The case for salary restrictions in the Premiership

I was struck by the fact, watching the NFL draft which concluded recently, this is a league that has seen a decade of peaceful co-existence and unprecedented parity. The NFL is now the most popular sports league in the US. There are no teams griping about the Dallas Cowboys getting more than its fair shake because the equal sharing of TV revenues and the league’s salary cap, has restored parity to the NFL. Eight teams since 1992-1993 have won the Super Bowls with only the New England Patriots in recent years coming close to a dynasty with three titles in four years. Last year’s champions, the Steelers did not even make the playoffs. The NFL has become wide open with teams finding it difficult to repeat as Super Bowl champions. It makes the Cincinnati Bengals, long the NFL doormat, a legitimate contender for the Super Bowl. The NFL’s socialist structure is the main factor in its resurgence. Socialism in the US! Good heavens, what next? George Bush agreeing to a deadline for a troop pullout!
Compare this to the Premiership in its 14th year of existence. This year if all goes to form, Man Utd will collect its 9th title. Chelsea, Arsenal, and Blackburn are the only other teams to have won titles since its inception. 4 teams out of 20. In fact, Blackburn’s title now looks like an anomaly. For the foreseeable future, it would appear that only Man Utd, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool can legitimately contend. The most watched sports league in the world and it is a circle jerk of four clubs. Smaller clubs can only hope to win a title by being bought out by a businessman or a business consortium with deep pockets to afford those huge transfer fees. Portsmouth’s recent success has everything to do with Alexander Gaydamak sinking in the money to bring good players to the team.
The liberating aspects of capitalism have been lost to the Premiership. An individual like Sam Allardyce with his years of dedication building a viable team on the cheap decided to quit because he realized that without the money, he was not going to take Bolton further. In recent years, critics of the present inequity in the Premiership would delight in pointing out Allardyce as an exception, a manager who inspired fear and awe in Stamford Bridge. Now that he is gone, they don’t have him to thumb their noses at the rich clubs. In its stead, the Premiership is a stultifying monolithic structure shaped by neo-liberal policies. The Premiership TV revenues that are shared by clubs, a nice chunk of change of 40-50 million pounds is swallowed quickly in salaries and debt financing, leaving some money for player acquisition, but not a whole lot. The absence of a salary cap allows teams with moneyed owners to pay as much as required to bring a player over. In Chelsea’s instance, this can total over 300 million pounds in its last two championship seasons. Manchester United and Liverpool are not as profligate but compared to Charlton or Bolton they might as well be.
Lets face it. There are not too many ways that you can build a winning Premiership team without the cash. Arsenal has a youth system that develops talent through the personal initiative of Arsene Wenger but it is an exception. Without salary restrictions, there is very little incentive in developing such programs in other clubs. Chelsea is just about beginning this process but it is still about 10 years behind Arsenal’s program. The Premiership cannot build through a draft because there is no system like that in place. Time to dust off a socialist measure and introduce it to the Premiership: The salary restriction. The restriction would be indexed on the average worth of all twenty clubs, i.e., the worth of each club is added up, averaged, and the salary restriction is an index of that average. For e.g., the average worth of a Premiership club maybe 100 million pounds, salary restrictions would be 15% of that figure. If a club wants to go after an expensive player and exceeds the salary restriction then it can do so but it will have less to work with next year. So there is a cumulative feature built in that allows for flexibility. Since the average worth of a Premiership clubs is in all likelihood higher than their European counterparts, the Premiership will still be able to attract top tier talent, except that they will be distributed in more clubs.
When this happens (wishful thinking!) lets see how Jose Mourinho, Sir Alex, and Arsene Wenger stack up against Sam Allardyce and Steve Coppell. Long suffering clubs like Charlton and West Ham may contend regularly for the title, lessening this unhealthy obsession with takeovers. You might actually get to see a lot more Hammer jerseys in New York compared to the ubiquitous Man Utd or Chelsea merchandise. In all, a more salubrious Premiership might be possible.

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3 comments on “The case for salary restrictions in the Premiership
  1. I agre 100%. The current system is bound to get even more out of whack. The best any non-top 4 club can reasonably expect to achieve is a UEFA Cup slot. The Champions League slots are all but guaranteed to Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Man Utd, and the important bit being the additional relevant TV revenue.
    Some sort of re-dress would greatly benefit the league (imagine the top-4 actually having to fight for a Champions League spot!), improve the overall quality of play and management, and greatly benefit the fans.
    Don’t expect it to happen anytime soon, though

  2. Correct sentiment, but please don’t compare football to the NFL or an any of the American based franchises. You’re correct in saying money is taking over the Premiership, but then to claim the NHL as an ideal example of the way things should be run is pathetic. The Superbowl is simply a corperate event with adverts for commercial entities taking precedence over the sport itself. A better comparison would be to Rugby League in the UK which has salary caps…but then again half the decent players are defecting to the alternative code of Rugby Union in the pursuit of higher wages.
    Salary caps will not work unless employed uniformly world-wide…a harmonisation of restrictions….anyway i prefer the idea of wages being tied to revenues earned so at least some form of productive effiency is encouraged.

  3. Very interesting points.
    2 points I would add:
    1) Blackburn won their Premier League title largely because they bought some big name players (e.g. Shearer), so in that sense their title is not an anomaly at all, but a continuation of the trend that only clubs that spend can win the title.
    2) I agree the Premier League needs some salary restrictions, but I think the biggest impediment is the fact that there are other strong leagues in Europe. Unlike the NFL, say, which is the only place for top American football players to ply their trade, top soccer talent can go to Spain, Italy, etc. Those leagues may not be as profitable as the Premier League today, but they may become so in the future, as they have been in the past. I think what is needed is a Europe-wide salary cap to ensure parity among all of the teams on the continent. Unlikely perhaps, but worth hoping for.

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