The best league money can buy

Hayden Foxe of West Ham during a 2001 fixture with Fulham
Hayden Foxe of West Ham during a 2001 fixture with Fulham

Hayden Foxe knows a thing or two about the English Premier League. The former Australia defender played for three clubs in England, including West Ham United and Portsmouth in the top flight, which he believes has a particular quality about it that makes it the most exciting football competition in the world.

"Blink and you can easily miss a goal or an incident," says Foxe, who was mixing it with the Premier League elite between 2001 and 2006 before a season with Leeds United in the second tier.

"Tempo is at the highest intensity. Each game brings an expectation from each team's supporters, with any side able to win on any given day. It would have to be the most admired and followed league, with fans from all over the world."

Transformation

The EPL is undoubtedly the world's most popular domestic football competition with the League itself stating that games for the 2015-16 season were broadcast to 900 million homes in 190 countries. Many would argue that the Premier League is the finest football competition there is, with a lot of the world's best players too. But, what is beyond doubt, is that English football has come a long way since the inaugural EPL season kicked off on August 15, 1992.

As the Premier League enters its 25th season, England's top flight and its millions of fans have much to celebrate after suffering from multiple ignominies of chronic debt, mediocrity and acrimony through the 1970s and 1980s. While debt is still a major concern, as clubs are forced to pay increasingly enormous amounts to attract and retain the top players and managers, England has re-established itself at the epicentre of world football.

Liverpool fans in the first season of the Premier League
Liverpool fans in the first season of the Premier League

It is easy to forget what the English game was like before the EPL. It was still reeling from the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989 in which 96 Liverpool fans died in a crush at an overcrowded stadium in Sheffield.

When clubs and the national side were playing at home or away or overseas, violence was a constant threat. The words "football" and "hooliganism" became inseparable.

In the 1980s, the top tier of English football was played in front of fans standing in ancient, crumbling grounds, heckling and cheering mainly local players who were technically inferior by world standards. The Sunday Times newspaper described English football as "a slum game played by slum people in slum stadiums".

While the EPL was not the only reason for the recovery of England's footballing fortunes, it became a circuit breaker that helped to re-energise the game. The Premier League was formed when the 22 old First Division clubs broke away from the Football League, agreeing a lucrative television rights deal with BSkyB.

Getting rich

In The Game of Our Lives: The Meaning and Making of English Football, which won the Sports Book of the Year in 2015, David Goldblatt writes that television money and commercialism have had a dramatic impact on England's national game.

"Breaking from the past, the Premier League and BSkyB unleashed a commercial dynamism in English football that brought in new investments in stadiums, new professional practices of crowd control and management, created a huge rise in attendances and created a massive export success," Goldblatt writes.

"The leading clubs were in a position to make the most of the arrival of the new digital technologies, above all pay TV via satellite and cable, which transformed the market for football. Without the new communications technologies, football would no doubt have still changed, but the arc of its financial and cultural ascent would have been much more modest."

Players have certainly become rich during the Premier League's quarter-century of growth. Goldblatt says the average player in 1992-93 earned about $100,000 a year. In 2010-11, the average player would receive as much within three weeks on his way to earning $1.8m (£1.36m, AUD2.4m) a year. Agents too have become wealthier, more numerous and increasingly powerful.

There is also no doubt that today's average Premier League player is more athletic, better conditioned and more skilful than his counterpart from 25 years ago. He is also likely to be from somewhere other than England. Goldblatt states that players from overseas represented "less than 3 per cent of the workforce" across the 22 top-flight squads for the 1992-93 season, but that had risen to a ratio of about three in five at the 20 elite clubs by 2012.

The EPL's attractiveness and popularity have helped to sell the game around world, pushed along by foreign ownership of clubs, global television and social media coverage in addition to rampant merchandising. It is also one of the world's most popular sports betting markets.

An image of the Emirates Stadium on a smart phone with the actual stadium in the background

In its most recent report, which tracked the Premier League's economic impact during the 2013-14 season, Ernst & Young found that the competition contributed $4.5bn to the UK economy and generated more than 100,000 jobs. Average attendances were 36,691 and total revenues were $4.31bn, more than double the amount generated by Germany's Bundesliga, with English clubs earning $2.3bn from broadcasting rights alone.

The report also revealed the modern make-up of EPL crowds. In 2014-15, about one in four was female and one in six was from a black, Asian or minority ethnic group. Two in five were aged 18-34 and 12 per cent of season ticket holders were aged 16 years or younger.

For Foxe, his fondest memories of the Premier League are of the supporters. "I still remember the fantastic support the English fans gave their team," the 39-year-old, who is now an assistant coach at Western Sydney Wanderers in Australia's A-League, recalls. "I experienced it at three different clubs. When I go to watch games back in the UK, I'm still fascinated by the supporters."

The former Socceroo feels that one measure of the league's success is the extent to which young Australians aspire to play in England's top flight. "The coverage of the Premier League is like no other in the world," he says.

"All the young ones are vivid supporters of the EPL and are often mimicking their idols' skills and goals as they play in the backyard or in the local park. They aren't following the other leagues - including the A-League - like they do the EPL.

"I believe it's the most exciting league to watch in the world."

Optus hold the broadcast rights to the English Premier League in Australia.

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