The Premier League’s vast wealth is ruining world football
England’s financial dominance is making other European leagues uncompetitive
In 1996, a Big Mac cost £1.79 and Alan Shearer £15 million. Today, the price of a Big Mac has just about doubled to £3.49, but to buy an even half-decent left back will set you back three or four times Shearer’s old world record fee. Chelsea alone now have two left backs who cost more than £50 million. Britain might no longer be a particularly wealthy country, but it is home to an insanely rich football league; a league so rich, in fact, it is in danger of ruining something far more precious: the rolling operatic drama of European club football.
To illustrate the point, take a quick look at the last football transfer window, which closed yesterday. Just an hour before the deadline, Chelsea finally secured their number one target by paying £107 million for the Argentinian midfielder Enzo Fernández. With his signing, the club took their total transfer spending in January above £300 million. To put this in context, that is more than every club in Europe’s other four major leagues (Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, Germany’s Bundesliga and France’s Ligue 1) combined.
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Chelsea’s extraordinary spending spree is not some freakish anomaly either, but indicative of a broader trend in European football. English clubs are no longer just a little bit richer than their continental counterparts, but much richer. Such is the financial gulf between the Premier League and all the other leagues in Europe that the team which finishes bottom of the league in England will earn more in TV broadcasting rights than all but the top three clubs in Spain, the next richest league in world football.
According to Deloitte’s annual football rich list, English clubs now make up 11 of the 20 wealthiest clubs in the world — measured by revenue — and three of the top four. Relatively unsuccessful, mid-table strugglers like West Ham now bring in more money than Italian superclubs like AC Milan. Deloitte now expects every club in the Premier League to soon automatically become one of the top 30 richest clubs in the world.
To some extent, the Premier League’s wealth is good for everyone. Like the Harry & Paul sketch, ‘I Saw You Coming’, Europe’s feeder clubs have turned themselves into cynical antique dealers ripping off the idiot middle classes prepared to buy any old tat for astronomical prices. Today, Europe’s clubs seem to charge one price for an English club and another for almost everybody else. Chelsea’s new £105 million man Fernández only moved to Benfica last summer for around £10 million. Who, really, are the losers here?
Yet I think this is a little too sanguine. England’s financial dominance is putting real pressure on the other European leagues. And over the past few years cracks have started to show. Italy’s biggest club Juventus have recently been caught apparently fiddling the books to keep up with the Joneses. Barcelona, meanwhile, have come close to financial ruin. Even Real Madrid, probably the biggest club in the world, have been forced to accept they can’t buy everyone.
The biggest sign of distress, though, was the attempted creation of the European Super League (which is still being pursued by some of the continent’s superclubs). It was brought to a halt largely by English football fans who saw it as a challenge to the traditional league structure. In many ways, though, the Super League was less a challenge to the supremacy of the Premier League and more a kind of mutated expansion by its most powerful clubs. To some extent, it was a white flag being waved by the great European clubs, giving up and joining the English elite. Of the 12 clubs supposed to join, six were English, three Italian and three Spanish. It was an attempt — perhaps the last attempt — to lasso the wild horses of the Premier League before they gallop away.
The imbalanced greed in European football has already sucked the joy out of some of the greatest fixtures in the world, but we now barely seem to recognise this reality. Today, historic clubs with giant fanbases find it almost impossible to compete in European football, just as South American clubs now simply accept their fate feeding their best players to Europe for a profit. Rangers, Marseille, Ajax, Benfica, Anderlecht, Borussia Dortmund, Fenerbahçe — great clubs now often unable to put up a fight. And so the romance and drama is dulled, the adrenalin sapped. None can compete. What if this happens to the Italian, German or even Spanish clubs too? We’d all lose.
It would be better for everybody if the Premier League got worse. I’m now pro-decline.
Tell me about it.
I’m a lifelong supporter of a team that’s been entrenched in the lower reaches of the football league during all that time. Most of my mates growing up wanted to watch only one of the big Manchester clubs, and still do – on subscription TV. Our gates have been barely enough to keep us going, but one or two good cup runs and the odd sale of a promising young talent has managed that – until recently.
Never mind world football, most teams below the Premier League are now struggling for their very existence, whilst players warming the benches in the top division are earning enough in one or two weeks to keep the wolf from the door of many of them. The EFL (that runs the football league – “runs” being an exaggeration) are complicit in the absence of their governance being of any use whatsoever to the interests of clubs they purport to being overseeing. Those at the helm are typical gravy-trainers, content to sit on their backsides whilst clubs which have been at the heart of many communities are allowed to wither. This leaves them at risk of financial predators who’d run them down further, either offset against tax liabilities or with a view to owning the ground as an asset to sell.
The government keeps delaying the introduction of legislation to deal with all this, following the Tracy Crouch report; but then again, they’ve got other things on their minds. Communities which suffer the loss of their local teams won’t be forgiving however. The legislation would bring in an independent body, much better governance and put the Premier League clubs in a position where the trickle down of finance to the lower leagues would improve. There’s no time to lose, and once these clubs are gone, they’re gone.
I’ve trailed round after one of those Manchester clubs for 50 years. Port vale and York City away come immediately to mind, as does the 1999 league 1 play off final against Gillingham.
The Agueroooo moment is up there as one of my life’s highlights but, overall, I’m not totally sure the old days weren’t better.
That lot across the way started the rot, but the premier league really turned it from a working man’s joy to a just another entertainment business
I was at both and the Dickov goal was the best moment for me. Meant more.
Me too, and you may be right. I thought Aguero might be more recognisable to this audience.
Barca and Real are the architects of their own fate, reckless overspending propped up by local governments bailing them out whenever they need it and the TV rights thing isn’t the lowest placed premier league clubs fault that they earn more money, it’s the Spanish FA’s fault for not having equal distribution and allowing the 2 largest clubs to do as they please to the detriment of all the others.
It really makes me laugh when those two clubs complain about the English league. Barca spent 140M on Coutinho; stones and glass houses.
The writer is way behind in reporting what has been evident for several years. Never mind world/European football, the Premier League has not been good for English football, particularly the National team. The importation of the world’s best players to the PL has meant that many of England’s promising youngsters can’t get into squads or at best sit on the bench with the hope of perhaps getting on for the last 10 minutes. The percentage of English players in PL squads is now around 35%. If the contribution is based on minutes actually played, the percentage is much lower. Also, the separation of the PL from the rest of the English leagues has resulted in the dire financial situation in those lower leagues that Steve Murray has already described well earlier.
Agreed, this article highlights nothing new… though with an American at the helm, this particular vein of Chelsea madness seems more notable. And as an American I do admire Leeds to a point… at least until they have now gone overboard this window, with another American and loads of signings, money wasted… a new twist on the inevitable “doing a Leeds” redux.
If your priority is to see the best players more often, then the PLs development seems spot on.
England only play a few significant games per year, whereas the top PL clubs play 50+.
Agree that more PL money to lower English leagues should be mandated.
Author is confused. The champions league has produced two English winners in the last ten years, no domination then where it counts.
This is exactly the point, all that money is going up in smoke. What does Tom mean by dominance and ruining? If it’s not producing results it’s simply a ton of money wasted. I guess that an English win in a European competition every five years is about what we would expect.
From Manchester United’s win in 1967 until the competition was closed in 1991, there were eight English winners in twenty four years. That’s one every three years. Clearly the money isn’t producing anything the other nations need to worry about. They may well be simply laughing up their sleeves at the English idiots.
Have a look at leadersinsport.com, especially their newsletters, to see the insane amounts of money floating round in sport these days.
Chelsea’s spending is anomalous though. Firstly, they’ve doubled the previous annual spending record set five years ago by Manchester City (270M). Secondly, they’re taking some bizarre risk by amortizing the cost over very long contracts (get around the paper tiger that is financial fair play).
Spanish clubs are a mess, particularly Barcelona, who were spending Chelsea like money for many years and effectively bankrupting themselves as soon as Covid hit.
The Italian clubs destroyed their own league with corruption many years ago, and now Juventus performed an encore.
Money in football has been ridiculous for three decades, it just happens to be in England now. Used to be Italy, then Spain.
Anyway, the bubble will pop soon, and then it will likely be the German league picking up the baton.
Agree on Chelsea, it’s definitely an outlier compared to others and I suspect it’s going to cause them all manner of problems in the future.
The breakaway of the Premier League in the early 1990’s passed me by because I didn’t have much access to TV or newspapers at the time but I can see why it has turned into the multi-billion pound business it is today: increased competition has driven up standards.
In its early years Manchester United won a lot of titles but their main competitor was Blackburn Rovers who won one title thanks to the spending of Jack Walker but couldn’t build upon that and faded away. It took the appointment of Arsene Wenger to turn Arsenal from an inconsistent top-half club to title contenders and then title winners. Chelsea were a mid-table club but improved under Ken Bates and Matthew Harding and after Roman Abramovich bought the club the league became a three-horse race.
Manchester City were on the up when they were bought first by Thaksin Shinawatra and then by Sheikh Mansour. There were many false dawns before Fenway Sports Group realised that Jürgen Klopp was the manager Liverpool needed to compete for the title. Tottenham Hotspur have been in contention, Leicester City won the title during what may turn out to be the most important season in the history of English football (because it made the Big 6 clubs realise that they could not take European qualification for granted) and now Newcastle United are on the rise again and Arsenal are back in title contention.
What has made the Premier League such a success is that the pecking order has kept changing because no one club has been able to dominate for a long period because someone else better has come along and standards have kept rising. England is not like Spain where Real Madrid and Barcelona have dominated for decades or Germany where the race is for who will come second behind Bayern Munich or France where other clubs can only win the title if Paris Saint-Germain take their eye off the ball. The closest comparison now is Italy where the era of Juventus domination has ended and there are races for the title again.
The Manchester United team that supposedly knocked Liverpool off their perch (they didn’t: Liverpool fell off their perch and after Arsenal and Leeds United fell away Manchester United took the vacant perch) would not stand much of a chance against Pep Guardiola’s 100-point Manchester City team or Klopp’s title-winning Liverpool team that qualified for the Champions League before the end of February. If you don’t play every second of every game as if it matters as much as every other you won’t be successful in the Premier League or the Champions League. If you do you can do anything. Solskjær proved that in the 1999 Champions League final, Sergio Aguero proved it in 2012 and Leicester City proved it in 2016.
That’s what people around the country and the world are paying vast sums to watch on TV: ever better players, managers, teams and football.
It’s easy to drive up standards when there is so much money sloshing around the EPL that only the top six clubs in that league can afford to buy the best players and the best coaches in the world. That is the whole point of this article, no other league can get a look-in, with obscene amounts of money being paid in England for and to very average players.
The rot set in when agents began negotiating on behalf of players and coaches. Their incentive is to get their clients to change clubs as often as possible, as they get paid on the value of a transfer. Players and coaches have now become mercenaries, selling their services to the highest bidder. The now laughable idea of club loyalty on which English football was founded pre-EPL has disappeared for ever. Witness the antics of one C. Ronaldo, perhaps the archetype of the modern mercenary footballer, now plying his trade in that bastion of world football, Saudi Arabia.
What amazes me is that people are still prepared to pay the outrageous sums required these days to watch matches live or on TV. And not content with throwing their money away on a bunch of writhing prima donnas, they’ll shell out a few more hundred quid to wear their replica shirts (which of course change every year, like the Paris fashions). A sad reflection on our throw-away society and the corruption of our national game.
It is easy to drive up standards when the €60m required to sign the most exciting young striker in world football is small change because your organisation is worth tens of billions. However, their neighbours spent £80m on a centre back who has gone from being an ever-present to fourth choice and one of the clubs at the other end of the East Lancs Road has spent more than half a billion pounds since 2016 turning itself into relegation contenders and is now on its eighth manager of that period. A mountain of money is no guarantee of success.
I’m not completely happy with how the increasing importance and increasing amounts of money have changed football but I remember the state of football in England in the 1980s being dire on and off the pitch. Things were changing before the Premier League launched (Spurs and Man United floated on the stock exchange) and the other major change that happened at the same time was the launch of the Champions League (which has become a European Super League in all but name). The Premier League has had the wind in its favour since its launch and those winds have strengthened.
However, the increased competition in football has attracted billionaires. Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea to see if he could succeed in another business in another country and that’s what Americans like Fenway Sports Group and Todd Boehly have done. After Sheikh Mansour (Abu Dhabi) bought Man City Sheikh Tamim (Qatar) bought Paris Saint-Germain and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund bought Newcastle United. These billionaires are effectively playing Fantasy Football against each other and the aristocracy of European football such as Real Madrid, Liverpool and Bayern Munich and someone may buy the Glazers out of Man United to join this game.
Much as it goes against the grain to suggest it, perhaps we need a windfall tax on transfer fees.
If you think world football is all about the top tier of the professional side, I would suggest going to your local park at the weekend.
This is only the case for a handful of teams in the Premier League. First it was the big 4, then 6 and now probably 8. You can see the gap between the top and bottom of the Prem (not to mention other leagues) by how many points the teams at the top get and how much those at the bottom get now compared to past seasons.
The premier league cornered the international tv market early and seem to have managed to maintain strong brand loyalty, still negotiating tv deals double what the other major leagues manage.
If they can’t make inroads into the PL’s market share then the next best thing would be for there to be league mergers.
This would increase the number of competitive teams per league, unlock potential of big clubs in small countries and combine the revenues of existing leagues to compete with the Premiership.
I’d certainly be interested in Ajax playing in the same league as Bayern, Porto taking on Real Madrid or a Franco-Italian league to make those divisions more competitive again. I believe Netherlands and Belgium are currently looking at a merger. It will be interesting to see how that goes.
Free market economics eh? Wh’ould av em?
Can someone explain why Britain, which is hardly as rich as Germany, has such financial dominance in football? I really have no idea.
I can’t answer that question fully but for starters ticket prices are lower in Germany (in some cases, half or a quarter of the price of a similar ticket in England). German football also has stricter rules on club ownership so a billionaire would find it harder to buy a club in Germany (or Spain where some clubs are owned by the fans and elect a president to run the club) than in England. Football in England is based on a Thatcherite free market model but that is not the case in Germany. Fans and politicians would not allow it.
It doesn’t. It’s just that the league happens to be based in Britain. Foreign players and foreign coaches and foreign money dominate the league.
English football, via the creation of the Premier League and its relationship with Sky, has simply been better than any other country in turning enthusiasm for football into money.
There’s nothing stopping any other country from doing the same but they need to get their top leagues closely aligned with broadcasters, lock down ownership of rights and spend significant money and effort on marketing. Of course it also depends upon having a population that likes watching football and will pay to watch it, but we have to take that as a given.
Also remember that the Premier League wasn’t an overnight success. It has taken literally decades to get to where we are now.
Lots of factors no doubt, but English cultural dominance is one of those benefits your Victorian ancestors bought for you when they civilized the globe. People around the world reading and speaking and singing in English, and looking back to England as their cultural lodestar. That translates into global audiences, which translates into bigger broadcasting fees, merchandising, etc.
Beat me to it!
I am not saying this is the one and only reason by a million miles..but speaking English is a massive advantage when getting viewer share in especially East Asia.
But once the snowball started rolling it became incredibly difficult to stop.
People say the dominance isn’t reflect in European trophy wins, but England is regularly getting more teams into the semi finals and I think once the wins start coming that will trigger UEFA and FIFA to really do something.
I think one thing that hasn’t helped is the advent of keeping the top 3 or 4 clubs from the wealthiest domestic leagues perpetually in the Champions League. It’s a cynical attempt to allow clubs with bigger markets to hoard the wealth between themselves and therefore become even bigger clubs, thus becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. And now, even if they don’t make it out of the CL group stage, they can be rewarded with a place in the Europa League. European club competition may just be turning into a ‘super league’ of just a few teams able to win anything, without any radical change of structure.
This is nothing new..the East European army and states team fell apart, then the Ajaxes and Benficas fell away.
Now it’s Juventus, Milan (both) and basically everyone except the PSG *state team*, Real Madrid and maybe, for a year or two, Bayern and Barca, who have become feeder clubs.
It is why there is such great pressure for a European super league as a last desperate attempt to stop the Premier becoming a world league…from the old European ‘giants’.
And a much easier, laissez faire attitude from the large English clubs, covering their backs by being ‘in’, but easily able to step back when the PR wind changes.
Fifa and/or Uefa will do something eventually but on past form . whatever it is will probably be too little or too late.
An obvious question but one that never gets asked: why has the Premier League become so dominant? After all 30 years ago Italian football was as dominant as English football is now. The reason is the collective bargaining over TV rights that applies in England but not in Spain or Italy. The money in the UK is not monopolised by 2 or 3 clubs but is spread throughout the league and even to the recently relegated clubs in the Championship leading to much more competitive teams throughout the Premier League. This in turn makes the package of TV rights highly attractive. The greed of the big Spanish and Italian teams has been their downfall.
It’s a metaphor for how much we’ve got things wrong in the UK. private affluence, public squalor perhaps never better displayed.
And the ownership pattern also one of the more obvious examples of a broader pattern in the UK economy. Inward investment is to be cherished but giving more control to foreign companies/owners seems somewhat contrary to the national mood. Weren’t we taking back control? Or at least a little bit?
The one saving grace for me, and I’m not the football fan in middle age, I was in childhood when it was everything, is the diversity of the players and how they seem to hold and project values for which we can be proud. Makes one positive about the future despite the greed behind the economic model.
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