The new normal? Leicester City and the changing face of the Premier League

Welcome to Tuesday Team Talk. Every week, the H+K Sports team will give a unique perspective on the week’s football action and the stories making the headlines across the beautiful game.

Occasionally in sport, there are upsets that you tell yourself just can’t happen. All the way through the match/race/season you convince yourself that there’s no chance, that eventually normal service will be resumed. You convince yourself it can never happen. And then it does.

At time of writing Leicester City sit atop the Premier League table. After an impressive win over Stoke this weekend, they are three points clear of second place City, and perhaps even more significantly 10 points clear of the 5th place side, Man United. Only one team in Premier League history has ever had this many points after 23 games and not made the top four (Martin O’Neill’s Aston Villa side that imploded in 2008-9). It’s certainly the most significant story of this wonky Premier League season, but it’s by no means the only one. Two years ago, 19 year old Dele Alli was playing in League Two. This weekend he scored probably the goal of the season, and he looks set to star for England at Euro 2016. Jamie Vardy, a 28 year old journeyman who has spent most of his career in the lower leagues, broke Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s consecutive goals record. The Premier League in 2016 is more open and unpredictable than ever before.

It’s a season that has defied all expectations, but is this a one off? Is it an aberration that will revert to type next season, or a sign of things to come? Perhaps more importantly, if this is the Premier League’s new normal, does it help the league, or weaken it?

For the model of a league that is impossible to predict every year and where any team has a chance to succeed, look no further than the NFL. Teams regularly go from bottom of the pile one year, to challenging for a title the next. Now the NFL has some specific intricacies the Premier League lacks to achieve this, notably the draft and the salary cap. But one element that does hold some lessons for the new Premier League model is the practice of revenue sharing. NFL clubs split total earnings between themselves, meaning they theoretically have equal spending power. The huge new Premier League TV deal, as well as increasing the size of pot for the whole league, brings with it greater parity. Even the clubs at the bottom of the table will soon have the ability to invest in world class talent, and keep their own against foreign competition. The results are already being felt. This is now a league where almost any team can beat any other on a given day, lowering the threshold for entry into the once sacrosanct top four, and allowing for a story like that of Leicester. As this parity grows, and clubs have the ability to purchase more quality players (including purchasing from lower leagues – Benik Afobe may not be Dele Alli, but on current form his £10m signing may be a difference maker for Bournemouth) the new, more unpredictable Premier League looks set to continue.

So is it good for the league? There are arguably less elite teams this year. Premier League sides have struggled in Europe and none of them have been consistent enough to seize control of the league table. This seeming weakness at the top of the table has given some the impression that this is a ‘bad year’ for the Premier League.

But the quality of the league shouldn’t be judged by the teams at the top, but by the entertainment value of the product. This is sport after all, it is essentially entertainment. It’s all well having Barcelona and Real Madrid dominate La Liga, but is such predictability really that entertaining? Having great teams in the Premier League does help grow the league globally, the impact Manchester United have had is evidence of this. But in the long run, keep the product entertaining, and the league will flourish. Is a more unpredictable season good for the Premier League? Absolutely, long may it continue!

James Fenn

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search