With every summer comes a new transfer window, and with every transfer window, we witness the biggest clubs in the world throwing hundreds of millions around in an attempt to outspend and eventually outplay their competitors. Transfer spending is just one of the many ways that clubs seek to gain a competitive advantage over each other. But spending varies both within and between leagues, as a result of different rules and regulations governing the leagues and investment clubs can attract. The game continues to change, perhaps irreversibly, as the money pours in. Even without the effect of money, the leagues rise and fall cyclically, due to generational differences in playing style and personnel. This leads to frequent debates and comparisons between leagues. The Premier League is the biggest, most watched, and some might argue the best quality league. But La Liga boasts the two biggest and most successful clubs in Europe (in recent years, at least). But how does the Bundesliga stack up against the Premier League and La Liga?
These debates are inherently subjective, but there are certainly aspects that allow for some objective comparison. In this article, I hope to address that, offering some empirical evidence to justify comparisons. Most of this article assess the competitiveness, quality, and the finances of each league, using mostly descriptive statistics, and some analytical tools. I will assess the state of the Bundesliga right now, using the Premier League and La Liga as the points for comparison (with Ligue 1, Serie A, and the Championship occasionally included for reference). I don’t expect to settle the debate about the best league, but I do hope that this article helps us understand the real differences between them. I also hope that this article will raise a few questions that will make for more detailed analysis further down the line.
Which league is the most competitive?
The debate over which of the leagues is most competitive is something you frequently hear discussed among football fans. It is a point of pride to follow a competitive league, because competition is the very backbone of sport. If the league isn’t competitive, what is the point? In reality, it isn’t necessarily desirable to have an entirely balanced league, since a league of entirely equal teams would mostly be decided by the home advantage, and that would suck a lot of the fun out of the sport. It is also important for a league’s narrative. Every league needs a few big clubs to hate, and imbalances create more compelling stories. It is really about striking a balance between competition and inequality. For this reason, competition is just one part of the story, but it’s still a very important consideration when assessing the state of the league. Comparison across cases is difficult because it depends on how you define competition. In sport, it can refer to the competition for the title (dominance), the competition and evenness of the whole league (competitive balance), or the competition to be a part of the league’s elite (dominance of k teams).
To start with, we can look at the distribution of points totals per league and per season since the 2014/15 season:
Figure 1 gives us a visual demonstration of the differences between the three leagues. Bundesliga generally produces lower points totals, and competition is clearly well dispersed. However, there is also a clear second peak for most seasons, suggesting there is a small elite, usually populated by Bayern and one or two others. The same appears to be the case for La Liga as well, though the peak around the 50 point mark is a little smaller, and the peak around the higher points total a little higher. The Premier League, however, produces no clear peak like the other two leagues. Instead, there is a larger density around the 50 - 75 points mark, and less of a gap between that and the higher points totals.
Going a little deeper, we can use the variance in points totals and final league positions since the 2010/11 season to judge all three leagues:
- The number of different winners - Bundesliga = 2, La Liga = 3, Premier League = 4
- The mean average of standard deviation in points totals – Bundesliga = 15.03, La Liga = 17.91, Premier League = 17.68
- The number of top six teams (European qualification) – Bundesliga = 17, La Liga = 13, Premier League = 10
These tests of dominance and competitive balance tell us quite a bit about the way each league functions. Bundesliga is the most competitive when considered from top to bottom, and that even includes any potential European elites, but when it comes to the level of dominance? It does terribly. La Liga, on the other hand, is a little more competitive when we consider the number of winners. The standard deviation in points totals is the highest of all three leagues, but the elite is less closed off than the Premier League. Finally, the Premier League title appears to be more competitive than the other two leagues, but there is clearly a glass ceiling between the top six and the rest of the league, and only four teams have broken into that pack since 2010/11 (Leicester, Southampton, Newcastle, Everton).
There are alternative measures that think about competition in terms of the inequality or concentration of points, such as the Gini coefficient or an adjusted Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI*). Both suggest that the Bundesliga is the most competitive of the three leagues, while the Gini coefficient suggests the Premier League is the least competitive, and the HHI* suggests it is La Liga. However, both of these measures have been criticized for producing inaccurate scores as a result of not accounting for the restrictions of a points based league structure.
Instead, leaning on the academic research from the field of sports economics, I use standard deviation of points ratios. There are three main measures (RSD, ASD, CV), however I proceed using the ASD, as it is the simplest of the three to explain and understand in an intuitive manner (though I calculated the other two for validation). ASD measures the ex post variation in end-of-season points ratios. The larger the value produced by ASD, the more unequal the competition.
Figure 2 shows the changes in ASD for the three leagues over time. As we can see, Bundesliga spends most of it’s time being the most competitive of the three, but in 18/19 it was beaten by La Liga (and in 10/11 and 15/16 by the Premier League). This is interesting, because La Liga is the least competitive for the majority of the time, but appears to become more competitive in 2018 and again in 2019. The mean scores for the three leagues are as follows:
Bundesliga = 0.608
La Liga = 0.686
Premier League = 0.677
Overall, the findings seem to suggest that the Bundesliga is the most competitively balanced, though it scores poorly in terms of dominance. The league felt a lot more competitive to Dortmund fans this year, for obvious reasons, but due to the poor performance of the bottom two teams, the total competitive balance proved to be lower than in previous years. In terms of dominance at the top of the table, the Premier League performs best, though this comes with the caveat that the competition for the title tends to be exclusive to the elite in the league, which is much more closed off than when compared with the Bundesliga (and is a little less open than La Liga too).
Which league is the ‘best’?
The Bundesliga is clearly a competitive league, even if Bayern has an ironclad grip on the top spot. But is this because the quality of all clubs in the league is greater than in other leagues? Or does the increased middle class mean an overall reduction in the quality? Measuring the quality of football is difficult, because it is attempting to place an objective measure on a subjective assessment. However, there are two broad definitions of quality football, one being the best overall quality of the football played, and the other based more on the entertainment level produced.
Measuring entertainment is especially difficult because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. With that said, one part of the entertainment value in football is goals. Figure 3 details the average number of goals scored per game in each league from the 14/15 season up to last season.
Outside of last season, the averages were pretty similar, and there is no clear winner (though the Premier League appears to be consistently lower). This season, however, the Bundesliga saw an average of over 3 goals a game, which is the most of any of the league seasons.
The reality is that assessing entertainment would really require it’s own article (though any of these categories could merit their own article) if we wanted to answer the question with any confidence. Even then, how you prioritize certain factors would be entirely subjective.
Measuring the quality of the leagues is a little easier (though far from foolproof). Perhaps the best way to assess the quality of the three leagues is by looking at their performances in the biggest Europe-wide competition in the sport, the Champions League. While this doesn’t act as a perfect measure of each league’s quality, it is a useful proxy.
Figure 4 illustrates how each league has performed in every season, using a points system for each club’s progress. Teams score 1 point if they made it to the group stage but no further, and the eventual winner of the Champions League scores 6 points. The points scored by clubs representing each league are summed, producing a total points score for each league per season.
We can clearly see La Liga’s dominance in the early 00s, which gave way for a period of Premier League superiority in the mid- to late-00s, before that dwindled and the Spanish took over again. Although the Germans haven’t had a clear period of dominance, they’ve been in and around the pack at times.
Nonetheless, the Bundesliga falls down a little when it comes to Champions League performance. Is this simply because the league is lower quality? Or does the balance or dominance of the league work against it? I think there is an argument for both. First, in terms of balance, there are a higher number of different teams qualifying for Europe from the Bundesliga than the other two leagues. Is it possible that teams that play regularly in Europe gain a better feel for what is required to progress? Does regular qualification improve performance? From some brief investigation, I found some evidence that this may be the case, but further testing is required. Second, Bayern’s dominance of the Bundesliga may well harm their chances in the Champions League. The lack of competition for the title, and the ease with which they can brush aside the weaker teams in the Bundesliga may lead to difficulty stepping up when they face stronger competition in the Champions League. I’ve not found evidence of this when looking over the data, but it would require a much more careful analysis to identify. The theory seems plausible though.
Which league is the richest?
Finally, the financial outlook for all three leagues can tell us something about the health of the leagues, their future, and their overall strength and influence. Football’s finances have received a lot of attention in the last decade, as money has poured into the sport, especially into the Premier League, and from some questionable sources. Football was once a sport for the masses, with strong historical and cultural links to the working classes, but as ticket prices rise and foreign billionaires take over every top flight club, it increasingly feels like that is no longer the case. But nonetheless, the money in sport is also a significant factor influencing performances on the pitch. There is a strong correlation between a club’s revenue, or their wage bill and transfer spending, and their success on the pitch. For that reason, it is an important consideration when comparing the strength of the leagues.
The Deloitte Football Money League ranks the richest clubs in football according to their revenues, so it is a perfect starting point for this analysis. I first compared the total revenue of the Bundesliga, La Liga, and the Premier League, including all clubs that appear on the list. Figure 5 shows this, and includes Ligue 1 and Serie A for reference.
The Premier League is clearly generating much more revenue than the rest, while the Bundesliga, La Liga, and Serie A are all at relatively similar levels, and Ligue 1 produces the least. In reality, these numbers are heavily skewed in favor of the Premier League, because there are more Premier League clubs in the Deloitte Football Money League (in 2019, there were 13 Premier League teams, 4 La Liga teams, and 3 Bundesliga teams). However, that highlights the incredible amount of money in the Premier League. Every other major league is represented by their biggest clubs, but over 50% of the Premier League makes it into the rankings. When clubs like Southampton are in and around the top 20 richest clubs in football, it suggests something might be broken…
However, if we want a more equal representation of the clubs, we can compare the average revenues of the biggest clubs in each league. I have calculated the mean average of the 4 richest teams in each league for each year (when only 3 teams made the rankings, I just used the same calculation, as this shouldn’t really skew things). Figure 6 compares the leagues over time.
When comparing the average revenues, La Liga and the Premier League are racing away, while the Bundesliga and Serie A are both at a similar level to each other. This figure gives us some idea of why Serie A and Bundesliga clubs might struggle to keep up with the Premier League and La Liga in the Champions League. The sheer financial might of the big clubs in these leagues is on a whole other level to the other leagues. In reality, Bayern Munich (and to a lesser extent Juventus) can keep up with them, but will they struggle in the future? It certainly seems possible, though neither club has really shown signs of declining just yet.
Given the financial muscle these leagues flex, are they actually making it count? In terms of the total spending by each league, they certainly seem to be (though there’s plenty of evidence some of these clubs don’t spend so wisely). Figure 7 shows the growth in spending over the years.
Figure 7 is especially illuminating. I’ve included Serie A, Ligue 1, and the Championship for reference. The Premier League’s spending balloons from around 2010 onwards, while the rest start to rise together about 5 years later. Incredibly, the Championship is competing with some of the Big 5 for transfer spending, which gives you some indication of the ridiculous amount of money in the top flight of English football. It seems as though the potential riches in the Premier League have led to a lot of financial power in the Championship. This is presumably due to the parachute payments that relegated clubs receive, investors backing clubs in order to push them up into the Premier League, and clubs profiting from the high transfer fees that they can demand from Premier League clubs.
In terms of how this is altering the leagues themselves, I think we can already see the increasing impact that the financial dominance of the big clubs is having. Juventus, Bayern, and PSG win their leagues repeatedly, Barca and Real are barely touched by teams lower down the table, and Man City are increasingly dominant, only rivaled by clubs that can spend comparatively while looking to be as shrewd as possible and find competitive advantages elsewhere (Liverpool have done this especially well). Figure 8 paints the picture of the growing elite in football, comparing each team’s market value (measured using Transfermarkt’s player market values) and their points totals over time.
This gif shows the way the leagues are changing, as the market value of the biggest teams rises far faster than the rest. The top 1% of football is rising and running away. As you can see, a handful of Premier League clubs, three La Liga clubs, and one Bundesliga club, all grow exponentially in a short space of time. The last few seasons have seen things dramatically change, and it doesn’t seem like these changes are going to slow down any time soon.
From this analysis, it is clear that the big names in the Premier League and La Liga rule, both domestically and in Europe. They are growing richer and richer, spending incredible amounts of money, and the results show in their dominance at every level of the sport. While that is also the case in the Bundesliga, there is only really one team that is totally dominant (Bayern, if it really needed saying). There is some possibility that Dortmund might eventually reach that level too, but given their final positions in the league over the last few seasons, it doesn’t seem to be the case just yet. The Bundesliga is generally more competitive, when you consider the whole league, but while Bayern hoards titles, it is difficult to consider it a totally competitive league. La Liga feels like the worst of both worlds, where the competitive balance is poor, and the title is really dominated by about 2 ½ teams. The Premier League lacks competitive balance, as the top 6 are extremely dominant. But at the very least, there is typically quite a bit of competition between those 6 teams.
This article tells us little about the future for any of these leagues. Things have been changing in football at an exponential rate, and it is hard to know exactly where this growth is headed. Will Bayern continue to dominate? It’s possible, but it does feel like there is a window of opportunity for Dortmund right now. Will the Premier League continue to be unpredictable at the top? Possibly, but City feel like they could take over. I also don’t see anyone challenging the elite in the Premier League either, nor do I see anyone challenging Real, Barca, and Atletico Madrid in La Liga. Ultimately, the differences between each league feel like they’re growing, and much of this is driven by money. La Liga doesn’t look like it’ll be left behind, but there is some risk that others like the Bundesliga and Serie A might be. But clearly there are real differences between each of these domestic leagues, and while Bundesliga may not be the best, it has other strengths. If Dortmund can just manage to topple Bayern, we might even be able to call it competitive!