Community at heart of Prem juggernaut
For two decades, the Premier League has been enthralling English football fans, with memorable goals, remarkable results and mercurial talents combining to create one of the world's most lucrative sporting products. What started off as the rebranding of a domestic division has exploded into a global phenomenon and the Premier League juggernaut is not showing any signs of slowing down as it reaches the end of its 20th season.
But with great power comes great responsibility, and the Premier League's attempts to circumnavigate the football globe have not been all plain sailing. Like any successful organisation, it has needed to adapt, evolve and carefully handle the problems that have threatened to blow it off course. The league's enduring popularity ensures its central figures are rarely out of the media glare, with issues surrounding Financial Fair Play, Fit and Proper Persons' Tests and players' misdemeanours inevitably hogging headlines, while the organisation fights to promote the positive work it does off the field, which rarely receives equal billing.
For the past 13 years, the captain of the Premier League's ship has been Richard Scudamore, whose longevity in the chief executive position is in stark contrast to the managers in the division he oversees. Since he was first appointed in 1999, there have been more than 100 top-flight bosses and Scudamore's staying power appears impressive - his ability to continue delivering such a popular product affording him the sort of job security that the Andre Villas-Boases of this world must observe with envy.
A devoted Bristol City supporter who cannot hide the glint in his eye when he reminisces about childhood trips to Ashton Gate, there is no questioning Scudamore's credentials as a lover of the game and, sitting in his central London office at Premier League HQ, he is proud to discuss the product he has been responsible for maintaining and developing for more than a decade.
"I don't actually think that football per se has changed much since the start of the Premier league - it's still 11 vs 11 and three points for a win," Scudamore tells ESPNsoccernet. "The essence of what we do hasn't changed, but what has vastly improved is the clubs' ability to attract talent, the stadia and the matchday environment. Sometimes out of bad things come good things and the stadia disasters of the 1980s like Heysel, Hillsborough and the Bradford fire were catalysts for change. A combination of a will to do something about it and the advent of paid television - which provided the funding and the resources to do so - changed the game for the better.
"While those involved expected improvements to football, no-one really envisaged the globalisation that followed - it is just unbelievable. We used to just be an English league with a little bit of interest from abroad; now we're a world league proudly played in England but watched everywhere. Clubs have evolved from being small local businesses to big enterprises and they're established in the hearts and minds of so many people around the world."
Though the extended reach of the Premier League is understandably celebrated, with fans from Arizona to Accra taking in the action each week, global domination has brought with it concerns closer to home. A regular criticism levelled at England's top-flight clubs is that they are no longer the pillars of the community they once were and that their players are no longer in touch with their adoring public. Supporters may accept that the days of superstars like Bobby Charlton travelling by public bus to games is over, but many feel the excesses of modern football have created an unbridgeable chasm between the players and the people who pay to worship them every week.
However, Scudamore is adamant that this view is wide of the mark - and with 18.5 million people benefiting from the Premier League Creating Chances scheme over the past four years, his frustration at such thinking seems justified.
"The idea that the Premier League's clubs are not in touch with their communities is just completely wrong. They've never done more," Scudamore explains. "Whether it be their community schemes, their outreach programmes, their social inclusion programmes - the clubs have now all got hugely developed community operations and social responsibility sides to them.
"We are incredibly proud that, while clubs have expanded in a global sense, they have kept ever more local. That's an important part of what they do. The media just aren't interested in this side of things so it never gets reported but I think the general public are now interested in the wider impact of a football club."
Because of the Premier League's universal following, its community initiatives are not confined to England - they cross borders and cultures. The Kickz campaign, which uses the appeal of top-flight clubs to engage young people who may be otherwise difficult to reach, was conceived in the UK but has been successfully taken to the favelas of Brazil, and is among a host of coaching schemes run overseas. Although it has proved a somewhat contentious opinion in the past, Scudamore maintains that a fan of the Premier League in America, Asia or Africa is no less of a supporter than those who living in the vicinity of their clubs.
"Not everybody goes to the games, but that doesn't mean they don't have the right to be involved with their club. It's still their club and there's no rule that says you have to be a season-ticket holder to be a fan - people here have different priorities and commitments and people abroad obviously can't regularly make it to matches.
"I've spoken to supporters all over the world and there are fans in Asia who more about the Premier League than the people who work for the Premier League! Coaches involved in our projects in Africa have told me of supporters who walk for seven miles to watch a live Premier League game - that is a level of commitment above and beyond but it's just the way it is. Their knowledge base is fantastic. This isn't just people who watch a few matches on TV - these are seriously educated football aficionados, and that is the same all over the world.
"The economic reality is that foreign fans are contributing to clubs so when a team's star striker is thinking of leaving and the board is being asked to dig deep to keep him, it is overseas fans who help make the option of keeping him possible. International expansion has enabled our clubs to keep up with those who have natural advantages we don't have, like the Barcelonas and Real Madrids, who can make a fortune selling their individual TV rights."
Pre-season tours have become an essential outlet for clubs to interact with their international supporters, but it is simply impossible to provide for an ever-increasing fanbase. Thus, Scudamore has welcomed the rise of social media as a tool for connecting the Premier League dots around the world.
"In the main, the international tours are down to the clubs but we do have an involvement and we encourage clubs where we can to go to different places so we get more of a spread. I think we could see clubs visiting Africa in the future, and India too. We've never done a three-club Premier League tournament anywhere in the Americas either. All these things are possible but obviously players can't be here, there and everywhere visiting every country.
"There is obviously a limit to how much the world can touch and grab these iconic stars, so there have to be ways to bridge that gap and social media is a very effective way. The teams can't go everywhere, and we can't visit every country in the Premier League-watching world every year, so we have to communicate in other ways. I think that is happening right now and we want to see more of it, not less.
"For all the problems Twitter can create, social media is doing a good job of allowing fans to feel closer to the players. There is a more human side now to some of the players and the public can communicate more directly with them. Clearly it isn't the same as texting your best mate or talking to someone in person and sometimes there can be abusive comments, but generally the internet, online chat rooms, and the way people are communicating is healthy."
The celebration of two decades of the Premier League has brought an opportunity to further involve fans at home and abroad, as the 20 Season Awards gives supporters the chance to vote for their favourite moments since the division's inception. Revered names such as Gianfranco Zola, Alan Shearer and Eric Cantona find themselves among the nominees for categories including 'Best Player' 'Best Goal', 'Best Save' and 'Best Celebration'. But with Spanish football currently riding high in European competition, would the English top-flight still scoop a hypothetical 'Best League' award?
"I don't think there is a single criterion for judging what makes the best league. You have to break it down into contributing factors," Scudamore says. "You might look at which league has won the most European trophies - if a Spanish club wins the Champions League and Europa League this year, you might argue La Liga would be the best. But then you could look at which league has been watched by the most people around the world and generated the most interest: that's the Premier League.
"It's difficult to judge. Is it about the technical playing standards? The excitement? The capacity crowds? The fact the bottom team can beat the top team? The competitiveness? Once you set specific criteria it's easier to answer but if you had 20 categories, I'd fancy our chances of winning most of them."
It is certainly a challenge to preserve the Premier League's popularity amid pressure from other global leagues and organising bodies, but Scudamore is confident that the juggernaut with community at its heart still has plenty of room to grow.
"I don't think it's up to us here whether we're ever reined in or not - the regulators come at us from time to time, while our friends in various other football confederations and organisations might wish to emasculate us sometimes. But to be honest, you have to decide if the Premier League is a force for good or bad - we wholeheartedly believe that it's been a force for good, so what's wrong if it gets a little bit bigger?"
The 2011-12 season is the 20th season of the Premier League. To celebrate this, the Premier League is organising its 20 Seasons Awards and want supporters to have their say on what have been the best moments of the past two decades.