Has the Premier League made football more unequal?

One of the complaints most commonly levelled at football is that since the advent of the Premier-league there has been a growing disparity between the haves and have not’s. The league has become too uneven: It’s a debate which almost seems to mirror anxiety about growing inequality in wider-society – something clubs with millionare players and near minimum-wage caterers are also part of.

Leaving some of these other issues behind the first challenge is how to measure on-pitch inequality. Football – to the analysts delight -provides a wealth of measures on almost any subject, and the same is true here. We could look solely at honours and titles, points gained, goals scored, or conceded. We could also look at the divide between the top 10 per cent and the rest, or the top 25 per cent, or 50 per cent and so on.

The relative closeness of teams, in a sporting sense, can be measured quite simply by looking at the number of wins each club has gained over the course of a season. This can then be computed into an average number of wins, from which we can calculate the standard deviation, a measure of how spread out clubs are from the average. The assumption is that clubs in more even leagues will tend to have a number of wins closer to the overall average – in a very even league, for instance, clubs should have around the same number of wins

Going one step further, we can work out the coefficient of variation. This is the standard deviation as the proportion of the average which allows us to better compare leagues across time (this is because a season with a high number of wins overall is likely to increase the standard deviation and what we are interested in is the relative share of wins). In effect a higher percentage means that the standard deviation is high relative to the mean and therefore the number of wins recorded by clubs in that league is more spread out and the league uneven.

CV graph

Doing this results in an interesting chart. The beginning of the Premier-League era does result in a sharp increase in the coefficient from 25.9% in 1991-92 to 38.1% in 1993-94 so it would appear that yes, the Premier League has resulted in a league which is less competitive overall, however, this needs to be looked at against the historical trend. If we look back to the 1930s we can see that despite fluctuations that there has been a general underlying trend for the league to become less equal over the whole period.

With the premier league not taking place until 1992 What then, has driven this trend?

Looking back to the 1930s even with what was on paper the best team. Inclement weather conditions, poor pitches, long journey times, poor officiating and injuries could all conspire to affect the final result. With no substitutions one-knock could reduce a team, if not in actual numbers, then in effect to 10 men. Fortune, or rather misfortune, could therefore play a much bigger role in deciding the outcome of games.

It was in 1965-66 the league first allowed one substitute, for cases of injury. The decade also saw the abolition of the maximum-wage for footballers in 1961. This was accompanied by some of the biggest increases in the coefficient, from 23.2% in 1961-62 to 41.0% by the end of the decade in 1969-70

Undoubtedly the premier-league marked a big change, or rather the confluence of several big changes. Following the Taylor report clubs began, to invest heavily in infrastructure – upgrading grounds which had been left to decline for decades. Such projects have a time-frame, and numerous complications; financing, land-availability, planning-permissions and so on. This meant that over the 90s and 00s some clubs lagged behind, stuck in outdated facilities which hampered their ability to generate revenue.

European-level changes to improve the mobility of labour also had a big impact. Clubs had access to a much wider pool of talent with the wealthiest clubs able to purchase not just the top players in England, Wales and Scotland, but the greatest players in the world. Allied with 1995’s Bosman ruling this sparked a huge change.

Annotated CV graph

All this though simply marked the acceleration of a trend begun much earlier.

The ultimate question though, is have we seen the end of this trend, has the Premier League reached an apex of inequality?

It is hard to infer the future from just looking at the past however, part of me thinks that we may have. The reason for this is that we have reached a point where the clubs like Manchester United, who raced to the top in the 90s have slowly been reeled in by the chasing pack as clubs lower down the food-chain have completed infrastructure improvements and have gained experience in running a more commercial operation.

It is also some years since clubs have had access to, and the cash for, the world’s best players – The impact of this has already been felt and now, thanks to the Premier League’s TV deals even modest clubs have a huge amount of spending power.


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