see this in my dream league.
*Even though the hooligans themselves seem like fascist leaning dbags, I like the element of danger and chaos associated with the sport. Pass me a heaping plateful of that, please.

Please tell me where I can find what I'm looking for. I'd like to be able to watch online, hopefully for free.

Spanish or English soccer? El Salvadorean regional tournaments? Something in Eastern Europe? Please suggest interesting (odd, idiosyncratic, intense) teams to follow.

Spanish or English speaking countries a plus because those are my two languages. Thanks!
posted by shushufindi to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
For a more local example similar to the Spanish soccer teams you've heard about, the Green Bay Packers are owned by the team's fans. That section of the Wikipedia article goes into detail how its ownership structure is wildly different from all other major North American sports franchises.
posted by zsazsa at 9:06 PM on November 27, 2012

The somewhat fan-funded third-division Spanish soccer team you probably heard about is Real Oviedo. I bought shares of the team. Their home games tend to get streamed on rtpa.es on Sunday mornings. No big money or flashy performances there. They're likeable. They might be a great entry point for you.

Then again, if you want to find that same kind of heart in the face of adversity in MLS, try the Portland Timbers.
posted by treblemaker at 9:18 PM on November 27, 2012

How's your Spanish? ESPN3 picks up Winter League and a smattering of other Caribbean games, but the feeds are in Spanish. Can't answer the rest of your questions about it, but it is available if you either speak Spanish or don't need a commentary.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:27 PM on November 27, 2012

I think you'll find it very hard to find top leagues of anything where money hasn't ruined the whole thing.

As for football, the closest equivalent to the free agency thing is probably the Bosman ruling. That, and not considering euro players to count towards the max-3-foreigners-on-the-field rule probably ruined the "nationalistic purity" of the sport, if you think there was ever such a thing. It's so bad nowadays that Inter (an italian team) won the 2010 Champions League final with a starting lineup that contained not a single italian player.
The consequence is that only a few leagues got very rich and hogged all the talent, all the rest of the traditionally strong leagues became exporters of talent.

The English Premier League is widely considered to be the best and most competitive. In reality, only a few teams have won the league in the past 20 years, and the only realistic way to break into the top nowadays is getting bought by an oil magnate and assembling a bunch of mercenaries (cf. Chelsea, Manchester City). Most teams are getting bought by people that want to run the teams like a corporation. A particularly egregious example this year is Cardiff City, where the new asian owners decided to change the historical colors and badge from blue to red, because the asian connotations of the red color (and to boost sales there).

The spanish league is my favorite, but it suffers even greatly. The TV rights are extremely biased towards Real Madrid and Barcelona, and due to that and a bunch of other reasons, they have all the money. In the last 20 years, 4 leagues titles have not gone to either Barcelona or Madrid. On the other hand, if you like a clash of philosophies and politics it doesn't get better than this. Real Madrid was the team favored by Franco and it's strongly linked to the monarchy and Spain. Barcelona is a catalonian team, very much opposed to both Franco and Spain, in a way. Also, since the late 90s, Real Madrid has a policy of "Galácticos", the best players money can buy. Barcelona adheres to the Cruijff philosophy of homegrown total football and beauty over success-at-any-cost. The other day they played with 11 guys formed in their academy, something almost unheard of in this day and age, and Barcelona is arguably the best and most beautiful team in the world. But then again, they buy a lot of players when they're very young. There's a lot of talent in the rest of the league, but the teams are often poorly managed financially, and the difference with the top two is so great it makes the league a bit boring.

I never really followed the other big leagues so much. The german Bundesliga is probably as close as it gets for what you ask, a lot of teams are fan-owned, most players are german, lots of good rivalries, etc. Italian Serie A has its moments as well, but it has declined a lot from the greateness that were the 90s. The dutch league is mostly a player-exporter league nowadays, i believe.

The brazilian and argentinian leagues were good leagues once upon a time. Argentinian players are leaving for Europe even before they're 18, so the league doesn't even have that many promising younglings, it's just full of rejects and old guys that come back to finish their careers, so it's pretty sad. The brazilian league i hear is a bit better since they're explicitely trying to avoid this problem, mostly by convincing youngsters to stay for a few more years, but yeah.

Basically, a few teams in a few leagues hog all the talent, and for good players all the rest of the teams are stepping stones until they reach those. Sad, really.

But anyway, some random trivia and rivalries you might be interested in:
- El Clásico
- El Superclásico
- Borussia Dortmund is fan-owned, has a lot of homegrown players, and has been playing very attractive football recently.
- Swansea City is a small(ish) welsh team playing in the Premier League that plays very attractive football.
- Levante qualified to this year's Europa League with an extremely cheap team with a bunch of old players, playing very physical football, it's really remarkable.
- Athletic Bilbao has a policy where they only allow players born in the Basque country, it's remarkable that they have been so succesful with such a strict policy.

In any case, this is a mostly abridged and bitter view, you can go much more nuanced. And, like everything, if you get really into it you can get all sorts of good detail out of it. But if you want to steer clear of the influence of money then you should just probably go to any lower league.

Can you spot the bias?
posted by palbo at 9:28 PM on November 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

The somewhat fan-funded third-division Spanish soccer team you probably heard about is Real Oviedo. I bought shares of the team. Their home games tend to get streamed on rtpa.es on Sunday mornings. No big money or flashy performances there. They're likeable. They might be a great entry point for you.

And the richest man in the world bought the majority of shares (i think he was also considering buying Getafe and going the way of Málaga's oil money). So it goes.
posted by palbo at 9:32 PM on November 27, 2012

St Pauli is a 2nd division team in Germany that is the team of Hamburg's docklands and red-light district. Their crowd flies pirate flags, the team runs anti-racism and anti-homophobia campaigns and they have an overall anti-commercialism outlook.

Like the idea behind the fan-owned Green Bay Packers but not interested in the corporate monolith that is the NFL? May I present to you the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The smallest metro fanbase of any CFL team but they account for 67% of the CFL's merchandise sales.
posted by thecjm at 9:36 PM on November 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

A Guardian video on FC St Pauli - when everyone else was getting skinhead hooligans in the 80s, St Pauli's punk fans got political and fought back.
posted by thecjm at 9:47 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

The MLB is too bland. I'd like to see more politics in sports. I'd like to see games with great political significance. The significance doesn't need to be global. Regional will do.

Cricket? It doesn't get much more geopolitical than India vs. Pakistan.
posted by Jahaza at 9:59 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Cricket reminds me that you might also want to look into rugby (both rugby league and rugby union). Or even australian football. I'm not super knowledgeable on those, but they're fun sports to watch, popular mostly on british commonwealth countries, or countries with a lot of british influence.
posted by palbo at 10:04 PM on November 27, 2012

League monetary parity to keep the league competitive, only a handful of games, players who live in town and hire local kids to mow their lawns, and a fan-owned team? Sounds like you're a Green Bay Packers fan, if only you'd consider football. College football might also do it for you, and adds considerable local recruiting and team loyalty. The players don't get paid at all, and, being young and still developing, they're less consistent so games are a little more likely to have surprising outcomes.

Pro soccer (even at developmental levels) is LOUSY with money and mercenary players and is probably your WORST choice if you're looking for sports where you can't just buy your way to wins. (Here's a look at English football revenues, with some Spanish on the side.) But give it a google, money ruining soccer is a favorite topic in the international press and unlike MLB and the NFL with their national monopolies in a large market that let them regulate the game to an extent, soccer's very international popularity and many markets makes it difficult for leagues to regulate win-buying moguls and prevent very lopsided leagues.

I can't think of a pro league in any sport that more tightly regulates the things you're complaining about than the NFL.

Have you tried MLS? Or college soccer? Or women's soccer? Women's college soccer in the U.S. is REALLY GOOD. And women's sports in general have 1/100th the amount of money sloshing about.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:18 PM on November 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

This is a bit of a derail from your question, but is your issue that what Marvin Miller did is a bad thing?

Before free agency, baseball was essentially a plantation system. Players were the exclusive property of the team they played for, and had no say over what they were paid. There's lots about that time that makes me nostalgic, but the romance was really a screen for owners to make money hand over fist.

I'm fascinated by the Brooklyn Dodgers, as the community was so closely identified with the team (plus they led the charge in desegregating baseball), but in the end, they left because the owner wanted they city to pay for a new stadium. Sound familiar?

I guess what I'm saying is if you're looking for a way to give the sports you watch more meaning by tying it to cultural identity and community passion, you might be disappointed wherever you go. In the end, someone is probably making bank by exploiting that passion.
posted by dry white toast at 10:37 PM on November 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

I think that the MLS will be your best bet. And with that....I recommend my beloved Seattle Sounders FC.

The team has a strong tie to Seattle, and has been in the Seattle are since 1974.
We're the Sounders, named after Puget Sound.
We also have Democracy in Sports, where every 4 years, Season Ticket Holders vote to either retain or oust our General Manager, Adrian Haneuer.
Every year, we have wild derby matches with our two local rivals, the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Portland Timbers.
Plus - last but certainly not least, we have the Emerald City Supporters, one of the largest and best organized Supporter Groups in the MLS.

(I'm a STH and also a member of the ECS, so if you have any questions, let me know!)
posted by spinifex23 at 10:42 PM on November 27, 2012

How about Div III college sports? Money has totally corrupted the NCAA at the Div I level, but at Div III you are talking about real student athletes, most of whom will probably be from the same geographic region that the school is located in. Tickets will also be dirt cheap compared to Div I or pro sports.

And although it only comes once per year, it's hard to go wrong watching the Little League World Series.
posted by COD at 5:20 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

National Pro Fastpitch - professional women's softball has pretty much everything you want, except perhaps for political intrigue.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:41 AM on November 28, 2012

Seconding women's sports. There's not a lot of geopolitics involved, but it's definitely not been corrupted by money. I've heard great things about the local women's hockey leagues here in Canada, but I'm not sure how many US options there are for that.

(No idea if it matches your criteria, but Aussie rules football was suggested above, and it's the most entertaining sport I've ever watched.)
posted by vasi at 12:35 PM on November 28, 2012

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