Fans of the Premier League and beyond are swept up in the magic that is currently happening at Leicester City. Their historic run this year is shocking players, fan and pundits alike. As they begin to wrap up their title race we can start to unravel their rise to glory. One thing that has struck me during their triumphant run is the stark difference in player wages between Leicester and the usual cast of Premier-League-winning characters.
In 2014/15, Leicester spent £36.6m on wages, which they increased to £48.2m this year. As a point of reference, the top four wage bills for Premier League teams this season are Chelsea (£215.6m), Manchester United (£203m), Manchester city (£193.8m) and Arsenal (£192m). For each team that’s approximately four to five times what Leicester pay their team of league-leaders. Shame.
What Leicester’s run has done more than anything is to expose the false presumption that there is a dominant class of Premier League teams. Since the turn of the century, teams like Chelsea and Manchester City have been bolstered by massive foreign investors and have launched themselves into the exclusive club of English elite. The same elite that Leicester find themselves atop now.
And now that Leicester City close in on their title, news breaks that representatives from the ‘top’ Premier League clubs met to ballpark the idea of a European Super League. This league would pull ‘super’ teams from the Big Five leagues to compete in a closed-off league to replace the current format of the Champions League.
This is not a new idea, and it does have to be said that both Arsenal and Louis Van Gaal have been outspokenly against a super league, but that doesn’t change the fact that Premier League teams sent representatives to entertain this idea. These five representatives met with Charlie Stillitano, an American businessman who has some concrete thoughts on setting up an elite-only Champions League.
And, just because he’s the best and wanted to do us all a solid, Claudio Ranieri is calling them the f*ck out.
The Leicester boss said: “I understand bigger teams don’t want one year without the Champions League, but this is sport. For one year, you don’t achieve this, you want to make something different? It’s not right. You are afraid. You are not strong. They have to blame themselves. They should ask: Why is a little team like Leicester doing better than us?”
Yet, that poignant question is one that will most likely never be asked. I am aware that this super league is unlikely to happen, but it struck me as amazing how quickly the ‘top’ clubs that love to brag about their financial status (Ed Woodward, please tell me about your turnover again) tucked their tails and ran the second that they caught a whiff of competition. Instead of digging into them myself, I’ll let Martin Samuel’s article for the Daily Mail do it for me. Cheers, Martin.
I’d like to take a rapid change of pace and draw a parallel between this European super league and something that I hold dear to my heart: Major League Soccer.
If you are an MLS fan that hates even the slightest idea of changing our system, click away now. This will not be an article ripping apart our current system and leadership and demanding a change right now, but it also will not be saying MLS is the right system for international glory. I’ve found myself on both sides of this issue and what I’ve found is that both sides can be ridiculous. Generally, people are very passionate about this issue, and while the passion inspires a lot of diverse ideas, people do not generally seem to be open to the reality of the debate. It seems to be that you are either an MLS fan that loves our current system and anyone who thinks differently is a fool, or you support promotion/relegation and everyone who thinks differently is a fascist.
I’ve listened to this debate and have begun to wonder, why is there no middle ground?
I’m not an MLS fan that constantly argues for promotion/relegation. I’ve recognized that while the model of promotion and relegation is extremely successful in promoting competition in leagues around the world, it’s not what MLS has needed. Don Garber and the other leaders of MLS have done an amazing job of cultivating steady growth and a consistent league that fans are comfortable with. What they’ve done is difficult. Over the last 20 years, they’ve manufactured a league that has the fifth highest revenue and ratings (fourth highest attendance) of any sports league in the USA, where professional sports were invented. That’s damn impressive.
But that’s the point that stuck out to me after Ranieri’s comments on the top Premier League clubs wanting to create a closed-off league: A closed league is safe.
Whether it’s a European Super League or Major League Soccer, a league that is set up to have the same teams year in and year out does not facilitate risk. It’s a system that inevitably benefits the league– there is little financial risk for owners and although the growth may not be rapid, it is steady. It’s easy to ensure financial stability when you control the competitive goods coming in and out of the league and you have a consistent fan base.
However, at the beginning of the 21st season some fans of this league need to begin asking what is next. There are a couple of signs that I’ve noticed that signal to me that MLS needs to start looking towards a shift of system.
Although the league has lauded its consistent growth, Week 1 of the 21st season kicked off with TV ratings lower than the previous season. This could be attributed to a number of things such as a change of season kick-off day or the opening match-ups, so it could be a fluke. Also, the 2016 season has just started so there’s no way to ensure these declined TV ratings will continue.
However, aside from the first week drop, there are some worrying statistics for MLS interest. Looking through Google Trends, which I know isn’t the end-all-be-all for real life interest but is undeniably an effective way to track interest throughout regions, you can trace how interest in MLS has fared in the United States. Let’s take a look at two trends: How MLS interest in America compares to other major soccer competitions and how MLS interest in America compares to the other big four professional sports league.
The first graph is to be expected– Major League Soccer doesn’t chip into the interest generated by the behemoths that are the US professional sports market. It’s the second graph that is worrying. When Google Trend began tracking in 2004, American interest in MLS decimated every other soccer competition in the world. However, over the last ten years, interest in MLS has plummeted compared to other leagues, namely the Premier League and the Champions League.
There is absolutely no arguing that American interest in soccer is skyrocketing, but the question is becoming where is that interest going to be invested? The level of skill, and easily arguably the competition is much better overseas, and when has an American consumer market ever settled on mediocrity? The trend of the numbers is pointing towards a nervy conclusion: American soccer interest will primarily center around foreign leagues. And that, no matter how you spin it, is not good for American soccer.
And, in my opinion, the most concerning fact is that MLS can look at actual proof of its mediocrity. A year after the Montreal Impact made a glorious run to the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) finals in 2015 all four MLS teams in the CCL, a tournament an MLS team has never won, were knocked out of the tournament by LIGA MX sides in the quarterfinals. I don’t know about you, but personally, I think it’s hard for a league whose commissioner claims will be a world-power by 2020 to do so if they aren’t even the best league on their continent. It’s 2016 and 2020 looms closer and closer, and it feels as though something’s got to give.
This doesn’t need to be a massive overhaul that involves dismantling the closed-system league by next year, but now is definitely becoming the moment that MLS needs to look towards the next steps. And if we’re being honest as soccer fans, the eventual goal of Major League Soccer should be an open league system.
I know that’s a contentious point. A lot of MLS fans have learned to love soccer in the American system and not only is the league’s style comfortable, but it ensures consistency. There is no risk that the league will collapse next year and the league is still demonstrating growth, so why change anything?
It’s true and it’s something that I’ve argued in support of for years. The big problem I’ve started to notice is that I’ve never known an American anything to be content with safety and mediocrity. One may argue that “mediocrity” is just a dirty word thrown around to talk down the value of parity, and in some cases they’d have a point.
But in a market that is truly global it requires a comparison against the international market, not against itself. And it is becoming increasingly evident that MLS and the system of American soccer are not ready to compete globally and won’t be for a long, long time. If you’re an MLS fan that is okay with rooting for your league to succeed, then there are no problems. But if you truly hope of glory for American club, I think it is time for us to ask for something more.