Thirty years after its inaugural season, the Premier League can rightly celebrate its status as the world’s most popular football league. There’s not one factor behind it; there are many, and you might be familiar with them.
In no particular order, you might cite the following: heritage (the game was invented here, after all), language (English is the world’s lingua franca), a very pro-business environment that facilitates foreign investment, strong leadership that regularly presents a united front (especially in the 15 years Richard Scudamore was in charge), excellent marketing and packaging/production values, a willingness to embrace expertise from abroad (not just players, but coaches, owners and executives too) and, often overlooked, a strong domestic market that is fiercely loyal and willing to spend on their club.
There might be others too, you may disagree with some of the above and we could probably debate endlessly the impact of each factor listed. But here are two which, as I see it, really don’t apply or, at a minimum, are vastly overrated: superstars and competitiveness, which, to some, might seem counterintuitive: surely you expect success to be driven by household names. And, surely, you need some level of unpredictability and competition, or fans will lose interest.
I’d argue that the Premier League is evidence that this might not be the case. Or, rather, that these weren’t key factors in spurring the league’s growth, unlike, say, the NBA in its heyday.
Start with the superstar piece. Admittedly, it’s a fuzzy, know-it-when-I-see-it concept. But if you take it to mean some combination of being among the very best in the world, popularity and having a commensurate hype machine/commercial operation following you around, you might find that there have been fewer in the Premier League than you think, at least before Erling Haaland‘s arrival.
Scan the highest echelons of the A-list and who do you have? Cristiano Ronaldo (minus the 15 years in the prime of his career he spent in Spain and Italy either side of his two spells at Manchester United). David Beckham (though, of course, he left age 28). Zlatan Ibrahimovic (again, arriving on the downside and not staying very long). Thierry Henry? Wayne Rooney? Kevin De Bruyne? Mohamed Salah?
These are exceptional players, sure. But even at their peak, few reached the level of hype and global superstardom of a Kylian Mbappe or a Neymar or a Ronaldinho. Take one very simple metric, football’s ultimate popularity contest: the Ballon d’Or.
Regular readers will know I’m not a fan precisely because it is a giant media exposure and popularity contest. But for the purposes here, it’s pretty much perfect. Consider the past 20 editions of the award. Premier League players finished in the top five just 17 out of 100 times. Thierry Henry on three occasions, Ronaldo twice and 12 other guys just once.
Did the league’s popularity suffer? Not at all. Probably because it’s not built on popular megastars, but, rather, popular megabrands. Allegiance is built on loyalty to the crest on the front of the shirt more than the name on the back. I know it’s a cliché and it’s sort of what fandom is supposed to be all about, but marketers have been warning about floating fan bases who follow their superstars from team to team, like in the NBA, for years. Doubtless it happens in football too, and in the Premier League as well, but few institutions manage to weather the loss of a star (in terms of hype/attention/relevance) the way the English top flight does.
Then there’s competitiveness. The idea is that because there’s a “Big Six,” the league is unpredictable and uncertain every year, unlike in other countries. In the past 10 years, the Premier League has been won by five different clubs, Spain’s LaLiga, Italy’s Serie A and France’s Ligue 1 by three and, of course, Germany’s Bundesliga by just one (Bayern Munich, in case you’ve been hiding under a rock). But there’s a bit of a fallacy with that thinking.
First, while title races might be engrossing to the neutral, most supporters are fans of their club and care about their club’s performance and progress. Did fans of the other 18 clubs enjoy watching the roller-coaster final day of the Premier League last year that ultimately crowned Manchester City as champions? Probably. Is it what keeps them fans of a club in that league? I don’t think so.
Nor does the number of winners, strictly speaking, matter. However much folks peddle the line that the league is all about social mobility and that you can build success over time and become a super club, the truth is, unless you are owned by a Russian oligarch or a sovereign wealth fund that is happy to finance years of losses, probably not. Since 2005, when Everton finished fourth, only one team outside of the so-called Big Six (which, admittedly were more of a Big Five at the time since Abu Dhabi had not yet invested in City) has managed a top-four finish: Leicester City, when they won it all in 2015-16 (and extinguished their lifetime quota of fairy tales).
Gab Marcotti explains why the Premier League’s financial clout is underplayed by looking only at total spend.
Think about it. The season starts and only six of the 20 clubs can realistically hope to finish top four. One of the side effects of the league’s success is that revenue flows to the top. And so the aspiring middle class (in recent seasons Aston Villa, West Ham, Everton, Leicester) find themselves with a Sisyphean task.
Other European leagues have had more top-four variety — France (14), Germany (13), Italy (11) and Spain (10) — than England’s mere seven teams in 17 seasons. But guess what? When it comes to the overall popularity of a league, maybe it’s not a “thing.” Fans have become accustomed to the polarization and stratification between the ultra-rich (they exist in every league, but there are more of them in the Premier League) and everybody else. They accept that they’re showing up to a race in a walker while others are in a Ferrari.
So they judge success in different ways. They get their enjoyment from watching their team achieve their minimum goals: mid-table, avoiding relegation, whatever. And they enjoy the games themselves, perhaps more than the result or the league table. For an owner, that’s the holy grail: entertain your customers and give them something meaningful that they can cherish year after year without having to break the bank to actually win something. Judging from the attendances and fan bases of mid-to-small Premier League clubs (not to mention those in the lower leagues, whose crowds dwarf the rest of Europe’s), they do this better in England than anywhere else.
The Premier League, especially on television, consistently feels “big-time” and competitive from top to bottom in a way other leagues don’t. Why? Most of the grounds look good on the screen, the fans are packed closely together, the game proceeds at a good clip, the players seem to care. Upsets are no more frequent (and sometimes less so) than in other Big Five leagues, but the above foursome of factors — real or perceived — consistently applies to most Premier League games in a way it does not elsewhere. And that makes it a heck of a lot easier to sell the “Any Given Sunday” narrative that so many people accept (and which, generally, isn’t true).
There might come a time when the above formula no longer works. After all, league supremacy, they say, is cyclical. But, for now, the fact that the Premier League is the world’s de facto Super League (at least in commercial terms) is pretty much undisputed. And the reasons for its success might not be the ones you thought.