We are in what is generally agreed to be, the ‘Golden Age’ of television. Shows like Breaking Bad have elongated storytelling, drawing out interest and intrigue for years, whilst maintaining both quality and a narrative structure.
Game of Thrones, perhaps the biggest show of all time, often rivals anything we can see in the cinema in terms of spectacle.
Heck, even a third-rate show like The Walking Dead regularly commands viewing figures that number in the tens of millions.
One show that for me at least, towers above the rest, is David Simon’s, The Wire. The show, set in Baltimore, revolves around an ever-expanding set of heroes, villains and those who live in the grey area in between, caught up in the vicious world of inner-city drug dealing. Five seasons brought some of the most iconic stories, characters and moments of dialogue ever put to screen, and as Phillipe Coutinho makes his move from Liverpool to Barcelona, one line sparked immediately to mind.
It comes after street dealer, Marlo Stanfield, completes his deadly, captivating arc, morphing from a relative no-mark into one of the most powerful figures the city had ever seen. Standing proudly, he states why he will always embrace his ruthless streak, saying that, “The crown ain’t worth much if the person wearing it is always getting their stuff took.”
You can almost imagine Richard Scudamore, standing in a lavishly decorated penthouse, gazing at his Premier League empire, thinking something of a similar nature. After being appointed as the Premier League’s head-honcho in the late ’90s, Scudamore has overseen England’s topflight evolution from Europe’s fourth, perhaps even fifth, most prestigious tournament, into a true behemoth. The world’s first global league. An entity without compare.
This has been accomplished with a series of incredibly lucrative tv rights deals. Deals that have skyrocketed from around £1.2billion between the 2001-04 seasons to a staggering £5.1billion between the seasons 2013-16. This huge influx of cash has allowed the league, as a collective, to distort European competition.
In this new world of unprecedented money, things have changed. Out have gone the traditional yardsticks by which we have usually measured how big a shadow a club can cast; factors such as stadium size, number of fans and the number of trophies earned in the past, have been jettisoned. Abandoned, measurements rendered as obsolete as cubits.
Money now reigns supreme.
Historic giants such as Sporting Lisbon, St Étienne and Feyenoord are now unable to compete with nouveau-riche, mid-table Premier League sides. The phenomenon was best demonstrated way back in 2013, when Norwich City, a distinctly mid-table side at the time, were able to strut in and buy Sporting Lisbon’s a-goal-every-other-game striker, Ricky van Wolfswinkel, without even a hint of resistance. Sure, the transfer itself was an unmitigated flop, but the ease in which it was accomplished shocked many.
If some of Western Europe’s powerhouses of the past considered themselves dishevelled, those in the Balkans are absolutely destitute. Leviathans of yesterday such as Steaua Bucharest, Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb are all consigned, by and large, to a footballing backwater.
However, for all of the Premier League’ financial clout, there is still a couple of very real dangers to be faced.
Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Like an adult giraffe, the Premier League can often assume it has grown too large to be worried by predation, but, as anyone who has watched a number of David Attenborough documentaries will tell you, every now and again an intrepid lion will come along and fancy a big old giraffe-steak.
Time and time again the brightest jewels in the Premier League crown have been snatched up and spirited away by La Liga’s mighty duopoly. Since the turn of the millennium, Real Madrid have snared heavy-weights; Michael Owen, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Xabi Alonso, Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham, Luka Modrić and Gareth Bale – breaking the world transfer record twice in doing so.
Barcelona, not wishing to be left behind, have lured league gems such as; Thierry Henry, Javier Mascherano, Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song, Luis Suarez and, most recently, Phillipe Coutinho.
And what has the Premier League got in return from Spain’s big-two? Misfits, admittedly very high-quality misfits, players who are no longer deemed good enough for El Classico’s respective starting elevens. Pedro and Alexis Sanchez pushed out to make room for new, more glamourous stars. Van der Vaart and Di Maria, shown the exit door without even a hint of ceremony, despite their obvious, abundance of talent.
Fortunately for Scudamore and his underlings, this raiding of talent could be in its final throws. The Premier League shows little sign of halting its growth into a planet-devouring enterprise, while La Liga struggles to maintain parity. While the Premier League grounds are packed to the brim, week in week out, La Liga regularly has large, barren sections, where nothing can be seen but an array of plastic seats.
Last season Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia, Atletico Madrid, Real Betis and Sevilla all had weekly average attendances that were at least 10,000 from reaching full capacity. This can give the Spanish grounds a cavernous feel, one that is not as easily packaged and distributed around the world. To combat this, there have been a number of occasions where the entire crowd has been squeezed into the same section. The section that is the primary field of view for international TV corporations. Such schemes, while intuitive, look more like kind of work GOB Bluth would try and pull on Arrested Development, rather than a league trying to reach the sport’s zenith.
Sure, you could point to those who pack-out Premier League stadiums weekly and suggest that the native fans are being priced out of the game to make way for more wealthy, foreign, holiday fans. That suggestion is hard to dispel, but what often goes overlooked is why these fans are able to make such pilgrimages, often from every corner of the globe. Similar to Alexander the Great and his famous Macedonian army, the Premier League’s finest attribute is its organisation.
Thanks to this forward planning a family in India will know the season’s fixtures at the same time as a family in Buenos Aires, not a second after those in Manchester or London. This makes things that much easier for ‘stay-for-a-day’ fans to plan trips to watch sides they have adored from afar. Such effective pre-planning is not really viable in Spain, not when their governing body is so ramshackle. So disjointed that fixtures often change with little more than a month’s notice.
I mean, this is a football federation with so little forward planning, they were not in a position to hand over the real league trophy to surprise winners Atletico Madrid in 2014. Why? Well the president, Ángel María Villar, was on holiday, forcing Diego Simeone to wait a staggering one-hundred and five days before being presented with something that wasn’t a tawdry replica.
Global forces seem to suggest that the Premier League’s growth and subsequent domination are inexorable, however, there are a couple of advantages that Real Madrid and Barcelona will continue to enjoy. The first is the fact that they are global icons, clubs that supersede the sport, lending anyone who plays for them a level of credibility, an aura of glamour, that no one in England can match – not even Manchester United.
The second is something out with the control of someone as powerful as Richard Scudamore… the weather. Players, especially those who have been raised in a tropical environment, will favour the sunnier climes offered on the Iberian Peninsula over wet and windy England. An aspect of life so powerful it may even offset a potential loss of income.
Finally, the Premier League has to navigate the ramifications of Brexit and whatever fallout that ill-conceived idea lands at our doorstep. Early predictions anticipate that ending the freedom of movement will have more of an impact on Scotland and the lower reaches of England’s footballing pyramid than it will on the upper echelons, where top clubs can pay exorbitant fees and acquire players with the requisite international pedigree needed to match the more stringent regulations. What would impact top clubs would be their inability to lure youth products as Arsenal have so successfully done with the likes of Fabregas and Hector Bellerin. Another aspect of life that would be diminished would be club’s ability to sign players cheaply before they have made a seismic impact on the game. Gone would be the days of Leicester swooping in for N’Golo Kante and benefitting hugely from his exploits.
The future, as always, is impossible to predict however, it seems more than likely that the Premier League has foundations planted deeply enough to weather any storm, even the hurricanes many see on the country’s horizon.
So where will we be in the years to come? As sad as it is to say, it seems more than likely that the Premier League, and its influence, will continue to flood the continent, with only island of resistance visible from higher ground. An island in Bavaria, another in Turin, one closer in Paris, and a little further away, a small archipelago in Spain.
We are, after all, re-entering a world of monopolies. With the widespread deregulation that occurred in the early 20th century, breaking up monoliths that dominated industries such as steel manufacturing, oil distribution and air-travel, we assumed that companies enjoying monopolies was a trend consigned to the past. Yet, with each passing day, certain companies are accruing more and more properties, turning the unthinkable into reality. Apple has a near-universal stranglehold on how we listen to our music, and with their 2014 purchase of Beats Electronics they have assured footing in the headphone business.
Film is far from exempt, what with Walt Disney’s unstoppable desire to distribute every film known to man. After buying Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and a deal in the works for 21st Century Fox, Disney is well on the way to dominating the field.
If the world is indeed moving into an era where one company is a giant, surrounded by lesser versions, why should football be any different? And if football does follow the global trend, what is stopping the Premier League from taking up the mantle of the sport’s alpha?
Scudamore’s work, however ruthless, morally bankrupt or irrevocably damaging you perceive it to be, you cannot really deny its efficiency. His work in sculpting his product into the most sought-after in the world is complete, now, like Marlo Stanfield, the new objective is clear – stop people stealing his stuff.