The Glass Half Full: Fifty Years of the TPL

by Absolute Thai Football

Celebrating the Thai Premier League’s half century, the days of arriving at empty stadiums and minimal media coverage are a fading memory. More recently, I remember when the English Premier League was all the rage. It started only four years before its Thai namesake, but it became its own worst enemy. Initially the EPL had seemingly endless television and sponsorship money, fans came in droves and the top four teams all gained entry into the lucrative Champions League. So what went wrong?

The problems started in the 2019 season. Wage bills were driven up by the four time league champions Gazprom Nottingham Forest paying huge wages to mothballed players. Bored of the annual red procession, fans started investing in, and running, their local clubs. Based on the AFC Wimbledon model from 2002, at first this trend went unnoticed, tending to be in regional, lower league teams. But by 2022 EPL clubs were spooked by empty seats that, for decades, had been filled. These homegrown clubs were also powering through the leagues on a tide of popular support, ready to challenge the status quo.

All EPL clubs were foreign owned by 2017. With no national loyalty to the league, they were attracted to the developing Brazilian economy and league. Premier Brazilian players now chose to stay and play at home, but cost a fraction of their EPL colleagues. It started as “strategic alliances” between clubs in each country, but owners were preparing to sell up in England and move to South America.

Attempting to address this the FA decided that, as the European Union had collapsed, they could restrict the number of foreign players without breaking old labour laws. Also aimed at addressing the alarming nosedive of the national team who failed to qualify for Qatar in 2022 and were unlikely to qualify for Saudi Arabia in 2026, this plan failed spectacularly. Combined with the wage cap, globalisation allowed players visa free access to any league. They simply moved to the highest bidder which was in Iran, where million dollar weekly salaries were paid in cash.

Television coverage was a double edged sword for the EPL. Initially it developed the league and pumped billions of pounds into players’ and agents’ bank accounts. But the £1.8 billion agreement with Sky way back in 2013 was judged to break cartel rules. After that, contracts were divided up between Apple, Al Jazheera and a host of Internet providers. Without a coherent single product creating a bidding war, the Premier League lost its bargaining power; the next contract didn’t break the billion pound mark and it was the start of a downward spiral.

Thai fans remain football crazy, but it’s TPL matches packing out bars and roadside stalls. The meaningless marketing exercises of English clubs playing here are mainly ignored and largely ridiculed with sparse, and dwindling, crowds of older fans. Sometimes we might see an EPL shirt, but they are mostly second generation hand me downs. How the mighty fell.