Will the Premier League's sleeping giants ever wake?
Sketch by Joseph Jacobs, c.1892
In August, the BBC posted an interesting article. According to reporter Andrew Aloia, 11 Premier League clubs from the 2016/17 season would have recorded profits without selling a single ticket. The competition's global reach is so extensive it doesn't need the home fans to make ends meet.
That isn't to say Premier League fans don't value supporters. If they didn't, why bother building new stadiums as Arsenal has, Tottenham are, and Chelsea desires? Why expand your ground as both Manchester City and Liverpool have? Even if broadcast revenues, kit sponsorship and shirt sales in China represent significant revenue streams, tens of thousands of fans streaming through the turnstiles at least 19 times per season at £31 a pop on average is not the kind of patronage to turn away.
The numbers also demonstrate the edge clubs with larger stadiums hold over those without. Manchester United boast the league's largest permanent ground, Bournemouth the smallest. The Cherries must sell out Dean Court's 11,464 seats six-and-a-half times to match a single standing room only match at Old Trafford [capacity 74,994]. With such a sizeable financial advantage, the Red Devils should be challenging for the title every season. So should any club that can seat 50,000+ at its facility.
Which begs the question what's wrong with Newcastle and West Ham that the duo spends most seasons staving off relegation?
Of the seven clubs who meet the 50,000-seat threshold, only Toon and the Magpies do not challenge for the Champions League places. They're not the only sleeping giants. Of the 10 clubs with at least a 40,000 capacity, only Aston Villa and Sunderland are not in the top flight. Sheffield Wednesday barely miss out on the list. Hillsborough holds 39,732. Elland Road [37,890 Leeds], Riverside [34,988 Middlesbrough], Pride Park [33,597 Derby] and the Ricoh Arena [32,500 Coventry City] are also clubs in the top 20 for English/Welsh stadia who don't compete in the Premier League.
St James Park and London Stadium are easily the biggest parks on the underachievers' list, however. It's fair to ask why their inhabitants aren't more competitive.
Photo: Brian Minkoff, CC BY-SA 4.0
At 52,338, St James Park is seventh on a list that includes Wembley. Tottenham's new ground will hold less than 10,000 more fans than the Magpies', which can accommodate 10,500 more than Stamford Bridge. If they're roughly equidistant between Spurs and the Blues where gate receipts are concerned, why aren't they also grouped with them in the table?
When resources are virtually equal but results widely disparate, it's time to look at management.
Chelsea boast the original rich foreign investor, Roman Abramovich. The Russian pumped money into the club for years and the result is a perennial title challenger even though he no longer spends freely.
Tottenham is owned by British investment firm ENIC. British billionaire Joe Lewis is the main man. He keeps such a low profile he could be the Joe Lewis down the pub for all most people know. Lewis' partner Daniel Levy is Spurs chairman. He's known for being as chintzy as Newcastle owner Mike Ashley, yet his club is thriving on the pitch rather than living from hand to mouth. What gives?
Levy has one thing in common with Abramovich. He wants to win. Ashley, on the other hand, is content to make money from a customer base he knows will never change brands. Newcastle fans long ago made it clear they want Ashley to sell the club. He has played along but twice pulled out of deals when they reached a critical stage.
In addition to a large, loyal fanbase, Newcastle also have a Champions League winning manager in Rafa Benitez. The Spaniard fields a decent midfield that includes a top Premier League passer in Jonjo Shelvey. Jamaal Lascelles marshals a resilient defence. Rafa's squad also has some interesting young players. Toon own American right-back DeAndre Yedlin outright. Ashley could make Kenedy's loan deal permanent if he was willing to spend. Investment is sorely needed when it comes to the attack, which lacks a clinical finisher to get on the end of Shelvey's incisive through-balls.
Until Ashley surrenders the club, it will continue to flirt with relegation. If he sells to the right investor, though, the club could be challenging for titles like it did in the late 1990s.
Photo: Kevin Law, CC BY-SA 2.0
One theme in this article is that size should matter. West Ham's owners, the Davids Gold & Sullivan can't be accused of ignoring that notion. To begin, they made their money in pornography. As well, they've signed some big names to the club, including Javier Mascherano, Carlos Tevez, Dmitri Payet, Chicharito and Jack Wilshere. Some well-known managers piloted the wayward club, as well. Sam Allardyce, Slaven Bilic, David Moyes and now the biggest in some time, Manuel Pellegrini. The Chilean exempt as his project is still in the early stages, none have worked out.
Mascherano, Tevez and Payet all left the club abruptly. Call it premature ejaculation. Chicharito is rumoured to be destined for Valencia in the current transfer window after failing to induce many orgasms at the club. Injuries continue to render Wilshere's career impotent. As far as most fans are concerned, Moyes and Big Sam were selfish lovers interested only in results rather than trying to please them. Bilic was something of a Casanova but never the same after Payet dumped him.
While fans loved the Boleyn Ground, which sat 35,016, for its intimacy, Gold & Sullivan made the bold move to the London Stadium following the Olympics, increasing their potential gate by 25,000. They might be better off if they owned the stadium. Instead, they rent it from the City for £2.5 million. London loses money on the deal, so one would hope West Ham profits. That said, tensions exist. The parties are in court as the City attempts to renegotiate the lease. Legal fees surely eat into any profits from the new stadium. In addition, uncertainty regarding the future may give the partners pause when it comes to budgeting for the transfer window.
That said, Pellegrini's Hammers banged out enough points in the season's first half to sit comfortably midtable. If the manager receives further backing from his employers, he has the tactical nous to push his new team into contention for the European places.
One thing is certain. While television money has grown the Top Four into a Big Six, there was already enough money going around for there to be a Premier League Hateful Eight. If only the powers that be at some clubs could get out of their own way.