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On the face of it, there's still a stark difference in financial power the lower down the Premier League table you go. According to Deloitte's 2006 Annual Review of Football Finance, the top five earners in the 2004-05 season Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Newcastle United accounted for almost half of both revenue and salary costs. And though average club revenue hit $124 million in 2004-05, the ratio of revenue at the richest club to that of the poorest is 4.7:1, well over twice the NFL's rate and almost double the NBA's. While income from TV rights in the NFL is split evenly between all 32 teams, half of domestic rights in the Premier League are divided according to the number of times a team is aired and its final league position. The result: the top club pockets almost twice the amount that the bottom team does and only the top few clubs access money-spinning European club competition the following season. In the U.S. there are mechanisms such as salary caps in place to ensure a competitive balance, but there's no sign of anything like that in the Premiership. "What we have is almost like a two-tier league structure," says Birkbeck's Chadwick: "Those that can win the Premier League, and those that won't."
That may not matter as much as you might think. Though only four different teams have won the Premier League since 1992, most fans seem unperturbed by a lack of competitiveness. Midway through a survey of thousands of supporters, Birkbeck's Chadwick says top-flight followers still consider the league "exciting and unpredictable." And financial prospects for smaller teams are brightening. More of them are now profitable, according to the Deloitte report. These days, "to be the 10th or 12th club in the best league is still good," says Chris Lee, head of Professional Sports Business at Barclays, which acts as banker for half of the Premier League's clubs. "Not all clubs are making a profit, but there's not so much of an excuse now."
Profitability would no doubt be helped if clubs could bring wages under control. Over the past decade, according to Deloitte, Premier League wages rose an average of 20% a year. Top earners like Chelsea's Michael Ballack and Thierry Henry of Arsenal reportedly pocket around $12.5 million each year. But in 2004-05, for the first time since 1992, total wages dipped, and the ratio of wages to revenue is lower than it is in most of the other big European leagues. Clubs threatened with relegation out of the Premiership (three teams are dropped each year, and three added) are wising up to performance-related pay schemes. From next season, even the worst team will net around $54 million in media and TV revenue, almost as much as the $60 million that Chelsea took home for winning the league last year. And relegated teams get "parachute payments" that soften the blow of tumbling down a division.
With that kind of stability, building a brand in Asia and other foreign markets may not seem such a stretch, even for relatively small clubs. Despite losing money last season, Sheffield United bought China's Chengdu Five Bull football team (and duly renamed the side the Blades, to match the English club's moniker). Since then, United has opened a city-center bar and retail outlet at the stadium. Analysts are impressed. "If a club hasn't got a high profile or heaps of cash, building relationships in the local market is a cost-effective way to build brand awareness and suit longer-term Asian sensibilities," says Geoffrey Gold, ceo of Football Dynamics Asia, the Jakarta-based consultants.
To lend a bigger hand to mid- or low-placed sides like Villa and Sheffield, the Premier League could learn from the NBA. Rather than basketball teams marketing themselves individually, the NBA represents the collective interest of the league when it sells itself in places like China. "The NBA has the vision, focus and drive that the [Premier League] doesn't," says Terry Rhoads, general manager of Shanghai's Zou Marketing, who has advised both the NFL and the NBA on selling to China. "The [Premier League] clubs are taking the lead and there's no coordinated effort. Right now it's like the children leading the parents when it should be the other way around." Scudamore dismisses the comparison. The NBA, he says, "doesn't have global brands as clubs." Because it boasts legendary teams like Manchester United, he thinks, the Premier League has "a very different model."
Closer to home, fans at Old Trafford stadium are grappling with marketing of a different kind. Even when there's no game on, there are plenty of ways to part a fan from his cash. You can join a tour party as 200,000 fans do each year, paying $20 for the privilege. You can hit the Manchester United megastore, and look at anything from jewelry to lacy garters. It's not what the cloth-cap and meat-pie fans of yore would have bought. But then, the English Premier League left behind the world of those supporters long ago.