So, the people who run the Premier League hit fans with a stunner earlier last week, they’re thinking of adding a game to the season which would be played overseas, in a location from a pot of cities that could bid to host a Premier League game (with no guarantees what they would get).
My first reaction was that this was blatant profiteering. I didn’t think they were interested in the game, or the fans, or the benefits to English football, it was purely about the potential monetary benefits. This is a league, after all, that split from the Football League so it could control the TV rights and demand a better deal, which it got. The Premier League is now the richest league in the world, hell, the Championship (our second division) is ranked 6th in terms of revenue. Why do the teams want to make more money?
Well, in football, size matters. The more money you have, the better players you can buy, which means the more chance you have of getting silverware and titles. There are occasional underdogs who do well (I think of the recent triumph of Havant and Waterlooville, a non-league side who made it to the fourth round of the FA Cup and managed to put two past Liverpool before being beaten, that was a great football story) but generally it’s the same big teams contesting the trophies. We have seen changes in fortunes due to injections of cash with the likes of Chelsea, Newcastle and Blackburn in recent years.
Teams are now paying attention to their global audience, because they can add a lot to revenue. The UK market is fairly saturated. The TV rights for the UK are always highly contested, but overseas rights are picking up and will soon be worth as much as domestic rights, and with that popularity comes overseas fans, a whole new market to sell merchandise to, and as we become more global, no doubt sign-up to feeds, premium content and downloads. So clubs need to appeal to overseas fans, which overwhelmingly watch the Premier League, not comparable leagues such as the Italian, Spanish, German or French leagues, in order to increase their revenue and keep themselves competitive. To do this, many teams play pre-season games in overseas locations, sometimes against local teams. Premier League teams have even started signing overseas players to help drive up their fan base in those countries.
I think the issue here is that the clubs also need to seed these fan bases to stop other teams moving in and stealing those supporters, the likes of Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Bayern Munich. The problem I see is that the clubs that the English fans all know and love and devote their energies to will need to become global entities (I foresee there being a global league at some point, where the best teams all sit and which the winners of the domestic leagues get promoted into, but not for a while yet, not while there is still plenty of global market share to grab a local level). When the clubs become global I think they’ll lose some of their appeal. No longer will they become representatives of their communities, they’ll just become media and merchandising machines.
I think you’ll then start to see more groups of fans trying to buy back their clubs from the owners who look at them as financial investments and not something that lives and breaths because of the fans that support it.
So, while I understand the Premier League teams need to make the most of overseas markets, simply to stay competitive if nothing else, and that it will mean better players in the Premier League as that extra revenue means clubs can afford bigger pay, I also realise it will kill the game if it’s not handled carefully and I don’t think playing one league game a season overseas is the way to do it. Why not just hold more friendlies and exhibition games in pre-season overseas? The teams play these games now, few of them are televised on any major channel (there’s a marketing possibility I can tell you, not exactly a million miles from playing the unknown clubs in the early rounds of the UEFA Cup) and they obviously offer an easy way to bring Premier League football to overseas fans without ruining the league.