The big picture
Premier League needs more than just its top teams to be a global hit.
Anyone involved in english football these past 20 years or so knows two things. one is that you cannot stand in the way of progress, the other is that progress is actually spelled G-R-e-e-D. So if the big clubs want more of the overseas television money that has climbed from nothing to colossal proportions on the back of their fame and success over the past couple of decades, one imagines that eventually they will find a way to get it, even if it is difficult at the moment to envisage 14 Premier League clubs voting for a change that would disadvantage most of them.
Liverpool’s managing director, Ian Ayre, makes a valid point when he suggests that the huge growth in television subscriptions in Asia and the Middle east has not been fuelled by people wanting to watch Bolton or Fulham every week, but by support for teams such as Manchester United or his own. Fair enough, though there is another way of looking at those figures. If the Premier League is comfortably the most watched league in the world, with an estimated 70% of the global TV market for football, then part of that success must be due to its success as a league.
Clubs such as Chelsea, Liverpool and United may be driving the global interest, but since they cannot play each other every week people must be tuning in no matter who happens to be providing the opposition.
In other words, clubs such as Wigan and QPR, and even Blackpool or Hull City in recent seasons, still have a part to play. What appears to be unique about english football is that while the result in a game between United and Wigan or Chelsea v Fulham may not be all that hard to predict, the game itself may not be all that predictable and the entertainment factor can still be quite high. That’s not to mention games in recent seasons between Blackpool and Liverpool, say, or Hull and Arsenal, where the results were not predictable at all.
This weekend brings the north-west derby between Liverpool and Manchester United, always one of the most eagerly awaited fixtures in the Premier League calendar if rarely in recent years as high-powered and relevant an event as the increasingly gripping showdowns between Barcelona and Real Madrid. But because of the way television money is distributed in Spain – the model that Ayre and Liverpool would like the Premier League to copy – interest falls away sharply once the leading lights are pitted against those who are in La Liga merely to make up the numbers.
This is not intended as an attack on the quality or depth of the Spanish league, but it is possible to surmise merely from the television viewing figures that even Barcelona are not mustwatch material if they are only playing Getafe or Levante. Whereas the more equitable distribution of funds between english clubs means that most have not only decent players but footballing personalities who are recognised around the world – think of Tim Cahill, Joey Barton, Shay Given, Peter Crouch, Danny Murphy and many more – and an english Premier League game will generally be well-contested and exciting until the end.
There are exceptions, of course, and Blackburn’s collapse at old Trafford last season comes readily to mind, but it is quite easy to show the competitive strength of the Premier League in statistics. Manchester United won the title last year despite winning only five games (of 19) away from home. That may have caused Sir Alex Ferguson some discomfort, yet that there were 14 opponents who either held or beat the champions on their own ground speaks volumes for the close-knit nature of the english league.
For purposes of comparison, Barcelona won 14 away league games last season. Real Madrid, runners-up in La Liga, won 13. Milan won Serie A by winning 11 times on the road, as did Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga. In Portugal, André VillasBoas won the title with Porto after securing 13 away wins, quite an amazing stat given that Portuguese teams play only 15 away fixtures, though not one that necessarily has viewers in east Asia setting their alarms for appointment television.
This is what the Premier League has without realising it, and what some of its members are now discussing throwing away. one might have thought that the teams at the top of the Premier League pile already have more than enough money and have no real need of further compromising their domestic competition by claiming more, though it needs to be remembered that Liverpool are not quite in the same financial clover as their immediate rivals. While not as skint as everton – who is? – they have not enlarged their stadium like Arsenal and Manchester United, and have not the private backing that Chelsea and Manchester City can rely on.
It is easy to understand why they would like to cash in on their name and their fame, because they were unlucky enough to do all their conquering of europe in the 1970s and 80s, when name and fame was mostly all success brought. They have been somewhat unfairly accused of neglecting to build their brand during the good years, in the way that Manchester United did so impressively in the 1990s and Arsenal and Chelsea have been doing since, but Liverpool never had the moneymaking machinery and guaranteed global exposure of the Premier League behind them when they were beating off the likes of Ipswich, Watford and Southampton to win their host of titles. (And United, Arsenal and everton, of course, I don’t mean to belittle Liverpool’s achievements, but few things illustrate how times have changed better than Watford finishing runners-up.)
As a matter of record, in the 16 seasons since Blackburn’s one-off title in 1995, not only has the title been shared between a mere three different teams – United, Chelsea and Arsenal – but only two more teams have managed to finish second – Liverpool and newcastle. Manchester City’s third place last season represented the first new face in the top three since Leeds surprised Liverpool in 2000. So it is not quite true to say changes to the distribution of foreign TV revenues would concentrate power in the hands of just a few clubs and create an unalterable elite at the top of the league. That much has already happened. yet, despite everything, what goes on in the 15 positions below the top five is still pretty entertaining, impressively competitive and greatly enjoyed by the majority of fans, even though most are resigned to the fact that it is almost impossible to win anything of note any more. That is quite a delicate balancing act, and for all the many things that are wrong with the greed business, the Premier League is still rated around the world and massively popular throughout all the levels of football in this country.
The main problem with the Liverpool proposal is that it implies that 14 or 15 clubs in the league are relatively unimportant. They are not. It is perhaps just as well that 14 or 15 clubs will have to agree before anything can change. – Guardian news & Media 2011