Has Increasing Riches Reduced Sport’s Competitiveness?

And what it means for the spectator

Sport is big business. From the NFL to Premier League, the money flowing through competitive sport is eye-watering.

The highest-paid athlete in 2018, Floyd Mayweather, made $285 million, while the most valuable sports team in the world, the Dallas Cowboys, are valued at $4.8 billion.

The value of these clubs and the wealth of athletes shows no signs of slowing down, but is all the money in sport creating a less competitive world? If you look at the recent champions in the top European football leagues, the answer would be yes.

In Italy, Juventus have won nine consecutive championships. The same is true in Germany and France, where Bayern Munich have won seven consecutive championships, while Paris Saint-Germain has won seven of the last eight.

Only in England is the trend bucked. Manchester City became the first team to retain the Premier League this season since Manchester United in 2009. On face value, the Premier League looks to be competitive despite being the richest football league in the world.

However, it is an anomaly compared to the rest of Europe, where the teams with the biggest wallets routinely win the championship year after year.

The trend is slightly different across the pond in the United States. Yes, the New England Patriots and the Golden State Warriors dominate proceedings in the NFL and NBA respectively, but not to the extent we see in the European football world.

Golden State has only won back-to-back championships while the Patriots won their only consecutive championships from 2004 to 2005, the last time a team achieved the feat.

The other two mainstream sports in the States, Baseball and Ice Hockey, are much more equal in terms of competition. Not since the New York Yankees won three World Series from 1998 to 2000, has a team won back-to-back titles.

While in the NHL, the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017, the first time a team retained the cup since the Detroit Redwings in 1998.

On the surface, it appears the American system is designed to prevent one team dominating proceedings, but this is not always the case, as the continued presence of the Patriots in the SuperBowl shows.

With more and more money being poured into sports, will this trend continue, and what will it mean for sport in the long-run? Will people still watch if the result is almost guaranteed? Or, will there have to be root and branch reform to ensure sport remains competitive and interesting to fans?

Money Talks

The Premier League is the most-watched football league in the world. The average match is watched by over 12 million people, while its closest competitor, the Spanish La Liga, draws in an average crowd of 2 million people per match.

Not only do they lead the way in terms of the number of people watching, but they also lead the way in terms of the money generated by TV deals.

The latest round of deals saw the rights for the matches from 2019 to 2022 sold for £4.46 billion. This was just to show the matches in the UK, not overseas.

The rights to show the matches in countries outside the UK sold for $5.3 billion for the same period. While this is some way down on the $39.6 billion the NFL generates for its TV rights, this represents a significant amount of money in the football world.

With all this money flowing into the league you would think competitiveness would be at an all-time high. The reality is that while only one team has won consecutive championships since 2010, the league is not that competitive.

The dominance of a sextet of teams referred to as the “Big Six” has barely been broken during that time. The only aberration was when Leicester City won the league title in 2016. Aside from that, these six teams have kept a stranglehold on the top positions.

Before the league starts, you can almost guarantee that the champion will come from this group of six. Even within that group, a clear hierarchy is beginning to form.

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Photo by Musiena • on Reshot

The previous season, the top two teams, Manchester City and Liverpool, finished 25 and 26 points clear of third-placed Chelsea. With more money gifted to those hat finish higher up in the table, it’s hard to see anyone breaking through the ceiling anytime soon.

Despite the league being a two-horse race for the majority of the season, viewing figures rose in comparison to previous seasons. Coverage in the UK saw 16 matches in excess of two million viewers, which was more than the past two seasons combined!

The predictability of the final outcome does not seem to dissuade people from turning off. In fact, the close nature of the run-in seems to have encouraged more people to watch, despite only two teams being in the running.

If anything, it appears that although money may be making sport less competitive, people are more inclined to watch than ever before.

The Long Run?

Will this trend continue in the long run? It’s hard to say and this would need to be answered on a case by case basis.

The success of the Toronto Raptors in the recent NBA Finals and the subsequent fallout following the free agency period makes the competition more unpredictable than ever, despite more and more money flowing in.

The draft system used in American sports is a contributing factor in this. The worst teams are allowed to make the first picks on up and coming prospects in order to keep the league competitive.

On the whole, it appears to work. However, in European football, there is no such system. This allows the teams with the most money to buy up the best talent and entrench their position.

An interesting case study is that of the most successful team in English football, Manchester United. They have won 13 of the 27 seasons since the Premier League was established, but they have not won a championship since 2013.

This is despite having a revenue of $590 million in 2018, which was over $100 million more than Manchester City who won the league that year.

Despite their financial advantage, United have not been able to translate this into success on the pitch. This calls into question whether simply having more money makes a difference. It is what you do with that money draws the biggest impact.

Therefore, it could be argued, that despite more and more money coming into sport, if teams do not spend it wisely, their competitiveness will suffer and they will throw away their financial advantage.

Maybe, it’s too early to bemoan the lack of competitiveness in sport. Maybe, more money will usher in a new era of competitive sport, or maybe it will lead to competition that becomes ever more predictable by the year.

Whatever happens, it’s more than likely we’ll be watching to find out.

I like to write. I like to travel. https://www.thetravellingtom.com Join my email list -> https://tomstevenson.substack.com/

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