"Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."
The English Premier League
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Richard Elliott, Editor, London, Routledge, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-138-64035-1While this is an academic book, based on credible research and with all sources quoted, it is actually a very readable book for the general reader. In 10 main chapters the book, to quote the foreword, describes “how the 22-headed monster became the most popular league in the world”. While written by different authors, the chapters pass seamlessly from one to the other. The book charts the history of the Premier League, the significance of TV in its development, its global attraction, the development of the perception of players, the increasing role of sports science, the role of fans and the importance of money. Chapters on race and homosexuality raise important if slightly uncomfortable issues. In the final chapter the editor gazes into his crystal ball to predict the future of the EPL.
Six important themes emerge from the authors’ analysis:
1 The diminishing importance of fans.
2 The pre-eminence of broadcast income and commercial aspects.
3 The celebrity status of players.
4 That the average EPL player is foreign.
5 How football has become part of entertainment industry.
6 The globalisation of the EPL with its foreign players, foreign coaches, foreign owners and TV coverage in 200 countries.
The book discusses the tensions between the commercial success of the EPL and football’s historical cultural foundations as “the people’s game”. There is a reference to EPL marketing Manchester City as a ‘local’ football club, which seems to sit uncomfortably with the club being funded by billions of pounds from Middle Eastern oil and a squad of players and coaches, radically international rather than even remotely British.
It is impossible in a short review to do justice to the wealth of information contained in the book. I will pick out a few highlights:
TV money has transformed the Premier League. In 1983 there were 10 televised games in the old Division 1, generating £2.6 Million. On 2016 live TV game totalled 168 and income £1.7 billion. The EPL TV revenue is more than the broadcasting revenue received by the Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A combined. On the negative side, games now take place at any time of the weekend or midweek evenings with the preferences of live fans very much secondary to the TV schedule preferences.
To put broadcast income in context, it should be noted that in the 1991/1992 season, revenue from television was worth 9% of club income in comparison to gate revenue which was 48 per cent. Currently broadcasting revenue represents 53%, sponsorship and commercial activities equated to 29%, and match-day revenue only 18 per cent.
The global appeal of the EPL is staggering to the extent that no other elite football league comes close to its ability to deliver a global fan base to a host of global corporate sponsors eager to associate their brands with clubs and players.
The role of the stadium - not just as a place to play football matches but a business asset to generate revenue is highlighted with a case study of Arsenal’s move in 2006 from Highbury, its home ground for over 100 years, to a brand-new stadium nearby. Arsenal’s stadium revenue increased from €52 million in its final season at Highbury to more than €140 million by season 2008/2009.
During the first weekend of the Premier League, only 13 non-British and Irish players made appearances, but in recent years both Arsenal and Chelsea have fielded teams without an English born player. In the first EPL season of 1992/1993, 69 per cent of starts were made by players qualified to play for England. By 2012/2013 this figure had fallen to only 32%.
Richard Scudamore, the Chief Executive of the EPL is quoted as saying: “We believe that the hard work that has gone into tackling racism has been significant in changing the culture of sport both in England and across Europe”. However, this view is challenged by a chapter in the book, which refers to the paucity of black managers and British South Asian players in the EPL. It is suggested that this is partly as a result of “the domination of white men in most decision-making positions”, who tend to recruit and surround themselves with others who share similar social and ethnic backgrounds and worldviews, who are unlikely to challenge the prevailing cultural norms. The way that Liverpool FC supported Luis Suarez and Chelsea John Terry when they were accused to racist comments against opponents and the reaction to comments by Malky Mackay is seen as evidence of an acceptance of racism within the EPL.
This is a thought-provoking book which charts the growth and overwhelming success of the English Premier League. At the same time it does not shy away from the cost of the success such as television-controlled kick-off times, ramped-up ticket prices, the loss of a distinctively English league and has left loyal fans often feeling less important than commercial partners.