How competitive is your game? Analysing the competitiveness of sporting leagues

The onset of the new football season this weekend, coupled with comments from former Donegal manager, Jim McGuinness, provided the opportunity to update a piece of research I had conducted several years ago for friends, examining the relative competitiveness of differing leagues across a range of sports.

Jim McGuinness’ comments bemoaned the lack of competition within the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship after a weekend of fixtures in which the four victorious teams trounced their respective opponents.

Competitiveness is a relative term in sport, as in other aspects of life.

European football’s governing body, UEFA, ranks the strength of its member associations’ leagues using a co-efficient system, which essentially provides points for the National league of teams who are successful in European competitions. For instance, every victory/draw secured by an English Premier League team in either the Europa Cup or Champions League contributes towards the EPL’s overall ranking. The further teams progress in a tournament, the better for the overall league’s ranking, which is important when it comes to seeding for European competitions.

But ranking competitiveness is a different thing altogether.

On one measure, competitiveness can be assessed by simply looking at the champions of any league over a period of years, as I have done below. Ultimately, sporting competitions result in only one winner, and if it is the case that only a small number of teams ever secure that illustrious title of champions, then the actual competitiveness of the league is something which can be questioned.

To a lesser extent, a league can be competitive, in the sense that teams can be capable of beating/ drawing with one another, yet still result in a small cohort of teams annually actually competing for the cherished prize of champions. An argument can be made that the English Premier League is competitive in this manner in a way that the All-Ireland Football or Hurling Championships are not in spite of the fact that there have been a greater number of champions of the latter two sports over the past 20 years than the top flight of football in England.

Below I have looked at the past twenty championships contested by each of the top 10 European football leagues (as determined by the UEFA co-efficient ranking table) where a winner was declared, though for comparative purposes I have also included the statistics relating to the two domestic football leagues in Ireland and the Scottish Premier League- in case you’re wondering, the Scottish Premier League ranks 23rd, the League of Ireland is currently ranked 40th and the NIFL’s Premiership 44th out of a total of 54 European leagues.

How competitive is your game? Last 20 Championships

European Football Leagues


Co-efficient ranking included

No. Champions Champions (No. times won)
1.     Spanish La Liga 5 Barcelona (9), Real Madrid (6), Atletico Madrid (2), Valencia (2), Deportivo La Coruna (1)
2. English Premier League 4 Man Utd (11), Chelsea (4), Arsenal (3), Man City (2)
3. German Bundesliga 6 Bayern Munich (12), Borussia Dortmund (4), Wolfsburg (1), Werder Bremen (1), Stuttgart (1), Kaiserslautern (1)
4. Italian Serie A 5 Juventus (9), Internazionale (5), AC Milan (4), Roma (1), Lazio (1)
5. Portuguese Liga 4 Porto (13), Benfica (4), Sporting (2), Boavista (1)
6. French Ligue 1 10 Lyon (7), Paris St Germain (3), AS Monaco (2), Bordeaux (2), Montpellier (1), Lille (1), Marseille (1), Nantes (1), Lens (1), Auxerre (1)
7. Russian Premier League 6 Spartak Moscow (6), CSKA Moscow (5), Zenit St Petersburg (4), Rubin Kazan (2), Lokomotiv Moscow (2), Alania Vladikavkaz (1)
8. Ukrainian Premier League 2 Dynamo Kyiv (11), Shakhtar Donetsk (9)
9. Dutch Eredivisie 5 PSV Eindhoven (9), Ajax (8), FC Twente (1), AZ Alkmaar (1), Feyenoord (1)
10. Belgian Pro League 6 Anderlecht (9), Club Brugge (4), KRC Genk (3), Standard Liege (2), KAA Gent (1), K Lierse SK (1)
23. Scottish Premier League 2 Celtic (11), Rangers (9)
40. League of Ireland 9 Shelbourne (5), St Patrick’s Athletic (4), Bohemians (4), Shamrock Rovers (2), Dundalk (1), Drogheda (1), Cork City (1), Derry City (1), Sligo Rovers (1)
44. NIFL Premiership 5 Linfield (9), Glentoran (4) Cliftonville (3), Crusaders (2), Portadown (2)


Last 20 Championships: How competitive is your game?

Other Sports

League No. Champions Champions (No. times won)
National Football League (USA) 12 New England (4), Pittsburgh (2), New York Giants (2), Denver (2), Baltimore (2), Green Bay (2), Seattle (1), Indianapolis (1), New Orleans (1), St Louis (1), Tampa Bay (1), Dallas (1)
Major League Baseball


10 NY Yankees (5), San Francisco (3), Boston (3), St Louis (2), Florida (2), Philadelphia (1), Arizona (1), Chicago W Sox (1), Atlanta (1), Anaheim (1)
National Basketball Association (NBA) 8 LA Lakers (5), San Antonio (5), Miami (3), Chicago (3), Dallas (1), Golden State (1), Boston (1), Detroit (1)
National Hockey League (NHL) 11 Detroit (4), Chicago (3), New Jersey (3), Colorado (2), Los Angeles (2), Boston (1), Pittsburgh (1), Anaheim (1), Hurricanes (1), Tampa Bay (1), Dallas (1)
Australian Rules Football (AFL) 11 Geelong (3), Hawthorn (3), Brisbane (3), North Melbourne (2), Sydney Swans (2), Adelaide (2), Port Adelaide (1), Collingwood (1), Carlton (1), Essendon (1) West Coast (1)
GAA: Football 8 Kerry (7), Dublin (3), Tyrone (3), Galway (2), Meath (2), Donegal (1), Armagh (1), Cork (1)
GAA: Hurling 6 Kilkenny (10), Clare(3), Cork (3), Tipperary (2), Offaly (1), Wexford (1)


There are a number of reasons that can be attributed to the fact that European football competitions at top level do not seem to be anywhere near as competitive as top level tournaments in other sports.

Firstly, European football leagues involve teams playing each other home and away on multiple occasions throughout the season, with the ultimate winner being the team with the best record as deemed through the highest points tally secured. The absence of a knock-out dimension mitigates against surprise results having a fatal impact upon a stronger team’s ability to win out as champions.

However, that does not provide the whole picture in explaining why particularly North American sporting competitions are considerably more competitive than European football leagues.

There are two factors at play in American sports that ensure competitiveness reaches a level unheard of in a European sporting context: the draft system and the salary cap system. Both are quite complex in operation, but can best be summed up accordingly.

The Draft is communism’s gift to Yankee sport, and there can be no doubting how effective it acts in essentially helping to ensure that teams are always rising and falling in America.

It operates on the very simple principle that the worst team should get to pick the best player from those emerging from college that year who are eligible to enter for the respective sporting ‘Draft.’ The second worst team gets to pick the next best player and so on.

This system means that a team like the Indianapolis Colts can go from winning 2 from 16 games in 2011 but, by selecting Andrew Luck as the first player drafted to be their new quarterback (the most influential position player in the sport) can within a few years be challenging for the Super Bowl, losing out in the now infamous Deflategate 2014/15 AFC Championship Game to the eventual Super Bowl winners (more remarkably, they reached the play-offs in Luck’s first season, and have done so every year since.)

It is even more significant in basketball due to the fact that only five players are on the court at any one time. Selecting from the best pool of players emerging from college any given year can propel a team from one of the worst to first in just a few years- as the decision of Golden State to select Stephen Curry as the 7th overall pick in the 2009 Draft did for the Warriors, this year’s NBA champions.

Of course, such a system can only work in a sporting culture which has the peculiarly defined levels of progression that exist in the US, where high school kids graduate to play at the highly competitive and intensely scrutinised varsity level at respective sporting disciplines, being able to declare themselves when university students as eligible to be drafted after playing a minimum number of years in college (for basketball, it is just one year- hence the rise of the ‘one and done’ generation of talented players who stay in college to broadcast their talents to the Nation for one year then enter the draft to turn professional at season’s end.) In American football, players must remain for a minimum of three years in college before turning professional.

Alas, the Draft system can never be emulated in the European sporting culture due to the absence of a similar college level structure, and so it would appear that those pursuing a more competitive culture within National football leagues will have to rely on the introduction of a salary cap to level the playing field.

A salary cap system is not only in use for all of the main US professional sports, but also Australian Rules Football- as well as both codes of rugby in England. It sets a ceiling on the collective salaries paid out to members of a team each year, meaning that teams find it very difficult- if not impossible- to monopolise the best talent in the league.

The effects of the draft and salary cap systems on league competitiveness are quite remarkable.

Looking at the three main US sports, there have been 12 different Super Bowl winners in the past 20 years; 10 different winners of baseball’s World Series; and 8 different winners of the NBA basketball championship. Notably, the most successful teams over that period have won 5 (Yankees, Spurs & Lakers) or 4 (Patriots) titles.

In contrast, among Europe’s top ten football leagues, in only the French Ligue A did the number of teams winning the championship across two decades exceed six, and in 8 of the 10 leagues the most successful team won 9 or more titles in that period. In Europe’s top five leagues, two teams have claimed the title 14 or more times between them in the past two decades. Ukraine’s Old Firm-esque duopoly apart, the English Premier League ranks as the least competitive league over that period, tied with the Portuguese Liga at just four teams claiming all 20 titles between them.

The spread of winners in the North American and Australian Rules Football leagues is testimony to the impact a salary cap and/or Draft system can have on promoting competitiveness within a sports league setting, something that has become important due to the effect the introduction of Big Money has had on football as a sport and business.

The absence of such systems within European soccer has meant that money has acted to narrow the grounds for competition because football authorities have not acted to curtail the capacity of clubs to spend their way to success. Imagine the immediate impact of a salary cap in the English Premier League. Players would end up leaving the largest clubs due to the draw of a larger salary in a smaller club which had cap ‘space’, which would quickly level the playing field and bring into reality the prospect of teams from across the league vying for the title each year, as opposed to the same 3 or 4 teams.

Of course, this will remain a pipe dream unless and until it is addressed at a continent-wide level in Europe due to the fact that access to the lucrative Champions League means that a National league deciding to unilaterally implement a salary cap system would immediately put its teams at a competitive disadvantage to those from other European leagues.

None of this is a factor in the GAA.

The amateur nature of the sport means that money does not play the same role in terms of luring the best players to a small number of teams, though the success of Dublin hurling in the past decade illustrates how targeting financial resources to promote a sport can bolster an individual team’s promotion relative to others.

The Draft system is also irrelevant in a GAA context.

So where does that leave the competitiveness of Gaelic games in a relative sense to those of other sporting leagues?

In terms of champions over the past two decades, both codes in the GAA emerge as healthier than the majority of Europe’s top ten football leagues, but not as competitive as North American sports and Australian Rules football. Gaelic football has had eight different champions over the past 20 seasons, with hurling having six champions.

Crucially, though, both codes follow European soccer in having dominant sides, with Kilkenny’s 10 titles and Kerry’s 7 titles throughout the period exceeding the total of the most dominant sides outside of European soccer.

Jim McGuinness’ complaint does not appear to stand up to scrutiny when assessed on this criteria, though the competitiveness of hurling, as measured by the ability of minion-status teams to deliver upset performances, is certainly something that can be questioned. The reality is that hurling is not played at anything remotely resembling a competitive inter-county level north of Dublin, and that, Galway withstanding, it remains the exclusive preserve of Munster (minus Kerry) and a handful of Leinster counties. For all the talk of the Clash of the Ash being Ireland’s greatest game, in truth it is a shadow of its brother code, Gaelic Football, which has had 8 different winners from all four provinces in the last 20 years. Ironically, then, I believe McGuinness would have been more accurate to frame his comments in the context of hurling as opposed to Gaelic football. Competitiveness is not the issue in Gaelic football; rather the unwillingness to modernise the structure of the season is what delivers an annual advantage to Kerry and Dublin as they stroll to provincial titles and guaranteed quarter final places with relative ease as Ulster counties tear strips out of one another in the only provincial football competition of note (but that’s for another day…)

And, finally, to our domestic soccer leagues. It is noteworthy that the nine separate League of Ireland champions over the past two decades is bettered only by France’s Ligue 1 (10 winners), a sign of healthy competition. The five winners of the NIFL Premiership are consistent with most of the top European leagues, with Linfield’s 9 titles matching the pattern of a dominant team in a less competitive league- again, in this regard, the fact that the League of Ireland’s most dominant team has won out only five times in the past 20 seasons (Shelbourne) makes it stand out again from most of the top European leagues.

One other statistic of note for me relates to the pattern of metropolitan monopoly of titles in the highest soccer leagues. The table below illustrates how many times teams from two cities have won out as champions over the past 20 seasons in the respective National leagues:

Nat League Cities Total Titles (out of 20)   Nat League Cities Total Titles (out of 20)
Spain Barcelona/ Madrid 17 Portugal Porto/ Lisbon 20
England London/ Manchester 20 Russia Moscow/ St Petersburg 17
Germany Munich/ Dortmund 16 Ukraine Kyiv/ Donetsk 20
Italy Turin/ Milan 18 Holland Eindhoven/ Amsterdam 17


In 8 of the top 10 European leagues, the title has remained in two cities for 80% plus of the seasons over the past 20 years. Only in Belgium and France has there been a truly ‘National’ competition over that period. Similarly, Scotland stands out as the league in which all 20 titles remained in one city (Glasgow) whilst, domestically, 18 of the 20 titles were won by Belfast sides (Portadown claiming the other two) with Dublin teams taking 15 of the 20 titles over that period.

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