Four years ago, my wife and I went to London as part of our vacation. While there, completely on a whim, we picked out a Liverpool jersey for my oldest son. I had no knowledge of Premier League soccer at that time, so Liverpool was just a team I had heard of before. I had no idea who the “Gerrard” was on the back.
Fast forward to today and I’ve completely immersed myself in the English Premier League. As I’m typing this article, I’m watching a game between West Ham and Everton, two teams that are typically middle of the road teams, also known as mid-table in the parlance of the sport.
As someone who is a fan of the Pirates, I’ve found there are similarities but also striking differences between supporting the Pirates and those who support the teams outside of the ‘Big Six’ in the EPL. Much like with baseball, there is no salary cap in soccer. There is a very gray (like charcoal, gray) formula called Financial Fair Play that is amazingly complicated and just given lip service it seems. But essentially, there are really only six teams in the English Premier League that realistically expect to contend for the title each year — Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Tottenham. With baseball, there are the typical big spenders — Yankees, Red Sox, Giants, Cubs — but there is an allowance for teams like the Royals, Indians, Rays, and (yes) the Pirates to contend for periods of time at the highest levels. Setting aside the fairy tale run of Leicester City in the EPL last year, there’s virtually no expectation for the other 14 teams in the league to claim the title.
So how do these other fourteen teams retain the passion of their fans every year? Some of the teams and their fans are just happy to be there. The fear of relegation down to the Championship, the 2nd tier of the English football pyramid, keeps the interest of many teams fans. Other teams that are typically considered mid-table (too good to have to worry about being relegated, but not financially well-heeled enough to challenge the Big Six reliably) are hoping to sneak into the 5th or 6th place spots to qualify for the second-tier European tournament called the Europa League. Or perhaps they’ll challenge for a trophy in one of the domestic tournaments, like the FA Cup or the League Cup.
But ultimately, I just think the mentality of the English soccer/football fan is different than that of the American baseball fan (and by extension, all American sports). In baseball, there’s a large subset of fans that consider a season without a World Series to be a wasted season. It’s engrained in Americans that if you aren’t a winner, you’re a loser. That’s just not the case with the British. Sure, there’s fans of every team that want to win the title, but they understand that the season is a journey and that supporting the team is just as rewarding as winning a trophy.
The differences are even more striking between how ownership groups assimilate themselves into their surroundings. For a country based on capitalism, the baseball owners in MLB treat new stadium construction as a form of socialism or corporate welfare. It is virtually unheard of (and I’m sure it ruffles the feathers of fellow owners) when a team pays for their own new stadium — something the San Francisco 49’ers recently did in the NFL, but no baseball franchise has done it in many a year. Franchises blackmail their cities into demanding subsidies from the taxpayers to finance playgrounds for the millionaire athletes paid by billionaire owners.
In English football, in a country primed on socialism far more than the United States, owners realize that these teams are stitched into the fabric of the cities, towns, and villages they occupy. No owner in the Premier League of a team of any note would threaten to hold their city hostage in exchange for money to build a stadium. They do it themselves, as it should be.
Case in point is Everton. They’re one of those aforementioned mid-table teams, but with new rich ownership in place, they’re looking to break the hegemony of the Big Six. They’re also the arch-rivals of Liverpool. In fact, their current stadiums are located less than a mile from each other. Imagine another MLB team located at Station Square and you basically have Liverpool-Everton.
Everton has recently announced plans to shift out of their longtime home, Goodison Park, to create a new stadium along the waterfront. The 50,000-60,000 seat stadium has been estimated to cost £300M ($385M) and be fully funded by the Everton club.
For comparison purposes, the city of Liverpool’s population is roughly 480,000 and has a metro population of 2.2M people. Pittsburgh has a population of 305,000 and a metro population of 2.3M. It’s unfathomable to imagine Bob Nutting, whose net worth is rumored to be around $1B, saying that he would fund the construction of a new stadium on his own.
That’s the way it should be done, but precedent has been set in all the sports for the owners to beg, borrow, and steal funds from the taxpayers. In England, there are far fewer cities to hold as blackmail to move a city, even if such an idea were floated. In the United States, it seems there’s always one or two cities waiting with open arms to be used as a bargaining chip by a current team against their current city.
Something has changed in the United States to where we have past a tipping point of no return in sports. These teams are all corporations now and feel that like any company, they can relocate at any time and demand subsidies from their host municipalities so that they can enjoy to continue their existence. This hasn’t happened, yet, in English Premier League. There’s been an influx of ultra-rich oil sheiks, ownership groups from the United States (Liverpool is owned by the Red Sox ownership group), and other entities, but for now the money hasn’t reached the point where the team is greater than their community. But it’s getting closer every day.