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To win or not to win

I want to take up Skip's blog of August 2nd about the competitive balance of the Premier League whose new season started yesterday. Pretty much every game was a sell out, as has been true for nearly a decade, despite the near certainty that Chelsea will win the title and only Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool as even remotely plausible challengers. Not that there was ever much competitive balance in the Premier League or its predecessors- a small number of teams have always dominated (as is true of every European league).

The fact that a sport can be both incredibly popular and so unbalanced seems to contradict every intuition of sports economist and lay person alike. Surely, the weaker teams must have some prospect of winning to make it worthwhile for their fans? A good example is provided by the current "Ashes" cricket series between England and Australia, which is currently in the middle of the third game (called a Test Match). The Ashes are played for every two years, and dates back to 1876- out of 308 Test Matches played Australia have won 126, England 96 and 86 have been tied.

Traditionally soccer in England was played when the cricket season ended (many soccer clubs were originally founded by cricket players looking for something to do in the winter), but the expansion of soccer has encroached over the years. Cricket has struggled to compete with soccer for popularity for more than a century, but for the last 20 years the game in England has suffered because of the dominance of Australia. England have not won a series since 1987, and more importantly have not looked like winning one. Until this year. Having lost the first game, England won the second dramatically and currently look favourites to win the third. Suddenly England has gone cricket mad. Anti-siphoning rules ensure that Test Match cricket in England is shown on free-to-air TV, and last Saturday the coverage achieved the highest rating for cricket on a Saturday ever. At one point on Sunday (when the game was won) 44% of all TV homes were watching. There is a widespread feeling that interest in cricket in England is on the up.

Of course, some might argue that the cricket renaissance has to do with England offering serious competition for Australia, but I think it is more simply the fact that England are looking like winning. I've certainly not seen any evidence that interest in cricket in Australia has suffered during their two decades of dominance. Fans want their team to win, and as far as I can see not too much else matters. So why does an unbalanced Premier League (or Serie A, or La Liga, or the Bundesliga) thrive? Because most fans align themselves with dominant teams. Supporting weaker teams is defintely a minority activity. A few years ago there were said to be more Manchester United fans in London than Manchester- my guess is that many of these have switched to Chelsea. I've not seen any studies of switching behaviour on the part of fans, but my guess is that switching is pretty common.