EPL arms race beyond a sporting contest
Manchester City's Pablo Zabaleta, centre, celebrates scoring against Queens Park Rangers with teammates Gareth Barry, right, and Sergio Aguero. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
The richest and biggest football league in the world, the English Premier League, returned for another season over the weekend.
The 2012/13 season faces the difficult task of following on from the drama of last season’s final day, where Manchester City snatched its first title in 44 years with a thrilling come from behind win in the dying minutes of the season, and the London Olympics, which thrilled Britain over its summer.
While Robin van Persie’s move from Arsenal to Manchester United on the brink of the season put the EPL back on the agenda, it set the tone for the new season and what the league has become.
EPL chief executive Richard Scudamore has described the league as an arms race. It’s a fitting analogy when you consider the money bankrolling the current “big three” in the league – Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea – comes from the richest reserves of Abu Dhabi, the United States of America and Russia respectively.
Van Persie’s move highlights how financial clout has funneled into the new “big three” of the Manchesters and Chelsea; when even a club such as Arsenal, one of the “big four” that did until recently dominate the league, can’t compete financially with the likes of the Manchester clubs.
This environment where clubs like Manchester City can transform from serial underachievers to the richest club in the world, thanks to the likes of the Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment, backed by members of the Abu Dhabi royal family, alienates some who claim it’s anything but a fair sporting contest.
But what makes the EPL the most popular league in the world is this off-field soap opera, where the arms race adds an extra dimension to the drama of what happens on the field. That sub-plot is what added that extra level of intrigue to last season’s title battle between Manchester City and United – the new versus the old powerhouse.
Sustaining fans is the nature of the game where newly-promoted Southampton can push the defending champions Manchester City away from home on its day, even though over the space of 38 matches the gulf in financial clout becomes very evident.
But how long can it last, particularly when the divide between the haves and have-nots across some leagues in Europe is becoming so pronounced?
Heading into the season opening weekend, Scudamore was asked questions on how long before the EPL bubble bursts, amid concerns the financial arms race is unsustainable and the English game is setting itself up to bankrupt clubs. (See Glasgow Rangers and Portsmouth as examples of how financial realities can bite, with the concern in England that relegation from the riches of the EPL could condemn a club.)
But according to Scudamore, there’s no reason why people aren’t going to want to watch or listen to the league, ensuring the turnover the EPL generates can sustain the competition.
But how long will fans of middle tier clubs such as, say, Aston Villa, remain interested as their club continues to be shutout because of finances?
Those fans can only realistically hope for EPL survival, a possible run for a European spot and maybe trophies in the cup competitions, while hoping theirs is the next club to entice an incredibly wealthy owner with the spending power to match the elites or that FIFA’s Financial Fair Play system can close the gap.
Is this sustainable? If we keep watching the drama around the Manchesters, Chelseas and the next club to be turned into a powerhouse thanks to a ridiculously wealthy owner, then the rest of the league will just have to make do with being a small part of the show.
Adrian Musolino is editor of V8X Magazine, and has written as an expert on The Roar since 2008, cementing himself as a key writer who can see the big picture in sport. He freelances on other forms of motorsport, football, cycling and more.