The Premier League at 25: How it became the world's most popular
To fully appreciate the overwhelming success of the Premier League over its first quarter of a century, it's worth flicking through a British newspaper from the early 1990s and assessing the nature of the sport section.
Football dominated in some newspapers at that point but in others, it competed for attention with rugby and cricket, vanishing almost completely during the summer off-season. Fast-forward 25 years and the way supporters consume media has changed dramatically: the internet has taken over, but newspaper sites largely dominate coverage.
Google the name of almost every national newspaper and often the first page displayed in the search results is the football section; it crops up more commonly than the news section, the comment section or the business section. It even outstrips the sport section -- indeed, three of Britain's eight national newspapers literally have "football" displayed on the menu of their website, separate entirely from "sport." Football, it seems, is no longer sport: it's taken on a life of its own.
To consider the Premier League purely in terms of its media coverage might seem peculiar but the division's rise has been based entirely around its coverage. The division itself was essentially created for visual entertainment, and effectively rescued Sky's satellite subscription service, which was previously running at a loss.
Today, Sky is now under serious threat from BT in terms of broadcasting rights, yet the ridiculous thing is that BT wasn't even a broadcaster until recently and has entered television purely as part of a wider war against Sky in the broadband market. Sky is now paying over £10 million to broadcast every match, which is astonishing considering rights to the entire final old First Division season, in 1991-92, cost less than £15m. But the figures keep coming, because viewers -- not withstanding a recent wobble which might prove significant in upcoming years -- have kept on paying.
Viewers have kept on paying because the Premier League remains brilliant entertainment. It has unquestionably benefited from occasionally ludicrous levels of hype and the manner in which matches are presented -- the camera angles close to the pitch, the crowd microphones providing a proper atmosphere, the stands generally near capacity -- has given it an advantage over rival European leagues.
There's an element of "airbrushing" to the way we consume the Premier League; even when it's somewhat ugly, it's somehow always presented as being attractive. And yet what's also undeniable is that Premier League football provides tremendous excitement and the literal "product" itself has proved remarkably popular across Britain as well as across the world.
Sport is essentially comprised of four completely different areas: technical, physical, psychological and tactical. The Premier League has taken significant steps forward in each respect at different times and is now perhaps the most complete, balanced sporting league around.
The technical quality is inferior to La Liga, there's not the dependence upon physicality that you find in Ligue 1, the players aren't as psychologically intelligent as in the Bundesliga and despite a considerable improvement, the emphasis upon tactics is nothing like you find in Serie A. And yet the Premier League thrives by blending these qualities, unquestionably linked to the fact it depends heavily upon importing talent from various foreign nations.
It was a French forward, Eric Cantona, who was the Premier League's first revolutionary, bringing artistry and invention to Manchester United from between the lines. His record in English football is extraordinary: five titles in six seasons when you include his First Division title with Leeds, with the only fallow year coming when he missed half a season for kicking a supporter at Selhurst Park.
In continental terms, Cantona isn't remembered as fondly as Thierry Henry or Cristiano Ronaldo but he genuinely changed the Premier League stylistically, encouraging United to pass the ball through the centre of the pitch rather than instinctively looking to the flanks. His influence in that No. 10 position encouraged other teams to look for their equivalent: Arsenal found Dennis Bergkamp, Chelsea landed Gianfranco Zola. The Premier League would never look back.
The league's physical improvement owes much to another French import, Arsene Wenger. His impact at Arsenal is well-established: previously home to the division's most notorious drinking club, Wenger introduced proper dietary practices to the Gunners' training ground and ordered stretching sessions that were considered bizarre at the time. He prolonged the careers of Arsenal's veteran defenders and improved the dynamism of their foreign attackers.
For all Wenger's emphasis upon technical quality in later years, it was Arsenal's physical dominance during this period that forced rivals to up their game.
The psychological revolution is more complex. You can consider factors to be about determination, commitment and self-belief, the qualities on which English players traditionally prided themselves. But you can also consider it in terms of vision, in which case the likes of Xabi Alonso, David Silva and Santi Cazorla are among the most gifted we've seen in the Premier League and who have helped to popularise possession football.
For tactical revolution, meanwhile, the arrival of Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez in 2004 prompted a huge improvement in the structure of Premier League clubs, as both managers analysed the opposition to a greater extent than previous bosses. Both had won European trophies immediately before arriving in English football and brought continental sophistication to England. The Premier League went through its worst spell in terms of the goals-per-game rate but improved drastically in European competitions to the point that for a time, the Premier League dominated the Champions League and became regarded as Europe's best league in coefficient terms.
Since then, however, there's been a stagnation. The Premier League can't boast the top clubs but it can surely still boast the most competitive division. As things stand, the bookmakers consider that there are six clubs with a reasonable chance of winning the Premier League, with odds of 12:1 or under. Compare that to four in Italy, three in the Netherlands, three in Portugal, two in Germany, two in Spain and two in France; it feels like, in a second respect, the Premier League has got the balance about right, mixing outright quality and competitiveness.
The division is not perfect; it's impossible to ignore the staggering increase in ticket prices, which has changed the demographic of supporters and unquestionably contributed to diluting the atmosphere at grounds. It appears some larger clubs are positioning themselves to appeal primarily to tourists making a one-off visit, rather than local supporters. In England, where the football club is an important representation of the local community, this is somewhat problematic.
Yet the fact football supporters from around the world are so desperate to attend Premier League games is, in itself, a sign of the division's astonishing success. It is now the most popular league in the most popular sport. The Premier League is an example to the rest of the world at a time when Britain can't say that about much else.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.