Can’t stop ‘The Game’ — English Premier League kicks off

It may be slightly smaller than Alabama, and its population of 56 million is only a fraction of that of the U.S., but England is home to one of the richest and most successful sports leagues in the world, and its 29th season begins this weekend.

Soccer, or football as they call it across the pond, has been going on in England for well over a century, but the English Premier League was formed in 1992, when the top division of what was known as the Football League separated from the other three divisions.

In his new book, “The Game,” acclaimed soccer photographer Stuart Roy Clarke and writer John Williams chronicle the fabric of the world’s game over the past three decades in Great Britain.

Through Clarke’s lens, the players, the venues, the fans, the big cities and the villages come to life, and Williams’s words allow the reader to get lost in the magical, sometimes mythical, world of British soccer.

The passion and atmosphere of fans inside stadiums have added to the global attraction to soccer from England. The singing and chanting provides a wonderfully unscripted soundtrack to the action on the field.

The noise level at British soccer matches was once described by USA Today writer Taylor Buckley as being like a flock of DC-10s flying over a Guns N’ Roses concert in an electrical storm.

“We are [a] bit edgy; we are bickering and shouting rude things and then return to being more reasonable people after the game. But it is the best we’ve got,” Clarke said in a recent interview.

“There are other cultural things to do in England, and other sports, all of which are valid, but soccer is unbelievably connected with who we are as a people and our history.”

The support for soccer in England is incredible. In the 2018-19 season, the last complete season with stadiums open to fans, the EPL’s 20 clubs generated more than $7.3 billion in revenue and attracted more than 14 million spectators.

The 72 professional clubs below the EPL, in what is now called the English Football League, attracted more than 18 million spectators during the same season.

That’s 32 million fans attending regular-season matches in a country of 56 million people. And the English soccer pyramid has a fifth division, with mostly professional clubs. And that’s not even counting various cup competitions, including the famed F.A. Cup.

“When people go and see their club which is playing — Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool, etc., week in and week out, they feel pretty rich,” said Clarke.

“And I think, yeah, that’s the sense of place that’s very special about a small country, having so many clubs, shoulder to shoulder.”

For all the depth of soccer in England, the EPL has become the driver for the professional game, not only in England, but also around the world.

Nielsen estimates the EPL reached a cumulative audience of 3.2 billion people during the 2018-19 season, with its games shown in 188 countries, including the U.S.

On television is the only way for anyone right now to see the EPL, or any other soccer from England.

Recently, a preseason game at Brighton was allowed to include 2,500 fans, but in recent days, the British government has decided to delay opening soccer stadiums, even at limited capacity, because of a spike in coronavirus cases.

“We have a game that felt indestructible in this country,” said Clarke.

“With 6,000 clubs, many of them professional clubs shoulder to shoulder in the same city, it did feel like nothing could stop supporters. But we didn’t know about COVID and lockdown. It certainly isn’t finished. There is such a deep love [that] it will come back, but it is slightly wounded at the moment.”

Since 2013, the EPL has been valued programming on NBC and NBC Sports Channel.

NBC is in the midst of a six-year, $1 billion contract that runs through the 2021-22 season to carry EPL games in the U.S. Ratings have been strong, and this past EPL season, which pushed into summer because of COVID-19, was NBC’s best year yet, with more than 35 million viewers.

The D.C. market was top in the U.S. in average season-long ratings for the EPL on NBC and NBC Sports Channel. Baltimore was not far behind, in fourth place, and Richmond was ninth.

Even though many games kick off early in the morning U.S. time, bars that are allowed to open will attract fans eager to watch their favorite teams.

Liverpool is the EPL’s defending champion after it broke up Manchester City’s run of two consecutive titles.

Chelsea, with Christian Pulisic, a Pennsylvania native and member of the U.S. Men’s National Team, should also be in the mix, along with big clubs including Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham.

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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