This is a story of resurrection. A mere three decades ago, club football in England was a professional game largely and listlessly run by amateurs. Fans shuffled in decreasing numbers to obsolete stadia redolent of pie and pee. Lives were lost in the tragedies of Bradford, Hillsborough and Heysel. The sport was scarcely entertainment; it was certainly not a business. Yet today the Premier League is the world’s richest sporting brand. How this happened is a tale told with much verve and some wit by two experienced sports journalists.
This fascinating book, by two witty and meticulous sports writers, tells the full story of the top division’s incredible transformation over three decades into an institution that could happily bung its outgoing chairman, Richard Scudamore, a £5m thank-you payment, and not even notice the loose change was missing. It has been, as the authors put it, sport’s wildest gold rush. “In the span of 25 years, the league’s 20 clubs have increased their combined value by more than 10,000%, from around £50m in 1992 to £10bn today.” The big mystery is that this astonishing boom has not been followed by a bust — yet.
Although there are few revelations, this is a jaunty journey through the past quarter of a century in English football. What makes this different, and appealing, is that it is written from an American perspective. There are a few observations that may jar for British readers, such as that Blackburn, Burnley and Bolton “all looked the same — terraced houses and empty factories”. And American football’s NFL is a constant reference point: Sky’s “Monday Night Football was explicitly and shamelessly the NFL” when it launched, and included cheerleaders before matches, an innovation that swiftly died out without lament.
Through interviews and astute analysis, the authors make it clear that the Premier League got lucky. Its arrival coincided with 15 years of strong economic growth, plus a boom in pay tv. The English language made it more accessible to global audiences than Italy’s Serie a, previously considered the top contest. But it also benefited from shrewd management. Richard Scudamore, the league’s longtime boss, emails personal thank-yous to all 80 broadcasters after each season. In a classic example of unintended consequences, a clause in the founding document was instrumental too. All money from overseas broadcasting (negligible in the early years) was divided equally between teams. That ensured a greater degree of competition than elsewhere, enabling Leicester City to win a fairytale title in 2016.