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One place where Britain remains truly a global player is the empire of the Premier League

One place where Britain remains truly a global player is the empire of football

The British Museum in Bloomsbury is a most extraordinary place to spend a few hours. The treasures of antiquity on display from Egypt, Sumer and Greece, to the artefacts of Asia and Africa, are breathtaking. Yes, I know they stole them all and doubtless should give some back, but as a one-stop repository of what we might describe as ancient culture, the British Museum is impossible to beat. Of course, as an emblem of British imperial larceny few items scream colonialism more than the Parthenon Marbles (often called the Elgin Marbles). Their only defence is they weren’t the only ones: the Pergamon in Berlin or the Louvre in Paris can be seen as similar cultural crime scenes.

If the British Museum – which I love – represents Victorian Britain’s global footprint, what is the modern equivalent? What institution represents 21st-century Britain, or at least England? It has to be England’s most dynamic cultural export of the past 30 years, the English Premier League. It is a global brand, followed and obsessed over by millions across the world, uniting strangers in their devotion to teams that many years ago stopped drawing footballers from their specific hinterland. Players in Premier League teams have little connection to the cities that their team comes from and their fan base is increasingly cosmopolitan. The truly global nature of the Premier League came home to me a few months ago when in I was in Las Vegas to see Ireland’s most popular cultural export of the past three decades, U2. The Jamaican taxi driver had been in the States for years, and only wanted to chat to me about “The” Arsenal, who were playing at 6am the following morning. He would be up at the crack of the Nevada dawn to watch.

At a time when the English are down on themselves politically, socially and economically, consumed by a narrative of decline, the Premier League is a reminder to the world of what our neighbours do well. From the Beatles to Led Zeppelin, from house music to numerous TV formats, from Oscar winners to fashion, the English have been creating, packaging and exporting popular culture worldwide for over half a century. The Premier League is only the latest English cultural export that has taken on the world. At times, when chatting to people abroad, you could be forgiven for thinking that England is not so much a country with a football league but a football league with a country stuck on to it. Over the course of three decades, the rough and tumble world of 1990s English football – with its hardmen, hooliganism and its working-class roots – has been transformed into a global commodity and, from an economic and financial perspective, the Premier League’s story is remarkable.

Let’s look at the numbers. Football purists – the wet terrace brigade – complain about the relentless commercialism and pre-packaged sterility of the Premier League with its shiny-floor analysis and data-driven obsession, but only 30 years ago, when England’s top-flight teams broke away to form the new league, few predicted the trajectory of what was, up to then, a working man’s sport.


Each year, Deloitte issues a “Football Money League” report documenting the activities of the highest revenue-generating football clubs in the world. This year’s report reveals that the total revenue generated by the top 20 clubs in 2023 was a record €10.5 billion – a 14 per cent increase relative to both the previous year and pre-pandemic levels. The 2022/23 season was the best for gates for 13 of the top 20 clubs. Commercial revenues hit a collective €4.4 billion – a 16 per cent growth year-on-year. Underscoring the global reach of the Premier League, the average revenue from TV rights for a Premier League club rose from €208 million to €243 million in the last year and the value of the Premier League’s international broadcast rights went up by 30 per cent. For the average Premier League club, revenue last year rose to €500 million, comprising commercial revenue of about €222 million (42 per cent), and broadcast revenue of €213 million (40 per cent) and matchday revenue making up the remainder (€93 million, 18 per cent). While Real Madrid is the biggest club in the world, eight of the top 20 clubs by revenue are English, with a combined revenue just shy of £4.6 billion. The Premier League dominates its European rivals, with revenues near double that of the closest competitors in La Liga and the Bundesliga.

For England, in terms of a cultural export, one of the most obvious upsides is tourism: 1.5 million visitors went to a live football match in 2019 – about one in every 27 visitors to England. And, before Covid, these tourists spent on average £909, which was 31 per cent higher than the average Brit travelling to a city for a game. About a quarter of those going to a match said that the main reason for visiting the UK was to watch sport.

But just in case you thought a football club was a good business to own, it’s not. Most of the money goes to the players, not the owners. Of the £4.6 billion total revenue, the collective Premier League players’ wage bill is a staggering £3.8 billion – with the traditional Big 6 clubs accounting for almost half of that. This is why relegation means financial peril for many owners. Without the TV rights, the business model for football teams falls apart and, once relegated, the TV element drops off, leaving a huge hole in the balance sheet. This is why club ownership is increasingly the preserve of very wealthy individuals or the wealth funds of countries who regard the club as a trophy asset or part of a greater marketing and branding toolkit, sometimes for a dubious regime.

Interestingly, for all its commercial success, the Premier League doesn’t even have a team in the two top games in European football this year: the Europa League final on Wednesday in Dublin between Italy’s Atalanta and Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen; and, the Superbowl of Soccer, the Champions League final, between Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. The implication is that even at this level, money can’t always buy trophies. And yet, when Manchester City lift their umpteenth title this weekend, they will also be the club with the highest wage bill, underscoring that for all the talk about managers, tactics and nous, money drives football. He who pays the most invariably wins.

While the British Museum might be a nostalgic reminder for our neighbours of a time when the sun never set on the British Empire, today one place where Britain remains truly a global player is the empire of football. Even Brexit couldn’t derail the English genius for cultural self-expression.