English Premier League
EFL Championship, EFL Cup, Premier League
The Premier League, also known eponymously as the English Premier League or the EPL (legal name: The Football Association Premier League Limited), is the top level of the English football league system. Contested by 20 clubs, it operates on a system of promotion and relegation with the English Football League (EFL). Seasons run from August to May with each team playing 38 matches (playing all 19 other teams both home and away). Most games are played on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
The competition was founded as the FA Premier League on 20 February 1992 following the decision of clubs in the Football League First Division to break away from the Football League, founded in 1888, and take advantage of a lucrative television rights sale to Sky. From 2019 to 2020, the league’s accumulated television rights deals were worth around £3.1 billion a year, with Sky and BT Group securing the domestic rights to broadcast 128 and 32 games respectively. The Premier League is a corporation where chief executive Richard Masters is responsible for its management, whilst the member clubs act as shareholders. Clubs were apportioned central payment revenues of £2.4 billion in 2016–17, with a further £343 million in solidarity payments to English Football League (EFL) clubs.
The Premier League is the most-watched sports league in the world, broadcast in 212 territories to 643 million homes and a potential TV audience of 4.7 billion people. For the 2018–19 season, the average Premier League match attendance was at 38,181, second to the German Bundesliga’s 43,500, while aggregated attendance across all matches is the highest of any association football league at 14,508,981. Most stadium occupancies are near capacity. The Premier League ranks first in the UEFA coefficients of leagues based on performances in European competitions over the past five seasons as of 2021. The English top-flight has produced the second-highest number of UEFA Champions League/European Cup titles, with five English clubs having won fourteen European trophies in total.
Fifty clubs have competed since the inception of the Premier League in 1992: forty-eight English and two Welsh clubs. Seven of them have won the title: Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal (3), Blackburn Rovers, Leicester City, and Liverpool.
Despite significant European success in the 1970s and early 1980s, the late 1980s marked a low point for English football. Stadiums were crumbling, supporters endured poor facilities, hooliganism was rife, and English clubs had been banned from European competition for five years following the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985. The Football League First Division, the top level of English football since 1888, was behind leagues such as Italy’s Serie A and Spain’s La Liga in attendances and revenues, and several top English players had moved abroad.
By the turn of the 1990s, the downward trend was starting to reverse. At the 1990 FIFA World Cup, England reached the semi-finals; UEFA, European football’s governing body, lifted the five-year ban on English clubs playing in European competitions in 1990, resulting in Manchester United lifting the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991. The Taylor Report on stadium safety standards, which proposed expensive upgrades to create all-seater stadiums in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, was published in January 1990.
During the 1980s, major English clubs had begun to transform into business ventures, applying commercial principles to club administration to maximize revenue. Martin Edwards of Manchester United, Irving Scholar of Tottenham Hotspur, and David Dein of Arsenal were among the leaders in this transformation. The commercial imperative led to the top clubs seeking to increase their power and revenue: the clubs in Division One threatened to break away from the Football League, and in so doing they managed to increase their voting power and gain a more favorable financial arrangement, taking a 50% share of all television and sponsorship income in 1986. They demanded that television companies should pay more for their coverage of football matches, and revenue from television grew in importance. The Football League received £6.3 million for a two-year agreement in 1986, but by 1988, in a deal agreed with ITV, the price rose to £44 million over four years with the leading clubs taking 75% of the cash. According to Scholar, who was involved in the negotiations of television deals, each of the First Division clubs received only around £25,000 per year from television rights before 1986, this increased to around £50,000 in the 1986 negotiation, then to £600,000 in 1988. The 1988 negotiations were conducted under the threat of ten clubs leaving to form a “super league”, but they were eventually persuaded to stay, with the top clubs taking the lion’s share of the deal. The negotiations also convinced the bigger clubs that to receive enough votes, they needed to take the whole of First Division with them instead of a smaller “super league”. By the beginning of the 1990s, the big clubs again considered breaking away, especially now that they had to fund the cost of stadium upgrade as proposed by the Taylor Report.
In 1990, the managing director of London Weekend Television (LWT), Greg Dyke, met with the representatives of the “big five” football clubs in England (Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, and Arsenal) over a dinner. The meeting was to pave the way for a breakaway from The Football League. Dyke believed that it would be more lucrative for LWT if only the larger clubs in the country were featured on national television and wanted to establish whether the clubs would be interested in a larger share of television rights money. The five clubs agreed with the suggestion and decided to press ahead with it; however, the league would have no credibility without the backing of The Football Association, and so David Dein of Arsenal held talks to see whether the FA were receptive to the idea. The FA did not enjoy an amicable relationship with the Football League at the time and considered it as a way to weaken the Football League’s position. The FA released a report in June 1991, Blueprint for the Future of Football, that supported the plan for Premier League with FA the ultimate authority that would oversee the breakaway league.
At the close of the 1990–1991 season, a proposal was tabled for the establishment of a new league that would bring more money into the game overall. The Founder Members Agreement, signed on 17 July 1991 by the game’s top-flight clubs, established the basic principles for setting up the FA Premier League. The newly formed top division was to have commercial independence from The Football Association and the Football League, giving the FA Premier League license to negotiate its broadcast and sponsorship agreements. The argument given at the time was that the extra income would allow English clubs to compete with teams across Europe. Although Dyke played a significant role in the creation of the Premier League, he and ITV (of which LWT was part) lost out in the bidding for broadcast rights: BSkyB won with a bid of £304 million over five years, with the BBC awarded the highlights package broadcast on Match of the Day.
The First Division clubs resigned en masse from the Football League in 1992, and on 27 May that year, the FA Premier League was formed as a limited company, working out of an office at the Football Association’s then headquarters in Lancaster Gate. The 22 inaugural members of the new Premier League were:
- Aston Villa
- Blackburn Rovers
- Coventry City
- Crystal Palace
- Ipswich Town
- Leeds United
- Manchester City
- Manchester United
- Norwich City
- Nottingham Forest
- Oldham Athletic
- Queens Park Rangers
- Sheffield United
- Sheffield Wednesday
- Tottenham Hotspur
This meant a break-up of the 104-year-old Football League that had operated until then with four divisions; the Premier League would operate with a single division and the Football League with three. There was no change in competition format; the same number of teams competed in the top flight, and promotion and relegation between the Premier League and the new First Division remained the same as the old First and Second Divisions with three teams relegated from the league and three promoted.
The league held its first season in 1992–93. It was composed of 22 clubs for that season (reduced to 20 in the 1995–96 season). The first Premier League goal was scored by Brian Deane of Sheffield United in a 2–1 win against Manchester United. Luton Town, Notts County, and West Ham United were the three teams relegated from the old First Division at the end of the 1991–92 season and did not take part in the inaugural Premier League season.
The 2000s saw the dominance of the so-called “Top Four” clubs. Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United finished at the top of the table for the bulk of the decade, thereby guaranteeing qualification for the UEFA Champions League. Only four other clubs managed to qualify for the competition during this period: Leeds United (2000-01), Newcastle United (2001–02 and 2002–03), Everton (2004–05) and Tottenham Hotspur (2009–10) – each occupying the final Champions League spot, except for Newcastle in the 2002–03 season, who finished third.
Following the 2003–04 season, Arsenal acquired the nickname “The Invincibles” as it became the first club to complete a Premier League campaign without losing a single game, the only time this has ever happened in the Premier League. In May 2008, Kevin Keegan stated that “Top Four” dominance threatened the division: “This league is in danger of becoming one of the most boring but great leagues in the world.” Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore said in defense: “There are a lot of different tussles that go on in the Premier League depending on whether you’re at the top, in the middle or at the bottom that makes it interesting.”
Between 2005 and 2012 there was a Premier League representative in seven of the eight Champions League finals, with only “Top Four” clubs reaching that stage. Liverpool (2005), Manchester United (2008), and Chelsea (2012) won the competition during this period, with Arsenal (2006), Liverpool (2007), Chelsea (2008), and Manchester United (2009 and 2011) all losing Champions League finals. Leeds United was the only non-“Top Four” side to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League, in the 2000–01 season. There were three Premier League teams in the Champions League semi-finals in 2006-07, 2007-08, and 2008-09, a feat only ever achieved five times (along with Serie A in 2002-03 and La Liga in 1999-2000).
Additionally, between the 1999–2000 and 2009–10 seasons, four Premier League sides reached UEFA Cup or Europa League finals, with only Liverpool managing to win the competition in 2001. Arsenal (2000), Middlesbrough (2006), and Fulham (2010) all lost their finals.
Although the group’s dominance was reduced to a degree after this period with the emergence of Manchester City and Tottenham, in terms of all-time Premier League points won they remain clear by some margin. As of the end of the 2018–19 season – the 27th season of the Premier League – Liverpool, in fourth place in the all-time points table, were over 250 points ahead of the next team, Tottenham Hotspur. They are also the only teams to maintain a winning average of over 50% throughout their entire Premier League tenures.
The years following 2009 marked a shift in the structure of the “Top Four” with Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City both breaking into the top four places regularly, turning the “Top Four” into the “Big Six”. In the 2009–10 season, Tottenham finished fourth and became the first team to break the top four since Everton five years prior. Criticism of the gap between an elite group of “super clubs” and the majority of the Premier League has continued, nevertheless, due to their increasing ability to spend more than the other Premier League clubs. Manchester City won the title in the 2011–12 season, becoming the first club outside the “Big Four” to win since Blackburn Rovers in the 1994–95 season. That season also saw two of the “Big Four” (Chelsea and Liverpool) finish outside the top four places for the first time since that season.
With only four UEFA Champions League qualifying places available in the league, greater competition for qualification now exists, albeit from a narrow base of six clubs. In the five seasons following the 2011–12 campaign, Manchester United and Liverpool both found themselves outside of the top four three times, while Chelsea finished 10th in the 2015–16 season. Arsenal finished 5th in 2016–17, ending their record run of 20 consecutive top-four finishes.
In the 2015–16 season, the top four were breached by a non-Big Six side for the first time since Everton in 2005. Leicester City was the surprise winner of the league, qualifying for the Champions League as a result.