Chelsea Owner Football Needs To Think Bigger


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"Ultimately I hope the Premier League takes a little bit of a lesson from American sports...why don't we do a tournament with the bottom four teams, why isn't there an All-Star game?" - Todd Boehly

"Does he want to bring the Harlem Globetrotters as well?" - Jurgen Klopp

Todd Boehly loves the limelight.

Not for him the deliberate anonymity of his predecessor Roman Abramovich.

In charge of Chelsea since May, he only recently hit the headlines for sacking Thomas Tuchel and replacing him with Graham Potter, an audacious and risky move.

Barely a week later Boehly is back page news again with his call for the English Premier League to consider a relegation play-off and an All-Star Game, which is a fixture in American sports.

As regards a relegation play-off, it has been used before in England. When play-offs were introduced in 1987, three sides in division one were relegated (Aston Villa, Manchester City and Leicester City) but Charlton, who had finished 19th, played off against the teams who had finished 3rd, 4th and 5th in the second division to decide the final place in the top flight (Charlton triumphed).

The following season, first division Chelsea, who had finished fourth from bottom like Charlton, were drawn into the playoffs but lost their final against second division Middlesbrough and were relegated. 

This format, played over two seasons, was designed to trim England's top flight from 22 to 20 teams and was good theatre but extremely nerve-wracking for those London clubs fighting to retain their status.

A similar system persists in Scotland's Premiership and Championship, so it could feasibly return.

However, Boehly's second suggestion should really be kicked back across the Atlantic.

All-Star Games are an annual match between the league's best players as voted for by the fans and teams. In American Football, representative sides of the AFC and NFC divisions which make up the NFL play each other. In baseball, the American League and National League face off. Unlike Boehly's suggestion of a North-South EPL match, these American matches are not about regions, but historic leagues.

In a country whose sports do not include a strong national team element, All-Star games make some sense. But in European football, international dates are a big part of the season. US sports have no equivalent of the Euros or World Cup so these one-off matches create interest in settling the 'who's the greatest?' fan arguments.

South v North is the only feasible division for England, with conveniently ten out of 20 teams currently in the top flight based in London and the South - Arsenal, Bournemouth, Brentford, Brighton, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Fulham, Southampton, Tottenham and West Ham, and ten in the Midlands and North - Aston Villa, Everton, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Newcastle, Nottingham Forest and Wolverhampton Wanderers.

But that all feels a bit odd and uncomfortable. England has a North-South divide based on culture and socio-economics so why try to highlight it? Would the US like to re-run their Civil War via sport?

The only reasonable point Boehly made was about revenue distribution. US sports are fundamentally different because of the college draft - the annual recruitment of university players where the lowest-ranked team gets the first pick, leading to a more level playing field than in European football where a few clubs dominate through larger transfer kitties.

When asked about American teams coming last compared to a Premier League team getting relegated, Boehly said, "When you go into the Championship those numbers fall off a cliff."

Indeed they do. Revenue is far less in the EFL than EPL. Parachute payments for clubs relegated back to the Championship are 55% of what they earned in their first EPL season, reducing to 45% and 25% in subsequent seasons.

These parachute payments have clearly made a difference with sides like Fulham, Norwich and Watford appearing to yo-yo between the two divisions in recent years, but clubs who win the Championship playoff and reach the Premier League boost their coffers by between roughly £100 and £200 million, according to football finance experts Deloitte. 

If redistribution to the pyramid is what Boehly is hinting that, then more power to him. Spain's La Liga hegemony of Barcelona and Real Madrid is a result of clubs negotiating their own TV rights.

But it is hard to believe he is thinking about anything more than another payday for already super-rich clubs. At least he has revealed his plans in the open, unlike those of the European Super League (ESL), whose announcement as a fait accompli in 2021 was met with fury.

We should not dismiss Boehly completely as an ignorant arriviste. US sports have taught European football a lot about professionalism - the use of technology, training methods, special coaches, dieticians, psychologists, performance analysis and planning.

Media access for journalists in America is far easier than in Europe, which does not concern fans, although television has been dictating sports schedules across the pond far more than it does here, which might come as a shock.

As for league structure however, there is no way to replicate the American draft model. Promotion and relegation is a superior system, which was why the ESL's proposal to abolish it was so unpopular.

The two continents should learn from each other. European football should copy the good ideas like data analysis and bin the bad ones like an All-Star game.

Football should not be set in stone but does not need major surgery. The tweaks I have seen in my lifetime - no back passes, VAR, extra subs etc, have not hurt the game beyond repair.

Goal-line technology and VAR came in as a response to the crescendo of refereeing errors at the 2010 World Cup, golden goal to the flood of penalty shoot-outs at Italia '90.

But golden and silver goal had gone by 2006 after failing to produce more attacking football.

If it wanted, football could probably accommodate further changes like dribbling free-kicks or kick-ins if it wanted, but the basic product does not need to change. Radical novelties floated include wider goals (already tested and rejected), taking players off in extra-time and even an extra ball.

As a billion people will switch on to the World Cup in Qatar this winter, it really is a case of if it works, don't fix it.

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