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Is sport fair and 'Wide open'?

Updated on November 23, 2010

Here in England, many football fans and television pundits are getting excited about the most open title race for years. As well as the three challengers everybody was expecting; Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal, there are Manchester City and Tottenham who are showing the temerity to challenge for the title themselves. Just over a third of the way through the season and there is a buzz of excitement because there are still five teams that might still win the title. It says a lot about the closed shop nature of the English Premier League title, only four clubs have won it since it started in 1992, that this season has caused such a reaction. If you follow the NFL, the premier competition in American Football, you would probably laugh at the idea that this seasons Premier League is ‘wide open’. Currently the NFL is around half way through its regular season, before the play-offs decide the champions. By way of comparison I have looked at the English bookmakers odds for the Premier League and for the Superbowl winners.

Best odds available for leading 16 teams in betting for Premier League title (23/11/10)

Chelsea 5/4

Man United 23/10

Arsenal 5/1

Man City 9/1

Tottenham 66/1

Liverpool 100/1

Everton 750/1

Aston Villa 1,500/1

Bolton 2,000/1

Sunderland 2,000/1

Stoke 2,500/1

Newcastle 2,500/1

Birmingham 2,500/1

Blackburn 3,000/1

West Brom 6,000/1

Fulham 7,500/1

Of course bookmakers do make mistakes, but not too many and it’s extremely rare for them to make big mistakes. Looking at these odds they are saying that four teams have at least a decent chance of winning the title and Tottenham could be put in the ‘lively outsider’ category. The fact that Liverpool are as short as 100/1 says more about their outdated reputation, than it does about their current performance levels. The rest of the teams need to produce one of the biggest sporting miracles of all time to win the title.

Superbowl winners (NFL Champions) odds for top sixteen teams: (23/11/10)

Philadelphia Eagles 8/1

New England Patriots8/1

Green Bay Packers 8/1

Atlanta Falcons 9/1

Baltimore Ravens 10/1

New Orleans Saints 10/1

New York Jets 10/1

Pittsburgh Steelers 10/1

San Diego Chargers 12/1

Indianapolis Colts 14/1

New York Giants 14/1

Chicago Bears 33/1

Kansas City Chiefs 66/1

Tennessee Titans 66/1

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 80/1

Jacksonville Jaguars 100/1

By way of the starkest of contrasts the bookmakers really don’t have a clue which team is going to win. It’s very close to having ELEVEN joint favourites for the title. Certainly fans of those eleven teams have every right to believe their team has just about as good a chance of any other of winning the title. So that’s eleven genuine title contenders, compared to four. When it comes to the lively outsiders, despite their being eleven contenders, the NFL still produces more of these. If I had to bet my last pound on either Liverpool or Jacksonville to win their respective titles, then I wouldn’t hesitate at all before betting on the Jaguars.

As well as the limited amount of genuine contenders, the other worrying thing is the predictability of it all. If one hundred English football fans had been asked at the start of the season to name the six teams they thought were most likely to win the title, then I’d be extremely confident that all one hundred would have said those six teams that lead the betting market. Whereas the same question to NFL fans about the Superbowl winners, would have probably produced something like twenty different teams. Even more alarmingly if the English fans were asked about next season, then similar, if not identical, results would be produced. You have to go back to the first Premier League season in 1992/3, to find the last team that came from ‘nowhere’ to mount a sustained challenge for the title, that being Norwich City and to a lesser extent Aston Villa.

Surely the basic idea of sport is that everybody gets a fair chance of winning. I know it’s virtually impossible to even the playing field completely, but I think more could be done. Clearly the salary cap works in the NFL, at least making it so money isn’t the biggest deciding influence on success. With the international nature of football, any salary cap in England would probably lead to all the best players going to other European clubs. So I guess that would be a choice between having the same three or four clubs getting to the latter stages of the European Champions League virtually every year, making the Premier League look ‘strong’, or having a domestic competition where more teams have a chance of winning. England is far from being alone in this, most top leagues in Europe have being dominated by a few clubs for many years.

It hasn’t always been like this in England, after the 2nd World War, the first 26 seasons saw 14 different clubs win the championship. In the 38 seasons since then, there have only been 10 different winners, the last 29 of those seasons producing only 7 different championship winning clubs.

Hope is magnificent, hope is what keeps fans going through the dark times. Sadly now the hope of seeing your team reach the very top of the tree can only really be fulfilled if your team is bought by a billionaire owner who doesn’t like their money too much. Fans used to be able to hope that by bringing on some good youngsters and marrying them together with a few prudent buys, that their team could have at least two or three seasons of being top class and that those seasons could bring them the title. Now if a mid table team develops such youngsters, any sign of true promise and they will be snapped up by one of the ‘big’ clubs, even if only to sit on the bench.

Maybe if a club develops a player they should be allowed to keep that player if they want, until they are twenty three or even twenty five, only ‘cashing in’ on the player before then if they really want to. By the time the player reaches that age, if he truly is world class then he still has ten years or so to go off and make his multi millions. In the mean time he might have helped that team win a few trophies, that team that had developed him into a professional footballer and given him the opportunity to be hero worshipped and earn ludicrous amounts of money. Maybe in the mean time he could learn something about how to be a positive role model and to appreciate how lucky he is to have the life he has. Smaller clubs, lower down the league ladder, could loan out these superstar youngsters to top flight teams, but at least when the player reaches the age where he can leave, then it will be the small club getting the massive transfer fee that the auction for his talents will create. Maybe you would have to limit the amount of youngsters a club could sign up, stopping the bigger clubs signing up any youngsters with the merest hint of potential. At the moment it is highly unlikely that we’ll see a Champions League winning team with as many players coming through that teams system as the Ajax team that won the 1995 competition.

That’s just one idea to somehow even up the playing field of English football. I’m sure there are several others out there and several people who wouldn’t agree with my idea. I believe most fans though would agree that it would make the English game more exciting and a better competition if the current cartel was broken up. Doncaster Rovers climb from the non-leagues to the brink of the play-off places in the Championship in the space of seven seasons, have shown that hopes and dreams can still be fulfilled to a large extent, but it is that final step to ultimate glory that is just way too big for far too many clubs to take. Here’s hoping that somehow, in the near future they’ll be an English premier league season, where at the half point there are still eleven genuine contenders and a few more lively outsiders for the title.


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