The power of local: using homegrown players in North American sports
Approximately three million people inhabit Euskal Herria, a region which straddles Northern Spain and Southwest France. It is defined by a unique language and a unique culture, which have developed over centuries. People from there are Basque, not Spanish or French, and that sense of identity has permeated deep into the cultural identity of the region, including their football.
Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad (from San Sebastian) are the two biggest clubs in the region. However, what sets Athletic apart is its philosophy of signing only players from Euskal Herria. Real also followed this philosophy between 1962 and 1989, but after losing a number of important players from their cantera (youth academy) to other clubs, they gave it up and Welsh manager John Toshack was given the go ahead to sign John Aldridge from Liverpool. As a result, Athletic is now left as the lone crusader, not only in Euskal Herria but also on a global level. No other sports team takes all its players exclusively from the local area, even if Chivas Guadalajara in Mexico do deserve a mention - their team has been made up exclusively of Mexicans since 1908.
Naturally, Athletic’s approach has been somewhat controversial. Detractors claim it is anything from racist to discriminatory, and against the feeling of inclusivity and openness the modern game is supposed to promote. In the 21st century, many argue it also comes at the cost of silverware. Athletic do have one of the most storied histories in Spanish football: eight league titles, 23 Spanish Cups and they are the only team along with Real Madrid and FC Barcelona to never have been relegated from the first division. But with the influx of foreign players and money into the Spanish game, trophies have come few and far between, the last of which was the Spanish Super Cup in 2015.
However, for the vast majority of Athletic players, it is more than just about the trophy cabinet, it is about belonging, and to use a cliche, playing for the shirt. It is an unparalleled culture within the world of sport. Inaki Williams, Athletic’s star striker who has been coveted by many of the top European clubs, signed a new nine year contract in August 2019. He could easily go and win the league every year at Barcelona or Real, but it just wouldn’t be the same.
That’s not to say that Athletic haven’t seen success in recent years. In fact that they have had anything like the level of success they have is nothing short of unbelievable. Fielding players from a pool of three million people, they have qualified for European competition in four of the last six seasons, including the Champions League in 2013-2014. All of which goes to show that when done correctly, Athletic’s way can not only work, but also create a familial bond between players, personnel and fans that exists at no other sports team in the world.
Alongside my love of Athletic, I also follow American sports closely, and nothing could be more different. It is a world where players are traded and cut every five minutes, and where every year a franchise seems to move city, leaving entire fanbases feeling betrayed and sold out. As a result, a worryingly large number of sports fans seem to not support their local team at all, bandwagoning onto whoever is making a playoff run or wherever LeBron chooses to go next. There is not the same strong connection to the teams you grew up near, and as such loyalty goes out the window. As a sports fan who values the latter, as well as culture and tradition, many sports fans on the other side of the pond make me sick.
So, of late, I have asked myself: would it even be feasible to envisage a philosophy like Athletic’s being implemented at a North American sports franchise, and where would it work best?
In my first draft of this article, I had set out a list of five criteria that teams would have to meet, including how long the franchise had been in the same city and the state’s ability to sustain a homegrown squad. However the answer is much more simple, and doesn’t need any drawn out process to get to. In reality, there are only two North American franchises that have the ability to turn themselves into an Athletic 2.0: the Montreal Canadiens and the Miami Marlins.
The Canadiens are one of the most historic hockey franchises, similar to Athletic’s status is Spanish football. 24 Stanley Cup wins, including total dominance from the 1950s through to the 1970s. They are the oldest NHL franchise, and the oldest franchise in all North American sports outside of the Arizona Cardinals and baseball. However the real parallels with Athletic are visible when we look at the cultural context.
Montreal, and Quebec, can in many ways be compared to the Bilbao, and the Basque Country. A different language, a different cultural history, both are “countries within countries”. 50% of the population speak French at home, even more than Basque in the Basque Country, and the cities’ geographical situations are not totally dissimilar.
However more importantly the amount of hockey talent that comes out of Quebec is almost second to none. Athletic has Pichichi, Telmo Zarra and Iribar, Montreal has the Richard brothers, Jacques Plante and Guy Lafleur. It is a conveyor belt of talent that continues to the present day, will continue long into the future. As of 2020, there are 54 players born in Quebec who play in the NHL, and the consensus number one pick in this year’s draft is Alexis Lafreniere, from Saint-Eustache, Quebec.
While the Canadiens clearly stand out as being Athletic’s closest potential equivalent in North American sports, if you head down to South Beach, there is also some interesting potential.
Let’s get the negatives out of the way: as well as being the least valuable franchise in the MLB, they are also arguably the least supported, and they have really struggled to fill up their ballpark in recent years. They don’t have much of a history as an expansion franchise from 1993, even if they have won the World Series twice, in 1997 and 2003. Since then, success has been hard to come by - they hold the second longest postseason drought in the MLB.
However, for these purposes, being a baseball team in Miami, the Hispanic capital of the US, is all you need. 70% of people who live in Miami speak Spanish, per the 2008 US census, while English only speakers make up only around 30% of the county’s residents. Miami really is the second home of Dominicans, Cubans and anyone of Hispanic heritage, which makes it the ideal home for an all-Hispanic baseball team.
There were 347 players from Spanish speaking countries playing in the MLB in 2019, not to mention all the Americans of Hispanic origin who would also be eligible. While Athletic might struggle to win the league with only Basque players, there would be absolutely nothing to stop the Hispanic Miami Marlins from absolutely storming the MLB with the talent that could feature in their squad.
While gathering players from a number of different countries would not exactly be “homegrown”, the cultural similarities and connections would absolutely be there, not to mention the common language. I would actually be extremely confident that such a setup would draw much bigger crowds than the “normal” Miami Marlins team at the moment.
I have always struggled to pick and stick with a North American sports franchise, but writing this article has made me realise that it is possible to find some potentially comparable teams to Athletic across the pond, which I am looking forward to following.
With all 0f that said, it is worth ending with a reality check. The North American system is so different at every single level, from ownership to matchday traditions, that it will impossible to ever have an Athletic 2.0 take shape. But here’s to hoping that at least one franchise owner, someday, somewhere, will see the light and be inspired by the blueprint that Athletic has created.