Tuesday August 24th, 2010

Watch the television coverage of any English Premier League game between a side near the top of the table and a side near the bottom and you can guarantee that before kickoff one of the pundits will say something along these lines: "The great thing about this league is that on any given day anybody can beat anybody." Except it's not true, not anymore.

This isn't U.S. sports with a franchise system, salary caps, drafts and collective negotiating for TV rights that help to ensure general equality and thus competitiveness. This is the dog-eat-dog, every-man-for-himself European model, in which the big boys beat up the little kids on a regular basis.

Did anybody believe West Brom could get a result at Chelsea last week? Did anybody really think Blackpool would do anything other than get turned over at Arsenal? Even Blackpool manager Ian Holloway said the day before the game that he feared a "humiliation" or a "hammering." Yes, having Ian Evatt sent off after 31 minutes didn't help, but then the red card was a direct result of Arsenal's domination: Worn down by half an hour of chasing red shadows, the center back was lured into a rash challenge.

Chelsea's 6-0 victory at Wigan was a little less predictable given its loss there last season, while Newcastle's 6-0 home win over Aston Villa was a surprise. It's too early to say whether the four 6-0 outcomes through two weeks (there had been only 16 in Premier League history before this season) are part of a trend, but what clearly is a trend is the big sides routing weaker teams. Last season, Chelsea scored five or more against Blackburn, Sunderland, Portsmouth, Aston Villa, Stoke and Wigan.

That alone does not suggest a lack of competitiveness; it may be that one big score begets another. In Italy, for instance, there is a general code that says sides shouldn't humiliate their opponents, but should ease off once the game is won. That has never existed in such a formal way in England, but when one team starts scoring five or six times, rivals have to try to do similarly so as not to fall behind on goal difference. There may be psychological factors at work, too. Winning teams may previously have thought of, say, four goals as a realistic limit, and so they eased off; or, whereas once the losing side may have fought desperately to avoid the humiliation of letting in five, it may now reason that teams are getting beaten by big scores every week and so it matters less.

But there are other signs of decreasing competitiveness. It's a difficult concept to pin down, but let's consider five measures: the number of points won by the champions; the number of points needed to avoid relegation; the gap between top and fourth; the gap between top and fifth; and the gap between fourth and fourth from the bottom.

The first 38-game Premier League season was 1996-97, when Manchester United won the championship with 75 points. Arsenal won the next season with 78, and United followed with 79. Since then, no side has won the Premier League with fewer than 80 points, and only twice with fewer than 85. Five times the champion has accumulated 90 or more -- in 2000, '04, '05, '06 and '09.

To put that in a wider context, only once has the Spanish champion won more than 90 points, which was last season when Barcelona had 99. In Italy, it's happened twice: Juventus won 91 points in 2006 but was stripped of its title as part of the Calciopoli scandal; and a year later Internazionale collected 97 in a league weakened by Calciopoli. In Germany, Bayern Munich's 77 points in 2005 are the most by a champion in the past decade. The Bundesliga features only a 34-game schedule, so working from points per game (a rough and ready measure, I accept), Bayern's total equates to 86 points.

Last season in the Premiership, third-from-the-bottom Burnley was relegated with 30 points, the lowest total by the best relegated club in league history. In only one of the past 10 seasons has the third-to-last side in the Premier League earned more points than the equivalent in Spain. Direct comparison with Serie A can only really be made since 2005, when the number of relegated sides was dropped from four to three; since then, only once has Italy's third-from-the-bottom club recorded fewer points than the same one in England.

The other measures reveal a similar picture. Between 1999 and 2003, the average gap between first and fourth in England was 16 points, and between first and fifth 20.4. In the following five seasons, those averages increased to 24 and 29.6, respectively, proof of an ever-stretching league. But in 2009, the gulfs were 18 and 27 points and last season they were 16 and 19. The chasm, seemingly, is closing again, perhaps because of the arrival of big-spending Manchester City, perhaps because the global economic crisis has calmed spending. In Spain last season, the divide from first to fourth was 26 points, an indication of the stretching of its table behind Barcelona and Real Madrid.

In 2007-08, the team finishing fourth in the Premier League, Liverpool, averaged 1.05 points per game more than the side finishing fourth from the bottom, Fulham, the greatest such separation in Europe's major four leagues over the past decade. That difference has been greater in the Premier League than in Germany, Italy or Spain in 10 of the past 12 seasons. The competitiveness cliché is utterly wrong: In England, the disparity between top and bottom is greater than in rival leagues.

The why is obvious. As Wall Street told us, greed was good in the 1980s, and that was as true in Margaret Thatcher's Britain as it was anywhere.

Even as the Thatcher government's ill-conceived measures to tackle hooliganism threatened to kill the game, the ideology she fostered was transforming it beyond all recognition. Anybody interested in the detail of how the economics of English football have been revolutionized over the past 30 years should read David Conn's books, The Football Business and The Beautiful Game, while this essay in the Journal of Entertainment and Sports Law gives specifics on the impact of the Bosman ruling on the transfer market.

From the point of view of the English football, the change began in 1981. Until then, league clubs had operated under a regulation agreed upon when football resumed at the end of World War I, under which gate receipts, then by far the biggest source of income, were redistributed equally between home and away sides. There was also a 4 percent levy on gate receipts, which were then distributed equally to all 92 clubs, as were television revenues. That meant that while big-city teams with large stadiums could create an advantage by charging more, it was not an insurmountable edge.

Over the next two decades, those means of redistribution were stripped away. As Liverpool has found, a big stadium is now essential. For the first time, London -- only the second city after Athens to produce three Champions League entrants in the same season -- is the center of English football, mainly because that is where the money is. At the moment, television rights are still negotiated collectively, and that at least means some redistribution within the Premier League, although the gulf between the top division and the Championship is vast. If rights are negotiated on a club-by-club basis, though, then the most glamorous handful would stretch further away, and a glance at Spain, where the dominance of Barcelona and Real Madrid is almost tediously absolute, should show the Premier League the dangers of that model.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger predicted a tighter title race than usual this season because he saw the top six or so sides all capable of beating each other. That may be true, but the space between top and bottom remains as wide as ever. The franchise model makes Europeans instinctively uneasy, but if the hammerings continue, the equality it enforces will come to seem increasingly attractive.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.

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