A History of the English Premier League

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Podcast Transcript

The most popular sports league in the world in terms of the number of people who follow and watch is the English Premier League. 

Unlike other sports leagues, the English Premier League is relatively new. It was only created in the early 90s in response to the poor condition of top-division football at the time. 

Since then, it has brought in billions in revenue for the clubs that have played in the league, as well as some of the world’s highest salaries for its players. 

Learn more about the English Premier League, how it was formed, and its possible future on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

English Premier League, hereby known as the EPL, is the top tier of English football and is arguably the most popular professional sports league in the world. 

In terms of the total number of fans around the world and the size of the television audience, nothing can approach the EPL.

In terms of the quality of competition, global rankings of national leagues put the EPL above the top leagues in Spain, Italy, Germany, and France. 

…and just to clarify for all my American, Canadian, Australian, Kiwi, and South African listeners, which is actually the vast majority of my audience, I’ll just be calling it football for the remained of this episode instead of soccer because that is what the league calls it.

However, unlike other popular sports leagues, the EPL doesn’t trace its history back to the early 20th or 19th century. In fact, the league is only a bit over 30 years old.

How did such a relatively new league manage to become so popular so quickly, and why was it created in the first place? 

To understand that, we must understand club football’s origin in England and how it works. 

For those of you listening in the UK, this might be old hat, but as I’ve mentioned, the majority of the people who listen to this podcast live in countries where football, aka soccer, is not the most popular sport, and they don’t have sports leagues that are organized like they are in England and other countries. 

If you remember back to my episode on the origins of various types of football games, association football was created in the 19th century and eventually split away from rugby as thetwo games evolved to have very different rules. 

In 1888, the Football League was created in England as an organization for professional footballers. This came out of the Football Association, which was the organizing body for the sport, which at the time was strictly amateur. 

The Football League was the top league in the country and, until 1892, was the only professional league. 

That year, the Football League merged with a rival organization called the Football Alliance, which resulted in the creation of the Second Division. 

Here, I should explain that unlike American sports, where you have two equal leagues, such as the American League and the National League in baseball, or the American Conference or National Conference in the NFL, the Second Division was an inferior league, below the First Division.

After a season of competition, in 1893, the worst teams in the First Division were relegated down to the Second Division, and the best teams in the Second Division were promoted to the First Division. 

This began the system of promotion and relegation that exists today. This is the defining difference between the club model, which is popular in much of the world, and the franchise model, which is popular in North America. 

No matter how bad a franchise gets, they never get kicked out just for being bad. That is why the Detroit Lions are still in the NFL.

Over time, the Football League added more divisions. By the mid-1980s, there were four divisions, and those four were eventually linked up to the lower Football Conference to create a larger system of teams and leagues down to the lowest amateur level.

Today, there are at least 11 different levels in English football. There are still teams below level 11, but they are not as well organized. The structure of the leagues isn’t as well defined. 

That means, through a series of promotions, a very low-level team could work their way up to a very high level. 

Fast forward to the 1980s, and the theory of underdog teams making it to the First Division was mostly that. Theoretical. In reality, there was an elite group of clubs that were highly professional, had bigger payrolls than every other team, and almost never were relegated.

I’m going to come back to the subject of big teams in a bit, but before I continue with that, I have to cover another big issue that English Football had to deal with in the 1980s: Hooliganism. 

Football hooligans had become a big problem in the 80s. I don’t think it would be quite accurate to say that hooligans were like gangs. They really weren’t that organized, and they weren’t involved in illicit money-making activities. 

They were ardent team supporters who used games as an excuse to clash with other ardent team supporters. These clashes were often fueled by alcohol. 

The term hooligan sounds sort of funny, but it doesn’t express the seriousness of the problem. Most of the clashes between football hooligans consisted of clashes inside and outside of football stadiums. 

However, several extremely tragic events took place in a very short period of time. 

The first was the Heysel Stadium disaster that occurred on May 29, 1985, in Brussels, Belgium, during the European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus. 

What was meant to be a showcase of European football turned tragic when clashes between rival fans led to a wall collapsing in the dilapidated Heysel Stadium. The chaos and ensuing stampede resulted in the deaths of 39 people, mostly Juventus fans, and injured hundreds. 

The disaster highlighted the serious issues of hooliganism and inadequate stadium safety standards in football, leading to widespread calls for changes in stadium design and security. 

Perhaps more importantly for the purpose of this episode, it led to all English football clubs being banned from European competitions for five years, with Liverpool receiving a six-year ban, underscoring the grave consequences of fan violence.

The next event has been called the Hillsborough disaster. It occurred on April 15, 1989, during an FA Cup semi-final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England. 

This tragic event unfolded when overcrowding in the central pens of the stadium’s Leppings Lane terrace led to a fatal crush of spectators, resulting in the deaths of 96 Liverpool supporters and injuries to hundreds more. Initially blamed on fan behavior, subsequent inquiries revealed that poor policing and inadequate stadium design were the actual culprits. 

The disaster led to significant changes in UK sports venue safety standards, including eliminating standing terraces at major football stadiums and implementing all-seater stadiums, as recommended by the Taylor Report, which followed the tragedy.

The recommendations of the Taylor Report required sizable investments of money. The crumbling stadium infrastructure around the country wasn’t going to be fixed for free. 

At the same time, the biggest teams in the First Division began to complain that they were not receiving a fair share of revenue. The money generated in the First Division was divided between all the teams in the lower divisions. 

In particular, they felt there was money to be made in television broadcasting, and they didn’t think it should be shared with clubs in the lower division that didn’t draw an audience on television. This was the biggest source of revenue for profitable leagues like the NFL, but it hadn’t yet been exploited by English football.

In the 1990/91 season, the European ban on English teams expired, and they were once again eligible to play the biggest, most popular clubs on the European mainland. 

This brought things to a head. 

After the season, First Division clubs led by a group known as the Big Five, which consisted of Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton, Manchester United, and Tottenham Hotspur, began discussions with television networks. The networks, in particular ITV, claimed that any television deal would have to be centered on the best teams with the biggest following. 

Plans for a Super League were set in 1991, and after the conclusion of the 1991-92 seasons, there was a mass resignation of teams from the Football League. 

The teams then formed their own league, got the blessing of the Football Association, and established the FA Premier League. 

The Premier League was basically the former First Division of the Football League, except now it was its own economic entity. The big difference is that television revenue would only be split with teams participating in the Premier League.

They continued promotion and relegation with the former Second Division, and the new Premier League began its first season in 1992 with twenty-two teams, which later decreased to twenty. 

This meant that being promoted to the Premier League was now a huge financial windfall for any team that was able to do so. 

The predictions of increased television revenue turned out to be true. The most recent Premier League TV contract was signed in 2023 with Sky Sports for £6.7 billion over four years.

One problem that only got worse with the creation of the Premier League was the dominance of a small number of clubs. Since the founding of the league, only about four to six clubs in any given season have any chance of winning.

While there have been exceptions, most notably Leicester City winning in 2016 after starting the season at 5000 to 1 underdogs, it is usually the same few teams who are always in contention.

These few mega teams are able to bring in the most money and, as such, are able to field the best teams with the highest payroll.

This has created a situation that is similar to those in the late 1980s. The top Premier League teams are finding the biggest audiences and the best competition, not against other English teams, but top teams from other European leagues. 

Despite being the most popular sports league in the world, the English Premier League is dwarfed in terms of revenue by North American leagues such as the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and the National Basketball Association. 

The most profitable EPL team makes less money than the least profitable NFL team. 

This situation is even worse for other big football clubs in other European leagues. 

In April 2021, twelve of the top European clubs announced a plan to create the European Super League, which was intended to replace the current UEFA Champions League.

The UEFA Champions League is a division above the top national divisions in each country and has a similar relegation and promotion system.

The proposed Super League would consist of 20 teams, fifteen of which would be considered founding clubs and would be immune from regelation….forever…creating a system more like the North American franchise model. 

Of the twelve teams that announced their support for the plan, six were in the English Premier League: Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Tottenham Hotspur. 

While this wouldn’t have replaced the Premier League, it would have locked in a significant source of revenue for the big six clubs in the EPL, which would have given them an even bigger advantage over every other English football club. 

The reactions to the proposed Super League were swift and overwhelmingly negative. A poll conducted immediately after the announcement found that 79% of all English football fans disapproved of the league, and 76% of the fans of the six clubs were also against it.

It wasn’t just the fans. Many current and former players were against the new league as were teams who were not invited to join. 

The backlash to the league was sharp enough that the proposal was withdrawn just a few weeks later. 

However, the economic incentives that spurred the announcement of the Super League haven’t gone away. The biggest European clubs, many of which are in the English Premier League, can all see the financial benefits of changing the system. 

The EPL will probably remain the most popular sports league in the world for the foreseeable future. However, the fact that it is the most popular, yet only the fourth most profitable, will probably be a point of contention for the biggest clubs for years to come. 

That means even though the Super League might not have survived its first attempt, something like it or a reform of the current system will probably create some sort of changes to the sport which will have profound changes on the Premier League in the future. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

You have left a lot of reviews in the last month, and I’ve gotten really far behind on reading them, so I have two for you today. The first comes from listener Game Night 2021 over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

This pod is great

This pod is so full of rich history and politics and culture. This is a must-listen pod. This has helped me learn so much. Thank you.

The next review comes from listener VolcanoFarts, who writes:


This show is amazing. I love listening to it every single day after school, and the content on this show is great. Best podcast ever!!! ????????

Thank you both of you, every single review is appreciated.

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.