The Premier League’s (PL) formation in 1992was one of the most profound developments in English football history. Basedupon a document entitled the ‘Blueprint for English Football’, published in1990, the League has achieved much of what it set out to do, particularly interms of commercialising football in England and marketing the league overseas.Many of the teams appearing in global rankings of the richest clubs in footballare English, while the League is televised live in more than 200 countries.
There have been failings and criticisms toothough; creating the new league was supposed to have benefited the nationalteam, yet England has failed to win any tournaments since 1992 and it has onlysporadically appeared at the very top of FIFA’s world rankings. Furthermore, inspite of some successes, English teams have often struggled in the UEFAChampions League. The league’s biggest club, Manchester United, has failed towin the competition since 2009.
Opinion is divided on the wider impact thePL has had on other levels of football in England, and indeed across Europe.One reason why UEFA introduced its Financial Fair Play Regulations was tocounter the growing economic power of English football. Moreover, while teamsregularly appearing in the PL have prospered commercially, English clubs fromthe grassroots level up to Championship continue to struggle financially.
PL officials continue to assert that theleague has had a beneficial impact on football across England. Payments aremade by the PL to football at all levels of the game, including for socialprogrammes, community initiatives and grassroots. The PL also claims that, whenit is distributing prize money, it is the fairest league in European football.Critics however disagree, many highlighting how bigger clubs like Arsenal andChelsea dominate when prize money is being handed-out. Indeed, althoughLeicester City finished first in last season’s competition (and Arsenalsecond), City only came fifth in the prize money league table while Arsenal cametop.
Whatever the pros and cons of the PL, adiscussion about them raises the kind of questions about league formation andcompetition design that all sports administrators inevitably face. At the heartof any sport is the need to uphold the principle of uncertainty of outcome. Inother words, they need to ensure that one never knows who will win until amatch or a game is over. To achieve this, the administrators must maintaincompetitive balance; in other words, that two competitors of relatively equalstature compete in a contest against one another.
In, for example, the United States, this isachieved through a combination of franchising, salary-capping and playerrecruitment via a draft system. In Europe, particularly in football,competitive balance is a rather more challenging matter. Under European Unionlaw, player salaries cannot be constrained in any way by a regulatoryauthority. At the same time, there is no college draft for players as there isin the likes of the National Basketball Association (NBA). There is nofranchise system either in Europe; clubs are located in communities with whichthey have historic ties. Moving them elsewhere would cause huge consternationamong fans.
Organising, managing and developing sportsleagues are thus rather more complex challenges than one might imagine. UEFA iscurrently examining ways in which the Champions League (CL) can be improved,with several stakeholders in the competition calling for the competition torevert to being a ‘champions only’ tournament. Yet in its current format, theCL has become one of global sport’s commercial giants, drawing multi-milliondollar revenues from its initial league and then subsequent knockout format.
A redesign of the CL would need to be asubtle political exercise for UEFA. The tournament is hugely lucrative, whichhas seen many teams grow and prosper on the back of revenues they have securedby qualifying for it. But the dominance of some teams from leagues acrossEurope has led to criticism from some that competition is being unfairly skewedtowards a small number of clubs, in spite of Financial Fair Play regulations.At the same time, several of Europe’s bigger clubs are already agitated thatthey are the big financial appeal for broadcasters and sponsors, hence theircall for the likes of Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United to be givenmore money by UEFA. Indeed, statements coming out of organisations such as theEuropean Club Association suggest that some of club football’s leading figuresin Europe might be considering a breakaway league as an alternative to the CL.
Such decisions about competition design andrules are not simply confined to the upper echelons of world football. Indeed,in recent weeks England’s Football League (FL) has announced measures which ithopes will lead to the most radical transformation of English football sincethe PL’s inception. From 2019-2020, the FL wants to create an extra divisionconsisting of 20 teams which will be part of an overall English professionalleague structure consisting of 100 teams playing in five divisions.
The proposal would result in lower leagueclubs playing four fewer games each season, something that advocates of thechanges believe would reduce fixture congestion. This in turn would reducecosts for smaller clubs, which sometimes have to travel long-distances to awaygames. The FL also sees the reorganisation as an opportunity to schedule gamesat weekends and during public holidays in order to maximise attendances (whichwould generate additional revenues). Inevitably though, critics have hit backto the proposals claiming that they are neither innovative nor financiallysound enough. Some club officials believe that four fewer games will leave amassive hole in their finances.
And these are not just football’s issues;for example, this season Formula 1 has already adopted and then abandoned a newqualifying format and next year will introduce new technical regulations. Thisis a balancing act for the sport’s governing body as it seeks to create more excitingcompetition whilst satisfying the needs of drivers and minimising operatingcosts for teams. Competition design and its attendant rules and regulations aremajor issues for sport, so much in fact that they can ultimately make or breaka sport, a tournament, a league or an event.