Friday, May 18

Canadian content requirements a bad idea

Vancouver Whitecaps captain Jay DeMerit fired off a tweet yesterday that piqued my interest: is the criticism leveled at his team for their lack of Canadians justified?

The Vancouver Whitecaps have just four Canadians on their 30-man roster. But three (Bryce Alderson, Caleb Clarke and Russel Teibert) have yet to see any playing time in regular season matches this year. The fourth, defensive stalwart Alain Rochat, is only nominally a Canadian, having moved to Switzerland when he was two — he plays his international soccer for Switzerland.

The Whitecaps' lack of Canadians has been the focus of some attention recently. They are currently in the finals of the Canadian championship against Toronto FC, who in contrast to the Whitecaps have nine Canadians on their roster. Five of them played in the first leg of the finals against Vancouver. Plus, the Canadian Soccer Association has a new president, Victor Montagliani, who has called for more stringent quotas on the number of Canadian players teams this side of the 49th parallel must carry.

Currently, Major League Soccer rules only require the league's three Canadian teams to have three Canadian players on their roster (although, as Vancouver has shown, there is no requirement to actually play them).  This begs the question: should the Canadian teams be required to employ more Canadian players?

From a fan's perspective, I think the answer is "no." Most fans want a team that can win, with players who are exciting to watch.  Whitecaps fan favourite Eric Hassli is beloved irrespective of his French citizenship, because of his rough-and-tumble style and his ability to score highlight-reel goals. Vancouver has experimented with local players in the past — notably midfielder Terry Dunfield, who was traded to Toronto last season, and Marcus Haber, who left the team before it joined Major League Soccer to ply his trade in Europe.  The local element was a nice touch, but there was no huge outcry when either player left the club — fans tend to embrace players for their work on the field, not for their origins.

For the sake of argument, let's assume I'm wrong and that soccer fans prefer to watch domestic players. Would quotas help? Probably not. That's because soccer teams have an incentive to please their fans. Soccer teams make money when their fans buy tickets and merchandise, so when fans are happy, the team's bottom line is healthy. If Vancouver fans really wanted local players, the team could be more profitable if they hired more Canadians. So unless the team's management is out of touch with fans, they should already be doing what's optimal for their fans without any quotas.

Player development is another perspective to approach the quota issue from. Would quotas make Canadians better soccer players?  Again, probably not.

Stiffer quotas should, at the margin, increase salaries for Canadian players. In the short run, there's a fixed quantity of Canadian professional soccer players, so by increasing the number of job opportunities through quotas, Canadian players would be able to demand higher wages by playing potential employers off each other. Put another way, a Canadian team choosing between three equally talented Brazilian, Italian or Canadian soccer players would be willing to pay more for the Canadian, since the Canadian will help them meet their quota, while the Brazilian and Italian won't.

Naturally, if wages for Canadian soccer players increase, young Canadian athletes have more incentive to pursue soccer as a career. But this wage effect would likely be small in the grand scheme of things. Soccer is a global game, with leagues all around the world serving as potential employers for Canadian soccer players. So any expansion of quotas for the three Canadian Major League Soccer teams is likely to have a negligible impact on wages globally for Canadian soccer players.

One could also argue that there would be more opportunities for Canadian soccer players to learn from skilled coaches and other elite players if quotas were stricter. This argument might hold true for the quotas in the Canadian Football League, since there are limited opportunities for Canadian players to ply their trade elsewhere. If a Canadian football player is not good enough to make the NFL, they might be able to find a job in the Arena Football League, but that's about it.

Soccer is different. It's a global game, so Canadian players have countless teams that could potentially employ them, where they would benefit from skilled coaching and playing with other elite players (case in point: the 22 players selected yesterday for Canada's national team training camp play soccer in 10 different non-Major League Soccer countries). With so many job opportunities, quotas should again have a negligible impact on player development in this regard.

Would more Canadians be inspired to get involved in soccer if their local pro team had more Canadian role models? Maybe. But probably not if the Canadian players end up sitting on the bench all the time, which is what's happening right now in Vancouver. And if fans are truly inspired by the product on the field, allowing teams to field the best lineups possible by eliminating quotas is the best way to get young Canadians hooked on soccer.