The Current State of the English Premier League
First, the Big Four clubs for those who don’t follow the league closely are Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and my beloved Arsenal. While Manchester United and Chelsea remain atop any “big” list, both Liverpool and Arsenal have not challenged for the league title in recent years. It is widely recognized that only three teams are truly battling for this year’s trophy – Manchester United, Chelsea, and the new kids on the block, Manchester City.
The incredibly erratic and free-spending owner of Manchester City FC, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan has catapulted his team from perennial middle-of-the-roaders into a serious threat to win this year’s crown. Many, myself included, see Man City as representing a problem that is growing in the sport. With no semblance of a salary cap of any sort, you have a few teams who are buying players at an enormous rate, which needs to be controlled. Therefore, the divide between an “elite” club and the “rest” is growing into a problem.
For the record, this is one of the things I dislike most about other sports though, such as MLB. Let’s contrast the “no-cap” leagues with the NFL, who has a very structured way of controlling spending for the benefit of the league. Revenue sharing between clubs is important to the NFL because it allows teams who are weaker and perhaps draw poorer crowds to compete with those would always be sitting on top of the standings every year. Do you think if Jerry Jones could just spend whatever he wanted without having some penalty for doing so that he wouldn’t? Of course he would. But the present system deters that from being an option.
There are many smaller market teams who have difficulty drawing top athletes without overspending to get them. Compare the Buffalo Bills and Toronto Blue Jays, for instance. Both have great difficulty in attracting top free agents due to their geographical situation. The Jays face an even steeper climb to the top as they face the double-headed monster in the form of NYY and BRS who spend like money is a box of tissue paper. The only way the Jays can compete on a yearly basis is through an elite front office, a healthy farm system and overspending for the final few pieces of the puzzle. That’s where they are now. They have most of the pieces, but until they go out and ice the cake, we’ll continue to flirt with the postseason every year as we watch the bidding wars between New York and Boston.
Of course MLB fans will counter my argument with teams who have succeeded with relatively low payrolls. Okay, but that is not the norm, and their success is occasional at best.
Now compare that to the Bills, who have the Patriots, Jets and Dolphins in their division. The Bills are able to compete because they finally had a decent draft, and their front office could do their job in finding a few hidden gems. They simply do not have the same need to overspend. And because there is a salary cap they don’t have a New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox or Man City to squash their opportunities. The same is true across the NFL with teams who in the past have been deplorable, but now are enjoying success.
The same is happening right now with several storied, but cash-strapped clubs in England’s top-flight football. They do not have the money to compete with the free-spending teams like Chelsea and Manchester City to an even greater extent. They are losing players to the behemoths in Spain who are paying incredible transfer fees and salaries.
UEFA made a step in the right direction by imposing a spending cap on all its teams by 2012. Hopefully we have owners respecting the rules (some do not have a history of being team players), and if they don’t, UEFA must impose strict penalties. The idea is that clubs will only be allowed to spend the amount profited from football-related gains. Obviously this will only affect the top teams, and will prevent them from developing debts even higher than the inflated ones they have now. I remain optimistic that there will be some headway made, but I am not sure it is enough to curtail the plight facing English football.