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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.

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  1. Adrian

    April 16, 2008 at 4:45 am

    The Championship is unpredictable and exciting, but this isn’t always for good reasons. The quality can be very poor, and increasingly we’re seeing good clubs with a lot of financial difficulties in this league. I’ve seen a lot of games this season as Southampton supporter, while we’ve been at the wrong end of the table. We’ve easily beaten a few teams and been thrashed ourselves too often, but I haven’t seen one team to be afraid of. The great thing about the league is the hope in every fixture. There is no “well we won’t get anything from the next game”, because you can never tell. We very comfortable beat Bristol City when they were top of the league. We beat Hull 4-0, then lost to them 5-0 in the opposing fixture. It is a crazy league, but it’s still not one relegated clubs can afford to stay in.

  2. TheScout

    April 15, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    Interesting article. I do like the Championship and wish I would get to see more than just highlights. It would be nice if FSC would pick that up instead of their current programming. I also had hoped that both Nottingham Forest and Leeds would make it back up to the Championship but it looks like those two will be in the playoffs and only one, if lucky, will make it.

    A couple of small points. Clubs relegated from the Premier League are given those big parachute payments which gives them a bit of an unfair advantage in the transfer market. However, that does not always translate into an immediate return to the Premier League as Sheffield United and Charlton are finding out.

    MLB is a bad example of a sport with a salary cap. They don’t have an actual cap on spending, just a tax for spending over a certain amount. So, teams like the Red Sox and Yankees continue to spend because they can easily pay the tax.

  3. Justfootball

    April 11, 2008 at 6:53 pm

    I agree with other posters that Spain is very much more a Big 2 than a Big four or five. You say Atletico but by and large they have done nothing major in the league for years while clubs like Deportivo and Real Sociedad have excelled (even Celta Vigo made the Champions League and look at them now). In England I would also suggest that while the Big 4 is becoming more and more established, 10 years ago it was the likes of Leeds and Newcastle regularly involved at the top. Even this year its no foregone conclusion that Liverpool will finish 4th. But I agree, the unpredictability of the Championship does add to its appeal, even if it is of inferior quality to the Premiership.

  4. Kent

    April 7, 2008 at 8:48 am

    Not true. Because the sooner that happens, the sooner leagues across Europe turn to shit. I don’t like that few clubs drive the revenue and drive the leagues, but they do. I’d like it even less if all the money makers (i.e. the ones responsible for the financial success of their respective leagues) just left to play their own league.

    Is it romantic and fun to follow the Championship? Sure, and it’s even exciting with the parity issue and the fighting at the top to move up and the bottom to stay in. But, let’s remember that the Championship is also driven by clubs trying for that television money in the Premiership (and the gate receipts from having Premiership sides come to their home grounds). The Championship may be “pure” in the eyes of many, but it’s also not as good. A European SuperLeague would NOT make things better for soccer in any country; it’d only make things better for the clubs allowed entry. By the way, how’s a club allowed entry? ‘Cause you watch, some SuperLeague comes into existence and some billionaire will buy Wolves, throw money Chelsea money at them and file lawsuits to enter the closed circle.

  5. tiger dave

    April 6, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    A great article and better than most of the tosh that papers over here publish.
    My team Hull City survived relegation the game before the last game last year and we are now sitting pretty in third place with a game in hand and are the form team in the league.
    The amount of exposure over here is the same you get over there as we have the same championship games on TV.
    Ii don’t think the quality is that far off the bottom of the premiership though as it showed with a championship team getting to the fa cup final.
    The sooner the ‘Big Four’ go and join a European football league the better.

  6. dave

    April 6, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    this is a great article, as a supporter of stoke city i get to see the championship every week and while it’s true we don’t have the same standard of skill we more than match the premier league in terms of excitement(which by many of the football elite is considered the most exciting),a few years ago stoke just managed to stave off relegation and now we are possibly the favourites to be promoted, for that to happen in the premier league it would take a bored billionaire to buy the club eg chelski. i just wish other so called premier league fans would also see this and then we could start to get some sort of parity in the sport but while the champions league is seen as the be all and end all of most clubs it will never happen!!

  7. Ian

    April 5, 2008 at 9:43 pm

    I have to agree with Kent that Spain is much more a Big Two than a Big Four. Atletico especially doesn’t really deserve to be in a tier above the rest. They’re having a great year now, and have had some great ones in the past, but they are hardly a perennial Champions League qualifier the way that the Prem Big Four are. What have they done the last four years? They’ve basically been a high mid-table team. Anyway, the larger point of the article is totally true, though. The Championship is a great league, and often a lot more fun to watch than the Prem.

  8. Kent

    April 5, 2008 at 6:35 pm

    Spain is Real Madrid and Barcelona. To argue otherwise is just silly. Even when I lived there in the early 90s and Madrid was “bad,” the league was still about them and Barcelona.

    The parity of the league is great; Villarreal is a great story; loathe as I am to say it, Sevilla’s latest run is…interesting; Levante; Espanyol, etc. But, the league is really about the “Big Two.” Deportivo, Betis, Valencia, Sevilla, Racing, Espanyol, Atletico, Bilbao, Celta, Osasuna, Sociedad have had runs of success and runs of failure or mediocrity. Villarreal’s an upstart that will likely falter at some point here . (What’s the surrounding areas’ population, 50,000?)

  9. olivert

    April 5, 2008 at 11:24 am

    It’s time for UEFA to form an invitational “super league”, with a $100 million “salary floor”, so that the “TV clubs” with money to burn can be fenced in their own sand box, and let the other clubs form leagues with “parity”.

    The domestic leagues, as they are now, are too predictable and have become stale.

  10. Ohbewant

    April 5, 2008 at 10:44 am

    Arsenal 1 – Liverpool 1 EPL
    Gunners chances bleak.

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