Who's got the biggest? English, German and Spanish leagues stake their claims

Professor Simon Chadwick

Posted: August 24, 2014

This is a longer version of an article that first appeared via The Conversation website.

Last season was a great one for La Liga and Spanish football: Real Madrid not only won UEFA’s Champions League, the club also broke the world transfer fee record when it signed Welsh international Gareth Bale from Tottenham Hotspur. In addition, Sevilla won the UEFA Europa League, with Real already having beaten the Andalusian club this season (2014/2015) to claim UEFA’s Super Cup. Yet last season was not too bad for the Germans and their Bundesliga either; Bayern Munich finished the previous season (2012/2013) as UEFA Champions League winners and then went on to claim UEFA’s Super Cup as last season commenced. One can add to this a thoroughly dominant team display at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, when Germany came home as winners of the FIFA trophy.

Alongside Spain and Germany, three other European football leagues are often highlighted as being among the ‘big-5’: France, Italy and England. While France’s Ligue 1 may seem like a new kid on the block, the league has always enjoyed something of a high profile thanks to the performances of clubs such as Marseille and Lyon. With recent Qatari investment in Paris Saint Germain however, French football has suddenly loomed much larger in many peoples’ minds. Italy’s Serie A has not enjoyed either recent top-level success or huge foreign investment but it is still part of European aristocracy, populated by iconic teams such as Juventus and AC Milan, and charismatic players such as Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli. And then there is England’s Premier League, which has already been examined in a previous piece published by The Conversation, with its unique combination of heritage and commercial success.

The domestic football season has already started in both France and England, and is shortly set to commence in Germany, Italy and Spain. As each of the leagues begin, the debate about which of them is biggest will no doubt resume too. Perhaps we still are in the era of the ’big-5’? Some commentators are claiming European football is actually now dominated by the ‘big-3’ (England, Germany and Spain). Others go further; in simple terms it is now England versus Spain. So which is it then – which country has the biggest league in Europe?

In playing terms, four of the last ten UEFA Champions League Finals have been won by Spanish clubs (Barcelona 3, Real Madrid 1). Next up is England with three winners, then Italy with two and Germany with one. Meanwhile, the Premier League has contributed 40% of the finalists during this time, 25% of the teams have been Spanish, 20% have been German, and 15% have been Italian. In the Europa League (formerly the UEFA Cup), Spain has again dominated by providing five of the last ten winners. Otherwise, apart from England, with one winner, none of the supposed ‘big-5’ has made any impact on the competition. Furthermore, while Spain has contributed 35% and England 15% of the finalists, only one German team has made the final (and none from either France or Italy has done so).

In these terms, it is therefore no great surprise that in UEFA’s European top-20 club rankings, Spanish teams hold the top-2 positions: Real Madrid and Barcelona with 143.328 and 131.328 points respectively. In total, there are four Spanish teams in the top-20 with Atletico Madrid (7th place) and Valencia (8th place) being the others. Bayern Munich come-in third (128.083 points) and Chelsea of the Premier League appear in fourth place (122.721). But the highest French club to appear is PSG in 13th place (81.650), while the only Italian club in the table is AC Milan in 14th place (79.602). According to current UEFA figures 25% of Europe’s best teams are English, 20% are Spanish, 15% are German, 10% are French and only 5% are Italian. In terms of cumulative points scores too, Spanish clubs still top the table (470.312), followed by England with 457.735 points, Germany 307.249, France 151.3 and Italy 79.602.

While Spain would appear to come out ahead in playing terms at least, it is in the grandstands of Europe that clubs from other countries start to make their mark. Throughout 2013, the Bundesliga averaged an attendance of 42,624 fans per game; the Premier League averaged 35,921; La Liga 28,237; Serie A 23, 234; and Ligue 1 19,211. During the same period, Germany’s Borussia Dortmund topped the list of highest home attendances, averaging 80,520 per home game. They were joined by seven other German teams in the top-20 list of highest average home attendances, giving the Bundesliga a 40% share of the list. The Premier League’s Manchester United averaged 75,530 fans, taking second place in the attendance league. Overall, 25% of the clubs in the top-20 were English. Predictably, Barcelona and Real Madrid drew large average home crowds of 71,120 and 69,988 respectively, although they were the only two Spanish clubs in the top-20. Italy’s only club on the list was Inter Milan, with an average attendance figure of 46,551. No French clubs made the list.

But if Germany wins the crowds and Spain wins the trophies, then surely it is Premier League clubs that win the race for money. For several decades, English football has dominated football’s commercial economy, a position it has reinforced over the last decade. The revenues of Premier League clubs had risen to €2.9 billion in 2012, compared to €1.9 billion for Bundesliga clubs, €1.8 billion for La Liga clubs, €1.6 billion for Serie A clubs and €1.1 billion for Ligue 1 clubs. That said, since 2004, the Premier League’s position has come under threat, with its total share of European revenues falling from 34.7% to 31.5%. Even so, Premier League clubs still occupied six of the top-20 places in Deloitte’s Annual Money League. German clubs took four places, Italian clubs four places, Spanish clubs three places and French clubs one place.

The strength of the Premier League’s commercial performance is reflected in both television viewing figures and the value of broadcasting contracts secured by each of the ‘big-5’ leagues. Each live Premier League game can have a global audience of more than 12m people, which greatly exceeds viewership of Italy’s Serie A (4.5m), Spain’s La Liga (2.2m), and Germany’s Bundesliga (2m). This popularity is reflected in the sums paid for domestic television contracts: the Premier League’s £3 billion again dwarfing the Serie A (£721m), La Liga (£511m) and Bundesliga (£417.4m) deals.

In spite of the Premier League’s apparent commercial dominance, in many of the league tables of club financial value La Liga’s biggest teams still perform well. In Forbes’ latest annual report on the world’s most valuable sports franchises, Real Madrid (with a value of $3.44 billion) and Barcelona (with a value of $3.2 billion) occupy the top-2 places. Manchester United is third (with a value of $2.81 billion) and Bayern Munich is in seventh place (with a value of $1.85 billion). In Forbes’ associated list of the top-20 most valuable football clubs in the world, the top-4 are as above, although there are no further Spanish clubs on the list (the two clubs – Real and Barca – having a cumulative value of $6.64 billion). In total, there are six English clubs (with a total value of $7 billion) on the list, five Italian clubs (with a total value of $2.8 billion), four German clubs (with a total value of $3.4 billion), and one French club (with a total value of $0.42 billion).

What the figures reveal is that England, Germany or Spain could all, right now, stake a claim to be the biggest league in Europe. France’s Ligue 1, PSG aside, has a long way to go before it can claim to be up at the top of the list. In both playing and commercial terms, the league lacks depth and quality of performance. Despite a multitude of problems, Italy’s Serie A seems to be just about hanging-on to its place at the top of the European game. History, heritage and technical ability are helping to sustain the league and its clubs, but Italy is in real danger of significantly falling behind its main competitor leagues. As for Spain, the case is irresistible: by any measure La Liga has two of the very best teams in the world. But the dominance of Real and Barca rather mask deep-seated problems in Spanish domestic football. And then we have the Premier League: a commercial behemoth and ahead of the competition, but with its historically accumulated advantages beginning to come under threat from its rivals. And finally the Bundesliga: strong on the field and off it, but without being at the very top of European football, and susceptible to domination by a single team.

As such, in the race for the title of ‘Europe’s Biggest League’ there is no clear cut winner and at least three leagues have a strong argument to be awarded the title. So, as we head into Europe’s various seasons, the promise is of a pulsating battle ahead. The question is though: come next May, which of the leagues will be ahead? A France versus Italy Champions League Final might tip the balance to a certain extent. But, as we have come to expect, the appearance of their clubs at in the finals of competitions and at the top of money leagues tends to suggest that the England/Spain status quo may endure for some time yet.

About Professor Simon Chadwick

Professor Simon Chadwick set-up and edits The Scorecard. He is Director of CIBS (Centre for the International Business of Sport) at Coventry University, where he works as Professor of Sport Business Strategy and Marketing.  Simon tweets via Prof_Chadwick