The English Premier League is undoubtedly the wealthiest football division in the world game and signs in the current market indicate that the teams that compete in it are only going to get richer. Eye-watering television deals have become commonplace as the global appeal of Manchester United, Chelsea and the rest of the English heavyweights grows across the world. One country that’s affinity with the beautiful game is clearly growing is China, with the Asian nation having grand plans to become a powerhouse of the global game. The investment of Chinese Super League teams to tempt household names to swap the historic for the new has been evident over the last 12 months, with the likes of Carlos Tevez, Oscar and countless other international players signing for clubs in the Far East.
Chinese president Xi Jinping is a football enthusiast and has grand plans of reignited the ability of the country’s national team, as soccer schools sprout up and Government investment in the game takes commitment to a new level. However, China’s fascination with football is starting to have real knock-on effects in the English game – especially as the moneymen focus on bankroll management. The Asian nation has a reported 350 million Premier League fans, with massive audiences turning on their television sets to watch West Brom, Burnley and Everton on a weekly basis.
As such, English teams have been quick to tap into this market, with Manchester United, the traditional heavyweight and fans favourite in that part of the world. However, other Premier League teams are sitting up and taking note in an attempt to win a share of this massive fanbase and reap the obvious financial rewards that come with attracting new supporters.
Tottenham Hotspur are set to set off on a post-season trip to Hong Kong after the domestic action finishes this term, while Arsenal and Manchester City have also played friendly fixtures in China in recent years. But, how does the booming appeal of the English game impact upon the Football League? Quite simply, the gulf between the Premier League and the lower divisions of the national game is as big now as it has ever been – and is only set to widen. The amount of money that teams in the English top flight make on an annual basis is blowing out year-on-year, with the increased global appeal leading to more revenue and hence additional available expenditure. As Reading and Huddersfield Town get set to contest the Championship Play Off final, both sides will know the unbelievable opportunity that the eventual winner will be handed. By just competing in the Premier League the amount of money one of these modest clubs will be handed is beyond comprehension – the Play Off final at Wembley has been called the £300 million match as a result. Wealthy Chinese backers are also starting to make in-roads into the English game and beginning to invest into some of the clubs. A Chinese consortium led by media mogul Li Ruigang bought 13 per cent of Manchester City’s parent company, City Football Group, last year and as such the Etihad Stadium side have even more newfound wealth.
Aston Villa has been purchased by eccentric businessman Dr Tony Xia, who has already poured more money into the Midlands club in 12 months than any other Championship side has seen in some time. As the money-men start to have more-and-more of an influence on the game, expect more Chinese investors to spend their vast wealths in England. This will only lead to the rich clubs becoming even richer and the rest of the sport being left behind. Although the likes of Lincoln City caused an upset or two in this season’s FA Cup, the uneven playing field between the Premier League clubs and those in the lower leagues is starting to become ridiculous. As such, instead of the prestige of being promoted to English football’s top tier and the chance to play against some of the most-historic teams in the game, lower division clubs now will dream of making it to the big financial table and be spurred on by the windfall of making the Premier League.
Just how the burgeoning wealth of the Premier League impacts at grassroots level remains to be seen, but it is certainly getting more difficult for a talented young player on the books of a Football League club to make a move to the top tier. The fairytale story of Jamie Vardy moving from non-league to become a Premier League winner may well be the last of its kind, as top-flight clubs have massive sums of money to spend on established stars from overseas (not forgetting Brighton & Hove Albion’s Solly March having his roots at Lewes!). Chinese investment in the English game is set to increase and will play a role in dictating the health of the sport on and off the pitch for years to come. Those clubs in the Football League will hope that the ever-expanding budgets of Premier League teams do not kill the romanticism and history that the game in England has forged over the last 100 years.