Using Python and Pandas to look at the growth of annual club wage bills in England’s top-flight since 2000-’01
By: Michael Black
As somebody who grew up watching only American sports leagues, I found it surprising upon becoming a fan of the English Premier League that the idea of a salary cap did not exist. Now, as a seasoned fan of European soccer, I have come to love many aspects of their league structure: relegation, playing for multiple cups in a single season, and the way that clubs are so closely linked to the communities in which they reside.
With that being said, the top-heavy nature of European soccer still does not fully sit right with me. This article examines team wage bills in the English Premier League from the 2000-’01 season until the 2019-’20 season and looks at how team spending has disproportionately grown to favor the large clubs, leaving the rest behind.
I am dropping a link here to my GitHub repository if you would like to view the code. It is commented out and explained step-by-step: github.com/wmblack23/Money-Spent-versus-Matches-Won.
Average Premier League Wage Bill (2000-’01 to 2019-’20)
Annual average wages have risen from £27 million in 2000-’01 to £160 million in 2019-’20.
Spending is increasing, fast. In 2019, Premier League clubs spent over 6x more on average on their rosters than they did in 2000.* (Adjustment for inflation at the end of the article.)
Is this true for all teams?
Difference in Spending Between ‘Top 4’ and ‘Bottom 3′ Clubs
In the 2000-’01 season, Top 4 (Champions League) teams spent roughly £28 million more than Bottom 3 (relegated) teams. In 2019-’20, that same figure has ballooned to £217 million.
There has been a mad spending spree in the English top-flight since the turn of the century, and teams at the bottom are being left in the dust. In the 2019-’20 season, Premier League teams who qualified for the Champions League spent £217 million more than those who were relegated.
One interesting note regarding 2015: the difference in spending that season was such an outlier in large part because the champions (Leicester City) spent just £80 million while 20th place and relegated Aston Villa spent nearly £95 million.
Cost of the Champions League
In order to qualify for the Champions League in 2019-’20, clubs need to spend nearly £300 million.
Cost of Relegation
The average cost of relegation in 2019-’20 is nearly £100 million.
Top 4 clubs spend ~7x more today than they spent 20 years ago, compared to ~5.5x more for relegated teams.
The gap between the groups continues to widen, making the Champions League aspirations of a smaller club less and less realistic with each passing season.
The cost to compete is rising, while only a select few teams are able to rise with it.
Having said all of this, I am, like everyone else, a shameless fan of a large club. I love watching the best teams and the best players compete, and as much as I frown upon the direction this league is heading, I am a willing participant in its capitalistic spiral.
Let’s take a look at the spending habits of the ‘Big 6’ since 2000-’01:
You can see the exact point, around 2008, when Manchester City acquired new ownership and began their torrid spending spree.
Manchester City, a long-time languisher in England’s lower divisions, is a great case study in the role that spending money plays in club success. They have become a domestic juggernaut simply because they’re able and willing to spend more than everybody else.
Looking at the chart below, pay attention to the same x-value: ‘2008’. There is a similarly incredible jump in City’s points-per-season at the exact same time that they began their insane run of spending:
Manchester City’s points-per-season has exploded since new ownership took over in 2008.
We should love the story of a relegated-club-turned-dynasty. The way it happened for City, born not out of commitment or hard work, but rather the influx of unlimited oil money, is antithetical to the very idea of competition.
If being the best team is simply a matter of having the most resources, then we have lost much of what makes this sport so great.
Now that we have a solid understanding of the increase in league-wide spending, the gap between the Top 4 and Bottom 3, and the idea that money can buy success, we need to answer the final question: is there a level playing field in the English Premier League?
The very basic understanding of competition is that all participants should have a fair and equal shot of winning.
Is this the case in England’s top-flight?
Big 6 clubs have accounted for 75/80 (94%) of the Top 4 finishes since 2000-’01!
In the 20 years of data we studied, 40 clubs (not counting the Big 6) played a total of 281 campaigns, and only 5 times did one of those clubs finish within the top 4.
A non-Big 6 club playing in the Premier League from 2000–2020 only had a 1.8% likelihood to finish within the Top 4.
Big 6 teams have spent £1.1 billion more than the other 40 Premier League participants combined in 162 fewer campaigns.
Since 2000, the Big 6 represents just 30% (119/400) of all Premier League campaigns. Despite this, they account for:
- 94% of the top 4 finishes
- 52% of ALL money spent
There is NOT a level playing field in the English Premier League.
Maybe this is just the way many fans like it, and it’s never easy to disrupt the status quo, but a league that offers just a 2% chance of real success (finishing in the top 4 and qualify for the Champions League) to 70% of its participants does not feel like a sustainable model. It certainly doesn’t feel like the best we can do.
Thanks for reading!
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
The British Pound £ has an annual inflation rate of about 1.85% since the year 2000:
Factoring annual inflation into the Average Premier League Wage Bills chart.
When factoring this into our Average Premier League Wage Bill (2000-’01 to 2019-’20) chart from the top of the article, we see that average spending has increased ~4.5x since 2000, not the 6x that we originally stated.
While each of our graphs would show a bit less growth if we factored them all for inflation, the general pattern of a rapid and disproportionate increase in spending power favoring the top 5–7 clubs would still be reflected.