Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors handles the ball against Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Photograph by Noah Graham—NBAE/Getty Images
By Ian Mount
April 30, 2016

When Golden State Warriors über-star Stephen Curry was filming the recently released mentoring public service announcement with Barack Obama, he could have done his team a huge favor by asking Obama—with whom he clearly has a good vibe—to overturn America’s constitutional democracy and take the role of a dictator.

Seriously.

While, even after Curry’s injury, the Warriors seem poised to continue their rein as NBA champions, new research from a group of Spanish academics shows that dominant sports teams are even more dominant under non-democratic political conditions rather than in democracy. Basically, it’s good to be (liked by) the king.

In “Democracy and Football,” a recently published article in Social Science Quarterly, three professors at universities in Barcelona and Vigo examine the often-discussed theory that non-democratic regimes tend to favor one team, creating less “parity” in those nations’ sports leagues. It turns out that this barstool theory is accurate: Crunching data from European soccer leagues between 1950 and 2011, the authors found that the percentage of titles won by the winningest club in the country was substantially lower in democracies than under non-democratic regimes.

The data is striking.

In democracies, the winningest team won the league championship an average of 40.8% of the time, while under non-democratic regimes the top team were champions 48.4% of the time. But that’s only the average. The numbers are much more extreme for countries that were exclusively democratic or non-democratic during the years studied. In Denmark, France, and Ireland, the dominant teams won less than 20% of the league titles, while in Russia and Belarus, the figure was over 75%.

Even more striking is what happens after a non-democratic country moves to democracy, as with the fall of the Iron Curtain at the end of the Cold War.

“With the transition, the dominant team fades until it loses altogether,” says study co-author Ignacio Lago, a professor of political science at Barcelona’s Universitat Pompeu Fabra. “No team that was dominant in dictatorship continued to be dominant in democracy.”

Perhaps the most notable example of this phenomenon, Lago says, is the Czechoslovakian team Dukla Prague, which won 11 league titles before the country made the transition to democracy in 1989. It won no titles after the transition, and was relegated to the third-tier Bohemian Football League after the 1993/4 season.

That one team dominates under a dictatorship is rarely a shock. As noted by Lago and his co-authors—Carlos and Santiago Lago-Peñas, two professors at the Universidad de Vigo and, incidentally, Ignacio Lago’s brothers—Eastern European communist countries all had a powerful and favored team founded by the army, which had the pick of the country’s best players.

But sometimes the reasons behind a single team’s dominance are less clear. In the Lago brothers’ native Spain, the intervention (or lack thereof) of Generalísimo Francisco Franco on behalf of the Real Madrid soccer team is a hotly debated topic to this day. After Jordi Cardoner, a vice president of Real Madrid’s fiercest rival, Barcelona, told an Argentine newspaper that there was a favored team under Franco, “and it was Real Madrid,” a columnist in the pro-Real Madrid sports paper Marca wrote a story with a headline that roughly translates to “Franco Was a Barça Fan.” In that article, the writer noted that between 1939 and 1954—“the toughest years of the dictatorship”—Barcelona won five domestic lead titles while Real Madrid won zero. (Beginning with the 1953/4 season, Real Madrid began to dominate after the disputed signing of Argentine superstar Alfredo Di Stéfano, who’d previously signed with Barcelona.)

For his part, Lago notes that after the end of the Franco dictatorship, Real Madrid’s dominance faded. It’s recovered since, however, to win a wardrobe full of Spanish and international cups.

Lago argues that the findings illustrate that non-democratic regimes deform the natural functioning of competitive markets, allowing one product—a soccer team, in this case—to reap the benefits of preferential treatment. With the onset of democracy, Lago says, capitalist rules are progressively adopted and a sports league starts to operate as a free market, which undermines the monopoly power of a dominant team.

“Sports is a market like any other in the capitalist world,” says Lago. “It’s a business like manufacturing cars or selling potatoes.”

Unsurprisingly, protective, non-competitive markets help create a dominant local product, but that product is rarely competitive overseas. In a separate article in Social Science Quarterly, Luis Jiménez, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, finds that soccer teams from countries with democratic regimes had higher winning percentages in the World Cup, in part because their leagues had attributes that resembled open markets: more innovation and freer competition.

These lessons can be taken outside sports and economics and applied to the world of leadership selection. Family-owned firms are perhaps the closest thing to dictatorships in the business world. And as Boston Consulting Group senior adviser and fellow George Stalk, Jr. noted in 2012 in the Harvard Business Review, the No. 1 trap for family businesses is the “There’s Always a Place For You Here” mentality. That line of thinking holds that a child will always have an executive role—like a dictator’s favorite team, he’ll always win—even if he’s not competitive in the outside world. Stalk’s advice? Make sure the next generation gets training and experience outside the family firm.

This particular bit of advice may apply to sports as well. During the 2014 World Cup, the team from relatively poor Argentina made it to the finals in part because 21 of its 23 athletes played overseas. Meanwhile, wealthy England, whose players all worked in their domestic league, crashed out in the first round.

So. what does this mean for Curry and the Golden State Warriors? Well, assuming that he recovers from his sprained MCL, Curry should probably push for Obama to declare his love for Golden State and become King. While that may cut the Warriors’ chances for world basketball domination, it could pave the way for a long reign as kings of the NBA.

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