Dreaming of financial fair play — can Wigan ever win the league?

Ask a room of Premier League fans if Wigan Athletic could ever win the Premier League title, and your question will be met with derision and laughter. It is widely accepted that such an achievement is beyond a club of Wigan’s size and means. But what if the fundamental nature of financial competition were to radically change within English football? Is a future Premier League that Wigan Athletic could win, feasible?

It is not likely to happen this year. In fact, Ladbrokes are currently offering odds of 3500/1 against it. On the other hand they have Manchester City at 13/10, Manchester United 19/10 and Chelsea at 3/2. After that, the odds on the remaining clubs range from 14/1 to those of Latics. The bookmakers are clearly convinced that  the title will be gained by one of the two Manchester giants or Chelsea. However, if the financial ground rules under which the Premier League operates were to change radically, maybe a door would open for such dreams to come true?

In other sports, and in other countries, systems are put in place to stop elite clubs signing on dozens of highly paid players, preventing them from being available to other clubs. They also try to ensure that games are not so heavily weighted to one side that it almost seems like a foregone conclusion who is to win. Having the top players more evenly distributed between the clubs means that all clubs have some hopes for success. Their supporters are then more likely to stay with them, rather than being drawn to other sports, other entertainment, or other more wealthy clubs.

The Premier League was formed in 1992, after First Division clubs broke away from the Football League. The elite clubs had considered doing so for some time and the idea of a European League was mooted. At the time, English clubs lagged behind the top clubs in Italy and Spain in terms of revenues. Television money was burgeoning and the First Division clubs wanted a much larger slice of that cake, not wanting to share it with those in the lower divisions.

Since then the Premier League has become the most economically powerful league in the world, largely through selling itself to a global TV market. Its attendances are the second highest in Europe. Last year the average Premier League attendance was 34,601, beaten only by Germany 41,205.
It is no surprise in a league dominated by the elite that Premier League television revenue is far from evenly distributed among the 20 clubs. In the 2011-2012 season. Wigan Athletic received  £42.8 million in TV money. Manchester City received  £60.6 m and Manchester United  £60.3 m. Wolves received the lowest with  £39.1 million. It will be argued that the public are more likely to want to watch the elite teams, but the inequality clearly exacerbates the huge financial gap between rich and poor in the league.

In the 2013-2014 television rights are set to steeply rise, making it even more lucrative for Premier League clubs. At the same time, footballers’ salaries have escalated almost beyond control, the absurd spending of Manchester City and Chelsea exacerbating the problem. The League is looking at ways to provide more financial control. One realistic option is to follow UEFA’s initiative, which will require clubs to break even financially. According to BBC.co.uk, Dave Whelan supports the adoption of a financial fair play policy, saying that a proposal in this area has come from Manchester United. The strong inference is that United are envious of their near neighbour’s success last season.

Clearly a move towards Manchester United’s proposal would favour the interests of big clubs with huge fan support  like themselves and Arsenal, cutting out the excesses of clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City. This might help to redress the issue of spiralling player salaries and stop multi-millionaires financing huge debt in top clubs. However, the end result is still going to be a huge divide between rich and poor in the league.

This columnist advocates the implementation of not only financial fair play rules, but also of a salary cap per club. The latter would prevent the elite clubs hoarding so many top players, making them unavailable for other clubs. It sets a limit on the total salaries that a club can pay each season. This does not preclude a club paying the ridiculous wages to some players that have become the norm, but it does limit how many players they will be able to accommodate this way.

The salary cap concept is used widely in American sports as means of stopping wealthy clubs achieving dominance by signing up the majority of outstanding players available. The National Football League (NFL) of the USA had a salary cap of $120 million per club in 2011. It is to be noted that since the Premier League was formed in 1992 only 5 clubs have won championship titles. Manchester United have won it 12 times, Arsenal and Chelsea 3 times each, Blackburn and Manchester City once. In comparison the NFL has had 12 clubs winning its championship in that time.

The implementation of financial fair play rules and club salary caps would not be easy. There are so many potential loopholes involved. However, there has to be a way forward from the current situation which has such inequities that it makes it virtually impossible for any club without huge revenues or massively rich benefactors to reach the top. Let’s at least give the average club in the Premier League some chance – although it may be slim – to win the title.

It is highly unlikely that Wigan Athletic will ever win the Premier League. At present, their chance is almost zero. Lets at least lower the odds and give clubs outside the elite few at least a chance to dream.

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4 responses

  1. While it is somewhat ridiculous how the clubs with the most money (i.e. wealthiest owners) win time and time again, I just don`t see a salary cap being implemented and financial fair play is a pipe dream. The NFL operates as you describe, but also bear in mind that it really doesn`t matter if a NFL team finishes with 0 wins and 16 losses in a season. There is no relegation/promotion and almost every game is sold out regardless of the state of the team. This gives teams that lose their best/most expensive players time to find replacements. It often takes years to do so. That will never be the case in the premier league, so comparison with the NFL isn`t really appropriate to the argument. Other American sports leagues do have salary caps, but they do not operate like the one for the NFL and wouldn`t be much help in the case of the premier league.

  2. I agree it’s not going to be easy for Financial play and salary cap to be involved in the premier league. The biggest loophole will be the penalty ‘involved’ in violating such rules. If the penalty is just to pay a fine, then, it will not stop the rich clubs from doing what they are doing now. Secondly, it is also unfair to stop Teams from playing in Europe if they violated the rules because overseas, you have clubs like PSG, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Anzhi, etc. that will not meet the Financial play and salary cap rules (if those rules are implemented in their leagues).
    I don’t think Financial play and salary cap is going to do much in stopping clubs from hoarding elite players. The fact is, any player will wanna go to a much more established club. If a player is targeted by a ‘big’ club and a ‘small’ club, the chances are that he will choose the ‘big’ club unless the ‘small’ club pays him better, even then, he may still choose to head to the ‘big’ club. That is the reality, financial play/salary cap or not.
    Unless Financial play ‘forces’ players like Sergio Aguero to play for us, I do not think Financial play and salary cap will be much use, in terms of distribution of elite players….honestly, I think Financial play would only benefit ‘big’ teams that are rich but not godlike rich – teams like Arseanal and Manchester United.

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