Are the ‘Big Six’ killing English football’s competitive balance?

Are the ‘Big Six’ killing English football’s competitive balance?

The Premier League proclaims to be ‘the most competitive league in the world’. George Glover questions whether this is still the case.

One could make a strong case for the English Premier League being the UK’s finest export. It is the world’s most-watched sports league, broadcast in 212 territories to 643 million homes, and to a potential TV audience of 4.7 billion people. An idea of competitive balance has always been central to the league’s commercial success, with the phrase “anyone can beat anyone” utilised not only as a dreadful pundit’s cliché, but also as a canny marketing slogan that attracts fans looking for excitement and unpredictability. Recently, though, this balance has been undermined by the emergence of the ‘Big Six’.

The Big Six consists of six clubs – Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool – that have significantly more financial power than the rest of the league. Since the early 2010s, when the sub-grouping emerged, the clubs have collaborated together to control the league in a cartel-like manner; most notably, they recently re-negotiated the Premier League’s overseas TV rights deal to ensure that revenue will no longer be shared equally between the division’s 20 clubs. A key reason for this financial disparity is a shift in the ownership model of football clubs. When the Premier League was founded in 1992, chairmen such as Manchester United’s Martin Edwards, Tottenham’s Irving Scholar, and Arsenal’s David Dein prided themselves on running their clubs as business ventures, applying commercial principles and prioritising profit ahead of revenue.

25 seasons later, much has changed. The globalisation of football has enabled investment from overseas tycoons that prioritise success on the pitch ahead of profit margins. The most egregious case of what one might  disparagingly call a footballing ‘sugar daddy’ used to be Chelsea’s owner Roman Abramovich; since his first investment in 2003, Abramovich has reportedly loaned the club over £1 billion, and the club used to regularly make losses of over £100 million per season. This investment helped to catapult a previously mediocre club into the ‘Big Four’, a precursor to the Big Six. The same business model of excessive spending with a prioritisation of revenue over profit has been pursued by City Football Group, the Emirati businessmen that own Manchester City, and who have strong links to the Abu Dhabi royal family. Last season’s City squad cost £777 million to put together, a staggering transfer outlay that Premier League clubs outside the Big Six could never match.They went on to win the 2017/18 Premier League title by record-breaking margins, and became the first team to record 100 points. City’s outstanding campaign coincided with the Big Six occupying the top six positions for the second year in a row; sixth-placed Arsenal finished nine points above seventh-placed Burnley. This shows that the financial disparity that exists between the wealthiest and the rest is increasingly being reflected by on-field performance.

However, perhaps the stat that best represents this is goal difference. In 2011, teams won games by an average of 0.93 goals, yet by 2018, the average margin of victory had ballooned to 1.60.This indicates a worrying growth in one-sided matches that make for poor viewing experiences, and almost all of these games come as a result of the Big Six’s expensively assembled squads thrashing the Premier League’s financial minnows. For example, at the time of writing, City had won five of their 13 Premier League fixtures by a margin of four goals or more. While the Mancunian club’s fans might enjoy such dominance, it is unlikely to attract foreign viewers, who would be better served in terms of entertainment by switching channel to watch other more competitive leagues. Thus, the Big Six’s dominance can alienate potential audiences and risks eroding the Premier League’s global brand.

At least Manchester City’s dominance has come from playing exciting and attacking football; manager Pep Guardiola has even had the courtesy to improve a few English players, including World Cup stars Raheem Sterling and John Stones. If potential fans are alienated by City’s repeated thrashings of smaller Premier League clubs, they should be actively repulsed by the theatrics of their cross-town rivals Manchester United. Ex-manager José Mourinho insisted on coaching his side to play dull, defensive football, leading to a spate of 0-0 draws against much smaller clubs. Mourinho then routinely complained about a supposed lack of backing from United’s board, despite the £302 million that the ownership group has spent since his appointment in 2016. Hypocrisy and monotony are arguably equal parts of the Big Six package.Perhaps it is worth considering the historic context of an elite cartel dominating the Premier League. The competition itself was founded in 1992 by a ‘Big Five’ group of clubs (United, Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton) that sensed an opportunity for financial gain and thus broke away from the 104-year-old institution of the English Football League. In the 2000s, the league was dominated by the aforementioned Big Four (United, Arsenal, Liverpool and the newly-wealthy Chelsea). United, Chelsea, Arsenal and City have won 23 of the 25 titles since the league’s formation, reflecting a general competitive imbalance whereby smaller clubs have seldom competed.

However, there is hope for football fans that the Premier League will reclaim its previous (self- given) title of “the most competitive league in the world” in the near future. Financial Fair Play measures are yet to be properly enforced by Europe’s governing body UEFA, but they do provide a framework to punish clubs for incurring massive losses as part of a strategy of unrestrained spending. Furthermore, amongst the Big Six the title race is still hugely competitive: games between any two teams in the group become a must-see event, and no team has won consecutive Premier League titles since Manchester United in 2009. Perhaps one silver-lining from Brexit may be that Big Six clubs can no longer so easily acquire top European stars, which would force them to concentrate on developing home-grown players and reduce the on-field gap with other Premier League clubs.

The best reminder of English football’s enduring entertainment factor comes from one of the few clubs to break into the Big Six during the past decade: Leicester City. In the 2015-16 season, an unfancied and cheaply-assembled side embarrassed the cumulative riches of the Big Six. The ‘Leicester City story’ gained the Premier League new fans around the world, and such an incredible underdog story was only so engaging because most football fans were actively rooting against top clubs’ monopoly. Even as modern English football seems increasingly imbalanced, it is undeniable that upsets and miracles still happen. Leicester proved that there remains some truth in that old Premier League marketing slogan: anyone can still beat anyone.

This article was originally published in Issue 722 of Pi Magazine.

Artwork by Ashley Broom