More winners, more frequently – football’s evolution

WOULD football, if it were invented today, position itself around nine-month league competitions and knockout tournaments that involve multiple rounds over half the year? 

League formats, which began with the Football League in 1888, have largely remained unchanged for decades, although some have introduced phased structures where titles, relegation and European places are decided through play-off rounds.

The recent World Football Summit included a session that discussed this issue. “If sport was being reimagined today, there would be more winners,” said a representative from ESL Gaming. “Why wait a year to find out who wins a competition?”.

While some might agree that football has too much delayed gratification, the prospect of creating more winners in shorter timeframes plays to a generally-held view that younger generations have shorter attention spans. 

Not everyone agrees with that stereotyping argument, but increasingly, the old model of very few genuinely successful teams each season could belong to the past. Increasingly, people look at competitions like Cricket’s Indian Premier League as an example of a successful fast-moving product designed for a specific audience.

One competition under scrutiny is the FIFA World Cup, which still runs every four years. “This needs to be more frequent to remain relevant,” said one panelist. Considering the World Cup’s cycle was formulated in the 1930s in a pre-technology, pre-globalisation era, the call to make the gaps between tournaments shorter, maybe two years, is not unreasonable. 

With the pace of change and consumer behaviour faster than ever before, to maintain momentum and retain global interest, the World Cup may have to change as it comes under pressure from club football. The international calendar, as it stands, is overcrowded, but new inventions such as the UEFA Nations League have a very artificial feel to them. The governing bodies have certainly embraced the idea of quantity over quality in the past 20 years.

Domestic football leagues have often prided themselves on the “marathon, not a sprint” ethos. Football managers consider success in the league is what really constitutes achievement rather than cup competitions. But in keeping with the “football as experience” culture, fans want to be part of something that is dynamic and fast-moving. A 38-game programme is not necessarily fast-moving, it is often a test of sheer endurance and attrition.

However, two-stage league formats are not always successful, organisationally or financially. But one thing they do is keep more teams interested in the outcome and remove some of the dead rubber fixtures. Countries that have embarked on this type of structure include Belgium, Bulgaria and Poland, but the “big five” leagues have largely persisted with their long-form league programmes.

Are such formats still in the spirit of the game, or merely tipping the hat in the direction of what might be more practical from a business perspective? The United States not only favours “closed leagues” but also attempts to keep as many clubs interested for as long as possible. More interested clubs arguably means commercial stability.

Nobody is advocating a squash ladder arrangement where clubs bounce up and down the divisions on a monthly basis. Constant churn, variety of opposition, periodical success (and failure) and short-lived ups and downs make for a very system that would appeal to some people.

Would the game’s traditional demographic buy it? Doubtful. Would tomorrow’s audience warm to the prospect of intermittent joy and despair on a more regular basis? Possibly. 

On the other hand, the Premier League would argue that its 20-team, 38-game offering is what makes it a compelling product, so change is not going to be swift. Closed leagues are another thing that won’t so easily be adopted in Europe and there would be considerable resistance to shift to an American sporting culture. But we live in strange times and as the world lurches from crisis to crisis, who knows what professional will look like in another decade?

Photo: PA

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