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This Saturday marks the beginning of the Barclays Premier League, England’s top soccer league, and one of the top three leagues in the World (Spain’s La Liga, and Germany’s Bundesliga along with the Premier League are widely considered the world’s top leagues). In America though, the Premier League is the easiest league to follow, primarily due to its matches being the most widely broadcast out of the “Big 3” leagues. NBC has the television rights to the Premier League, with the majority of the matches being aired on NBC Sports.
Mexico's Chicharito is one of the many 2014 World Cup stars that play in the Premier League
To an American sports fan, the format of the Premier League and English football in general is entirely foreign. The contrast with American sports leagues is intriguing, and was one of the first things that drew me into following the Premier League seven years ago. In the United States we are accustomed to closed leagues where teams or “franchises” operate essentially as collective pieces of the “whole” of the league. The teams in the league stay the same every year, with the exception of occasional expansion teams.
In England, as well as the rest of Europe, professional sports operate in an entirely different way. All the leagues in England are theoretically connected in what is known as the “English Football Pyramid.” The Premier League is at the top, and the lower professional leagues, or “minor leagues” as we may call them exist below them. Now these “minor leagues” are not usually affiliated with Premier League clubs, as in Major League Baseball, but have smaller budgets, fan bases, and as a result have less talented players.
What makes these lower leagues “connected” with the Premier Leagues is the fact that each season, the three lowest performing clubs in the Premier League are Relegated or dropped from the Premier League and are replaced by three clubs from the next highest league on the Pyramid. For a not-quite-apt-but-suitable metaphor, it would be somewhat like the worst performing NFL team being forced to play in the SEC the following season. This adds a great deal of drama to late season matches between teams in or near the “Relegation Zone”; the term used to describe the final three spots in the standings. Compare this with American sports where the worst performing teams are actually rewarded by receiving the top draft picks.
Not only does this system, known as “promotion and relegation”, give incentive to the players on the worst teams to play hard until the end of the season, but it also gives fans of those teams an incentive to watch their favorite club late into the season. Sometimes in American sports, fans can become disinterested in their bad team late in the year; pack it in, and stop watching or caring until the following season. In the Premier League however, these same fans become anxiously intrigued by the end of the season, hoping their club can earn a crucial draw or win that will keep them up in the top division.
The next primary difference in the way the European sports generally operate is the actual format of the league competition. In the United States, teams play what we call a “regular season,” with the best teams qualifying for some kind of “playoffs,” which eventually yield a champion through a Final series or game (World Series, NBA Finals, Super Bowl). It is always the winner of these events that are considered to be the Champions of the league. Besides determining the playoff seeding, the final regular season standings don’t really matter all that much. It is very common for the World Series, NBA Finals, or Super Bowl champion to be different, than the team who had the best performance during the regular season.
In Europe, the format of the leagues is quite different. The Premier League begins in mid-August, and runs all the way to May. Each team plays every other team twice, once at home, and once away. There are 20 teams in the Premier League, so each team plays 19 home matches and 19 away matches for a total of 38 league matches. As was the case in the World Cup group stage, there is no extra time or penalty kicks; matches that are tied after 90 minutes are draws. A team is awarded 3 points in the standings for a win and 1 point in the standings for a draw, the team with the most points in the standings at the end of the season is the Premier League champion.
Unlike in American sports, the Champion of the League is determined by the final standings, instead of by an ensuing tournament. However, the 38 league matches is not the only football played by Premier League clubs. The reason it takes nine months to play the 38 game schedule of the Premier League, is that teams can play in multiple types of competitions, concurrently with their league schedule.
In addition to the league schedule played by teams throughout England, the Football Association also administers the F.A. Cup every year. This is another way in which all the soccer leagues in England are “connected.” In the 2014-15 rendition of the competition, a staggering 736 teams across England and Wales will compete in competition; teams from the Premier League, all the way down to the lowest levels of the Football Pyramid. In practice though, teams from the lowest leagues almost never face top flight teams. This is because the tournament is staggered, beginning with 6 qualifying rounds, consisting of all “non-league” clubs (In England, below the Premier League, are three hierarchal divisions collectively called, “the Football League.” Teams below these four divisions are known as “non-league”). After that there are 6 more rounds, followed by the semi-finals and finals. Premier League teams don’t enter the field until 10 rounds (including the 6 qualifying rounds) have been played. So while the F.A. Cup begins in August, the rounds featuring Premier League teams don’t begin until January, with the final occurring in late May.
If that’s not enough soccer to make your head spin, there is also a secondary cup competition, featuring “only” the 92 teams from the Premier League and the three Football League divisions. Just about every country in world operates both a league and cup competition. All these in-country leagues and cups are commonly known as “domestic competitions.” In addition to all this soccer, there is also lastly, a competition known a UEFA Champions League. This is a continental tournament, consisting of teams throughout Europe, which takes place throughout the season, concurrently with all the other domestic contests. To qualify, a team must finish in a certain place in their domestic league (in the case of England, Spain, and Germany, it is the top four teams in each league that qualify). Winners of this cup competition are named “Champions of Europe” and it is considered the most prestigious title that a club team can obtain.
Why is all this soccer a good thing?
Now what makes this diversification of leagues and tournaments so appealing? First, the obvious, it means there is more high-quality soccer on a weekly basis from August to May than anybody could possibly watch. But second, and perhaps more meaningfully, each club is presented with a many more opportunities to do well.
Look at the NFL as a case study: NFL fans wait a full seven months between the Super Bowl and the start of the next regular season. As a fan, you are so excited and optimistic about the upcoming season. But then, as it happens to millions of NFL fans each year, your excitement turns to disappointment and dread when your team has a horrible start. Let’s say they start 0-4; basically assuring they will miss the playoffs. The whole season is ruined, and there is still eleven months until the next one begins.
Now transfer that scenario to a Premier League club. Let’s say the team you root for is the odds-on favorite to win the league before the season starts. But your team has a horrible start to their league campaign, and by November they have no realistic shot to come back and win the title. Now you have the F.A. Cup or the League Cup to fall back on, and if your team finished in the top four in the previous season, you would also still have Champions League to look forward too.
Essentially, this format gives teams the chance for “consolation prizes” if they don’t do as well as they had hoped in the Premier League. The Champions League spots also serve as consolation prizes, and motivating factors for teams in the middle of the pack. Due to talent disparity, there are probably only 5 or 6 teams with a realistic shot of winning the league title in any given year. But there are perhaps as many as 10 to 12 teams that could realistically finish in the top four, making each match that much meaningful. For clubs not yet ready to make a title push, a “top four finish” is commonly a preliminary goal.
So as you can see, the English, and hence, European soccer format is as intriguing as it is complicated and as it is different from the way American sports operate. Following a Premier League club or the League itself is a much more long-term proposition than the month-long frenzy that is the World Cup. But for me, understanding the intricacies of the English Football System was the first thing that drew me in to following professional soccer.
The next step in becoming a follower of the Premier League, is to familarize yourself with the teams. Click here for my handy guide to the clubs of the Premier League