How English Soccer—an International Disgrace 20 Years Ago—Made the Most Remarkable Turnaround in Sports History

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Sept. 20 2012 1:03 PM

What a Comeback!

Twenty years ago, English soccer was an international disgrace. How it made one of the most remarkable turnarounds in sports history.

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The six men decided that this arrangement was not working. The big-five club owners would pressure the rest of the English first division into pulling out of the existing league system and for the first time ever negotiating its own TV deal. The lower leagues were ultimately forced to go along, and the new Premier League was forged. That first deal was signed for a then-record £300 million over five years with Rupert Murdoch’s fledgling satellite provider Sky winning the bulk of the rights. The 1990 World Cup team and the founding of the Premier League two years later led to an immediate image revival for English soccer, at least from a corporate standpoint.

“People who weren’t football fans, started recognizing footballers,” Parker recalled. “Major companies started wanting to be involved in football again.”

After the injection of fresh money into the top-tier of the sport and the stadium changes initiated by the Taylor report, the league started to see an expanded fan base. As matches became safer and stadiums became cleaner, attending games became a normal family activity.

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At the same time, foreign players began to take a greater interest in the English game because of all the new money. In the 1980s, foreign players who left home had opted to play in the more prestigious Italian league Serie A. By the mid-’90s, they were starting to come to the cash-rich Premier League.

The European continent’s biggest stars—Eric Cantona, Jürgen Klinsmann, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry—who in the earlier era likely would have opted to play in Italy, were instead coming to England. The influx of foreign players and managers have radically improved the dreary, rainy soccer of the ’70s and ’80s, famously described by Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch. The Premier League is now as exciting as it is wealthy. Today, a Spurs-Arsenal match featuring such international stars as Gervinho, Lukas Podolski, and Emmanuel Adebayor is more likely to see seven sizzling goals than none.

As the product improved on the pitch and more money came in, the foreign TV markets began to take an interest. The domestic TV deals, meanwhile, continued to swell. In 1997, Sky renewed its deal for £670 million, a 337 percent increase in annual rights. At the same time that the satellite station was drawing in millions of new subscribers, the country’s soccer clubs were now drawing the largest share of their revenues from the TV deals.

The upcoming round of international TV contracts are expected to amass as much as £2 billion, which—when added with June’s record domestic deal—would move the league within striking distance of the NFL for the wealthiest in the world. The whole endeavor weathered the latest economic crises, with player wages increasing commensurately with TV rights.

“Football has done very well during an economic recession because it remains a comparatively cheap form of entertainment,” Ridley said.

At the same time, however, record sums of money have resulted in a disparity on the field and in the stands. Tickets in all-seater stadiums are more expensive than they were in the terrace days, while clubs have moved more towards the American model of aggressively marketing season tickets. Ticket prices have increased by upward of 1,100 percent since 1992.

Foreign owners, meanwhile, have bought some of the top teams for exorbitant sums, and started paying salaries that are inconceivable for smaller market clubs. This has led to the creation of a handful of wealthy superteams that dominate the competition year in and year out. At the beginning of any given season, it’s fairly easy to know which two or three major teams are going to contest for the title by year’s end.

Despite the league’s self-image crisis, it still is more competitive than the other big European league in Spain, where just two teams inevitably dominate year after year. It’s also very difficult to argue with the bottom line. The sport continues to generate billions of pounds in TV, merchandising, and ticket revenues, and a cool £1 billion alone in tax revenues for the British government.

Longtime fans might resent the idea of a billionaire Russian owner, billionaire American owners, and a billionaire Sheikh from Abu Dhabi having “bought” the last three English titles for Chelsea, Manchester United, and Manchester City respectively. But in terms of pure sporting spectacle, last season was probably the most dramatic finish any European soccer league has witnessed, ever. In the final minutes of the final day of the season, Manchester City clinched their first title in 44 years ahead of cross-town rivals Manchester United. City was able to capture the trophy only after Bosnian star Edin Dzeko and Argentine star Sergio Aguero both scored goals in injury time to lead the club to a shocking 3-2 come-from-behind victory over London’s Queens Park Rangers.

Just one thought came to mind after last year’s dramatic finale: What a comeback.

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