As we soccer fans prepare for the ecstasy and the agony of the final games of the English Premier League season this Sunday, it is important to take a step back and evaluate how the headlines of just this past week reveal what the most popular sports league on the planet has turned into.
Over the past few months—years, even—a popular criticism among columnists and bloggers is how the faults of the NCAA have affected collegiate sports. Some see the NCAA itself as a destructive force against the sanctity of amateur sports—the last pure form of sports in the context of a sports world in which the number of digits in the NFL’s TV contract matters more than anything else, even the number of years the league’s veterans live.
In a sense, the whole system of the NCAA is a problematic web of faults. However, sports fans can find solace in the on-field product of collegiate sports. What we see on the field and in the AP rankings have, thankfully, changed little despite all the issues behind closed doors.
The difference with the English Premier League is that the growing influence of money and the changes overtime have affected the league at all levels—on the field, in the front office, and in the league table. I am not trying to assert that there is an inherent “problem” with “the system” like there is with the NCAA; the EPL, as a pillar of sports at its most global level, has evolved as an effect of the globalization of not only economics, but the game of soccer.
Now, we will take a look at how recent news and media reports exemplify the evolution of the world’s game.
The Money Table
A league’s standings (or “table” as they call it in England) in a sense define the league. A fan who knows nothing about the sport first looks at the table to gather information. A diehard anxiously checks the table seven times everyday to make sure nothing has changed. No matter what end of the spectrum a person is on, the league table can reveal almost everything we need to know about a league.
On the surface level, we see win-loss-draw totals, total points, goal differential, etc.—all vital statistics that determine who is deemed successful. Yet, in today’s Premier League, the table reveals far beyond soccer statistics.
Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a new-to-the-game soccer fan, as many of us Americans have found ourselves in recent years. You click on the league table, and the first thing that catches your eye is the teams at the top of the table who have a shot at competing in the UEFA Champions League next season:
1) Manchester United—88 pts
2) Manchester City—78 pts
3) Chelsea—72 pts
4) Arsenal—70 pts
5) Tottenham Hotspur—69 pts
Now, a look at the total wage bill rankings of EPL clubs, according to The Guardian:
1) ManchesterCity—202 million pounds
2) Chelsea—173 million pounds
3) Manchester United—163 million pounds
4) Arsenal—143 million pounds
5) Liverpool—119 million pounds
6) Tottenham Hotspur—90 million pounds
The correlations are obvious: the top-paying teams are at the top of the table. As foreign billionaires have taken over many of the league’s top clubs, the formula for success has more or less been to pump money into transfers and wages, and success will follow. Manchester City and Chelsea—one and two, respectively, on the second “table”—have hardly any history of success as clubs before they were each purchased by wealthy foreigners in the last decade. Since then, both clubs have won their first ever EPL titles, and Chelsea even claimed the title of champions of Europe last year—despite placing fifth in the EPL.
Evidently, teams like Tottenham Hotspur must spend far more than 90 million pounds to have any shot at the title. They qualified for their first ever Champions League two seasons ago and will likely be left out for the second consecutive year this time around, quite frankly because they lack the star power that the teams above them on the wage bill table have.
While it may seem obvious that money correlates to success, the disparity in both success and spending in the EPL is far greater than it is anywhere else in the world. At the time of writing, the Los Angeles Angels, fresh off more nine-digit signings than I can count, sit in last place in the AL West. In a league where there is no salary cap or tax of any form, how can anyone compete with clubs with no spending limit—the clubs at the top of the table?
So the formula for winning the EPL title is not just spending, but spending big. No team outside of the top three of the wage bill rankings has won the title in the past decade. In no other league on the planet is that the case.
The only team that has even sniffed a shot at a title outside of the top three is… Arsenal, the fourth team on the wage bill table. Still, Arsenal fans, like myself, feel so far removed from that echelon of “the big three”—and no, not the historic “big three” of Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool; it has now shifted to the top three spending clubs. The ambitious Arsene Wegner considers it a success to place in the top four and compete in Europe—because that’s all we can wish for now. Quite simply, a club cannot compete for the title if its pockets have limits.
Arsenal in just the past few years has shifted from a top-of-the-food-chain club to the highest form of a scout team for the big spending clubs. In just the past two seasons, Arsenal has seen Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy leave for Manchester City, former captain Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song for Barcelona, and former captain and golden boot winner Robin van Persie move to Manchester United. By now, every time Jack Wilshere shows off his incredible brilliance, before we even celebrate, we find ourselves looking over our shoulders at what clubs are standing in line to buy him.
As the English Premier League has shifted to a global league with players from all over the world, the owners increasingly are coming from foreign countries. Manchester City is was recently bought by an oil giant from Abu Dabhi; Chelsea by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich; and Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool by American sports tycoons. Yes, all of the top five teams on the wage bill table have been purchased by foreigners in the past decade.
Making it even easier to pay the bills is the monstrous advertising rights—on jerseys, field names, and even the name of the league (officially the Barclays Premier League). Just about every time a top club signs a new advertising deal, it breaks world records.
This is an effect of hugely growing television markets all over the world. Just yesterday, ESPN announced that it will be televising a daily soccer show—the first in its history. Fox has spent hundreds of millions on rights to EPL games being televised in the United States. Asian and Latin American television markets continue to grow at record rates.
The reaction by the Football Association, the governing body of English soccer, to the changing economics of the sports should be to impose a luxury tax. It does not need to be anything complicated like the NBA or anything too harsh; just a simple tax that owners must pay to other EPL teams if their wage bills exceed a set amount. This would give teams at the bottom of the table a chance to compete—not spend with the top teams, but at least enough to not have to resort to playing eleven defenders whenever they play the top teams. Finally, a luxury tax would further increase the incentive for teams in danger of relegation to remain in the Premier League.
Overall, a luxury tax would allow for a better product on the field, making many more games worth watching to the public. For now, the elusive Manchester derby remains one of the few games with any level of top competition.
New Media and the Absence of Loyalty
In quite possibly the craziest sports media week in the history of Manchester, Wayne Rooney’s transfer request is probably the oddest story of them all. Coming on the heels of another title for Manchester United and the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, it was reported last week that Rooney has asked yet again to be sold.
Right away, soccer writers and fans trashed Rooney for taking the spotlight away from Sir Alex the week of his final match at Old Trafford. Rooney felt the need to defend himself on Twitter. Even as recently as a couple years ago, we would never see an athlete take to his personal Twitter account to justify his actions—but that’s just how the media world has evolved, and how soccer has evolved with it.
Rooney’s argument and justification for his rumored transfer request is that Manchester United has not been loyal to him. At the beginning of the season, Sir Alex Ferguson spent millions on reigning golden boot winner and likely best player in the EPL, Robin van Persie. Van Persie met his exceptionally high expectations this year, causing United’s former striker, Rooney, to either play out of position and come in as a substitute. Needless to say, Rooney, coming off a spectacular 2011-2012 campaign, felt disrespected by the club.
Now, it is rumored that Rooney has asked for a transfer, just as he had done a couple years ago. The transfer request has for the most part left soccer fans on two ends of the spectrum: either Manchester United is showing a lack of loyalty to the man who has been the face of the club for a half decade, or Wayne Rooney is disrespecting the club that has offered him such a wonderful opportunity.
No matter which way on the spectrum you fall, it is remarkable that this absence of loyalty exists in English soccer. And no, this is not an isolated incident. It is an effect of “the money table” that we discussed earlier. In order to compete, Manchester United unloaded to get Robin van Persie, by far the greatest player on the transfer market, while leaving Wayne Rooney behind. The new necessity for teams to spend money in order to compete for a title is the source of this abandonment of loyalty.
The Impossible Measuring Stick and the Myth of Job Security
The 2012-2013 EPL season will most be remembered as Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season at the helm of arguably the world’s most popular and successful club, Manchester United. In 26 years at Manchester United, Sir Alex won 13 EPL titles and 38 total trophies. We Arsenal fans have been waiting for a trophy for nine years, yet United under Ferguson has averaged more than one per season—not to mention all the clubs who have not sniffed a trophy since Sir Alex was born.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s formula for success was, well, that he didn’t have a formula. He was (it feels weird talking about him in the past tense after all these years) famous for changing his formation depending on the match-day squad. He has had superstars stay for a few years, like Cristiano Ronaldo, and he has also coached guys like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes for nearly twenty seasons.
His success as a manager is unprecedented in sports history. Today, it is almost remarkable to say that he won the EPL with just the third highest wage bill—and the race for the title was not even close.
I am not trying to spend my time praising Sir Alex Ferguson endlessly. His success cannot be overstated, although it almost seemingly has been because of all the articles written about him in the past week. I mention Ferguson because of how he himself has changed the landscape of the English Premier League—and not in the way that you would expect.
Across the city of Manchester sits, Manchester City, the “little brother” club of the city. In the past few years, Sheikh Mansour purchased the club and then spent literally billions of dollars on building a successful team. In 2013, Manchester City won its first ever Premier League title in literally the final seconds of the season. Less than a year later, we hear the news that Roberto Mancini, Manchester City’s manager, has been fired. Imagine new Northwestern head basketball coach Chris Collins leading Northwestern to a national title, then getting fired next season even during a successful campaign.
Just what did Mancini do wrong? After a century of mediocrity, he brought the club its first championship. This year, he placed second place. There are a hundred clubs in England who could never dream of getting second place in the EPL.
The truth is, a key reason Mancini lost his job is Sir Alex Ferguson. He has become the measuring stick for all top clubs in the EPL, particularly in Manchester. After finally shedding the “little brother” title last season, Mansour and City think they should be winning every year—and with that payroll, they probably should be. But when Mancini’s accomplishments are measured in comparison to the greatest manager of all time, it is almost impossible for Mancini to succeed.
On the flip side of Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, David Moyes will be at the head of Old Trafford next season. David Moyes leaves Everton after eleven seasons with the club and attaining middling success—all that a club with the 10th highest wage bill can reasonably expect. But is it right for Moyes to leave his club like that? Everton is a historic club and he was much beloved, but in truth, they were not competing for titles or even Champions League spots. Looking at how quickly Manchester City turned on Mancini, it is entirely possible Moyes would be fired soon enough, even after another overachieving campaign.
David Moyes’ leaving Everton for Manchester United nicely epitomizes the changes of the English Premier League since the turn of the century: the loyalty is gone, a job is never safe, and titles flow with the money.