Is there any way to improve the league most regard as the most exciting in the world?
Monday, 25th May 2020, 7:50 pm
With talks of restarts and resets, salary caps and regionalised leagues, an old way of thinking being challenged by new approaches to prevent football ever being in such dire shape again, it got me thinking. Is the Premier League really the best we can do?
Netflix has provided a sanctuary for many during the pandemic and for me, just like for others, the 10-episode Michael Jordan documentary dropped at just the right time.
While The Last Dance documents the rise of an NBA dynasty – and simultaneously blows so much smoke up Jordan’s arse it’s a wonder it doesn’t start coming out of his ears – what struck me was that it showed how more exciting a league competition with a much wider field of potential winners is to what we have in England.
The Chicago Bulls had never won an NBA title until a highly rated young Jordan from North Carolina college was picked third in the draft.
“You’ve got a great opportunity to step in there and win a city which is crying out for a winner, perhaps you can turn that Bulls thing around, what do you think?” a reporter asks him after his selection.
“Hopefully I can go in and contribute and maybe turn it around,” Jordan replies, sheepishly. “I’m looking forward to that.”
As we know, the Chicago Bulls went on to do just that: building a team around a man who become one of the world’s greatest athletes as they won six NBA championships in seven years, even fitting in a brief period of retirement to try out professional baseball along the way.
“When I look back,” Jordan says, all these years later, “it’s very gratifying moving from North Carolina, never been in Chicago, but that became my home and a big part of my history.”
In the UK, we struggle to get our heads around the traditional American sport franchise system that has no relegation and promotion. Yet isn’t there something more romantic in the notion that a lot of the clubs actually have a shot at winning the main prize?
Winning is, after all, the essence of sport, and a desire to do so runs through Jordan’s veins. It’s why he gets so frustrated in the 1985-86 season – playing in his second after becoming rookie of the year in his first – when he breaks his foot and thinks the Bulls, who struggle without him, are throwing the remaining games to ensure they get a better draft pick.
Jordan forces his way back early, agreeing to a strictly managed seven-minute-per-half return, and drags the Bulls to the playoffs, where they lose to the mighty Boston Celtics anyway.
If sport is about winning, then what is the Premier League? It is not a trophy that is annually up for grabs by one of the near hundred professional football teams. It comes down to six, really, at a stretch.You can point to Leicester City’s shock title-winning season, but that was an anomaly. So six teams, or 6.52 per cent of professional clubs.
The Premier League has become a vast media and entertainment platform that has sucked the very essence from the game it preys upon like a thirsty parasite. Football shouldn’t be about a handful of rich clubs protecting their wealth and status, but it is.
For all the Premier League’s hype, its elite are entrenched to the point of tedium, and statistics back that up. In the past 50 years, the NBA has had 17 winners, the Premier League only 12. Take the past 28 years, since when the Premier League’s inception has only entrenched the wealthy elite further; the mundanity is starker: 11 NBA champions, so a different winner roughly every two-and-a-half years, compared to six winners in the Premier League.
Even that includes Blackburn Rovers – who bought success temporarily – and that anomaly season of Leicester’s. Take those out of the equation, only four teams – Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City – have won it, equating to a new champion every six-and-a-half years. Sure, Liverpool winning this season will make that every 5.8 years, but it is hardly riveting, unpredictable stuff.
Shouldn’t a season be about looking forwards and upwards aiming for the top prize, rather than those outside the top eight glancing nervously backwards for the entire second half of the season and playing for survival, rather than the hope of achieving anything? Shouldn’t it be about more than merely staying in the Premier League from the outset and anything else is a bonus, as is the case for the majority?
There is no perfect system, no league utopia, no sporting nirvana. The NBA scheduling system is not an entirely level playing field, although it is accepted in the US and that has not stopped the game’s athletes becoming the highest paid in the world. There may not be relegation but there is much to enjoy about their system of 15-team Conferences split East and West and 16 of the 30 making the playoffs for the championship each year.
A regionalised Northern-Southern Premier League, 22 teams each, carved up between the current incumbents of the Premier League and Championship (yes, I know that West Bromwich are in Birmingham but, for the sake of a workable system, I have included the Midlands club in the south while their city counterparts, Birmingham City and Aston Villa, are in the north), could split the domination of the Big Six. A 16-team playoff would ensure that plenty of sides would have a chance of making it each season. Then, who knows? And that’s the point, really. It doesn’t necessarily make it fairer, but it would make it more unpredictable, more focused on success rather than the fear of failure.
A criticism of the NBA is that teams who know they will not make the playoffs try to engineer a lower league position to ensure a higher draft pick, the situation Jordan faced early in his career; yet maintaining an element of relegation would surely make that a risk not worth paying, while keeping the gate open for any team, ultimately, to make it to the top.
Some will argue that there would never again be a Bournemouth “fairytale” – from bailiffs turning up at the training ground to Premier League regulars. Yet even that is a media construct: in reality they were propelled to the top-flight by a billionaire owner and by breaching Financial Fair Play rules.
It all might sound implausible, but before Jordan arrived nobody would have predicted the Bulls would win six NBA championships in eight seasons, and they still had their last dance.