Over the past 20 years, six different clubs have won the Premier League, compared to 13 different World Series champions. Five teams have won the Bundesliga but there have been nine different NBA champions. Four teams have won La Liga while 12 have lifted the Stanley Cup. There have been four different Serie A winners, a dozen Super Bowl champions since Super Bowl XXXV.
Every one of those five European football leagues had fewer different winners over the last 20 years than they had during the previous 20 years. It is a similar story for the continent’s biggest prize, the Champions League. There were 15 different winners between 1980 and 1999 but just 9 clubs reached the pinnacle of European football over the next 20 seasons. The latest UEFA club benchmarking report once again flagged up European football’s “polarization”, with the “big five” leagues generating 75 percent of the income and the top 30 clubs being responsible for around half of the total. These clubs also account for most of the wage growth, transfer income and transfer spend.
FC Porto is the only team not from a “big five” league to win the Champions League in the last two decades; five different teams from the Dutch, Portuguese, Romanian and Yugoslav leagues lifted the trophy in the 1980s and 90s. Like his predecessor Michel Platini before him, Aleksander Ceferin said the report “highlights a number of threats to continued European football stability”, with “globalization-fueled revenue polarization” top of the list. Spotting the issue has never been a problem for UEFA. Doing something about it, on the other hand… well, let us not be unkind. UEFA isn’t the only institution that identified this trend. In its latest Football Money League report, Deloitte noted that all of the clubs in the knockout stages of the last season’s Champions League were from the ‘big five’ leagues. The clubs in Deloitte’s rich list are also exclusively from these big five leagues. It is also apparent that the “largest revenue-generating clubs pull away”. Barcelona, top of the pile, earned more than 4 (4.1) times as much as 20th-placed Napoli. And these gaps have not just opened up in esoteric rankings like Deloitte’s list — they are growing in domestic leagues, too. Barca now earns six times as much money as Spain’s fifth-richest club, Sevilla. It is a similar story in France and Germany. The financial gaps are tighter in England, with its “big six”, and Italy, where Juventus has won nine in a row, but they are stretching, too. So are the big clubs too big? Could football get… boring?
For European Leagues, the organization representing the interests of the professional leagues in 29 countries, the answer appears to be “yes”. According to their managing director, financial and sporting polarization is growing, and competitive balance is decreasing in both international and domestic competitions. “We can’t run the risk to kill the dreams and the passion of fans if we want prosperous football in the future.” Swart told The Athletic that the vast majority of professional football in Europe is played in domestic league competitions, which use their position to benefit football, society, and the economy.
The goal should be to focus on reducing polarization and improving competitive balances. That competitive balance matters, especially in the long term is underlined when looking at the different broadcasting deals in Europe. The more competitive Premier League always got much bigger deals than the Leagues in Germany, Spain and Italy, as noted by another expert. He suggests the regulatory North American model drives competitive balance and provides a stronger model in the long term. Salary caps and unequal TV distribution could be used to enhance things for European Football as well. But there is also a different point of view that – Yes – the big clubs are getting bigger. But they haven’t gotten too big, so that we would get bored and start watching something else. There are at least two arguments for that. If the trend to bigger clubs leads to boredom in the market, why has the fan demand for men’s football grown over the same period? Research shows fans are interested in big clubs with star players, in addition to competitive balance or intensity.
And there are still examples of surprising outcomes. When Osasuna beat Barcelona recently, or when Ajax beat Real Madrid 4-1 in the Champions League in 2019. Leicester winning the premier league in 2016 comes to mind, or Montpellier accomplishing a similar upset in France in 2012. According to a broadcasting analyst, there is little evidence that fans are switching off because they know how the story ends.
“It is likely that fans simply want to see the best players — it’s a bonus if they are evenly distributed between teams.”
How people follow football is changing but any decline in audiences is probably more attributable to the increasing cost of subscriptions and competition from other media for people’s time. Not as a waning interest in the game. So, there is little evidence that polarization is a problem yet. A key question is whether we will reach a point where upsets will not happen anymore and, if so, what would be the impact on football as we know it. Maybe the feeling about the growing concentration of attention, money and success in European football depends on your age. Traditionalists think about the way football used to be, when it was more of a cultural and social institution. But – the younger you are, the less you care about competitive balance. And in fact, there is a growing demand.
“The majority of fans seem to be OK with the status quo. There is a minority, the so-called ‘hipster’ fan, who have gravitated towards anti-capitalist clubs like Dulwich Hamlet or St Pauli, but society, in general, has shifted towards a more capitalist and hyper commercialized approach to entertainment. But there is one thing that smaller clubs can offer that the big clubs often don’t have.
A bond that has been made during testing times. Being the underdog can be much more relatable and still offer common dreams for fans to chase after, for example the promotion to a higher league. Perhaps that is the reason why fans have not switched off.
European football provides more opportunities for relative success — be it European qualification, a cup run, climbing up the pyramid or avoiding relegation — compared to North America’s “just win, baby” ethos. “The key word is relevant and what fans want is as many relevant games as possible,” says the chief executive of the European Club Association, the group that lobbies on behalf of Europe’s over 200 richest clubs. It is a very different ball game when there is something at stake, versus a meaningless summer friendly.
“The real question is whether we want to try to engineer that competitive balance into the structures we’ve got or if we are open-minded enough to evolve those structures in order to deliver competitive balance?” In other words, “do we try to squash the successful teams down and boost the unsuccessful, with heavy regulatory interventions, or do we think about new structures, new formats, that will deliver more of the relevant games we want to see?” One simple idea could be play-offs. If you look at the Premier League for example.
You have a contest at the top for the title, one for the European places and then another at the bottom. But what about the teams in between? Fans don’t really care about the £2.5 million that each place is worth and if their club finishes 8th or 9th. The Belgian and Greek leagues have moved to end-of-season play-off systems and it is very popular in the US. The Champions League, the competition that has provided so much of the rocket fuel that has allowed the elite to distance themselves from the field, resumed after the Covid 19
break with a new modus that created a lot of excitement. Although all of the remaining teams were from Europe’s five richest leagues, the final tournament had quite some upsets and the outsiders from Bergamo, Lyon and Leipzig all won against bigger clubs. The tournament received a lot of positive reactions and might be an inspiration for a broader reform of Europe’s biggest football competitions.