Over-the-Top Football: The effects of financial takeovers in Premier League soccer

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On Oct. 7, 2021, multiple newspapers and sports channels confirmed that the Public Investment Fund, a Saudi Arabian wealth fund, had bought the English football team Newcastle United. The $400 million deal makes Newcastle United, nicknamed the “Magpies” by local fans, the richest football club in the world. 

Although the confirmation seems to have surprised Premier League fans, talks about a Saudi consortium willing to purchase Newcastle have been known since 2020. However, the deal appeared to have been disbanded due to fears that the Saudi state would directly impact the club’s internal affairs.

The move has stirred controversy among the league and others. Big names, like Liverpool F.C.’s manager Jürgen Klopp, are concerned about Saudi Arabia’s human rights issues. In response to the Saudi takeover, advocacy groups like Amnesty International have called for the league to include “human rights infractions” to the Owners’ and Directors’ Test, a guideline that the Premier League uses to consider prospective owners.

Newcastle fans, on the other hand, are ecstatic over the deal. Fans were pictured adorned in traditional Saudi headdresses and waving the Saudi Arabian flag. Club legend Alan Shearer even took to Twitter to announce his refreshed hopes for Newcastle’s future. Such a response to the takeover should not come as a surprise. Under the 14-year reign of its former owner, Mike Ashley, Newcastle was relegated from the Premier League twice. Coming into the current season, the club has invested little to no money in the team, culminating in its winless Premier League start. Currently holding the title as the worst team in the Premier League, the news of the takeover could not have come at a better time for Magpie fans.

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Like Newcastle fans, I am somewhat happy about the financial takeover by the Public Investment Fund, since it has the prospect of improving the competitive state of the league. Namely, Newcastle will acquire highly rated players and an experienced coach. These additions should improve the competitiveness of the Premier League, or will they?

Most people point to the English Premier League as the best European soccer league because of the level of competition; historically, there have been six or seven teams who stand a chance to win the league. In comparison, Spain’s La Liga typically has three teams ranked as favorites while the German Bundesliga and France’s Ligue 1 have a maximum of two teams competing for their respective titles before the leagues commence.

The rigor of this competitive spirit of the English Premier League has dwindled for the past few years in my opinion. Although the same teams are viewed as favorites, the most well-funded team is almost guaranteed to win the league. To be competitive, one has to be better than another on a comparable level. However, the wealth of certain teams creates a chasm where the ‘elite’ teams are unrivaled with their league counterparts. Following its takeover by Roman Abramovich in 2003, Chelsea’s new wealth buoyed it to win three trophies in seven years. Following Chelsea, Manchester City became the richest club in the league after it was acquired by the Abu Dhabi United Group (a private equity company based in the United Arab Emirates) in 2008. The team would also go on to win five league trophies in 13 years.

I will admit that the ratio to trophies-won and year-span following a takeover may hint at competition within the league, but the discrepancy is sometimes due to Financial Fair Play rules stopping teams from overspending. Other times, both teams’ over-expenditures simply failed to materialize into a league title. Nonetheless, both these teams have dominated the Premier League for the past decade due to their vast wealth. With the reported wealth within the Public Investment Fund, Newcastle will erode the competitive spirit of the league and diminish it to a point where the Premier League is simply ‘competitive’ in name only.

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