By Andrew Puopolo
Year after year, the Premier League continues to be one of the greatest sporting spectacles in the world. In theory, any team of any size can win a series of promotions through the lower leagues and compete against giants like Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal. While this is a beautiful thought in theory, one of the major criticisms of the Premier League is that in the last few years the disparity in wealth between the top teams and the teams in the lower leagues is widening as a result of the influx of money from media titan Sky Sports. Detractors now argue that teams promoted from the Championship find it extremely difficult to compete financially with their illustrious counterparts.
I decided to look at a related question: have promoted teams fared worse in their first season in the Premier League on average over the last 10 years than recently promoted teams fared in the previous 10 years? Because of the Premier League’s reduction of teams from 22 to 20 in the mid 1990’s, I started this analysis from after the Premier League settled down into a 20-club league with three teams promoted and three teams relegated in every season. I tested to see if promoted teams fared better in either ten-year period. In addition, I also tested to see if recently relegated teams still reeling the effects of the extra cash from the Premier League performed better in their first season in the Championship. As it turned out, on average, newly promoted teams finished around 15th place both between 1997 and 2006 and between 2007 and 2016. The results for recently relegated teams were similar as on average they finished, on average, in 8th place in their first season in the second division during both time periods.
So I had concluded that the supposed change in wealth disparity in recent years did not change how promoted and relegated teams fared in their new division within two distinct time periods within Premier League history. However, football existed before 1992 and the creation as the Premier League in 1992 was a mere turning point in English soccer. In 1992, the top division clubs broke away from the century old Football League so they could negotiate a more lucrative television contract and have more money to compete with teams across Europe in UEFA competition. I decided to use this as a new reference point in testing my wealth theory. I decided to compare first season performances of promoted and relegated teams in the Football League era and the Premier League era. In theory promoted teams would have had an easier time staying up in the Football League era because there would have been smaller differences in wealth.
To do this, I only took into account years where there was a three-club swap between the First and Second divisions. The Football League switched from a two-club to a three-club swap in 1974 and that is the point from where I started collecting data. In some subsequent years as the top division went from 22 to 20 to 22 and then back to 20 teams again, there were sometimes two or four teams promoted/relegated between the divisions so I omitted those years in my analysis. Because of the difference in size between the leagues in each era (22 teams for most of the FL era and 20 teams for most of the PL era), instead of testing average league I compared the rate at which recently promoted teams managed to stay in the First Division after the first year competition. My results were as follows:
In the Football League era, 87 percent of teams stayed in the First division in their first season in the new league while in the Premier League era only 58 percent survived their maiden season in the Premier League. With a z-score of 3.26 we can conclude that it is harder for teams to be promoted to the Premier League to retain their status than it was in the previous era. The results might be slightly exaggerated because it is easier to stay up in a 22-team league rather than a 20-team league, but one would not expect that advantage to hover around 30 percent.