English football continues to deliver some of the most exciting and entertaining soccer available to viewers in the United States. But unlike the 1990’s and 2000’s when the back-and-forth competitiveness of England’s top division – the Premier League – converted a generation of fans to soccer and English football in general, it is now the second-tier, the Championship, that is providing the type of open and attractive soccer that fans in the United States crave.
While Premier League interest and ratings remain steady in the United States, many fans I speak with including several who post on social media have come to a similar conclusion as me – the Premier League is less compelling, less competitive beyond its top clubs and less entertaining than any time since it became an accessible property on US television. Some weeks the Premier League entertains like none other, and the talent on NBC Sports is quick to point out how exciting the gameweek was. However, all too often the league throws up boring fixture after boring fixture.
At the same time, the Championship is providing entertainment and exciting soccer on just about every matchday. The league, that moved 18 months ago from beIN SPORTS where it was largely buried to ESPN, now is a centerpiece of the ESPN+ soccer offering. For just $ 4.99 a month, fans across the United States have almost as much access to England’s second-tier as they do to the Premier League without purchasing NBC Sports Gold.
The Championship now has similar potential penetration to what the Premier League enjoyed from 1999 to 2009 when the league was exclusively buried on premium package cable channels FOX Sports World and then FOX Soccer Channel. Since 2009 however, ESPN and then later NBC have elevated the Premier League as a standalone property in the United States, making it the most popular television European-based soccer league in the nation.
SEE MORE: Schedule of Championship games on ESPN+
At this moment in time, the Premier League is almost three distinct divisions, and matches between a club from one mini-division against one from another are almost always underwhelming. Meanwhile almost any match in the Championship provides some degree of compelling mystery and often time the entertainment we’re lacking from the top flight division. In private conversations with other keen football watchers, I’ve found many have similar opinions and often these days are forcing themselves to sit through Premier League matches while actually enjoying the Championship experience. The same can be said for other top European leagues, which like the Premier League have grown more predictable and arguably more stale over time.
The Premier League was designed as a breakaway that gave its clubs the ability to control revenue and make more money. The league has been so successful that the last round of TV deals made it even more prohibitive to drop out of the division financially for club owners. This has led directly to less open football and more safe, defensive tactics among sides that are fighting relegation. It has led to more bunkering and to a greater disparity in actual “footballing” between the top sides, those in mid-table and those perennially fighting the drop. While Premier League defenders would argue this has always been the case to a certain extent, for many – including myself – the shift has been especially more pronounced in the last three seasons.
The financial reward of entry to the Premier League for owners though has stimulated good football – open, attacking and entertaining. It’s also prompted club owners to spend money on attacking players and try and attract managers who favor attacking football. The disparity between financial rewards for competing in England’s top two tiers has grown into a gulf of epic proportions, forcing clubs to adjust tactics accordingly.
For example, Fulham’s struggles this season in the Premier League when trying to play the same brand of entertaining passing football as in the Championship show very clearly the difference in the two leagues. Slaviša Jokanovic had made the Cottagers a can’t-miss side last season, and Fulham’s promotion to the Premier League was met with cheers from neutrals because they were playing football “the right way.”
After spending generously on several players over the summer to fit Jokanovic’s preferred attacking setup, Fulham found life in the Premier League daunting. Playing nice, attractive, passing soccer wasn’t an option. Fulham leaked goal and Jokanovic was sacked only about a third of the way through the campaign. Fulham now are playing a much less adventurous style under Claudio Ranieri and have become difficult to watch like most Premier League clubs fighting relegation.
In the United States, the Championship suffered even in its best seasons by a lack of exposure. The stigma of being a second division and being buried on networks committed to other soccer properties limited the interest in the league. But now ESPN+ – and the seeming predictability of the Premier League as well as other top European leagues – is fueling an uptick in interest in the Championship. Fans who tune in to England’s second tier won’t be disappointed. It’s the type of competitive, open football that actually delivers instead of the broken promises from other leagues around the world that aren’t consistent enough.