What is an EPL ? The Premier League, Explained to a Clueless American

What is an epl ? I am going to watch the English Premier League this year. Become a fan of a team. A supporter, as the Brits say. I’ve enlisted my wife in the effort. That was easy. She’s a former college soccer star and one-time high-school coach, and woke up at 4am this summer to watch the U.S. women’s team play. Our two kids will join in. It’ll be a family thing.

The hard part, I think, is figuring out what the hell is going on with the Premier League and, most importantly, which team to root for. I am from Chicago, so I was born into Cubs, Bears, Bulls, and Blackhawks fandom. If I was to switch my team allegiance in one of the four major American team sports, I would carry the baggage of geography and tradition. I come to the Premier League fresh—a blank slate.

I am not alone in this pursuit. In July 2019, 14 million Americans watched the U.S. women’s team beat The Netherlands in the World Cup final. This summer, more than six million Americans tuned in for the European Cup final. By comparison, the 2021 NBA Finals averaged roughly nine million viewers.

To wrap my head around the English Premier League—including how to choose a team to support—I interviewed Esquire Politics Editor Jack Holmes, who is one of two soccer obsessives on staff. Our conversation has been edited and condensed. – Michael Sebastian

what is an epl

Why are you, an American, qualified to tell me about the English Premier League?

Like many American soccer fans, I got into the European professional game following a World Cup—in my case, 2006. Ever since I’ve been a pretty loyal Premier League viewer.

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What is the English Premier League? And remember, I am a complete novice here.

Every European country has its own league, but the major leagues are in England, Spain, Italy, Germany, and to a lesser extent, France. The English league, the Premier League, has risen to the top. It consists of the 20 best teams across England and Wales, who can earn the right to compete in this league through a promotion and relegation system, which we’ll get to.

Does the Premier League include Scotland or Ireland?

No. Scotland has its own league, and Ireland has its own league, which is not one of the best. The best Irish players will come over to the Premier League in England. And that’s the way things usually shake out: if you are one of the best Irish players, one of the best Egyptian players, one of the best French players, there’s a very good chance you play in the Premier League.

When do Premier League teams play?

At the beginning of the season, they play once a week, on Saturday or Sunday. Not to complicate things—

Uh-oh.

But as we get deeper into the season, there are cup competitions, like the FA Cup, which is the oldest knockout competition of any sport in the world. Some weekends are FA Cup weekends and the Premier League is paused. They resume the Premier League the next week. Deeper in the season, there are midweek games because the schedule gets so congested. Ultimately, the top teams end up playing in a number of competitions because they keep winning.

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So they don’t have a championship game?

No. It’s just your excellence over the course of the regular season. The cup competitions, which are separate, are usually knock-out competitions in the vein of an NCAA tournament, in the vein of the NFL playoffs, which is: you lose, you go home.

There is something deliciously American about being a wild card team that can get into a playoff and have the same opportunity as the best team in the league. In other words, as long as you’re good enough to enter the playoffs, anything can happen. It’s sad to me that the Premier League doesn’t have that sort of thing.

There are many ways in which we tend to think of Europe as more interested in egalitarianism and leveling the playing field in terms of economics, but it’s actually very much the opposite in European soccer in that it’s a purely capitalist enterprise where the big teams have more money, so they have more money to spend on players.

There is no salary cap. The financial power of the big clubs becomes a self-perpetuating prophecy in a way that it just doesn’t happen with, say, the New York Yankees, despite their financial power in U.S. sports. You can book it that Manchester City will be one of the top three teams next season, just because they have the financial power. They have two teams’ worth of top players, whereas the small teams, they can’t operate that way, and there’s no draft for them to pick first and get the best player.

Are there any exceptions?

The cup competitions are the exception. A tiny team from somewhere in the Midlands of England can earn a trip to play Manchester United at Old Trafford. They could win and go to the next round and have a fairytale story. But in the league, it’s very much a pitched battle. It’s a war over 38 games where having a large army that is highly capable and organized is usually what ends up leading to victory.

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Have there been Cinderella stories in the regular Premier League?

Leicester City, which is not traditionally one of the biggest clubs in England, did win the Premier League in 2016, which was a shock. Over the last five years, it’s been Manchester City and Liverpool winning the Premier League.

Let’s talk about relegation right now. Explain what this is.

There’s a dog-eat-dog element to this, beyond just the financial, in that you have to earn a place in the Premier League. The three worst teams in the league every season are thrown out of the Premier League, and they have to go down into the Championship where there’s much less TV money, it’s much harder to recruit top players, it’s very hard to get back into the Premier League. And then they’re replaced by the three top teams in the Championship every season.

what is an epl

What’s the benefit of doing it this way?

This fosters a level of necessary competition at both ends of the table. There’s no Cleveland Browns going 15 years and wallowing in mediocrity, because they would be two or three levels down in the English tier system of leagues, which has happened to clubs. There’s a team called Sunderland, and there’s actually a great Netflix series about them called Sunderland ‘Til I Die, which I would recommend.

It intertwines how the decay of Sunderland as a former shipbuilding community—that is, the hollowing out of this post-industrial city—is tied to the decline of the soccer club, which has a 50,000 seat stadium, and is now in the third division, called League One (which is a perplexing name). They’re basically in the wilderness. They are struggling to even get out of that league and they’re nowhere close to getting back to the Premier League.

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