Leicester City won the British (includes England and Wales) Premiership (BPL) soccer championship yesterday. This is almost surely the greatest upset in sports history. Anybody can win a tournament as the MLB playoffs consistently show. The rules in American sports allow Kansas City and Oklahoma City to be serious championship contenders. Leicester City fought and won the most uphill battle in history. A nice summary for Americans is found here.
We would like to consider three issues. One, the difficulty of winning. Two, economics of winning, and three, the rules.
The difficulty of winning a European soccer league is like baseball before divisions. In a 20-team league like the BPL each team plays all of the other teams home and away resulting in a perfectly balanced 38 game schedule. There are no playoffs. Each team gets three for a win, one for a tie, and zero for a loss. There is no overtime. At the end of the season there is one winner, Leicester City this year, and three losers. The losers are relegated to a lower league. Last year on April 13, Leicester City was 20th or dead last with seven games left to play. It looked like they would be relegated as they had won 25 points in their first 31 games. Then they won 16 (of 21) points in the last seven games to escape relegation. This year they clinched the championship with two games left. Until this year, only four teams had won the BPL this century (and no it doesn’t matter if you count 2000 or 2001 as the start): Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, and Chelsea.
Why do the same teams always win? It is because of the economics and the rules. The economics is that it is all about salaries. The big teams pay the big salaries to get the best players and coaches and they win. TV revenue for the BPL is based on the team’s finish. The top teams also get large sums from being in the Champion’s League. There were two models: be a consistent winner (Arsenal, Manchester United) or get purchased by a billionaire so he can absorb the losses until the team wins (Chelsea, Manchester City). FIFA Financial Fair Play may stop the latter option. Leicester City is the only team to come close to winning the BPL on the cheap in many years.
American rules vary across sports but they all have some version of the draft, salary limitations, and limited free agency early in careers. The Kansas City Royals and Seattle Seahawks are two examples of recent success. Their is no draft in the BPL or European soccer. Leicester City has found gems in various places. The will be challenged to keep them although they will come into much more money based on their success.
Prediction time: will Leicester City be able maintain their success. We don’t foresee disaster but think they will suffer some next year and end 5-8 because they will lose some players and they will have the stress of playing in the Champion’s League. If they lose the coach it could be worse. Still it was an astounding year for Leicester City. Perhaps the most astounding year ever.