The Premier League is an English professional league for men’s association football clubs. At the top of the English football league system, it is the country’s primary football competition. Contested by 20 clubs, it operates on a system of promotion and relegation with the English Football League (EFL; known as “The Football League” before 2016–17). Welsh clubs that compete in the English football league system can also qualify.
The Premier League is a corporation in which the 20 member clubs act as shareholders. Seasons run from August to May. Teams play 38 matches each (playing each team in the league twice, home and away), totalling 380 matches in the season. Most games are played on Saturday and Sunday afternoons; others during weekday evenings. It is colloquially known as the Premiership and outside the UK it is commonly referred to as the English Premier League (EPL).
The competition formed as the FA Premier League on 20 February 1992 following the decision of clubs in the Football League First Division to break away from the Football League, which was founded in 1888, and take advantage of a lucrative television rights deal. The deal was worth £1 billion a year domestically as of 2013–14, with BSkyB and BT Group securing the domestic rights to broadcast 116 and 38 games respectively. The league generates €2.2 billion per year in domestic and international television rights. In 2014–15, teams were apportioned revenues of £1,600 million, rising sharply to £2,400 million in 2016–17.
The Premier League is the most-watched sports league in the world, broadcast in 212 territories to 643 million homes and a potential TV audience of 4.7 billion people. In the 2014–15 season, the average Premier League match attendance exceeded 36,000, second highest of any professional football league behind the Bundesliga’s 43,500. Most stadium occupancies are near capacity. The Premier League ranks third in the UEFA coefficients of leagues based on performances in European competitions over the past five seasons.
In total, 49 clubs have competed since the inception of the Premier League in 1992. Six of them have won the title: Manchester United (13), Chelsea (5), Arsenal (3), Manchester City (2), Blackburn Rovers (1) and Leicester City (1).
Despite significant European success in the 1970s and early 1980s, the late ’80s marked a low point for English football. Stadiums were crumbling, supporters endured poor facilities, hooliganism was rife, and English clubs were banned from European competition for five years following the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985. The Football League First Division, the top level of English football since 1888, was behind leagues such as Italy’s Serie A and Spain’s La Liga in attendances and revenues, and several top English players had moved abroad.
By the turn of the 1990s the downward trend was starting to reverse: at the 1990 FIFA World Cup, England reached the semi-finals; UEFA, European football’s governing body, lifted the five-year ban on English clubs playing in European competitions in 1990, resulting in Manchester United lifting the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991, and the Taylor Report on stadium safety standards, which proposed expensive upgrades to create all-seater stadiums in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, was published in January of that year.
The 1980s also saw the major English clubs, led by the likes of Martin Edwards of Manchester United, Irving Scholar of Tottenham Hotspur and David Dein of Arsenal, beginning to be transformed into business ventures that apply commercial principles to the running of the clubs, which led to the increasing power of the elite clubs. By threatening to break away, the top clubs from Division One managed to increase their voting power, and took 50% share all television and sponsorship income in 1986. Revenue from television also became more important: the Football League received £6.3 million for a two-year agreement in 1986, but by 1988, in a deal agreed with ITV, the price rose to £44 million over four years with the leading clubs taking 75% of the cash. The 1988 negotiations was conducted under the threat of ten clubs leaving to form a “super league”, but were eventually persuaded to stay with the top clubs taking the lion share of the deal. As stadiums improved and match attendance and revenues rose, the country’s top teams again considered leaving the Football League in order to capitalise on the influx of money into the sport.
In 1990, the managing director of London Weekend Television (LWT), Greg Dyke, met with the representatives of the “big five” football clubs in England (Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham, Everton and Arsenal) over a dinner. The meeting was to pave the way for a break away from The Football League. Dyke believed that it would be more lucrative for LWT if only the larger clubs in the country were featured on national television and wanted to establish whether the clubs would be interested in a larger share of television rights money. The five clubs decided it was a good idea and decided to press ahead with it; however, the league would have no credibility without the backing of The Football Association and so David Dein of Arsenal held talks to see whether the FA were receptive to the idea. The FA did not enjoy an amicable relationship with the Football League at the time and considered it as a way to weaken the Football League’s position.
At the close of the 1991 season, a proposal was tabled for the establishment of a new league that would bring more money into the game overall. The Founder Members Agreement, signed on 17 July 1991 by the game’s top-flight clubs, established the basic principles for setting up the FA Premier League. The newly formed top division would have commercial independence from The Football Association and the Football League, giving the FA Premier League licence to negotiate its own broadcast and sponsorship agreements. The argument given at the time was that the extra income would allow English clubs to compete with teams across Europe. Although Dyke played a significant role in the creation of the Premier League, Dyke and ITV would lose out in the bidding for broadcast rights as BSkyB won with a bid of £304 million over five years with the BBC awarded the highlights package broadcast on Match of the Day.
In 1992, the First Division clubs resigned from the Football League en masse and on 27 May 1992 the FA Premier League was formed as a limited company working out of an office at the Football Association’s then headquarters in Lancaster Gate. This meant a break-up of the 104-year-old Football League that had operated until then with four divisions; the Premier League would operate with a single division and the Football League with three. There was no change in competition format; the same number of teams competed in the top flight, and promotion and relegation between the Premier League and the new First Division remained the same as the old First and Second Divisions with three teams relegated from the league and three promoted.
The league held its first season in 1992–93. It was composed of 22 clubs for that session. The first Premier League goal was scored by Brian Deane of Sheffield United in a 2–1 win against Manchester United. The 22 inaugural members of the new Premier League were Arsenal, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Chelsea, Coventry City, Crystal Palace, Everton, Ipswich Town, Leeds United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Middlesbrough, Norwich City, Nottingham Forest, Oldham Athletic, Queens Park Rangers, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday, Southampton, Tottenham Hotspur, and Wimbledon. Luton Town, Notts County, and West Ham United were the three teams relegated from the old first division at the end of the 1991–92 season, and did not take part in the inaugural Premier League season.
One significant feature of the Premier League in the mid-2000s was the dominance of the so-called “Big Four” clubs: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. During this decade, they dominated the top four spots, which came with UEFA Champions League qualification, taking all top-four places in 5 out of 6 seasons from 2003–04 to 2008–09 inclusive. Arsenal went as far as winning the league without losing a single game in 2003–04, the only time it has ever happened in the Premier League. In May 2008 Kevin Keegan stated that “Big Four” dominance threatened the division, “This league is in danger of becoming one of the most boring but great leagues in the world.” Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore said in defence: “There are a lot of different tussles that go on in the Premier League depending on whether you’re at the top, in the middle or at the bottom that make it interesting.”
The years following 2009 marked a shift in the structure of the “Big Four” with Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City both breaking into the top four. In the 2009–10 season, Tottenham finished fourth and became the first team to break the top four since Everton in 2005. Criticism of the gap between an elite group of “super clubs” and the majority of the Premier League has continued, nevertheless, due to their increasing ability to spend more than the other Premier League clubs. Manchester City won the title in the 2011–12 season, becoming the first club outside the “Big Four” to win since 1994–95. That season also saw two of the Big Four (Chelsea and Liverpool) finish outside the top four places for the first time since 1994–95. In the following five seasons, Manchester United and Liverpool both found themselves outside of the top four three times while Chelsea finished 10th in the 2015–16 season. Arsenal finished 5th in the 2016–17 season, ending their record of 20 consecutive top-four finishes.
Due to insistence by the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), the international governing body of football, that domestic leagues reduce the number of games clubs played, the number of clubs was reduced to 20 in 1995 when four teams were relegated from the league and only two teams promoted. On 8 June 2006, FIFA requested that all major European leagues, including Italy’s Serie A and Spain’s La Liga be reduced to 18 teams by the start of the 2007–08 season. The Premier League responded by announcing their intention to resist such a reduction. Ultimately, the 2007–08 season kicked off again with 20 teams.
The league changed its name from the FA Premier League to simply the Premier League in 2007.