How American Culture Gave Rise to the Premier League’s Perverse Structure

Premier League
Art by Charbak Dipta

This year has been defined, naturally, by the coronavirus pandemic sweeping our globe. The same can be said of football. Fans are barred from stadiums and many places of congregation, with authorities hedging their bets on public health over the cries for “freedom”. Clubs, specifically of smaller stature, are hemorrhaging money without them. In recent weeks, the reaction to this economic strain has become crystal clear: top Premier League clubs are using a time of crisis to consolidate their power and wealth. When one adopts an analytical approach to understanding this moment, we can see the coronavirus not as a crisis-creating event, but one which exacerbates preexisting crises in our system. 

This crisis has illuminated the relationship between people and systems. Protests across the United States and the world showcased how police brutality is inexorably tied to systemic racial injustice. The economic system has proven in countries like Britain and the U.S. that its response to a catastrophic pandemic is to enrich its billionaires and deprive the working class of proper financial and medical treatment. Football is closely related to both of these cases, and recent reports about a restructuring of the English football pyramid similarly offer a glimpse at how a discussion of any subject is necessarily a discussion about people. 

In 1990, at the turn of the decade, two events shaped the course of economic development in Europe. 

The Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse saw a power vacuum take hold in Russia and neighboring countries. The transition from Soviet socialism to unrestricted capitalism predictably led to years of violence and a hoarding of finances at the top of Russian society. The Russian people bore a huge burden as “a large, new group of people in poverty” was created, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The other event had to do with an Australian media mogul, a group of hungry football club owners, and the untapped potential of the world’s greatest sport. The 1992 breakaway of the old First Division from the Football League wasn’t just the most important development in modern football, it was the moment modern football truly came into being. And its unleashing of the forces of modern capitalist modes of accumulation were not unlike that of the collapse of the world’s first socialist state.

When the First Division became the Premier League, the lower leagues did not have any say in the matter. If they’d had the opportunity, they might have griped about being completely cut off from the lucrative television deals. Dobson and Goddard’s paper on English football revenue from the late 90s explains how the genesis of Premier League football had “profound organizational and financial implications” on the remaining Football League clubs, many of whom were becoming “more dependent than larger clubs on income sources other than gate revenues,” i.e. television contracts. 

Last year, when I asked Robbie Earle about the implication of the Premier League’s massive economic clout on the lower leagues, whether the big TV deals had provided a “trickle-down effect” of sorts, he said he’d like to think so. The former Port Vale and Wimbledon man emphasized how the lower league clubs should have a relationship with the rich clubs, largely through promoting the use of youth players to sell on for a large fee. “I was at Port Vale,” Robbie recollected, “fortunately I got spotted…and ended up playing in the Premier League, and that’s where the trickle-down effect should come from.” Robbie mentions how difficult it is to break through now at a club like Chelsea, but that smaller clubs can provide access to first-team action for youth academy graduates. 

The problem is that the game doesn’t quite work out that way. Not only are lower league clubs more worried about remaining afloat as institutions than developing a few young stars, with nothing more than a lifejacket shared from the top, but a vast majority of the high-value transfers to PL sides come from overseas, and many high-potential academy players are pried away by the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea before commanding a high fee. Even if the Football League were rewarded for their players properly, the big clubs would still amass the greatest revenue possible and attract the most ambitious billionaires in the world. Unless a small club miraculously made it to the Premier League for a sustained period, they are at a severe disadvantage and less likely to attract a monied owner. 

I write of the importance of attracting handsomely rich owners because, as Olympique Lyon owner Jean-Michel Aulas describes in Kuper and Szymanski’s Soccernomics, there is a virtuous cycle between winning and making money. The more you win, the more money you are rewarded, and the more money you have to spend on better players to win even more. But the cycle often works in reverse: a monied owner purchases a club in dire straits, pumps it fat with cash, bada-bing, bada-boom: you have a title to your club’s name. This relationship serves to raise the standard of the subject team, but in specific Premier League cases also serves to aid oligarchic public relations, all the while putting poorer clubs at an even more severe disadvantage. 

It is no coincidence that one of the beneficiaries of the fall of the Soviet Union, Roman Abramovich, would see promise in Chelsea Football Club. In 1995, amidst the post-collapse confusion, he illegally acquired the oil firm Sibneft, paying bribes and mere millions for an entity valued at over $2 billion. Though they weren’t one of the original “Big Five” institutions, Chelsea and other clubs like Manchester City, at the advent of the Premier League, became similarly valuable assets for billionaires like Abramovich. The likes of Arsenal and Manchester United weren’t available, but their lowly adversaries could prove a beneficial investment. Millions of fans were watching, and the owner of a club like Chelsea could, to many, appear only as such, not as a former petrol emperor whose contribution to the climate crisis shan’t be ignored.

Abramovich was successful, winning the Champions League with the likes of Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard. A just culture would point out the flaw: Chelsea for years of their past were surely buoyed by revenue sharing throughout the Football League, but none of the current lower league clubs reap any financial benefit from their newfound winnings. All clubs exist and will, hopefully, continue to exist within the same system for decades, centuries even, to come. Living harmoniously and sharing the wealth should be a top priority for clubs who’ve suddenly fallen into a bottomless pit of television revenue, and whose continued existence as the cream of the crop depends specifically on the existence of lower divisions.

But the Premier League broke apart financially from the Football League so it could retain more money, not share more. They can hoard the talent, they can access new funds when needed. They can run the show. Manchester City’s successful appeal against UEFA’s ban proves that FFP was never intended to make football more financially equitable, never intended to give smaller clubs a decent chance. Recent reports of the “Project Big Picture” proposed by Liverpool and Manchester United affirm the notion that those atop the English game are willing to save those at the bottom only by amassing more power themselves.

Project Big Picture was a response to a football scene in chaos. Lower league clubs are facing bankruptcy, while Premier League clubs probably lost upwards of one billion pounds in revenue due to the shutdown. Those at the top, such as United and Liverpool, are in positions of decision-making power, and have proven the notion that those in power will do everything to maintain their status. While the rejected proposal would have given a quarter-billion quid to lower league cubs, it would also create a hegemony of power in the top division. It would have been “another move away from the relatively equitable distribution of income” in the Premier League, according to the Athletic’s Matt Slater. 

The Club, written by two Wall Street Journal journos Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg, is the story of how a handful of English club owners consolidated their power and formed the Premier League. Now is an opportune moment to reflect on its lesson, as the consolidatory efforts of the Big Six are eerily similar to those of the Big Five thirty-odd years ago. The formation of the Premier League was not the product of an inevitable trajectory of progress, but of a handful of meetings between millionaire club owners inspired by another country’s success. David Dein, former vice-chairman of Arsenal, led a push in the previous decade to develop the English game into a product worth buying. The book describes how Dein was heavily influenced by American sports like the National Football League and their modern stadiums, a far cry from the dilapidated state of many British grounds. Soccernomics describes the heavy influence stadiums have on club prosperity, but in the late 80s there was still one thing missing for English football: television money.

For inspiration on that front, Dein and Co. looked across the Atlantic once more. In 1982, the NFL scored a television deal worth over $400 million per season. The next year, England’s Football League signed a contract worth less than £3 million per season. The NFL’s landmark deal was “mind-boggling,” according to Tottenham Hotspur chairman Irving Scholar. It clearly inspired the Big Five owners, who later decided to activate the ‘nuclear option’: abandoning the Football League and its shared camaraderie altogether. The rest of the clubs across the four divisions were forced to appease the likes of Everton and Liverpool with a greater share of the broadcast distribution (which wasn’t much at the time, anyway), but as pre-WWII historians will point out, appeasement only works to such an extent. The Big Five owners finally made the big break in 1991, forming the Premier League.

Now, in a time of crisis, we can see just how disastrous the secession of the Premier League clubs is in terms of its effects on other English leagues. Bury FC, a club just outside football-crazy Manchester, completely folded due to financial inadequacy. Many more will follow if fans aren’t allowed back into stadiums. At the same time, Premier League clubs rushed back to action in order to recoup a couple billion pounds in television money, much of which was burnt during this past transfer window. The case of Bury is particularly disheartening, as the club only required £4 million to stay afloat: scraps for many of the top PL owners. 

This isn’t to say that Bury weren’t mismanaged, or that we should risk fan safety to drive gate revenue, but it can be argued that the livelihoods of the clubs, especially regarding non-playing staff, are the responsibility of larger institutions. Football, like everything else, exists in an ecosystem of relations, and the failure of small clubs to exist will have unforeseen and potentially disastrous impacts on the game as a whole, especially on those atop the food chain. In a time of acute crisis, the Premier League clubs should be doing everything they can to help those at the bottom, not petitioning for their own fans to be allowed into stadia, or voting in near-unanimity to charge British fans near £15 to watch certain matches. (If you’re wondering, Leicester City were the only outfit to side with the fans in this instance.)

It is no surprise that the likes of Abramovich care just as much about mutual aid as the American billionaires like Amazon head Jeff Bezos, who is currently enriching himself by virtue of a pandemic. American culture, and especially its economic system, is not set up to benefit the masses, but instead those at the top of society. Once we understand the history of the Premier League, why would we expect it to set itself up in any different way?

This trend of cutting out smaller clubs from streams of revenue was on the rise even before Project Big Picture was revealed and summarily hush-hushed. A meeting last year between top club executives, led by Juventus and Fiat owner Andrea Agnelli, formed to discuss a potential European Super League, a breakaway of many countries’ top clubs in a bid to make more money. The Premier League in many ways quelled these ambitions with its money-creating-and-hoarding operation, but the rules of capital dictate constant expansion, even if your owner doesn’t necessarily require a profit to be made, as is true in Manchester, and in southwest London.

The fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the world’s first major socialist experiment was seen by many as the end of its ideological cornerstone: communism. But anyone currently alive to bear witness to the destructive nature of capitalism, whether manifested by the atrocious response to the coronavirus in countries such as the U.K. or U.S., or English football’s proven tendency to enrich those atop the game, must actively seek a remedy. To view socialist theory as inapplicable to our current situation because of one failed example, where capitalism has provided many more, is just as narrow-minded as the fan who sees nothing wrong with the formation of a money-hoarding Super League, or with the Big Six using a time of crisis to exploit its position of power.

Any potential European Super League breakaway, driven by nothing more than the motive for revenue, should not be fought in terms of the maintenance of national leagues. We have seen by example of England how unequal and unfair domestic league structures currently are, and how the Premier League itself embodies its own perverse Super League. To fight against the breakaway of Juventus, Paris St. Germain, and Ajax–among many others–from their own leagues is to fight against the downfall of many more small outfits. Any decision that does not consider the wishes of the masses will necessarily bankrupt us morally and bankrupt the hundreds, thousands, of clubs we will never watch on our television sets. 

Contrary to many French, Spanish, Italian, and German clubs, which have been largely unable to muster any major spending during this past transfer window, English clubs are basking in economic glory. Chelsea spent a net €192 million, while newly promoted Leeds United forked out over €100m. This is hardly a league strapped for cash, as recent attempts to recoup funds would lead you to believe. This is a football system hell-bent on amassing power, both institutionally and on the pitch, whatever the cost.

Football is a brilliant avenue of research for its innate ability to reflect society broadly. The interplay of American financial acumen and England’s historically great footballing institutions ended in the formation of the world’s greatest sporting venture. But what of the sacrifices made to get us to this point? Is the continued reign of England’s Big Six a price we are willing to pay in order to save dozens of poorer clubs? The question has been put off for now, but it will rise again, when the next inevitable crisis of capital comes knocking on football’s door. 

Alex Dieker

Alex is an American college student studying marketing, but his passion lies in football writing. A fan of the quirkiness and underappreciated aspects of the game, it comes as no surprise that he loves Dutch football.

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