The Premier League – whose new season kicks off in full on Saturday – was built on a lovely idea: That everyone who was already rich should get a whole lot richer.
The league structure that preceded it was a quasi-socialist institution, spreading revenues among all levels of British soccer. The Premier League was envisioned by TV executives who wanted top teams to break away and keep all the money they made for themselves. The teams liked the sound of that.
Rupert Murdoch’s flailing Sky network hijacked the bidding process, paying what was in 1992 a shocking amount for broadcast rights – $500-million over five years. These days, that’s about how much you have to fork over for a single, whiny Brazilian.
That decision helped Murdoch turn his pay-per-view business into an empire, and everyone was happy ever after.
Okay, it’s not exactly a Disney plot line, but it does help us understand how we get to today, 26 years later. The Premier League was built on greed – for money, for players, for as large as possible an audience. It’s worked from Day 1, but never so well as it’s working now.
Just at this moment, the Premier League isn’t just the best league in the world. It’s the best league that ever was. It’s done that by reconciling its two polarities.
We know its strengths – global reach. No other league has ever commanded this sort of international audience – billions, in aggregate.
That, in turn, keeps the money faucet turned on, which in turn subsidizes midsize Premier League teams, which in turn keeps competition relatively even across the board, which in turn convinces people in Bhutan to give up two hours of their Saturday watching Southampton vs. West Ham, which in turn … and so forth.
This isn’t an egalitarian set-up. The goal is not equality. No one cares – à la North American sport’s civic parochialism – if everyone eventually gets the chance to lift a trophy. It’s designed to keep the machine running.
The machine requires human parts of varied backgrounds, because the key to that global reach is the Premier League’s internationalism. Tottenham’s starting XI on opening day will feature players of English, Korean, French, Kenyan, Belgian, Danish and Colombian nationality.
People want to watch people who look like them, share their customs and speak their language. The Premiership was the first league to figure this out, and – bafflingly – remains the only one still making a real effort at it. Constrained by finances, other soccer leagues rely heavily on domestic players.
The NBA tries, sort of. Baseball has its very few niches. The NFL would like to, but can’t figure out how. The NHL sewed up Scandinavia and called it quits.
Everyone else has given up on globalism because they can’t make money off it. The Premier League imagined itself as a global enterprise, and the money came afterward.
That ambition clashed on some level with the league’s essential nature – it is English, in England, with generations of English fans, and responsible on some level for the quality of the England team.
For years, the Premier League wrestled with the idea of domestic player quotas. The good reason not to do it – they were making too much money. More and more team owners were foreigners. They cared about selling replica jerseys in China, not making sure England had depth at the fullback position.
(After some initial irritation, local fans decided they were only bothered about winning – better a great foreigner than a good Scouser.)
No real compromise was ever found. It’s proof that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. Things often have a way of sorting themselves out.
This year’s World Cup was a watershed for England, and the Premier League as well.
England made the semis. Every man-jack on the team plays in the Premiership. Were you to remove the entire England team from consideration, the Premier League still had the highest league representation in Russia by a good margin.
Finally, a quarter-century later, the EPL gets to eat its cake and have it, too. They’ve reconciled the native vs. foreigner problem.
The EPL would have made out like bandits either way, but now it gets to do so guilt-free. In fact, the process can now accelerate.
A few other things that happened over the summer have put the league in unusually good position.
Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid for Juventus. That isn’t so much a boost for Italy as a blow for Spain. La Liga has been losing its lustre for a couple of years. Without its essential rivalry – Ronaldo vs. Messi – it’s looking more and more shopworn.
Manchester City continued its rise. On the globalism scale, Bournemouth is Little Britain and City is the United Nations. Owned by men from the Emirates, run by a cabal of Spaniards, staffed by people from all over – City is the antithesis of the “local” club.
They’ve been stitching this superteam together for the past decade, and the initial stage of work is nearly finished.
No Premiership club has ever dominated in Europe. All of them are built with domestic needs in mind – tougher, faster, less technical. But City is close to becoming the perfect hybrid – a side that can beat you up, as well as dance around you.
City is something more than prohibitive favourites to win the league – 2 to 3 with most bookies. Liverpool may have a shot. May. After that, it’s an Irish potluck. Don’t expect any surprises.
Notably, City is also Champions League betting favourites – that’s a new one.
If City dominates while Real falls, this could be the year the Premier League gets to have it all. The best team in the best league watched by the most people and making all the money.
Sometimes, apparently, greed is good. At least, for the greedy. And although it’s only been a few weeks, you do feel a little peckish for soccer to begin again.