Premier League's new TV deal will make it more competitive than ever
Remember the Big Four? They're dead. Remember how money was going to kill competitiveness in the Premier League? It will not. It will enhance it.
With a third of the season gone, Leicester City are top of the division, while just eight points separate the top 10 teams. Last season, there was a 16-point gap between first and 10th at the same stage of the campaign. This year, Norwich City, two places away from the relegation zone, trail Leicester by 16 points. The Premier League has concertina'ed.
How unusual is this? It is the first time since the millennium that the points gap in the top half of the table has not been in double figures.
Leicester are a symbol of how the English top flight has changed. Thirteen years ago, they were in administration, cash-strapped and facing a bleak future. Six years ago, they were in League One. They clawed themselves back into the Premier League at just the right time and survived last season even though they looked like relegation certainties until the final weeks of the campaign. It is highly unlikely they will be at the summit of the table in May but it is equally unlikely they will be relegated. This is crucial because the 20 teams that comprise the Premier League at the start of 2016-17 will be given a golden ticket.
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The present TV deal -- SKY and BT Sport just in the UK pay a record £5.136 billion for live Premier League TV rights for the 2016-17 season -- is impressive. How does that windfall get distributed to the clubs? As title winners, Chelsea earned £98.99 million while last season's bottom club, Queens Park Rangers, were awarded £64.8m. It is likely that the team that finishes 20th next season will pocket £99m next season while those at the top of the table will pocket more than £150m in prize money.
This will be the effect of the next television contract, which will generate more than £5 billion for the Premier League. The consequences will be startling: bigger transfer fees, better players and higher wages across the board. Forget the notion of a European Super League; England no longer needs it. Every year in February, the accountancy firm Deloitte publishes a list of the biggest earning clubs in the game. This year, England had 14 in the top 30. After 2017, all 20 Premier League teams could end up in this wealthy elite group.
Leicester, then, will be able to outspend any European clubs except Real Madrid, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and arguably (and only arguably) Bayern Munich. Already, the Premier League's middle class are richer than Serie A's best. Even the most unfashionable teams can attract top European talent. Five years ago, it would have been unimaginable for someone like Xherdan Shaqiri to be playing for Stoke City, which bodes well for the competitiveness of England's top division.
The best foreign players will always gravitate to Real and Barca given their stature, wealth and prime location, while the Premier League's big boys (Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal) will have first call on the rest. The likes of Leicester, Stoke and Crystal Palace will be able to plunder the pool of players in the level below this, the type who once might have moved to one of Italy's top clubs. The best managers will flock to the Premier League -- look at Claudio Ranieri's CV and see how out of place Leicester appear to be -- as money draws talent like a black hole attracts light.
In truth, the notion of the Big Four was always somewhat transient and unrealistic. For three brief seasons between 2006 and 2009, Man United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool dominated the top of the table and reached the late stages of the Champions League. Then Manchester City blossomed and Liverpool faded. Those who still think in terms of a closed shop at the top have not factored in the explosion of TV money since.
Of course, the super-rich will always have the best chance of winning. Of the 116 titles in the English game's history, more than half have been won by just four clubs: United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton (the Toffees were once nicknamed the "Mersey Millionaires") have 60 between them. The difference is that now the wealthiest do not find it so easy to financially bully their divisional rivals.
Last weekend proved the big names are vulnerable. Arsenal and City lost against expectations and suddenly Tottenham Hotspur have credible ambitions to crash the top four and maybe hold an outside chance of putting together a title challenge. Liverpool exposed City's weaknesses and have renewed ambition to finish in the Champions League places. Everton, Palace and Stoke are on the heels of the leading pack. Even West Ham United and Southampton can dream of better days and the momentum that two or three wins in a row would give them.
Leicester, though, are out front and provide an example for the rest. They have a high-class manager and will be able to strengthen in the next transfer window if they desire. Long may their success continue. Things may never go back to the 1960s when seven different clubs won the Premier League in that decade (only three teams won the title in the 2000s),yet the division will get significantly more competitive over the next 10 years.
English football could be on the cusp of an exciting new era.
Deeney did the right thing
Poor Troy Deeney. After equalizing for Watford against Manchester United, the striker went to help his defence and ended up turning a Bastian Schweinsteiger effort into his own net. Deeney paid for his bravery but did the right thing.
Jamie Carragher scored eight own goals during his career but he went for balls that other defenders left alone. Some players let the ball run to opponents rather than risk putting it into their own net. Carragher never shied away from the challenge and saved Liverpool more goals than he conceded over his career. Deeney had the correct instinct. He didn't hide and that's to be admired.
Notes of caution for Liverpool fans
Liverpool fans should be excited by Jurgen Klopp and the performance of the team against Manchester City, but there are a couple of notes of caution. Kopites might mock Raheem Sterling for being on the losing side, but the 20-year-old who left Anfield for the Etihad is playing Champions League football this week. Liverpool aren't.
Also, it was not so long ago that people who celebrated victories over Liverpool with the joyous abandon Reds fans displayed after the City game would be met with the statement: "Let's see where we both are in May." Klopp notwithstanding, City will be in a better place come the spring.
Same old Arsenal?
Arsene Wenger's "nightmare afternoon" comments after Arsenal's 2-1 defeat by West Bromwich Albion had a familiar ring to them. Lots of possession, missed chances, goal given away from a set-piece -- there's always the odd quirk to keep the listeners on their toes (this time, an own goal and a missed penalty) but it's a tale we've heard before. Wenger runs through this checklist two or three times a season after games his team should not have lost. Wouldn't you rather hear the Frenchman's views on why Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, his two expensive superstars, don't impose themselves on matches like this? Results like the one at The Hawthorns are why Arsenal will not win the league.
Will Rafa Benitez be Real's fall guy?
So Rafa Benitez survives at Real Madrid. In one way it's a surprise, because club president Florentino Perez needs a sacrificial lamb after Saturday's 4-0 home defeat by Barcelona. Yet Benitez might have another function: Perez could be lining up the coach to take the blame for the exit of Cristiano Ronaldo from the Bernabeu.
Both player and club are reported to want this move -- probably to Paris Saint-Germain -- but neither is keen to be seen as engineering the parting of ways. Who better to carry the can than Benitez? It would let both Perez and Ronaldo off the hook.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.