Leicester City's title chase is great but Premier League brand is built on stars
Leicester City's transformation from relegation contenders to title candidates seems like the quintessential Premier League story. However their story ends, what Claudio Ranieri's team have achieved this year vindicates all of the marketing spiel: this truly is the league where anything can happen, where nothing is certain, where any team can beat any other. It is proof that caterpillars can become butterflies in England.
Even the most cursory glance at recent history across the continent suggests that unlikely champions are not unheard of elsewhere: Only four years have passed since Montpellier won the title in France and less than a decade since Stuttgart won the Bundesliga. If Atletico Madrid and Valencia are too well-established or well-supported to count as true surprises, then Deportivo La Coruna, kings of Spain in 2000, are certainly not.
Leicester, though, are different. Not because of the speed with which they have emerged from their chrysalis -- bottom of the league at the start of the year, top of it at the end -- and not because they managed to do so in the most hostile of environments, a league occupied by six far larger predators rather than just one or two.
No, Leicester are different because unlike Stuttgart, Montpellier or Deportivo, they may not be a one-off. They may not burn out and fade away. Instead, they seem to herald the start of a slightly different age. For a number of reasons, ranging from the new, richer television deal to the rapid spread of transfer practices throughout English football, they may not be an isolated case. Leicester may be the start of a new wave.
It might not be them next year, of course. It might be Stoke City, Southampton or Everton. It might be West Ham, thriving in their new home at the Olympic Stadium, or it might be Crystal Palace, if Alan Pardew can somehow prevent his career results from resembling a game of snakes and ladders.
Whoever it is, as Arsene Wenger has already noted, the age of the Big Four and the Top Six seems to be over. The Premier League of the future will be far more unpredictable and untameable. There is a revolution coming, and like most successful revolutions, it is one inspired by the rise of the middle classes.
To most, it is a welcome change. Broadly speaking, unpredictability is the Premier League's strongest selling point. The "Uncertainty of Outcome" principle is what draws fans from all over the world to the manic, madcap world of English football. Even the league's authorities recognise that; they have changed much of their advertising to reflect their status as the world's most exciting domestic competition, not necessarily its best.
In theory, seeing more clubs harbouring realistic hopes of crashing the elite should count as a good thing. The less pre-determined the outcome on the pitch, the more people are likely to tune in to watch it. And this is where we hit the hitch, because what works in theory may not be borne out in practice.
Leicester and their ilk might seem like a bold, new chapter in English football history, but there is reason to believe -- if your primary concern (not mine) is that the Premier League is the strongest division in the world -- that it may be better if their moment in the sun does not last too long and order is quickly restored.
Plenty of studies have been done over the past two decades into the thorny issue of competitive balance as researchers try and establish exactly what it is that attracts viewers (fans, customers, whatever you want to call them) to a league. Some have found that it's true: Uncertainty adds intrigue, which adds audience share.
In one, conducted by Tim Pawlowski at the University of Tubingen, 70 percent of German supporters suggested they were concerned by the competitive balance (or lack of it) in the Bundesliga. They would prefer a model more along the lines of the NFL, in which, theoretically, any team might make it all the way to the Super Bowl at the start of the season and there are measures in place to guard against dominance slipping into dynasty.
But the academic literature is by no means conclusive. Indeed, more recent studies tend to show that precisely the opposite is true. A league is just as likely to establish broad appeal if it has low competitive balance -- in which a story like Leicester's is enormously unlikely -- as long as it has a high proportion of star quality.
That shouldn't really be a surprise. After all, nobody stopped watching the NBA because Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls kept winning titles; quite the opposite. Golf was never more popular than during that era when Tiger Woods swept all before him. The Premier League itself built a global brand on the endless success of Manchester United. That is why Frederic Thiriez, the president of the French Football League, can say that Paris Saint-Germain -- 24 points clear of their nearest "challengers" in Ligue 1 -- are good for French football, suggesting that their "rock star" players "attract fans to stadiums and audiences to televisions, making sure the eyes of the world are on France" and not actually be wrong.
Two studies in 2010 found that attendances were going up in European football even at a time when most countries were exhibiting less competitive balance than ever before. There is no evidence to suggest that TV viewing figures increase when two sides have an equal chance of winning; there is some, however, to show that fans would rather watch a team of stars swat aside a bunch of no-hopers. This is supported anecdotally, too: The BBC have chosen to show Manchester United's FA Cup games, for example, ever since television was invented, even on weekends when there have been more romantic and intriguing ties available.
Television companies are not stupid. They understand which games will attract the highest figures, and they are supported by an abundance of research. After all, as Pawlowski's research showed, executives hoping to boost the profile of their leagues "should be wary of measures to improve competitive balance if [they] have negative effects such as reducing the inflow of international talent."
In another study, Babatunde Buraimo and Rob Simmons, senior lectures at the University of Lancaster, found that what fans want from their leagues has changed in a relatively short period of time. Our watching habits and appetites have changed. "We suggest the notion of a pure sporting contest in which uncertainty of outcome matters is no longer relevant," they wrote. "More important is the extent to which sports teams and leagues can increase the quality of the talent on show."
In other words, people want to watch stars.
This has been the most romantic Premier League season in history. However, there will be those inside the corridors of power who might hope this year proves to be a passing fancy and not a lasting marriage.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.