The Premier League season draws to an exciting close. It is by no means clear who will be champions, or who will gain the coveted top five European qualifying spots. There could even be a surprise. If Liverpool win, for the first time since 1995 a team from outside Manchester and North London will be crowned. Even then it was Blackburn. In the previous 21 seasons of the Premier League, all the winners have come from either the North West or London. So a Scouse victory would not alter this.
These regions are important, with around 20 per cent of the UK’s population and 30 per cent of its income. But their lock on the Premier League seems absolute. Yorkshire and the West Midlands have big populations, but have not experienced football success, especially teams from the White Rose county. It is not just a matter of the champions. No team from outside the Lancashire/London strongholds has been in the top five since Newcastle in 2004, and none have been in the Champions’ League top four qualifying spots since Newcastle the season before that. Aggregating all the results over the last ten years, only Aston Villa and Newcastle are in the top ten from outside, at eighth and tenth respectively.
In its first few seasons, the Premier League had more democratic outcomes. In 1992/93, not only were Aston Villa second, but Norwich were third and QPR fifth. The next season, Newcastle were second, and Leeds and Wimbledon fifth and sixth respectively.
Looking back, it seems easy to rationalise the growing concentration of success amongst a handful of teams in a couple of areas. The creation of the Premier League injected increasing amounts of money into the game. The value of TV rights has soared. The bigger names have cashed in on income streams such as sponsorship and shirt sales. In the jargon, positive feedback has been in operation. Unto him that hath, more shall be given. And as Kuper and Szymanski show in their book Soccernomics, the size of their wage bills explains no less than 92 per cent of the variation in the clubs’ league positions over a ten year period.
Despite all this, change is possible. Even giant clubs can falter and fail. Much of the regional monopoly of the Champions is due to Manchester United winning 13 titles, yet this season, even given all their money, they seem destined to finish outside the top five. The decade before the Premier League, football was dominated by Liverpool, yet until very recently they have hardly threatened to win the League again. The same principle operates at all levels. Leeds and Wimbledon, top boys 20 years ago, now languish in obscurity.
For all their peculiarities, football clubs are companies. They share the fundamental dynamics which explain the success and failure of all companies over time. Yes, success does tend to reinforce success. But a myriad of factors, very hard to identify in advance, can upset this process and send the feedback into reverse.
As Published in City AM on Wednesday 2nd April