Often we’re told as football fans that the Premier League is the best league in the world. Based on the performances of English teams in Europe, that’s not true. What is true is that the Premier League is the most competitive soccer league in Europe, and combine this with the lack of a language barrier around the world, the Premier League is easily the most popular. But are these international audiences flocking to the Premier League because of this competitiveness, or the star power at the big clubs?
Babatunde Buraimo and Rob Simmons have published a paper in the International Journal of Economics in which they claim that as more money has been pumped into the English game, the demand for games in which the outcome is not a given has dropped and the demand to watch the bigger teams has increased. They scoured through TV ratings, odds, and the wage bills of games from 2001 to 2008, and came away with some interesting conclusions.
As they wrote, “The classic notion of a pure sporting contest in which the outcome is unpredictable has been replaced with one in which the preference is for sporting entertainment delivered by superstars.” This seems odd, especially from an American perspective. US Sports leagues (especially MLS) pride themselves on artificially enforced parity; the competitiveness of every game, every series and that each team has a chance to win a title from day one.
In the Premier League that certainly isn’t so, but more teams have a chance in England than in Spain, Germany or Italy. The last team not named Real Madrid or Barcelona to win the La Liga crown before last season was in 2004 when Valencia were crowned Champions. As the money in the game has increased, so has the massive stratification of it. Bayern Munich has won 11 out of the last 17 Bundesliga titles. And it looks like Juventus could continue their run of titles unimpeded in Italy with no true challenger.
With Manchester United’s fall from grace, teams like Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool last season have all challenged seriously for the Premier League crown. But all of those are big clubs with big names, and while that’s five teams with a chance to win the title year on year, the study concludes that audiences would rather see this continue than see teams win titles such as when Everton, Watford, Ipswich, Nottingham Forest among many others saw themselves with a chance to win the crown.
What’s incredibly disturbing (or enticing depending on whose colors you sport), is that the numbers used in this study only go up until 2008 because Sky would not release later figures. If this hypothesis is correct, and there is ample evidence from Buraimo and Simmons to suggest it is, then the gap in ratings for games with big stars and big teams should have grown even larger as time has passed. If you’re a supporter of the Premier League’s big fish, then this shouldn’t be either surprising or concerning.
But from a perspective of parity, competitiveness and randomness, the same randomness that allows a team like Burnley to beat Manchester City on any given day, the Premier League is as stock as the rest of European soccer, and we only have ourselves to blame (or praise) for this.
Buraimo and Simmons conclude their paper with this statement, which is as indicative of any statement of English football to date.
“The unpredictability of the outcome no longer matters for television viewers. The implications of these findings are that leagues should no longer defend their practices on the ground of uncertainty of outcome, and consequently the defense of sports policies should be reconsidered.”
To read the paper, go to http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13571516.2015.1010282
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