An American League in England?
Well, not really, but there are definitely some similarities between professional sports leagues here in the States and England’s most exciting, most competitive soccer league.
And no, I’m not talking about the Premiership.
I want to show a little bit of love to the Coca-Cola Championship, England’s second-tier domestic league.
The Championship is fabulous. I don’t get to watch it that often; most of the English games on TV are Premiership games and that is part of the problem I’ll get into in greater detail later; the same teams benefit from the wildly lucrative TV contracts that the Premiership has signed in past years and the little guys don’t get to bask in that sunlight.
Parity. It’s a word that fans of many Premiership clubs, particularly fans of the “Big Four”, and fans of other big clubs across Europe hate hearing. They seem to believe that their teams are entitled to finish at the top of their respective leagues each and every year, and that their teams are the only ones allowed to actually win trophies.
They look down at the little guys, which their club could very well have been at some period in history, and sneer at the notion that anyone else can challenge them. Their clubs bring in significantly more money than their competitors, and they are at such a financial advantage that not only can they sign big-name, high-profile players in the prime of their career, but they are also able to snatch rising young stars from the clubs that developed them in their youth systems as well.
These teams have built their reputations over time, although there are a few instances in which a team shot to prominence in a short period of time for some reason or another. Chelsea is an example of this, having been a relatively mid-table team until Roman Abromavich and The Special One himself, Mr. Mourinho, came to West London. Usually, though, the traditional superpowers have enjoyed their status as such for the majority of their history and if not, were at least on the periphery before rising to the top.
It has progressed over time to the point where within Europe’s top three leagues, for example, there are actually at least six mini-leagues, and I’ll show you what I mean in a second.
By and large, and there are a few exceptions, of course, only the teams in the upper tiers of the full 20-team leagues have a realistic chance to win the domestic title and cup competitions. They are usually the only teams to take part in the Champions League and benefit from the huge financial boost that comes with it. Sure, there are years in which we see outliers, as I said, but it’s not too often that someone from beneath the top four or five teams can break the stranglehold that those big clubs have on the rest of the pack. Unfortunately, it is a situation in which the rich get richer and the rest of the league, well, they’re basically treading water, stuck in neutral; whatever expression you want to use.
Upper Tier-Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal
Lower Tier-everyone else
To be more specific, there actually seems to be three tiers in the Premiership. The upper tier is the same, then comes Portsmouth, Everton, Aston Villa, and Manchester City, then comes everyone else.
Upper Tier-Inter Milan, AC Milan, Juventus, Roma, possibly Fiorentina
Lower Tier-everyone else
Upper Tier-Barcelona, Real Madrid, Sevilla, Valencia, Atlético Madrid
Lower Tier-everyone else
Now, take everything I just said and put it in the back of your mind for a second. Don’t throw it out completely, but let’s move on.
In American sporting culture, parity reigns supreme. This is a country with four main professional leagues, the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), National Basketball Association (NBA), and National Hockey League (NHL). All four leagues have some sort of salary cap and while I’m not suggesting one should be used in world soccer, I will say that the fact that an enforced, to some extent or another, limit to how much money teams can spend on their players controls and checks, for the most part, domination of these leagues by one or a few teams.
It is a common occurrence for teams who win a championship in their respective sports leagues to not even make the playoffs the next season. Sometimes they’re forced to cut payroll, or they have a bad rash of injuries, or players who had good seasons the year before can’t duplicate their success the next season for some reason another.
There are plenty of reasons for the merry-go-round that can be sports in the US, but one common factor is that the talent is fairly evenly spread across the leagues and there are upwards of 30 teams in these leagues (30 in MLB, the NBA, and the NHL, 32 in the NFL). It’s very difficult to assemble a roster full of superstars like what we see done every year at Manchester United, Barcelona, and Inter Milan. In fact, teams that often win championships here are the teams with a bunch of solid, capable, good players, with a crucial contribution from a role player or two every now and again, but without a true superstar.
As a result, we see different teams winning championships or at least, making the playoffs, routinely in America. In the NHL, seven different organizations have won the Stanley Cup since 1997-1998. In the NBA, only four different teams have won the finals since 1998-1999, but in the Western Conference at the moment, only 6.5 games separate teams 1-8 in the standings and 4 games separate teams 5-8. In the NFL, eight different franchises have won the Super Bowl since 1998-1999. In MLB, seven different franchises have won the World Series since 1999. The Colorado Rockies reached the World Series last year with a payroll ranking in the bottom third of the league. This doesn’t even include the teams who made the playoffs in those years, but you get my point. Success is there for the taking and isn’t shared by the same four or five teams year in and year out.
Now, to the main point of this article.
The Coca-Cola Championship, a 24-team league, is a great example of parity and almost every team has a legitimate chance to gain promotion to the Premier League in a given season. Yes, some teams have a more realistic chance than others, but nearly everyone is in with some form of a shout. There is no salary cap like we see in American sports, but by and large, teams have similar budgets and there’s only a relatively small difference in the salaries their players are getting paid.
The 2007-2008 season has been a great one. The league’s top two teams, currently Bristol City and Stoke City, gain automatic promotion to the Premiership. These two teams, on 70 and 69 points respectively, are only about ten points ahead of the clubs in places in 7-10 right now. Burnley, in 10th, is 12 points behind Bristol City with seven games to go. Twelve points can mathematically be made up in four matches, so Burnley will fight tooth and nail until the end of the season.
If they don’t manage to catch Bristol City or Stoke City, there’s a good chance that they can still end up in the playoffs, where teams 3-6 (3 vs. 6, 4 vs. 5) play a two-legged semifinal, with the winners advancing to a one-off affair at Wembley for promotion to the Show, aka the Premiership. Burnley is only three points behind 6th place Wolverhampton at the moment. Cardiff City, in 12th position, is just five points adrift of Mick McCarthy’s Wolves side.
Listen to this. If the season ended today, Southampton would be relegated as they’re in 22nd place. Southampton was a playoff team last year, finishing 6th, and took eventual playoff winner Derby County to penalties before being eliminated. Even in 22nd, the Saints are 15 points (just five games) out of a playoff spot right now and are three points away from 17th place Norwich City and safety, where they could live to fight another season in England’s second division.
Bristol City, who are leading the league as I mentioned earlier, wasn’t even in the Championship last season. They were in League One, where they finished as the runner-up to Scunthorpe United. Where’s Scunthorpe this year, you ask? 23rd.
Suffice it to say that things in the Championship are tight and the title race, playoff race, and relegation battle will undoubtedly go down to the final game of the season. Teams can jump several places in the table or fall several places in one day depending on what happens in other games.
It is this unpredictability and competitiveness that I find highly entertaining. We see it all the time in American sports and rarely, if ever, in Europe’s top leagues. Before every Premiership season in recent memory, nearly every “pundit” has the same four teams finishing in the top four. It is considered to be almost of a freak of nature or a superhuman performance for any team outside those four teams to crack their vicegrip on the league, and when someone is able to do it, they are praised to the high heavens. Those same four teams are the ones picked to go far in the Champions League and who usually go far in the FA Cup and Carling Cup.
Yes, the Premier League has the best athletes soccer has to offer and yes, individual games are great to watch. The same four teams nearly always come out on top though, and it’s usually the same group of teams who make up the bottom of the league. Instead of striving for excellence, teams settle on striving for medocrity and simply retaining their Premiership status.
Can you ever see a team like Middlesbrough or West Ham or Bolton or Manchester City ever actually winning the Premiership? I certainly can’t.
Can you ever see Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester United ever finishing in the lower half of the table? I certainly can’t.
For sheer drama and entertainment, give me the Championship over the Premiership any day of the week. Sure, the players in this league have nowhere near as much talent as their comrades one league above, but I guarantee you that collectively, they have more heart and more fight and play for their teams more than they play for themselves and the money. We have our share of primadonnas in America just like there are in the Premiership, I won’t lie to you. But, our top leagues are more competitive and more closely contested than the Premiership.
Hopefully you see that the Championship deserves more attention. Hopefully you see that like sporting leagues in the US, this is a league built on parity and one in which everyone has a chance to achieve their dream, to one day play in the Premiership.