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Will Barnet or Brentford ever topple Manchester United?

Manchester United have walked away with the Premiership title yet again. In the last seven seasons, they have won no fewer than five times. Over the past 22 years, they have never finished outside the top three. Will they ever be overthrown, especially given the stupendous sponsorship deal the Premiership has secured from the start of next season, which just pours money into their coffers?

This type of dominance is not unusual in team sports. One of the most extreme examples is Scotland, where no team apart from Celtic or Rangers has won the league since 1985. Even at the elite level of the European Champions League, there is a concentration of success. There are several thousand professional soccer clubs across Europe. Yet in fifty-six seasons, only twenty-one teams have ever held that title. And there is a heavy concentration even within that small group of victors, with just six clubs winning a total of thirty-three times between them, the other twenty-three championships being distributed amongst fifteen other teams.

After the event, after a team has been stupendously successful, it is always possible to tell a story about why it happened. The legacy of Matt Busby, the genius of Alex Ferguson, massive income from worldwide merchandise sales, and so on. But it is not really possible to predict success in advance. There are in fact very deep-seated reasons why we observe both periods of dominance by a team, or small group of teams, and why these cannot be forecast before it happens. Team sports take place in an evolutionary context. Managers try new tactics, buy new players, discard others, and clubs innovate in how they raise income. The environment does not stand still, it evolves.

The UCLA ecologist Stephen Hubbell has an evolutionary theory which tells us a lot, not just about biology, but about our social and economic worlds. In ecosystems just as in team sports, at any point in time we observe a small number of species – teams – which are very successful, and a large number which are not.

Our natural instinct is to think that success is due to superior qualities. But Hubbell’s theory assumes, as a deliberate simplification, that the differences between species are irrelevant to their success. Almost incredibly, but backed up by some high powered maths, evolutionary situations have an inherent propensity to deliver the sorts of outcomes we observe in the real world. Massive success for a few at any point in time, and unpredictable changes over time in who is the Top Boy of the moment.

Of course, the theory is not completely true. Some teams are better than others. But self-reinforcing success followed by an unpredictable fall is entirely characteristic of all evolutionary systems. United, after all, were once just the works team of the old Lancashire and Yorkshire railway and were called Newton Heath. They had to be rescued from bankruptcy not once but twice. So supporters of Barnet and Brentford can live in hope.

Paul Ormerod

As published in City Am on Wednesday 1st May 2013

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