What England’s Premier League Did for Football

Thirty years ago, English football changed when the top clubs announced they were leaving the Football League.
Premier League news, English Premier League, English Football League, First Division Premier League, Premier League history, English football history, British football history, football history, Ellis Cashmore, English sports history

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Writing in 1986, the historian James Walvin mournfully chronicled the demise of association football in England: “The game in recent years has plunged deeper and deeper into a crisis, partly of its own making, partly thrust upon it by external forces over which football has little or no control.”


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Violence, racism, decaying stadiums, an indifferent population and two full-scale tragedies had contributed to football’s degeneration. In 1989, when yet another calamity visited the sport in the form of the Hillsborough disaster, football’s crisis deepened. The sport seemed in terminal decline. (Hillsborough was the name of the stadium in Sheffield where 94 football fans died — three more passed away later — after too many spectators were admitted.)

Revolution

Thirty years ago this week — February 20, 1992, to be precise — English football changed dramatically. When the clubs in the First Division announced they were leaving the Football League, they could have had no conception they were starting a revolution that would turn the debilitated game into the most popular, marketable, glamorous, culturally diverse and arguably most valuable sports competition the world has ever seen.

The inaugural season started on August 15, 1992, with 22 clubs making up the newly branded Premier League. The original plan was for ITV to screen the games of England’s leading clubs — Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton (Manchester City and Chelsea were not among them) — but this was revised to a more equitable arrangement.

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Earlier, in 1990, Greg Dyke, then a senior executive at London Weekend Television (an affiliate of the ITV network), pledged financial support for a breakaway from England’s Football League — this being an assembly of clubs split into four divisions — with revenue distributed among all member clubs.

The proposal was for a different structure in which the leading teams formed a self-contained alliance — independent of the Football League — and which would generate its own revenues, especially from the media, without any responsibility for sharing with the 87 clubs outside of the new entity. The Premier League was designed to operate under the auspices of the Football Association and would preserve the system in which the teams that finished the season at the bottom of the top tier would be relegated to the division below, while those at the top of the second tier would be promoted into the new league. But the key difference was that the elite would not share income with lesser clubs.

Sky’s Bid

ITV had presumably not expected a rival bid from Sky television, which, having launched its telecommunications satellite in 1989 and started transmission, had endured punishing losses.  So, when Rupert Murdoch’s TV station bid an unheard of £304 million ($407 million today) for the rights to screen the new competition, it seemed not so much audacious as suicidal. It sounds absurd now, but there was a suspicion that non-terrestrial television might have been a flash in the pan.

Murdoch’s calculation was simple: Football fans would pay a monthly subscription in exchange for live games. Back then, live games were a rarity. Football clubs were historically opposed to screening games live for fear that their attendances would slump. That didn’t happen. In fact, football became an exemplar for market-oriented sport: it fashioned a commodity, created a new demand for it and offered it for sale.

Sky’s fortunes turned. Subscriptions rose so sharply that it soon became the UK’s leading digital platform with revenues of over £1 billion. In 2018, it was acquired by the American 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 games. The European Union obliged it to share with other broadcasters. The present deal also includes BT Sport and Amazon Prime, expires in 2024-25 and is worth £5.1 billion. Retro-indexed to inflation, this would have been about £2.3 billion in 1992. The boards of directors of the clubs (they didn’t have outright owners) were probably astonished at Murdoch’s seemingly over-generous bid. None of them would have imagined how the value of English football would spiral upward as a result of Sky’s initiative.

Buoyed by their new largess, the clubs refurbished their grounds (or stadiums, as most prefer to call them today), rendering them safe and family-friendly. To this end, the traditional standing areas, known as terraces, were removed and replaced with seats. Now, ironically, standing sections — or “safe standing sections,” as they are known — have been reintroduced.  

The lavish endowment also bankrolled the arrival of new players, often from overseas leagues that couldn’t 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 chants and comments leftover from the 1980s. In the mid-1990s, David Beckham personified the league moving seamlessly between sports and entertainment, acquiring a then-unique status as an all-purpose celebrity who could endorse practically 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 emerging as the most fashionable sports competition in the world. Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea Football Club, then about £80 million in debt. He made good on the debt and, over the next 18 years, splurged £2 billion on transfers, that is, the amount paid to clubs to release players from contracts.

Following Abramovich’s example, moneyed business leaders from outside the UK began buying Premier League clubs, usually without any hope of breaking even. Despite the media and sponsorship income, clubs managed to hemorrhage money, mainly because of extravagant player salaries.

After the 2021 takeover of Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, there were 14 (of 20) top-flight clubs in overseas owners’ hands. Chelsea lost £145.6 million last year, Manchester City £125.1 million, mainly because both teams spent so much on transfers and paid high salaries; COVID-19 contributed, of course — the clubs lost income from spectators. Having benevolent owners means the clubs now operate less as businesses, more as foundations (like endowed colleges or charities).

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Proponents of grassroots sports despair at the manner in which what was once a working-class game played by factory teams and supported by industrial workers has been hijacked by international plutocrats. Their intention has never been to cultivate local talent, but to attract the world’s most glittering names. Last year, Chelsea paid £97.5 million to Inter Milan for Romelu Lukaku. In 2016, Manchester United forked over £89 million for the services of Paul Pogba. Both players’ salaries are £12-15 million per year. Some argue this squeezes out aspiring young local players. Others suggest it inspires them.

Losers

What of the clubs that remained in the Football League, now rebranded as EFL? They were cast adrift and left to face the full brunt of market forces. Practically every club in the three divisions that make up the EFL struggles financially and many have declared themselves insolvent. There is little chance they can prosper outside the Premier League. Hence, their aim is to secure promotion. Ironically, these clubs might have benefited if the ill-fated European Super League, which attracted interest from several leading Premier League clubs, had taken off.

At the start of the 20th century, money was, for many, a pestilence that would destroy the core value of fair play. Today, it could be argued that it was English football’s savior. Like every other professional sport — and all major sports are now professional — football has been embroiled in corruption, doping, violence and other activities that have despoiled sport’s central precept. All had their sources in money. Yet money is arguably the prime mover behind every single development in contemporary sport, and that is especially true in English football.

The Premier League is emblematic of recent developments in sports. It thrums with avarice, ruthlessness, triumphalism and an indifference to the collectivist principles that originally brought football into being.

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

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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