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Premier League Should Follow NFL to Prosperity and Competition

Posted: 11/07/2012 01:00

The Premier League is coming off what many are calling its greatest season ever full of memorable matches and the first ever title decided on goal difference, in the final seconds of the last match no less.

The fans appear to agree as the 2011/12 campaign was voted the best season ever in an official Barclays Premier League poll marking the first 20 years of the competition. The Premier League live TV rights for 2013/14 to 2015/16 were sold in June for a record £3.018bn, an increase of £1.254bn on the current deal. Average attendances were nearly 35,000 and over 90% of seats were sold. It would appear that life has never been healthier for the richest football league in the world but underneath all the glitz, glamour, and excitement lies an increasingly stale and uneven overall product lacking competitive balance.

In his 2006 documentary The Art of Football from A to Z, John Cleese mocks the stop start nature of the NFL: "American football is played like a series of advertising jingles while soccer is played like... jazz".

Yet the economic model the Premier League and indeed even FIFA should follow is undoubtedly that other football - NFL - the most competitive league in the world with a salary cap and 60% of all league and team profits distributed evenly to all teams. This includes revenue from broadcasting, sponsorships, tickets, and merchandising. The NFL salary cap limits what each team can spend on players' annual salaries. In 2012 this figure will be $120.6m per team and a maximum squad of 53 players compared to the £174m ($270m) wage bill of Manchester City's title winners.

Overall the median Premier League wage bill is up a ridiculous 1357% since 1992 in broadly difficult economic times. Match day revenues have remained basically constant for the past five years while costs continue to rise meaning teams need to generate revenue through player sales, increasingly flaky global 'tours', exhibition matches, new kits every year, and ridiculous concession pricing. All of these demean and distance the relationship between club and fan and have done little to stop the general trend towards operating losses instead of profits.

Inevitable financial shenanigans lead to small and even larger clubs flirting openly or covertly with bankruptcy until getting dramatically swallowed up like Portsmouth after their FA Cup triumph or more recently Rangers in Scotland.

The planned UEFA Financial Fair Play rules scheduled to come in 2015 just demand teams must compete within their resources which is just another way of reinforcing the gap between rich and poor. Man U's resources are quite different from Wigan's resources so it will do little to break the embedded oligopoly of the Premier League. This approach is more akin to the competitive imbalance and inherent predictability of Major League Baseball than the thrilling NFL.

There are 32 teams in the NFL compared to 20 in the Premier League but due to promotion and relegation 45 teams have competed since the founding of the Premier League in 1992. Only five of those 45 teams have won the title in the last 20 years compared to 13 different Super Bowl Champions over the same period. There are 12 NFL teams inside of 20/1 odds to win the next Super Bowl outright in 2012/13 compared to just four teams inside 20/1 to win next year's Premier League.

The NFL is unique as a professional sports league that nearly every team legitimately believes they can win the title the following year. This is the essence of the notion that anything can happen on "any given Sunday". Longer term if a team fares badly one year they can turn it around by making prudent signings of new players entering the NFL in a player draft that works in inverse order meaning the last placed team picks first and the previous champions last. Compare this to the pillaging of smaller club youth teams across the UK and the continent by wealthy clubs. None of this has been bad for business as this embedded 'socialism' of the NFL operating model has produced an average team value of over $1b compared to just five football teams matching that valuation in all of Europe.

For all the talk of the thrilling 2011/12 Barclays Premier League season you could have just predicted at the start that the two richest clubs would finish first and second and you'd have been right. In contrast neither of the two richest NFL clubs (Dallas and Washington) have won a Super Bowl since the Cowboys in 1996. If trophies and titles just follow the money, the magic of sport is lost.

The crucial errors of the Premier League way are valuing capitalism over sport, not valuing a balance between capitalism and sport, and a blatant disregard for any semblance of a meritocracy in footballing matters. If you are wondering why you don't care nearly as much as you used to about the outcomes of matches involving your team look no further than the blatantly unbalanced playing field.

Imagine if Swansea could build on their incredible emergence and style last year instead of getting their best players stripped and losing their manager. How much more exciting might the league be next year if teams were rewarded and incentivised instead of penalised for making smart football decisions. It's just not as much fun winning when you know in your heart that the playing field is uneven and marred by financial doping. In the UK these kinds of oligarchic markets with a small number of firms controlling the market feature in banking, groceries, petrol, and utilities so it's easy to relate the evolution of the Premier League as the commodification of football. Only thing is this also equates to the commodification of passion, loyalty, and history that rarely feature in your weekly grocery run.

Logistical barriers to making any dramatic changes to the Premier League include that any proposals for restrictive caps on trade would likely be quashed right away by the European Union (EU) through ironic antitrust legislations supposed to promote competition. This limited interpretation of competition ignores that intelligent professional sport needs to promote both economic and sporting competition.

There is also the obvious issue that unlike the NFL, football is a global sport full of competing leagues and implementing a salary cap or broad revenue sharing in one league could lead to players just leaping to another. But what else is new? Let's keep it simple. Despite all the hype and hysteria the Premier League needs to change and change fast or it will eat itself in a frenzy of rampant hoarding, consumption and exploitation with the fans losing every step of that long dismal journey. The successes of the NFL approach provide a potential starting point for changing that conversation and trajectory.

 

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