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After thirty years, the Premier League may rightfully enjoy its reputation as the most popular football league in the world. There are other contributing factors, some of which you may be acquainted with.
Heritage (the game was invented here, after all), language (English is the world’s lingua franca), a very pro-business environment that facilitates foreign investment, strong leadership that consistently presents a unified front (especially during the 15 years Richard Scudamore was in charge), excellent marketing and packaging/production values, and a willingness to embrace expertise from abroad (not just players, but coaches, owls, and owl keepers).
There may be other factors, you may disagree with some of the aforementioned, and we could likely argue indefinitely about the influence of each element stated. But here are two that, in my opinion, do not apply or, at the very least, are grossly overrated: superstars and competition, which, to some, may seem counterintuitive: you would expect superstars to drive success. Undeniably, there must be an element of unpredictability and competitiveness; else, viewers would lose interest.
I would argue that the Premier League demonstrates that this is not necessarily the case. Or, more precisely, that these reasons did not significantly contribute to the league’s expansion, unlike, instance, the NBA in its prime.
Start with the star of the show. It is admittedly a hazy, “I’ll know it when I see it” idea. But if you define it as a mix of being among the greatest in the world, popularity, and having a comparable hype machine/commercial operation behind you, you may discover that there have been less than you believe in the Premier League, at least prior to Erling Haaland’s entrance.
Who do you find at the upper echelons of the A-list? Cristiano Ronaldo (minus the 15 years in the prime of his career he spent in Spain and Italy either side of his two spells at Manchester United). David Beckham (though, of course, he left age 28). Zlatan Ibrahimovic (again, arriving on the downside and not staying very long). Henry Thierry? Wayne Rooney? Kevin De Bruyne? Mohamed Salah?
Certainly, they are great athletes. However, even at their best, few players approached the degree of excitement and worldwide superstardom attained by Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, and Ronaldinho. Take one very easy statistic, the Ballon d’Or, football’s highest popularity prize.
Regular readers are aware that I am not a fan since this is a massive media exposure and popularity contest. But for the reasons at hand, it’s practically ideal. Consider the last twenty iterations of the prize. Only 17 out of 100 Premier League players finished in the top five. Thierry Henry three times, Ronaldo twice, and twelve other men once.
Was the league’s popularity diminished? not even close This is likely due to the fact that it is not based on famous megastars, but rather on popular megabrands. More than the name on the back, the emblem on the front of the jersey inspires allegiance. I realize this is a cliche, but marketers have been warning for years about fan groups that follow their superstars from team to club, such as in the NBA. Surely it also occurs in football and the Premier League, but few institutions are able to survive the loss of a star (in terms of hype/attention/relevance) as effectively as the English top flight.
Then there is also competition. Due to the existence of the “Big Six,” the league is annually unexpected and uncertain, unlike in other nations. In the last decade, the Premier League has been won by five different teams, Spain’s LaLiga, Italy’s Serie A, and France’s Ligue 1 by three, and Germany’s Bundesliga by only one (Bayern Munich, in case you were living under a rock). However, there is a flaw in that reasoning.
First, although neutrals may find championship races intriguing, the majority of supporters worry about their club’s performance and development. Did supporters of the other 18 teams enjoy watching the dramatic final day of the Premier League that crowned Manchester City winners last season? Probably. Is this what retains their support for a team in that league? I don’t believe so.
Nor does it matter, properly speaking, how many winners there are. The truth is, unless you are owned by a Russian oligarch or a sovereign wealth fund that is willing to finance years of losses, it is highly unlikely that you can build success over time and become a super club unless you are owned by a Russian oligarch or a sovereign wealth fund that is willing to finance years of losses. Since 2005, when Everton finished fourth, only one club outside of the so-called Big Six (who, admittedly, were more like the Big Five at the time since Abu Dhabi had not yet invested in City) has finished in the top four: Leicester City, who won the 2015-16 Premier League (and extinguished their lifetime quota of fairy tales).
Consider the matter carefully. Only six of the twenty teams can reasonably aspire to finish in the top four. One of the byproducts of the league’s success is the upward flow of income. Consequently, the aspirant middle class (in recent seasons, Aston Villa, West Ham, Everton, and Leicester) face a Sisyphean challenge.
In 17 seasons, France (14), Germany (13), Italy (11), and Spain (10) have had a greater diversity of teams in the top four than England’s seven teams. However, guess what? Regarding the general popularity of a league, maybe it is not a “thing.” Fans are used to the polarization and stratification between the ultra-wealthy (they exist in all leagues, but there are more of them in the Premier League) and the rest of the players. They accept the fact that they will arrive to the race in a walker while others will be driving Ferraris.
Therefore, they evaluate success differently. They get pleasure from seeing their team accomplish the bare minimum: mid-table, avoiding relegation, etc. And they appreciate the games themselves possibly more than the outcome or the standings. This is the golden grail for a business owner: entertaining clients and giving them something significant that they can love year after year without breaking the wallet. Based on the attendances and fan bases of mid- to small-sized Premier League teams (not to mention the lesser divisions, where audiences dwarf the rest of Europe), this is done better in England than anyplace else in Europe.
The Premier League routinely seems “big-time” and competitive from top to bottom, particularly on television, in a manner that other leagues do not. Why? The majority of stadiums seem fantastic on the screen, the crowd is densely packed, the game is moving quickly, and the players appear to care. The following four characteristics, whether genuine or perceived, regularly apply to the majority of Premier League games in a manner that is not the case in the other four Big Five leagues. And this makes it far easier to sell the (usually false) “Any Given Sunday” story that so many people embrace.
There may come a moment when the aforementioned formula is no longer applicable. They claim that league dominance is cyclical. Commercially speaking, though, the Premier League’s status as the world’s de facto Super League is now uncontested. And it is possible that the reasons for its success are not the ones you believe.
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