One horse races abound in Europe, from Bundesliga to Bulgaria
By Brian Homewood
ZURICH (Reuters) - It's a far cry from the Bundesliga's ultra-modern stadiums and multi-million euro teams to Bulgaria's more humble league, yet the two have one thing in common - predictability.
Bayern Munich recently strolled to their fifth successive German title virtually unopposed, lifting the trophy with three matches to spare while Ludogorets Razgrad, not to be outdone, won the Bulgarian contest with five matches left to become champions for the sixth season in a row.
They are far from alone. Juventus are set to clinch a sixth successive Italian title while a number of smaller European leagues have become one-horse races with the same team winning almost every year, sometimes by an embarrassingly large margin.
Celtic claimed a sixth straight Scottish league title with eight matches remaining; BATE Borisov have been champions in Belarus for the last 11 seasons and Olympiakos Piraeus have only twice failed to win the Greek Super League since 1996.
Salzburg, sponsored by the Red Bull energy drinks company, are on the point of winning the Austrian Bundesliga for the eighth time in 11 seasons while Maribor, having missed out last season, have just made it six out of seven in Slovenia.
European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL), the umbrella organisation which groups the domestic leagues, says one of the problems is the way soccer's European governing body UEFA distributes its prize money from the Champions League.
According to EPFL, when a team such as Basel, Borisov or Zagreb qualify for the group stage, the prize money they receive allows their revenue to dwarf that of their rivals.
EPFL fears the situation will get worse from 2018-19 when the Champions League prize money will be increased significantly and based on a club's past performances.
A study by Spain's La Liga, seen by Reuters, predicted that some teams could receive more than double under the new system.
For example, it calculated that Ukrainian club Dynamo Kiev's Champions League revenue would jump from 26.6 million euros ($28.90 million) per season to 52.1 million in the new system.
Portuguese club Porto's share would leap from 22.2 million euros to 59.1 million.
But others say there is far more to it than that.
"The domestic leagues need to take a bit of responsibility," said Sean Hamil, director of the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre at the University of London.
"To attack UEFA for running a highly successful competition that generates a lot of revenue seems a bit misdirected.
"The business models of the leagues are not sustainable, and that is reflected in the fact that long-term rational investors don't buy football clubs."
He added that the leagues need to introduce a break-even rule similar to UEFA's own financial fair play policy to attract high-quality investors and said domestic dominance has always existed to some extent.
Celtic won nine successive titles in the 1960s and 70s, as did rivals Rangers in the 1980s and 90s.
Ludogorets’ run in Bulgaria has replaced the almost complete dominance of the two big Sofia clubs, CSKA and Levski, while Malmo, Real Madrid and Steaua Bucharest all strung together five successive titles in the 1980s.
UEFA said it was well aware of the issue.
"Competitive imbalance in Europe is a complex trend which is fuelled by many different factors, first and foremost the ever increasing gap between big leagues and clubs, and the rest of football," said UEFA in a statement to Reuters.
"At UEFA we are constantly monitoring all trends that may exist in European football. The new protection of the game department was established specifically to identify and analyse such matters within the football landscape, and we work diligently in order to tackle them.”
It can be argued that there are numerous examples of clubs who have taken part in the Champions League group stage and failed to establish domestic dominance, such as Russia's Rubin Kazan, currently ninth, and Romanian railway club FC Cluj.
In some cases, big clubs such as Scotland's Rangers, Greek pair AEK Athens and Panathinaikos, Swiss side Servette or Steaua Bucharest have suffered financial or management problems, leaving an open goal for their rivals.
Still, some leagues have moved away from the classic round-robin format in a bid to make them more competitive.
Analysts say other simple measures such as ending the January transfer window and imposing squad limits could help.
Tiny Austrian side Altach have had a bitter taste of how difficult it can be to break the status quo.
Incredibly, they led their league for much of the first half of the season but lost coach Damir Canadi, after he was lured to Rapid Vienna, and their top scorer Dimitri Oberlin.
Oberlin, 19, was on loan from Salzburg who decided halfway through the season that they wanted him back. Altach have since dropped down the table while Salzburg lead by 12 points.
"It wasn't our intention to weaken Altach," said Salzburg's Christoph Freund at the time, explaining that the player had shown he was ready for a place in the Salzburg team.
In a further twist, Oberlin suffered an injury which ruled him out for the rest of the season, while former coach Canadi failed to revive Rapid's fortunes and was fired in April.
($1 = 0.9205 euros)
(Writing by Brian Homewood in Berne; Editing by Ken Ferris)