Determining the state of football today is a difficult task. The opinions of those working the ports of Sunderland and the inhabitants at the wine bars of Chelsea are as polarised as the lifestyles they lead. English football has either sold its soul to foreign investors insistent on making immense profit at the expense of pricing out the working-class fan or has been taken onto the world stage showering little known towns and cities with global publicity and stature. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, as for every Leicester City success story there is a Portsmouth. For every young Rashford types starting for their boyhood clubs, there is a young Chelsea academy player on his 8th loan spell.
Football existed before the creation of the Premier League (England’s elite division) in 1992 but it’s difficult to imagine life without it. Since its inception, the English game has been revolutionised, largely due to lucrative television deals, as the Premier League is the most watched sports league in the world. These deals result in huge payments to top-flight clubs with all 20 included in the top 40 of Deloitte’s Football Money League – a ranking of the revenues for global football teams. Such revenues inevitably attract foreign investment due to the potential financial gains that can be made running the top clubs.
Proponents of the Premier League model point to the success of smaller footballing teams, across England, that have reached the top division and now benefit from the enormous increase in revenues they’ve inherited. Much is made, by the football purists, of Bournemouth’s ‘Great Escape’ from a 17-point penalty in League Two after financial issues in 2008 to a 9th place finish in the Premier League in just their second season of top-flight football. What isn’t conveniently mentioned as frequently is their billionaire Russian owner, Maxim Demin, a man so wealthy he bought a £5million mansion in the UK before demolishing it to build a £10million one instead. Or the fact that in the season they got promoted to the Premier League they were found to have infringed Financial Fair Play Rules and were subsequently fined. Not the same fairy tale story.
Yet despite the negative connotations a billionaire owner brings, the facts are clear to the Bournemouth faithful – a seaside town that spent all of its history jumping between the third and fourth tiers of football now competes in a sports league that has a potential audience of 4.7 billion. Foreign investment (and some good management) has taken a completely mediocre football team to the upper echelons of world football. This begs the question; why do so many long for a pre-1992 footballing landscape?
The problem ultimately lies with where the money goes or to be more accurate, where it doesn’t go. The Championship, England’s second-tier, has an average attendance of 20,000 each game and attracts more fans each season than every other European football league outside the Premier League and the Bundesliga, yet it only attracts a fraction of what teams in the Premier League receive. And why should it receive as much, scream the Chelsea wine bars – the standard of football is a noticeable decrease from the Premier League’s ‘top 6’ and there is much less global interest in the competition. Yet, it was this gulf in class that was claimed would be avoided with a more business-orientated model, a chance for more competitive leagues was never realised when bottom-placed Premier League teams earn £94million a season whilst the winners of the Championship rake in just £7.4million.
However, huge revenues have not just expanded the quality gap between the top-tier and the Championship, they’ve effectively created two sub-leagues within the Premier League itself – the top six vs. the rest. The current 2018-19 season has highlighted this drastically – the teams in the bottom half of the table are simply woeful. Three teams went unbeaten in the first twelve games for the first time in Premier League history whereas the story at the bottom was very different as, in the same time span, none of the bottom seven teams amassed more than nine points. The belief that the Premier League is superior over other top-flight European leagues for its competitiveness and ‘anyone-can-beat-anyone’ attitude is simply a myth. In recent years La Liga, frequently snubbed for its supposed lack of competition, has proven to be everything that the Premier League claims to be.
The dominance of the top six teams is set to continue into the future as a landmark TV licensing deal sets out that from the 2019-20 season the revenue received from overseas, which was once shared equally among all teams, will be split according to league positions with the top teams receiving a greater proportion. The problems of the Premier League will only be exacerbated with the smaller teams proving no match for the same six. It is no wonder then that there have been worrying whispers about a potential European Super League. Why should English champions Manchester City have to play Huddersfield twice a season when they could play the Qatari owned Paris Saint-Germain and benefit from the huge audiences it would pull in?
It seems clear that football as a whole is heading in a direction that is sure to further remove the sport from its working-class roots. With ticket prices increasing year-by-year, fans are directing their anger at the wealthy owners of their beloved clubs and perhaps they aren’t too far wrong. The sport that was born out of the factories, has found favour in the penthouses and had a makeover along the way. Fans of historical teams, such as Leeds United and Nottingham Forest, have felt that the inception of the Premier League has erased their history, confining it to a prehistoric time before nine-figure transfer fees and coordinated celebrations. In its 27-year run the Premier League has undoubtedly heralded a new era of world football and established an elite standard of football watched by the whole world – no sports league comes close. Yet, fans outside the top six still can’t help feeling hard-done by. They feel like they may have missed the boat; achieving their title and cup wins decades before 1992 when football was much simpler. The football fan in general has benefited enormously but the generational supporters of long-standing clubs in Sheffield and Sunderland can be forgiven for not being too enthusiastic about TV deals. English football owes a lot to its core fans – it would do well to remember that.