By now, it should be plainly apparent that there is no evidence supporting the long-held belief that the Premier League is the strongest in the world. How you define strongest is a matter of semantics – whether you judge by the top end or overall depth and competitiveness – but there is simply little proof.
Because measured by what few metrics we do have – and, granted, this is a very inexact science – the Premier League isn’t nearly as dominant as it was a few years ago.
After the first legs in the UEFA Champions League round of 16, it seems unlikely that more than one English team will reach the quarterfinals, and that team looks to be Chelsea since Manchester City and Arsenal will travel to their away legs with aggregate deficits. Last year, there were just two English representatives in the final eight. The season before, there were none. And the year before that, it was just one.
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Yet it doesn’t feel like so long ago that three out of the four Champions League semifinalists were English – it was 2008, to be clear. That was the summit of an eight-year period, from 2005 through 2012, during which at least one English team reached the final in seven of those seasons. It was reminiscent of the late 1970s and early 80s, when an English club won the old European Cup six years in a row and seven times out of eight.
Even the much less competitive Europa League has given its English participants trouble. Of the three clubs in the round of 32, just one advanced – Everton – while Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool were eliminated
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Individual awards give an even more damning account of English soccer’s recent fate. Of the first five times the FIFA Ballon d’Or was handed out, not one Premier League player was a finalist. Over the five years going back to 2010, just three English-based players have made it into the FIFPro World XI, out of 55 possible spots, and one of them, David Luiz, had already left Chelsea for Paris Saint-Germain by the time he was named to the 2014 team. What’s telling is that in the five-year timespan before that, there were 20 players from the Premiership.
Even more painfully, of the players who won the last eight Professional Footballers’ Association Players’ Player of the Year awards – the most prestigious individual honor in the Premier League – only Wayne Rooney (2010) and Robin van Persie (2012) are still active in that league. Cristiano Ronaldo (2007, 2008), Gareth Bale (2011, 2013) and Luis Suarez (2014) all play in Spain now, and Ryan Giggs (2009) has retired.
Premier League: Scores and Schedule | Current Standings | Teams
So why, then, did the Premier League just sign a three-year, $7.9 billion domestic broadcasting rights deal with Sky Sports and BT – one of the richest such contracts in the world? (Foreign rights are expected to pad that figure by several billion more.) English top-tier clubs were already combining to get more than double the TV money of any other major European league and will now get a 70-percent raise on those figures.
While the Premier League’s relevance in international soccer has clearly waned, its value to television companies continues to skyrocket.
Because the power of the Premier League lay in its product.
Simply put, the English top-tier league is the most popular because it makes for the best viewing experience – both in person and on television. It is destination and appointment television. It looks the prettiest beamed into your living room. It sounds the best. And it’s the most fun.
Certainly, there’s no underestimating the role played by the Premier League being set in an English-speaking country, facilitating its appeal abroad. But there’s a lot more to it than that. The stands are always full and loud and close to the field. The grass is green and lush. The stadiums are big and shiny, yet mostly historic. The clubs are storied, established brands; the players are the actors with well-developed characters. The Premier League production values are unrivaled. It rains a lot in England. Rainy soccer is dramatic. It’s just good television.
Ultimately, professional sports leagues are entertainment merchants, and the Premier League offers the best guarantee of it. It’s the most likely to reward you for tuning in. Even when the soccer isn’t good, the atmosphere often compensates and the viewer stays enthralled.
(As an aside, you’d think the Premier League would understand how much of its value it derives from the atmosphere its stadium-going fans create and treat them better. But, no, ticket prices have risen by many multiples over the last decade or two, even when corrected for inflation.)
Other leagues might have better teams – or, if we need to couch that argument, teams that perform better in Europe – but the ratio of games that make for good viewing is typically lower than that of the Premier League, where even the bottom-feeders tend to play captivating contests.
If the soccer is very good, it doesn’t seem to matter that it isn’t the very best. So long as the viewing experience is.