Which sport is the best business?

THE 2023 finals of America’s National Basketball Association (NBA) and Europe’s football Champions League were both history-making events, in rather different ways. On June 12th the basketball contest crowned a small-city team that had never before won a championship, the Denver Nuggets. They defeated an unlikely challenger in the Miami Heat, the last-seeded team among the eight playoff teams in its conference. Had Miami won, that would have been a first for such a lowly side. Meanwhile, the UEFA Champions League final, held on June 10th, featured a powerhouse from Britain, Manchester City, defeating a mainstay of European football, Italy’s Inter Milan.

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European and British football leagues generally let teams spend as much as they want on players, as long as they do not lose too much money. More successful sides tend to earn more money, and so have more cash to splurge on star players—which in turn translates into more success on the pitch, and so on. The week before its Champions League triumph, Man City snatched the English FA Cup, beating Manchester United, another deep-pocketed team. Man United and Man City have won 20 out of the past 31 English Premier League titles; the Champions League (or its predecessor, the European Cup) has been won by Real Madrid and AC Milan, Inter’s arch-rival, 21 out of 68 times.

Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, the sports world’s most lucrative competition, the National Football League (NFL, which involves the non-soccer variety) has a hard salary cap, leading to more parity among teams. The top two squads have won only 12 of 56 Super Bowls, the annual tournament’s final round. The penalty for breaking the NBA’s current $124m salary cap was bumped up in 2011 and again this year in a revenue-sharing deal negotiated between the players’ union and owners. “The new deal is basically trying to prevent superteams,” says Brian Windhorst of ESPN, a television network. And it seems to be working. The Economist’s analysis of NBA data shows that a broader set of teams have indeed made it to the playoffs in recent history. In the five years to 2023, 29 of the NBA’s 30 squads made the league’s knockout stage at least once (the Charlotte Hornets are the

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