Over the weekend, Barcelona beat Levante 7-0 in a breathtaking display of attacking football. Of course, because this is Spain, a great team cannot beat a non-great team convincingly without inviting polemics on inequality, TV contracts, and Marx. Consequently the sterling quality of football was lost amidst cantankerous complaints about “Scotland with the sun” (remember all those UEFA best XIs filled with Rangers and Celtic players?) and “just relegate the other 18 teams in La Liga”. Even the awesome Michael Cox fell prey to this instinct, focusing not on the play but the gulf in class between the two clubs:
A couple of Barcelona’s goals have been great, but not sure a 6-0 HT should really be happening in any major league
— Michael Cox (@Zonal_Marking) August 18, 2013
So I got to investigating. Just how unequal is La Liga anyway? In order to get at this, I went for the simplest — maybe too simple — metric of inequality that I know of, which is the Gini coefficient. If you remember your Econ 101, economists use Gini coefficients to very roughly and crudely measure the level of inequality in certain societies. Is it a perfect measure that tells you everything you need to know about inequality? Of course not. But it’s not a terrible start.
I went back and collated the final points tables for each of the four major leagues for each of the last ten years. Equating points totals to money, I just found the Gini coefficient for each league for each year.
Here’s what I found: over the last ten years, La Liga is Europe’s most equal league. Let me say that again: La Liga is Europe’s most equal league (avg GC: 15.2). Slightly more unequal are Serie A (16.5) and the Bundesliga (16.2). The most unequal league is the Premier League (17.7). See for yourself (high Gini cofficient means more inequality).
This corroborates Jonathan Wilson’s finding from a couple of years ago that the EPL is more lopsided than other leagues.
As mentioned above, Gini coefficients are not the be-all and end-all of measuring inequality. It is just one metric. For one thing, this only speaks to the distribution of points totals, not the identity of points-winners. For instance, if in league X, Uefaolona win the league every year by 2 points, but in league Y, FC Bollywood, FC Hurtmund, and Berden Yemen each win every three years by twenty points, then the Gini coefficient will refer to the latter league as more unequal, even if football fans “understand” the former to be more unequal.
But the graph is revealing and I hope provides some perspective. There is no doubt that the talent drain from La Liga’s “other teams” is worrying. There is also no doubt that TV rights money should be distributed equitably. But we should be careful in drawing too strong an inference about the relationship between points totals, talent, and TV rights money. TV rights money hasn’t helped teams not named Manchester United in the EPL (what’s worse than a two horse race? A one horse race). It wouldn’t have helped Atleti (50 managers in 25 years) or Valencia (of the famous “can’t build one stadium, can’t sell the other”) run their affairs better. TV rights money would not convince every young Spaniard (not to mention non-Brazilian South Americans) that it is possible to aspire to be a star for someone other than Madrid or Barca (did City lose Isco to Madrid because of a lack of TV money? Or because Madrid held an allure City can only dream of?). TV rights money could not solve the Eurozone economic crisis, which has left Spain with a 25% unemployment rate and a wider economic malaise of which football clubs are a bit part. Most of all, all the TV rights money in the world could not account for Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, and Pep being at the same club at the same time, which encouraged Madrid to pursue an arms race (2009 arrivals: Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso, Kaka, Benzema; 2010 arrivals: Ozil, Khedira, di Maria) which left Spain’s “other 18″ in the dust. So yes, let’s distribute TV money equally, but let’s not be under any illusion as to what that step may do to close the gap between the top two teams and everybody else.
The fact is that top flight football was always oligarchic, and what cemented it in that state was the Bosman ruling. If you want to cry for Spain’s other 18 clubs, that’s where you should start — but then it would not be specific to Spain anymore, and would not allow EPL-fans to concern-troll La Liga’s inequality. Revealed preferences are, after all, revealing.