Why this ‘wide-open title race’ is just a one-season wonder

Barely three months into this season and Leicester’s impressive start had people welcoming the dawn of a new era: the era of a competitive Premier League. By Christmas time, the papers were full of hosannas for English football having become not just the richest league in the world, but also ‘the most open’. I wrote a piece for The Fan on why this is misleading and unhelpful nonsense. [Post Leicester’s win (which, not uniquely, I didn’t see coming), I’ve added some additional lessons learned at the end.]

Leicester’s and Palace’s achievements this season have had people suggesting that the Premier League has actually become what it has often touted itself as: the most competitive league in the world. Not only is this wrong, says author Martin Calladine, but, by indulging this fantasy, we’re delaying the cause of football reform.

The news reports to be most wary of are the ones that proclaim that our side is winning. Nothing is more dangerously seductive, more likely to smuggle someone else’s agenda past our critical faculties, than the possibility of achieving a long-cherished ideal.

Which is why, before we salute the dawn of the age of equality, we should remember what we’ve been told about Premier League competitiveness previously.

For years, the prevailing narrative from the league, supported by some academics, has been that greater fairness isn’t just impractical but is actually not even desirable. The full stadia and growing TV audiences, we are told, show that people don’t care about a predictable league.

And yet here we are celebrating a revolution in competitiveness, halfway through a season where Leicester are in the Champions League places and Chelsea are in the toilet. The papers are full of it: ESPN, Metro, Forbes, Sportsvibe. Paul Hayward of the Telegraph even went as far as drawing comparisons with the NFL and its famed competitive balance. Doubtless you’ll have seen other similar pieces.

It turns out, then, that we all love open competition after all. And that, contrary to what we were always told, the Premier League can deliver it while remaining financially sound. In fact, the argument goes, it was the record-breaking TV deal – paid for, of course, by fans – that has underwritten this utopia. So, while all those moaning, irrelevant, nostalgic footballing-levellers were right all along about the need for more competition, they were wrong about how to achieve it. The problem wasn’t too much money in football. It was not enough!

It’s an interesting line of reasoning – a classic piece of neutralising opposing arguments by co-opting them.

But what happens when Arsenal or Man City win the title – as they will – making it more than twenty years since someone outside the Big Four got their hands on it? Will the papers demand concrete action to ensure more Leicesters – or will friendly elements of the press hold the line that, even if Leicester fell short this time, it’s too soon to start tinkering with a system that’s shown smaller clubs can compete?

While many pundits apparently see a wide-open and exciting Premier League title race, I’m so jaded that I see little more than the footballing equivalent of Touch the Truck – an endurance event where the Big Club that can hold its nerve longest will win the title. Chelsea never got going and Man United fell apart before the end of autumn, leaving Arsenal as the current favourites. For my money, though, it’s Man City, with their recent culture of winning and greater willingness to spend, who will hold on and take the title by default.

If that seems unduly pessimistic, and you haven’t yet given up on a more egalitarian future, let me offer you the choice of two bets. Assuming the same odds, would you rather put £1,000 on Leicester and Palace outperforming Man United and Chelsea *next* season or £1,000 on the reverse outcome? (In fact, which is more likely: that any two teams other than Chelsea, Man U, Man City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs will finish in the top four next year or that the Big Four will all finish in the top six?)

I know where I’d put my money – and what that must mean for some of the more overblown pieces we’ve seen published in the festive period.

The question, then, is what do we really know about the league this season – and what conclusions can we reasonably draw?

Well, first off, it bears restatement that we’re only just halfway through a title race that will, in all probability, be won by Arsenal or Man City. So, without some pretty strong evidence, claiming that there has been any fundamental or structural change is, at best, premature.

Chelsea and Manchester United have certainly had very poor first halves of the season, but I think there’s good reason to suppose these travails are personal to them, rather than being a reflection of greater spending power at small clubs.

Quite obviously Chelsea, notionally the defending champions, were not simply undone by a newly strengthened league. They are where they are, not because smaller teams can suddenly afford better players, but because they’ve imploded in an almost unprecedented and delightful manner, the fallout from which we’ll be able to chew over for years to come in the tell-all biographies of their squad of risibly temperamental millionaires.

Manchester United, meanwhile, playing as they have so far, wouldn’t have challenged for a title in any season. Their problems are years of underinvestment, the near simultaneous loss of David Gill and Alex Ferguson, the Moyes debacle, some poor signings and Louis van Gaal’s surprising struggles.

And what of Leicester? Their achievements are remarkable and should be celebrated. But not, I’d argue, because they herald a new era. Leicester should be celebrated for precisely the opposite reason: because they’ve done it on their own in a league of that has steadfastly refused any initiative aimed at making the game fairer. The notable thing is not that it’s happened, but that it happens so infrequently that Ipswich, at the turn of the millennium, is the last reasonable comparison. (There’s a fine piece in The Economist too about how tactical innovation accounts for some of the difference in performance.)

So bravo, Leicester, yours is one of the great achievements of modern football. It’s astonishing. But, like Suarez’s Liverpool, I fear it’s likely to be a single great season not the start of a dynasty.

But what of the TV deal? Hasn’t that altered the landscape?

Well, bluntly, no. It has set off some tremors, but no actual earthquakes.

Relatively, for the clubs for whom TV money forms most of their income, this is indeed a period of unparalleled wealth. But they are still vastly less wealthy than the Big Four, who have larger stadia, higher gate receipts, wealthier benefactors, more valuable squads, better academies, bigger sponsorship deals and a vastly larger global pool of merchandise buyers (‘fans’ as they used to be known).

So, while the new money means a much larger percentage rise in income for smaller clubs, it has not actually closed the financial gap on the Big Four.

In the short-term, it has enabled a few teams to hold onto their stars and poach players from big clubs abroad, but to suggest that the TV deal will lead to a long-term equalisation of team performance is, effectively, to posit a new economic phenomenon whereby, above a certain level, wealthy employees are no longer motivated to change employer in pursuit of higher wages.

What this is, then, is a blip. Like lottery winners who’ve paid off their mortgage and are now wondering whether to buy a speed boat or a motorhome, we’re adjusting to the shock of being unexpectedly flush with cash. For the first time in Premier League history – thanks to Sky and BT overpaying – club incomes momentarily exceed their ability to waste money.

We must remember that the same people who’ve driven the inflationary cycle are still in charge – and still with no meaningful wage controls. These are not innovators or visionaries, but rather a group of people who’ve recorded losses for most of the last 20 years despite having a stake in one of the fastest growing bubble markets in history. This isn’t the dawn of fiscal responsibility – or a new business model enabling profit and competition – but, more likely, just a lag before the transfer market catches up with the TV money.

Once wages and transfer fees adjust to suck up the excess loot, things will settle down and that extra money will ensure that the Big Clubs will still have, by a distance, the best players and the best managers.

Leicester will not be as good next year. Chelsea and Man U will be better – much, much better.

Rather than a sea change, then, I see this season as a perfect storm – the result of a number of independent, unusual events, some of which won’t be repeated next year.

I am not saying, of course, that the Big Four will always finish as the top four, but rather that, such is their financial advantage, you would expect them to win far more game in the long-run than other, less wealthy teams. And so they do – which is why, while there have only ever been five winners of the Premier League, more than two-thirds of NFL teams have been to a Super Bowl since 1992. (For a detailed review of changing competitiveness in post-war European football and the NFL, read this.)

Next season, and for the foreseeable future, I expect the old order to reassert itself. There will be other small teams flashing briefly with players they can prise away from German and Italian giants, but, like Leicester, they’re unlikely to be more than unannounced pacemakers who will streak ahead early but drop away at the business end of the season.

I think, then, that this ‘wide-open title race’ is a brief moment of footballing glasnost rather than full scale perestroika.

Of course, I could be wrong (and that would be great because the lack of fair competition is what killed my love for football). And if I am – if we really have entered a new era of competitiveness and if something fundamental has changed – then, now we’ve all seen how much better it is, we’ll want to maintain it, won’t we?

We’ll want regulation to prevent backsliding and to ensure there is a new Leicester every year. Instead of trusting the competitiveness of the league to the vicissitudes of the media rights market, we’ll all want to get behind changing the set-up of the Premier League to ensure it happens season after season. We’ll make equality and fairness a cornerstone of English football.

Unless, of course, this is the last thing the Big Clubs and Richard Scudamore want. Unless all this lauding of plucky Leicester is just smart PR designed to generate positive headlines, keep the wheels turning in the content factories and disarm the growing band of Premier League critics.

First there was concern about the size of the TV deal, leading, after a fashion, to promises of more money being shared with the rest of the game. Then there were protests about ticket prices and, voila!, an EY report on the positive economic impact of the Premier League appeared along with a BBC ‘Price of Football’ report showing the game wasn’t actually getting more expensive. And now, for the first time in decades that there’s been a hint of a new title winner, the Premier League has done a John Lewis – explaining to us the true meaning of Christmas by proclaiming the league open to all.

So Merry Christmas one and all! Everything is better than before! Forget your cynicism! Peace on earth and goodwill to all chairmen! The league isn’t rigged! No regulation was, or is, required!

But as we welcome in 2016, a new year in name only, let us resolve that we won’t let the joy of seeing Manchester United and Chelsea having a down year – and the glory of Leicester’s time in the spotlight – blind us to the continued need for fundamental changes to the way English football is run.

*UPDATE*

They did it. Astoundingly and quite against all the odds, Leicester won the title. So, clearly I was wrong about Man City being the more likely winners. (I console myself that I’m not the first person to be wrong about Leicester’s title chances this season.)

The question, then, is what have we learned about the Premier League from Leicester’s win?

We’ll, obviously, it’s a great lesson in probability. Even highly unlikely things happen all the time. It seems likely, too, that the bookies were drastically under-pricing Premier League outsiders. 5,000/1 was a crazy and likely never-to-be-repeated price.

But, as a matter of logic, just because something highly improbable happened (something whose improbability we probably underestimated), doesn’t mean that that thing is now likely to happen more often.

Historically, there is a very strong connection between wage expenditure and title success. The TV deal has given all clubs more money – and the ability to outspend most of Europe’s club sides – but it hasn’t suddenly given smaller PL teams the ability to match the Big Four’s contract offers.

As I wrote in January, “to suggest that the TV deal will lead to a long-term equalisation of team performance is, effectively, to posit a new economic phenomenon whereby, above a certain level, wealthy employees are no longer motivated to change employer in pursuit of higher wages.”

Nothing about Leicester’s win, sadly, makes me think I was wrong about that.

That being so – if Leicester’s title was one glorious Mayfly season – then when can we next expect a rank outsider to win the Premier League?

Well, according to the newly chastened bookmarkers, sometime between now and the year 3,500. (The good news is it means Busted have a fair chance of being there to see it.)

And what about the chance of a successful title defence by Leicester? Depending on who you ask, they’re between about 30/1 and 40/1 – making them fifth or sixth favourites. I don’t need to tell you who’s ahead of them.

The prime lesson of this season, then, is that miracles can happen. The lesson I hoped we’d learn – that if you want new teams to win the title regularly, you have to radically reform football – is not one that we seem ready for.

Perhaps next year…

 

Martin Calladine

If you enjoyed this, please buy my book “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL”. That way I’ll have the money to write more things you might like. Oh, and please spread the word, too. Thanks a lot.

 

 

 

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One thought on “Why this ‘wide-open title race’ is just a one-season wonder

  1. Pingback: Building a title-winning team: an NFL vs Premier League comparison | The Ugly Game

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