Last Spring, I wrote a research paper for Professor Ed Tiryakian’s Business of Sport class here at Duke that focused on the source and implications of rampant managerial turnover in the English Premier League. I had become passionate about the topic after Leicester’s February 2017 sacking of prolific Italian manager Claudio Ranieri, who had defied all odds to lead the Foxes to the title less than a year earlier. For avid lovers of the game like myself, Ranieri’s sacking was a sin of enormous proportion on the part of the club’s executives. Having been inspired by Leicester’s run to the title and Ranieri’s gentle nature, I was outraged by how easily he was thrown to the curb. Delving deeper, however, I discovered that his sacking can be understood as a savvy business decision that potentially saved the club millions of dollars. In this blog post, I’ve adapted my findings to a more casual piece and added some new perspective that the last year has offered.
Foxes on Top: Claudio’s Appointment and Magical Season
Claudio Ranieri and his Leicester team inspired me. At a time when it seemed that all parity was being sucked away from football, when it seemed oil executives and Saudi royalty were paving a scary new future for the sport I so love, when so many said that titles were now bought and not won, it was a team from an industrial city in the East Highlands of England that reminded me why I can’t help but keep watching the beautiful game.
Even before that miracle season, however, the Foxes had a knack for the abnormal and extraordinary. During the 2014-15 season, Leicester pulled a rabbit out of a hat won seven out of their last nine games to avoid relegation. Pundits and fans across England had counted them out, saying they were doomed and done for, but they roared back. In typical Leicester fashion, however, manager Nigel Pearson was sacked by club executives the following summer. Despite the fact he had helped the club earn promotion and avoid relegation over the previous two seasons, he was let go due to a breakdown in relations with the board and the embarrassment associated with the public release of a racially-charged sex tape featuring three Leicester players–including his son, James–that was filmed while on a postseason goodwill tour of Thailand. With the new season approaching and the summer transfer window opening, Leicester needed a new manager quickly.
After a rather quick search, club directors appointed the soft-spoken, fragile-looking 64-year-old Italian Claudio Ranieri as their new boss. The selection was not popular amongst fans and analysts. In a now-famous tweet, BBC Sport commentator Gary Lineker expressed his surprise at what he believed was a weak move on Leicester’s part:
Claudio Ranieri? Really?
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) July 13, 2015
At the time, it was easy to see why Lineker was not impressed. Ranieri was more or less a failure and a trailblazer. Having previously been in charge of fourteen different clubs across Europe and had failed to win a major trophy at any of them. His most recent disaster was a three month spell at the helm of the Greek national team, where he was sacked after a Euro 2016 qualifying defeat in Athens against the lowly Faroe Islands. He had not lasted more than two years in a job since he was in charge at Chelsea from 2000-2004. It’s no surprise that the first visible reply to Lineker’s tweet from a Glasgow man named Stephen O’Regan reads:
@GaryLineker Crazy. Will he last till Christmas?
— Stephen O'Regan (@stephenoreg) July 13, 2015
Bookmakers agreed with O’Regan, whoever he is. The odds were 10/1 for Ranieri to be sacked during the 2015-16 season. Leicester were rated at 5000/1 to win the league and only 11/4 to be relegated. According to the bookies, things more likely than Leicester winning the title included Simon Cowell becoming Prime Minister (500/1), Piers Morgan becoming Arsenal manager (2500/1), the Loch Ness Monster being discovered (500/1), Kim Kardashian becoming President (2000/1), and Elvis being found alive (2000/1). Interpret that as you will, but things really didn’t look good for Ranieri and his new club.
What happened next was nothing short of a miracle. You all know the story, so I won’t do much to summarize it. In the greatest footballing miracle of all time, the ragtag team of nobodies–or at least nobodies when the season began–compiled a record of 23 wins, 12 draws, and only 3 losses, good enough for 81 points and a 10 point cushion at the top of the table. Against all odds, Leicester were the champions of England. Jamie Vardy, who only a few seasons before played for 7th division Fleetwood Town, was the league’s second top scorer with 24 goals. Riyadh Mahrez, purchased in the summer from French Ligue 2 side Le Havre, won Footballer of the Year for his efforts. For the first time ever, people all over the world knew what and where the city of Leicester was. In an age where it seemed most of the world was being excluded from the footballing landscape, Leicester somehow etched its name on a pedestal among places like Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester, Munich, Milan, and Paris.
Ranieri became a darling in the media. He was like everyone’s lovable Italian uncle, and his antics warmed the hearts of people across the world. From promising to buy his players pizza if they kept their first clean sheet (a promise he uphold after a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace in October), to buying his whole team and staff little bells to remind them of his saying “dilly-dong, dilly-dong” (which he used to encourage his players to focus during practice), to his flat-out enthusiasm and humble nature on the road to the title, Ranieri was loved by many. After that one magical season, it seemed like he would stay at Leicester for good.
An Unthinkable Act: Ranieri’s Sacking
On February 23, 2017, less than a year after winning the title, Leicester sat one point above the relegation zone in 17th place. With only 14 matches remaining in the season, club executives made the decision to sack Ranieri. Club executives claimed that he had failed to live up to that seasons expectations, and argued that a change was needed in order to ensure Leicester’s survival. The immediate reaction across the world was one of shock and disgust. Lineker, turned by Leicester’s magical run and Ranieri’s kind-hearted nature, tweeted:
After all that Claudio Ranieri has done for Leicester City, to sack him now is inexplicable, unforgivable and gut-wrenchingly sad.
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) February 23, 2017
Sad is an understatement. I was devastated and infuriated. How could Leicester have fired Ranieri, the man who delivered them the greatest glory and the man who had become a symbol of all that was good and pure in the footballing world? I shed a tear for football, for the game I so loved. Had it really come to this? How are people like Ranieri seen as expendable in club directors’ greedy plans? I wondered if the game had a heart anymore and if it still valued things like loyalty and passion and love.
Ranieri’s statement on the sacking was absolutely heartbreaking:
— PA Dugout (@PAdugout) February 24, 2017
The Economics of Relegation in Today’s World
In my emotional reaction, I think I blinded myself to the reality of football today. A reply to Lineker’s tweet from talkSPORT commentator Andy Goldstein got me thinking:
is it though? It’s a results business. He’s not getting results. No loyalty in football.
— Andy Goldstein MBE (@andygoldstein05) February 23, 2017
Everything else aside, it was time for me to start thinking about the reality of it all. I needed to come down from the high of Leicester winning the league and think more about what things were like in the here and now. Things had changed. It was true. Suddenly, Leicester were struggling and in dire need of change. They risked becoming the only team in history to be promoted to the top flight one season, win it the next, and be relegated the one after that. The embarrassment of such a feat would be unthinkable.
The club were truly on a rollercoaster ride, and one year on from a championship the club directors had to think about the financial implications associated with relegation. The biggest consequence is obviously a drastic drop in TV revenue. SkySports and BT sports hold the EPL’s domestic television rights, paying $7.9 billion over three years that started in the 2016-17 season. Factoring in international broadcasting rights, the league makes an additional $1.5 billion per year, bringing the total to around $4.13 billion per year. This means that each televised match is worth $15.3 million. This TV revenue is distributed rather equitably among the Premier League’s 20 teams, with the first place team receiving $240 million and the last place team receiving $152 million.  For contrast, the 72 clubs in the Football League’s three divisions–the second, third and fourth divisions of English football–are sharing a domestic deal principally with BSkyB worth $252.4 million. Thats a 96.5% difference from the current EPL contract. As an example, Hill City received $2.85 million from Football League TV revenues in the 2012-13 League Championship season. After gaining promotion, they earned $88.29 million in TV revenue in the 2013-14 Premier League. It is absolutely no surprise that every year each of the 20 teams in the Prem lie on the list of the world’s 40 richest clubs.
As a result of this drop in financial liquidity, relegated clubs often struggle to keep their best players. Often, the entire makeup of a team is changed as the club can no longer pay “Premier League” wages or as players seek to exit the club in order to play top flight football. For Leicester, relegation would have been a nightmare. Sure, they lost Ranieri, but they would have also lost star players like Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy. The team that had won the league and inspired millions would be no more. Leicester risked casting themselves into English football’s purgatory, where some are able to rise again, some remain, and some–like Portsmouth and Wigan–are never heard from again.
Analyzing Managerial Changes: Two University Studies
In the five seasons beginning with 2008-09 and ending with 2012-13, there were a total of 13 mid-season manager sackings by teams in the bottom six. A 2013 study from the London School of Economics focused on these 13 managerial changes and found that changing a manager could produce an average of five extra points over the ten games after the change. Moreover, the study concluded that there is an immediate five-game impact, giving teams three extra points right away.
Moreover, managerial changes were shown to have an effect on the atmosphere at the home stadium. Analyzing the results of home and away matches, LSE found that new managers improve the performance of their team. This seems to indicate that the manager seems to instill new life into the fans and atmosphere at the home ground, which results in a better team performance on the pitch. This performance was even better when researchers considered the strength of the opposition and the quality of opposing managers, suggesting that the new manager typically improves home performance against better opposition.
These differences in points and performance mater immensely. The points gap between the last relegation spot (18th) and the first safe spot (17th) is typically extremely narrow. Between the 2008-09 and 2012-13 seasons, the 17th place teams averaged a points total of 37, while 18th placed teams averaged 35 points. With an average difference between safety and relegation of only two points, less than one win usually separates a team from survival and despair. In four out of five of these seasons (80%), LSE estimates that a manager change would have saved 17th placed team being relegated. For example, LSE postulates that if Sunderland had not sacked Martin O’Neill and brought in Paulo Di Canio in 2012-13, they would have been relegated, having amassed five less points.
Similar to the LSE study, a 10-year study by researchers at Sheffield Hallam University supports the notion that sacking a manager can be beneficial. The study examined 60 managerial changes among the 36 clubs that played in the Premier League between 2003-2013. Those making mid-season changes increased their points to an average of 1.17 per game, compared to 1.03 at the time of departure. Teams in the bottom half of the table preformed better than those in the top half post-sacking, moving up a little more than one place on average after a sacking. The study provides the example of Sunderland, who averaged 1.22 points per game after Gus Poyet was appointed in October 2013. Beforehand, they only averaged 0.125 points. This is also true for 2013 Crystal Palace, who averaged 1.46 points per game after Tony Pulis was appointed manager at the end of 2013, up from 0.33 points before his arrival.
Looking past the emotional connection one may develop with a manager, these studies seem to indicate that the sack might sometimes be the best option available to club executives. A change, no matter how drastic, might breathe new life into a team and its fans, offering some kind of optimism that safety might be on the horizon. While somewhat lamentable, it seems a fact of life in modern football that the financial implications of relegation could completely doom a club. Leicester being relegated, even with Ranieri at the helm, would have been a tragedy of greater proportions than Ranieri being sacked. In the next section, I will attempt to apply what we have learned so far to the Ranieri sacking.
Shedding Emotion and Looking at Ranieri’s Sacking with an Analytical Lens
Let’s put all of the emotion aside and just look at the numbers. Let’s consider if the sacking was really as condemnable as it seemed on the surface. After the last day of Ranieri’s tenure, Leicester sat in 17th place with 14 games left to play, having only accumulated 21 points after 5 wins, 14 losses, and 6 draws. At that point, they already had 11 more losses than they did in their championship-winning season. The landscape had completely changed. No longer were the Foxes dreaming of holding up the Premier League trophy. No longer were fans riding the delirious high that the surprise of the previous season had provided. Tensions were high, and Leicester were in an all out relegation battle.
Once all was said in done last season, Leicester were safe. They finished in 12th place with a final record of 12-8-18 and 44 points. Their record under new manager Craig Shakespeare was 7-3-4. Therefore, in those final 13 games Leicester amassed 24 points, which was more than they had in their 24 previous games. According to Adrian Bell, a researcher from the University of Reading who created a model to determine if and when Premier League managers should be sacked, the model suggested that Ranieri would be sacked on February 12th after Leicester’s 2-0 defeat away at Swansea. At this point, the model indicated that 95% of the other managers in the Premier League had preformed better than him. He was way below par. Ranieri was sacked 11 days later.
Football is, whether you like it or not, a results-driven business at the end of the day. Ranieri’s sacking, according to the research presented above, was advisable and appropriate. Despite my initial reaction in opposition to the Leicester board, I now see that they did what they had to do in order to survive in their current state.
I should decry Leicester for making the decision, and I don’t think anyone else should either. What we should really lament is that football has come to this point and that one of the most inspiring figures in the game’s recent memory can be thrown to the wayside so easily. This is the nature of today’s game, and these are the kinds of decisions that need to be made in order for teams to survive financially. Like America’s banking system, football clubs have become too big to fail and are forced to do everything they can in order to survive.
In this sense, I fear the future of football.
“10 Things Bookies Thought More Likely than Leicester Winning the Premier League – BBC Newsbeat.” BBC News, BBC, 3 May 2016, www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/36190426/10-things-bookies-thought-more-likely-than-leicester-winning-the-premier-league.
Bell, Adrian. “Why it was right to sack Claudio Ranieri (with added hindsight).” Why it was right to sack Claudio Ranieri (with added hindsight) – Henley Business School News. The Henley Business School , Mar. 2017 . Web. 03 May 2017.
Bonesteel, Matt. “Massive New English Premier League TV Deal Has the Rest of European Soccer Worried.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 13 Feb. 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2015/02/13/massive-new-english-premier-league-tv-deal-has-the-rest-of-european-soccer-worried/?utm_term=.e8217d35c353.
Chaudhary, Vivek. “Who Benefits from the Premier League’s New TV Deal?” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, 12 Feb. 2015, www.espn.com/soccer/name/23/blog/post/2296234/headline.
Percy, John. “Leicester Appoint Claudio Ranieri as Their New Manager.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 13 July 2015, www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/leicester-city/11736607/Leicester-in-talks-with-Claudio-Ranieri-to-become-new-manager.html.
“Premier League: Study suggests sacking the manager works – BBC Sport.” BBC News. BBC, 13 May 2014. Web. 03 May 2017.
“Survival or relegation? The impact of a managerial change in the Premier League.” The London School of Economics, Dec. 2013. Web. 3 May 2017.