The foundation of the Premier League: winners and losers


Writing in 1986, the historian james walvin sadly recounted the demise of association football in England: “In recent years the game has descended deeper and deeper into a crisis, partly of its own initiative, partly imposed by external forces over which football has failed. little or no control.

Is the European Super League such a bad idea?


Violence, racism, decaying stadiums, an indifferent population and two large-scale tragedies have contributed to the degeneration of football. In 1989, when another calamity befell the sport in the form of the Hillsborough disaster, the crisis in football deepened. The sport seemed to be in terminal decline. (Hillsborough was the name of the Sheffield stadium where 94 football fans died – three more later died – after too many spectators were admitted.)


Thirty years ago this week – February 20, 1992, to be precise – English football changed dramatically. When Premier League clubs announced they were leaving the Football League, they had no idea they were embarking on a revolution that would transform the weakened game into the most popular, marketable, glamorous, culturally diverse and arguably the most valuable. world has never seen.

The inaugural season began on August 15, 1992, with 22 clubs making up the new Premier League. The original plan was for ITV to show the matches of major English clubs – Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton (Manchester City and Chelsea were not among them) – but this has been revised for a fairer arrangement.

Earlier, in 1990, Greg Dyke, then a senior executive at London Weekend Television (a subsidiary of the ITV network), pledged financial support for an English Football League breakaway – this is an assembly of clubs divided into four divisions – with revenue distributed among all member clubs.

This was a different structure in which the governing teams would form a stand-alone alliance – independent of the Football League – and which would generate its own revenue, including from the media, without any sharing responsibility with the 87 clubs outside the new entity. The Premier League was designed to operate under the auspices of the Football Association and would preserve the system whereby teams that finished the season at the bottom of the top tier would be relegated to the lower division, while those at the top of the second tier would be promoted to the new league. But the main difference was that the top flight would not share its revenue with lesser clubs.

heaven’s offer

ITV had apparently not expected a competing offer from Sky Television, which, after launching its telecommunications satellite in 1989 and starting transmission, had suffered punitive losses. So when Rupert Murdoch’s television network offered an unheard-of £304m ($407m today) for the rights to screen the new competition, it didn’t seem so much audacious as suicidal. It seems absurd now, but it was suspected that non-terrestrial TV might have been a flash in the pan.

Murdoch’s calculation was simple: football fans would pay a monthly subscription in exchange for live matches. At the time, live games were rare. Football clubs were historically opposed to broadcasting matches live for fear that attendance would drop. This does not happen. In fact, football has become an example of a market-driven sport: it has shaped a commodity, created a new demand for it, and offered it for sale.

Sky’s fortunes have turned. Subscriptions grew so much that it quickly became the UK’s leading digital platform with revenues of over £1billion. In 2018, it was acquired by US company Comcast in a deal valued at £30 billion. At the time, Sky had 27 million subscribers.

Today, Sky no longer has exclusive rights to Premier League matches. The European Union required him to share with other broadcasters. The present OK also includes BT Sport and Amazon Prime, expires in 2024-25 and is worth £5.1bn. Back-indexed to inflation this would have been around £2.3bn in 1992. The clubs’ boards (they had no absolute owners) were probably astonished at the offer apparently too generous of Murdoch. None of them would have imagined how the value of English football would skyrocket as a result of Sky’s initiative.

Armed with their newfound largesse, clubs renovated their grounds (or stadiums, as most prefer to call them today), making them safe and family-friendly. To this end, the traditional standing areas, called terraces, have been removed and replaced with seating. Now, ironically, standing sections – or “safe standing sections”, as they are called – have been reintroduced.

The lavish endowment also funded the arrival of new players, often from overseas leagues who could not match the salaries available in England. Eric Cantona was an early beneficiary, joining Manchester United in early 1992. Others included Tony Yeboah, Patrick Vieira and Ruud Gullit, black players who silenced any residual racist chanting and commentary from the 1980s. In the mid-1990s, David Beckham personified the league switching seamlessly between sport and entertainment, gaining a then-unique status as an all-around celebrity who could endorse virtually any consumer product and guarantee increased sales. .

Roman Abramovich

But the most influential figure in the Premier League was not a player, but a Russian oligarch who, in 2003, decided he wanted to buy a football club in what was then becoming the sporting competition most fashionable in the world. Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea Football Club, then in debt by around £80m. He paid off his debt and over the next 18 years spent £2billion on transfers – the amount paid to clubs to release players from contracts.

Following Abramovich’s lead, wealthy business leaders from outside the UK began buying Premier League clubs, usually with no hope of breaking even. Despite the income from the media and sponsors, the clubs managed to haemorrhage money, mainly because of the extravagant salaries of the players.

After the takeover of Newcastle United in 2021 by the Saudi Public Investment Fund, there were 14 (out of 20) top clubs in the hands of foreign owners. Chelsea lost £145.6 million last year Manchester City £125.1 million, mainly because both teams spent a lot on transfers and paid high wages; COVID-19 contributed to that, of course – clubs lost spectator revenue. Having benevolent owners means clubs now operate less like businesses, more like foundations (like endowed colleges or charities).

Supporters of grassroots sports despair at the way what was once a working class game played by factory teams and backed by industrial workers has been hijacked by international plutocrats. Their intention was never to cultivate local talent, but to attract the brightest names from around the world. Last year, Chelsea paid Inter Milan £97.5m for Romelu Lukaku. In 2016, Manchester United paid over £89m for the services of Paul Pogba. Salaries for both players are £12-15million a year. Some say it crowds out aspiring young local players. Others suggest it inspires them.


What about the clubs that remained in the Football League, now renamed EFL? They were thrown adrift and faced head-on market forces. Virtually all clubs in the three divisions that make up the EFL are struggling financially and many have declared themselves insolvent. They are unlikely to thrive outside the Premier League. Therefore, their goal is to get a promotion. Ironically, these clubs could have benefited had the ill-fated European Super League, which attracted interest from several top Premier League clubs, taken off.

At the beginning of the 20and century, money was, for many, a plague that would destroy the fundamental value of fair play. Today, you could say he was the savior of English football. Like all other professional sports – and all major sports are now professional – football has been embroiled in corruption, doping, violence and other activities that have robbed the core precept of sport. All had their sources in money. Yet money is arguably the main driver of every development in contemporary sport, and this is particularly true in English football.

The Premier League is emblematic of recent developments in the sport. It vibrates with greed, ruthlessness, triumphalism and indifference to the collectivist principles that originally gave birth to football.

*[Ellis Cashmore is co-editor of Studying Football.]

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.


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