Premier League: a billion-pound snoozefest
The last day of the Premier League season: No upsets. No banana skins. No tears. No entertainment.
Is it just me or was the last day of the Premier League season about as exciting as watching paint dry? Chelsea demolished Wigan 8-0 to take the title. Manchester United brushed aside a demob happy Sunderland. Arsenal ensured automatic Champions League qualification with a comfortable 4-0 win over Fulham? No upsets. No banana skins. No tears. Entertaining it wasn’t. I didn’t even bother to stay up for Match of the Day.
No last-day relegation drama either. We’ve become accustomed to deriving vicarious pleasure from watching the obligatory weeping fan close-up – the money shot of relegation porn (though the sight of Lily Allen bawling her eyes out during Fulham’s Europa League final defeat provided a modicum of recompense). But this season’s relegation issues were done and dusted long before the final weekend. Portsmouth were doomed when they went into administration in February and copped a nine-point penalty. Burnley and Hull succumbed to their fate with barely a whimper.
Leeds fans might disagree but the highlight of the weekend was Jeff Stelling, the Sky Soccer Saturday anchor, going bananas when his team Hartlepool avoided relegation to League Two. ‘Have that Football League!’ he screamed – a reference to the three-point deduction imposed on the monkey hangers which took them to the brink of relegation. Stelling’s momentary loss of journalistic impartiality was a joy to watch. It’s up there with his legendary rant about ‘the sort of people who compile lists’ that show Middlesborough is the worst place in the UK to live. ‘They’re the type who buy skinny lattes and call their mushy peas guacamole’, thundered Stelling. Priceless
But I digress. We were talking about the Premier League. What does this season’s final-day yawn-fest mean? Does it show that the Premier League has lost its X-Factor; that the league has become dull and predictable? Of course it’s churlish to judge whether or not a league is dramatic or exciting by the final round of games. It’s an inherent possibility in a league format that the trophies and relegation places are decided before the last day of the season. The league cannot guarantee last day drama – no league can. But can the Premier League still deliver excitement over the course of the season. Or is it becoming boring? The answer is yes and no. Paradoxically, the Premier League manages to be both predictable and exciting at the same time. Let me explain.
Match-day attendances and TV audiences suggest that football fans don’t think the Premier League is dull. Surely, six million Sky subscribers and 35,000 fans per game can’t be wrong? If it wasn’t exciting nobody would watch it. The English Premiership is the envy of Spain and Italy when it comes to selling its overseas broadcasting rights. The recent deal for 2010-2013 is worth a staggering £1.4 billion. The millions of fans in South East Asia who follow the Premier League are, you could argue, testimony to the fact that our top flight is still top draw entertainment.
However, even though the Premier League can still pull in the punters, the competitive balance of the tournament has suffered. The league is becoming increasingly uncompetitive. It’s not completely predictable. It was difficult to predict whether Chelsea or Manchester United would take the title. But it was a racing certainty that the trophy would go either to Stamford Bridge or Old Trafford. You don’t know exactly which clubs will be relegated but you don’t need to be a qualified soothsayer to guess which clubs will struggle.
Does any of this matter? If you’re an armchair fan who supports one of the big four clubs and watches most of your football on TV then it probably doesn’t matter a jot. I’m not suggesting that this is about real fans versus plastic fans. It’s more about old and new fan cultures. It’s a fact of life that there is a new breed of football fan – many of whom are committed and knowledgeable – who watch all their football from the comfort of their sofa and rarely, if at all, attend live matches. Their club allegiance is no longer determined by where they live. They support the most successful or the most attractive team rather than the local team. If you asked these armchair fans if they think the Premier League is exciting, they’d probably say yes.
For the rest of us, the followers of clubs outside the big four or outside the top flight, the Premiership title race is becoming an irrelevance. We know we’ll never stand a chance of winning it. We know that provincial clubs like Derby or Nottingham Forest will never again repeat their achievements of the 70s and 80s. It’s questionable whether a top 10 club like Aston Villa will ever mount a serious title challenge. Blackburn and Leeds both won the league in the 1990s but pigs will fly before they get within spitting distance of the top four. In short, the title race has become a closed shop.
The Premiership will certainly deliver its fair share of thrills and spills next season. But it’s difficult to see the title being anything other than a two- or three-horse race. Of course, from Bangkok to Bahrain, millions of armchair fans will tune in. But, for those of us who prefer a bit more competitive balance, it will be one big turnoff.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.
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