The dominance of established 'superclubs' shows no sign of ending
You might be familiar with the frog metaphor.
If you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out. But if you put that same frog into a pot of cold water and gradually raise the temperature, it will happily sit there until it boils to death.
(No, I don't know why anyone would do something like that and, yes, more recent scientific experiments dispute the original premise; frogs apparently don't sit still and, instead, will try to get out of the pot.)
But the metaphor holds -- we don't notice gradual change and then it's too late -- and can be applied to recent goings-on in the world of football.
In the past five seasons, 19 different clubs have reached the last eight of the European Cup. It was 23 in the five prior and 22 in the five before that. Go further back and you'll see that, between 1996 and 2001, the number was 24. From 1991-96 it was a whopping 29.
It doesn't end there: Three clubs -- Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich -- reached the quarterfinal stage in each of the past five seasons. In the previous 20 years that occurred only twice, both times courtesy of Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United, between 2006-11 and 1996-2001.
As the 2015-16 season draws to a close, the European club game is as polarized as it has ever been.
The aforementioned numbers reinforce that assertion but there are plenty of other pointers, such as the Deloitte Football Money League, which ranks clubs by revenue; the top five earn more than the next 12 combined.
Take the past five seasons in Europe's big-five leagues: England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France. Of the 25 titles up for grabs, 20 of them went to clubs ranked in the top 10 of the Money League. The five who did not? Borussia Dortmund did it twice and they're 11th, while Atletico Madrid are 15th. Montpellier and Leicester City are the outliers.
We're in an era of superclubs and, frankly, that's not going to change barring some kind of deep regulatory overhaul. The overwhelming power of the one-percenters is only going to grow.
What drove this? Broadly speaking, the answer is a boom in TV revenues, both domestic and European, though there are stark differences between leagues.
In England, where there is a more egalitarian set-up but the overall value of the broadcast rights dwarfs most other leagues, UEFA revenue had less of an impact than elsewhere. In other nations, where the split is more top-heavy, revenue flowed to the top of the pyramid and, with smaller media rights deals, European success had a bigger impact.
But the real difference-maker, especially in recent years, has been commercial revenue and, particularly, sponsorship. Both are self-perpetuating cycles: Successful clubs earn more from TV revenue which, in turn, allows them to acquire and retain better players and that enables them to continue to be successful.
Equally, successful teams tend to get on TV more and draw bigger audiences, which allows them to earn more commercial revenue and that, too, ensures they remain successful.
Throw in the advantage that most of these teams enjoy via geography and socioeconomics -- they tend to be bigger clubs with bigger stadia in bigger cities in wealthier areas, which means they earn more in gate receipts -- and it's a trifecta of built-in advantages.
I know what you're thinking: What about Leicester? What about Atletico Madrid? Well, Atletico might be dwarfed by Barcelona and Real Madrid, but they are still the third-best supported club in Spain.
They're 15th in the Deloitte Money League and rank 18th in terms of average attendance. And their recent success has been partly based on unorthodox transfer practices and the use of third-party investment, which has since been banned by FIFA.
As for Leicester, well, yeah, there's always an outlier. There are myriad possible explanations for their title this season, but let's wait and see if it translates into sustained success before we cite them as evidence that polarization is overblown.
Whether you care or not about this probably depends on whether you support one of the superclubs and what you want from the game and whichever team you follow. European football isn't like American sports; the notion of bigger and smaller clubs is ingrained in the culture.
Most who support midsized or smaller teams have come to accept the fact that they won't be competing for silverware on a regular basis. They're fans because they're hooked, usually because of family ties or proximity to a club or the first game they attended. They're the frog being slowly cooked but they don't mind that, effectively, they have virtually no chance of ever winning anything.
But the global population of fans has expanded and clubs are monetizing those supporters, even though these are folks who will likely never buy a season ticket. They live their fandom via television and, incidentally, that's how clubs grow.
The more you're on TV and, more specifically, the more you're on TV and winning, the more likely it is that you'll attract and retain new supporters. This explains why there's a disproportionate number of Liverpool fans among those born in the 1970s, just as Manchester United are overrepresented among those born in the 1980s.
It isn't a new phenomenon. What is new, though, is that access to the biggest clubs is greater than ever before and they're on TV around the world more than ever before. In those conditions, the battle to attract new supporters simply isn't a fair fight.
Take, say, Bayern Munich and Hamburg. Why would a fan with no ties to either city living halfway around the world choose to support the latter when, for the past seven years, they've never even finished in the top six?
In the past, this wasn't as important. Having tens of thousands of fans abroad didn't do much for a club because there were few ways to make money off them. But things are changing and the rise of TV and the internet mean you can monetize fans the world over. And that has further tipped the balance toward the big boys.
The bottom line is that the deck is stacked in favor of a limited group of clubs to a degree we've never seen before. And, even assuming we want to do something about it, there's only so much that can be achieved.
Even in the Premier League, where the breakdown of TV money sees the top club earn about one-and-a-half times as much as the bottom club per season, hierarchies remain entrenched.
Leicester aside. Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool have all finished in the top eight every single season since 2009. So too had Chelsea until this season and Everton until two years ago.
We rightly celebrate West Ham and Southampton for finishing sixth and seventh in 2015-16 but, in fact, all they're doing is outperforming their wage bill by a couple of league positions. And, no, the incoming TV deal won't change that.
If you really want to get cynical, there are many vested interests to keep the status quo or even to accelerate matters towards a European Super League.
Broadcasters don't necessarily care if the pool of potential winners isn't expanded, as long as the titles rotate among the big boys and you don't have the same winner every year. A sizeable part of the TV audience, especially in the latter stages of the Champions League, isn't comprised by fans with a rooting interest, but neutrals who want to follow the drama.
Plus, if the actors are familiar then the storyline becomes easier to follow. After all, it's TV entertainment: You don't need to have a rooting interest to watch and enjoy "Breaking Bad" or "Downton Abbey."
The same applies to sponsors. They want guaranteed eyeballs and successful, familiar clubs are the best way to guarantee that. I'll sign a big check over to Juventus or Paris Saint-Germain if I know it's likely that many eyeballs will watch them on TV and the media keep talking about them. But if there's a real risk that it might be Shakthar Donetsk or Malaga on people's TV screens, then I might not be so generous.
Unless you get a ridiculously dominant club who simply steamrollers everybody and turns it into a boring product, then change won't come from the money men. Will it come from the regulators?
At league level, it's pretty unlikely. The Premier League is already about as egalitarian as it can possibly be, short of making clubs share commercial revenue like they do TV income. And it's not clear that that could legally be done even if it was desired.
UEFA could tinker with the prize money allocation and its "market pool" but, right now, the organisation has no president and only an interim general secretary. And given the power of the big clubs and the enduring threat of a breakaway league, even if you got new leadership committed to change, it's not clear what would be possible. A "luxury tax" to limit wage bills could potentially work, but that would need to be carefully thought out.
Maybe the only thing that would help is supporters voting with their wallets and making their displeasure known to the powers-that-be. But frankly, it's not even clear that there are enough people who care. With every season that passes, it looks less and less likely that the frog will get out of the pot.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.