Like many Americans, I have become increasingly interested in the English Premier League over the last few years. I find myself drawn to the history of the game and the passion of its fans. The concept of relegation and promotion, completely unthinkable in American pro sports, are irresistible and imbue every game with high stakes. There is also the fact that I just like having live sports on TV (or Peacock, grumble grumble) on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Watching the games you get some sense of the history of the league and its teams, but I wanted more. The Club, by Wall Street Journal reporters Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg, fit the bill. Their book is a detailed breakdown of how the Premier League came to be and how its success has grown remarkably ever since. From a league with barely any television presence, minimal salaries, and owner who didn’t dream of making any money, the EPL has become the most desirable club in the world, with billionaires from all corners of the globe desperate to buy a seat at the table.
It’s a colorful history, to be sure. The cast of characters includes English industrial magnates, American hedge fund titans, Russian oligarchs, Arab sheikhs and at least one war criminal. Not to mention Rupert Murdoch. Robinson and Clegg deftly examine how these wildly different men approach running a football club. Some genuinely seem to care about winning above all else while others just know a good investment opportunity when they see it. There are some intriguing case studies, like that of English steel magnate Jack Walker, who bought his childhood team Blackburn Rovers a title but then couldn’t follow up on it, or the Glazer family, who turned Manchester United into a globally recognized brand despite fears from the fanbase that they were just looking to unload massive amounts of debt in a leveraged buyout. Across town, perennial also-rans Manchester City become a powerhouse seemingly overnight thanks to an influx of cash from an Emirati billionaire who has only ever attended one game in person.
Robinson and Clegg also explore the business of putting together a football team, with a focus on the seemingly lawless transfer periods during which players change teams and cross continents or even oceans for eye-popping sums of money. There is also an examination of the league’s television contracts, which have exploded over the league’s thirty-year history, culminating in an unprecedented deal with NBC for the rights to broadcast EPL games in the U.S.
While not necessarily a history of the game itself, The Club is a fascinating look at the business of the EPL and its astonishing growth in popularity. Its an essential read for the growing number of Americans, like me, who find themselves spending their weekend mornings watching games taking place an entire ocean away.