My mum, the good soul that she is always opposed having cable television, for fear my brother and I would be glued to the screen thereafter, lost in the endless hours of programming it offered. But after we moved homes to an area where our aerial simply struggled to even pick up the faintest signals of her favourite ABC, she finally relented. We had the basic package, but back in those days, that also came with sport, and having only sparingly been exposed to wonders of the English Premier League previously, I quickly became a dyed in the wool fan of not just my anointed Arsenal, but also the league as a whole.
It was hard not to be carried away, and I must've watched hundreds of hours of the EPL between 2003 and 2005, hardly the best complement to my studies, but with an almost religious devotion, it was a part of my life. The history, the contest, the whole narrative of the 38 games. There were all sorts of battles within battles, derbys, the fight for spots in the UEFA Champions League, the title race, the battle for relegation. Every game offered something. The 2003-2004 season was brilliant as an Arsenal fan, the "invincibles" romped home, an achievement which now seems an age ago (C'mon ya Gooners), but the 2004-2005 season is perhaps more memorable.
Arsenal were off the pace to a superlative Chelsea, which turned my attention elsewhere. I adopted Crystal Palace as a second team to cheer for, partly because of their manager, the no-nonsense Iain Dowie. Dowie had guided the small London club to the EPL the year before with an impressive run in the England's second division, the Championship, but bound by an fiscally sensible board (do they even have those these days), the team had not recruited new blood to stay in the top tier, opting to stick with much of the same squad that had succeeded the previous season. It was a team that was by definition underdogs, boasting a wage bill a fraction of Chelsea's.
In every game, even the occasional pummeling, Dowie was resolute, proud of his team for their efforts. But after a start which had them winless until October, Dowie's men started to find the inkling of some momentum toward Christmas and by the end of the season they'd found themselves in the frame to stay in the EPL. While the title was well and truly wrapped up by Chelsea, the battle for relegation was down to the wire. Four teams had the potential to stay in the league, the table was that tight, but there was only a place for one of them. Southampton and Norwich were ragged, and off-form, but West Brom and Palace had fight left in them. In a heartbreaking game for Palace on a dramatic final day of the season, the team let a lead slip at Charlton which would've kept them safe, while West Brom, by winning at Portsmouth, completed a miracle turnaround of their season to save their Premier League position.
The scenes at The Hawthorns, West Brom's home ground, were akin to a team winning the league, and within that stadium I'm sure it felt quite similar. The pitch was stormed, the crowd erupted in unbridled joy, and relief. At Palace it was quite the opposite, but all of that tension, that drama was delivered by a mechanism that cycling (yes I'm getting there), sorely misses. Relegation gives meaning to every game of a regular season, even the cellar-dwellers have to fight to prove their worth in the league. If they don't they're ejected; there is lost prestige, finance, and from a sporting perspective, less opportunity.
In cycling, there's only a vaguely similar system with the ProContinental, WorldTour relationship, but even then it's a tenuous replication. Money, really, is the only guarantee needed. The UCI would happily welcome any team it can get to the top-tier; any company, any brand, any magnate, to pump the required 20 million euros into the sport to support a WorldTour budget, because the level of competition of places isn't just low, it's non-existent. Even a team which had serious ethical questions to answer, Astana, was granted a license for the 2015 season despite a series of positive doping tests within it and its feeder development team. Other than Europcar, which withdrew from the WorldTour due to budget problems, did it matter that FDJ.fr, Lotto Belisol, or Lampre-Merida had decidedly average seasons? Not really. They're back in the WorldTour, with no problem. There's no anxiety, no push from within those teams to fight to the ends of the season for their place in the top tier. It's totally secure as long as they front the cash.
I know that's a reflection of the fragility of the sport but it also creates an odd way we perceive performance from teams and riders. Consider at the top of the sport, BMC, Sky, Orica-GreenEDGE, all backed by wealthy philanthropists, could foreseeably have atrocious seasons and it would have no impact on their WorldTour place or their calendar. Ahh, you might say, it might internally ruffle the feathers of a Gerry Ryan, or an Andy Rihs, who no doubt enjoy success, but equally there's no external pressure, other than from the media, or fans, for a team to do anything in particular. They could have Richie Porte and Chris Froome ride Gran Fondos all year and it wouldn't matter, they'd still be WorldTour.
In last week's podcast, Anthony Tan, Philip Gomes, Matt de Neef and myself discussed Drapac Professional Cycling, which has flagged its aspirations to one day join the WorldTour. We mused for the best part of 20 minutes on the team's results, and performance, analysing how and why the team had been so underwhelming these past few seasons, despite it budget, its roster, its vision. We talked about the team's philosophy and whether it was compatible with the demands of a professional sporting franchise. But at the end, I was left thinking, is any of this really relevant? If Michael Drapac is intent on defining the team's success with his own metrics, a team that isn't just about winning, but has outcomes outside of cycling, and is happy to continue underwriting the team for the foreseeable future, results are neither here nor there. Given the right sponsor, the right backing the team could have a roster no better than Saur-Sojasun and still ride the Tour de France.
And that is why it's so difficult to sell the idea of a WorldTour as the peak of the sport to an audience of outsiders. Yes, there are officially sporting criteria that a team must satisfy to be in the top tier, but they're vague, and ultimately ineffectual when the competition for places isn't there. Similarly when the invitation for the major races like the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia is still controlled by RCS, and ASO, the incentive for ProConti teams that have already tapped up those organisations for wildcard places to be part of the WorldTour isn't there. Europcar is a quintessential example, even with a reduced budget, and a move away from the WorldTour, it's still assured a place in the races it wants to take part.
If the UCI is intent on building a brand for the WorldTour this is the direction it needs to go in. Wildcards need to be earned, not bought, as do places in the WorldTour. In this respect I'm pleased to see the reformed design of the WorldTour taking on a shape that would put the sport in this sort of frame going forward. A draft version of this design was released in March last year and Inner Ring offered a really nice analysis of what it could mean here. Importantly, it would tie participation to performance, something the sport has missed for far too long.
Until then, there's always the final day drama of the English Premier League.