If you're an American and interested in following the English Premiership, the top English football league (some of whose games are being televised on ESPN this season), The New York Times has a suggestion for you (which, to a degree, I endorse) -- root for Burnley.
1. English football works differently from American baseball in an important way. In England, the bottom three teams in the Premiership get sent down to the second highest league, the Championship League, with the top three teams from the Championship League getting elevated to the Premiership. Correspondingly, the bottom three teams from the Championship League get sent down (they call it "relegated" in England) to Division One, with the top three teams from Division One getting elevated (they call it "promoted" in England) to the Championship League, and so forth. In baseball, the Pirates, Royals and Nationals are in no danger of being sent down to AAA, and the best AAA teams have no chance of being promoted to the Majors. Sorry, Louisville, Columbus and Buffalo, but unless you get a Major League franchise, you're in AAA to stay.
2. Size doesn't matter. You can be a team from a town of 25,000 with a home field (they call it a "pitch") that is no more glamorous than a U.S. college's facility, have several good years in a row and, boom, make it to the Premiership, where, as the Times' article reports, your share of the global TV money is $50 million (still, you'd have trouble competing with the better-heeled owners of the larger clubs, because they'll have much better ticket revenues and those owners -- such as the Dubai-based consortium that owns Manchester City or Russian oligarch Roman Abramowitch, who owns Chelsea -- have significantly more personal money at their disposal). So, theoretically, a team from a farm town in the Midlands has a chance to make it to the Premiership and cast their lot against perennial superpowers Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal.
3. Which leads us to Burnley, a team that won the championship in 1960, hasn't been in the Premiership in 33 years and hails from a town of 73,000. If you're looking at the ultimate underdog, then Burnley is your team. And, they've already played David to Man U's Goliath, upsetting the New York Yankees of English football earlier this season. Yesterday, on ESPN, they fell back to earth, losing 3-0 at Chelsea where, at one point in the game, Chelsea had 15 shots on goal to Burnley's none. What's great about Burnley, though, is that they've built their team on home-grown talent and haven't had the luxury of spending big bucks to lure big-name stars to populate their roster since they've hit the big time. That said, their goal for this season is more modest than, say, Chelsea's. Burnley will succeed if they finish 17th or higher, because that means that they won't get relegated. Chelsea fans will deem the season a failure if their star-laden lineup (indeed, most of their starters are household names in the football world -- Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Petr Cech, John Terry, Michael Ballack) fails to win the Premiership.
Most of us love underdogs, and while I've followed Arsenal for ten years and had a great experience at their stadium with my son a week ago, I'll be watching Burnley closely too. Theirs is a compelling story, and it would be great to see a home-grown team from a town of 73,000 people mix it up enough with the big boys to survive their first season in the Premiership in over three decades. To give you some perspective, Burnley's elevation to the Premiership would be akin to a team from Napa, California, Medford, Oregon, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania or Rock Hill, South Carolina making its way through various minor leagues to the Majors (all numbers based on U.S. census data from 2008). That's how big a deal this is.
So, if you want to dabble in the Premiership and not root for any of the biggest names -- Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United (and even Aston Villa, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur), you should consider Burnley -- and have a little fun in the process.