The ultimate salesman of the Premier League, Richard Scudamore, has taken the term “globalisation” to new heights. Under an audacious proposal, Premier League clubs could be playing league matches overseas from the 2010-11 season. This dwarfs the pay per view concept a decade ago as international fans get up close with their idols.
Main aspects of the plans:
- An additional round of Premier League fixtures, extending the season to 39 games, from January 2011.
- Four clubs to travel to one of five host cities, with two games taking place in each venue over a weekend.
- Cities would bid for the right to become a host, not for individual matches.
- Points earned from the games would count towards the final Premier League table.
Those 10 extra games would be played at five different venues, chosen after an auction, and each city hosts two of the matches over a weekend. The time zones of the venues will be considered to allow British television viewers the possibility of watching all 10 games from Saturday morning onwards.
“There will be no club influence that will determine which host city they go to,” Scudamore said. “The current plan envisages that they (the host cities) will take the games they are given.”
I suppose this is a dream come true for Asian and Middle-Eastern countries to see the players in the flesh, think David Beckham’s fever in New Zealand. It is likely to be a big scramble for the hosting rights, on the scale of the Olympic Games and World Cup. But before Scudamore basks in the glory of securing an avalanche of cash into the coffers, there are many issues to iron out before this plan even get out of phase 1.
World ruling body FIFA and Europe’s Uefa have frowned on the proposal. Two major concerns are the impact on international games and how the popularity of the Premier League in regions like Asia will act as a barrier to the development of their own leagues and national sides.
A case in point was the arrival of Manchester United for a pre-season friendly in Malaysia while the country was jointly hosting the Asian Cup. It is depressing to see the Red Devils getting more press coverage and fans’ interest than an important regional tournament.
The Football Association, meanwhile, has given its muted support but will not make the final decision till January 2009. Home fans, especially, season ticket holders are, understandly, up in arms. Very few fans are biting the “if we don’t do this, then somebody else is going to do it” rhetoric from Scudamore.
From their point of view, football isn’t about money (it only benefits the club owners and directors), and taking the league away from its roots is not acceptable. It is the English Premier League, with the emphasis on “English”, so tradition dictates that it stays put. If another league gets in first, then what gives? Will it erode the popularity of the Premier League severely?
The parity of the Premier League is also questionable. From a perfectly symmetrical league where each team plays against the others in a home and away system, now there is an additional game where the luck of the draw decides who meets who for the third time in a season.
Say, if Manchester United is drawn with a struggling club like Derby while their close competitor Arsenal face off with a mid-table club like Tottenham or Blackburn. If three points are what separates the Premier League title, I expect the managers to gripe about a conspiracy theory. Seedings could be used to ensure all the top clubs played clubs from the bottom half of the table but it will never be fully satisfactory.
While Scudamore recognized the various obstacles, I believe he will bulldoze his plan, one way or another; after all, he is no stranger to the money spinning business. Overseas broadcasting rights is now the fastest-growing source of revenue for the league. Under his reign, this income has ballooned from £178m in 2001 to £625m for the current deal that runs until 2010. Currently, the games are broadcast to over 600 million homes in 202 countries worldwide.
Scudamore has warned of slowing growth in the United Kingdom market as it is approaching saturation. Local television rights will be worth 1.7 billion pounds in the same period but it is set to taper off. There is little choice but to look overseas to cope with the ever increasing salaries and transfer fees.
A precedent was already set by the National Football League (NFL) in the United States, which organised a regular season match between the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants at Wembley in October. The event was so successful - a scramble for tickets resulting in the 90,000-capacity venue being sold out, that the NFL is planning a second match later this year.
Similarly, going international will consolidate the popularity of English football, boost club revenues with increased value of TV rights and attract sponsors from new markets. The clubs can then invest in new facilities and better players.
It may seem amusing that the same clubs who complained about the overcrowded calender are excited over this controversial idea. Club managers have often grumbled that their prized assets are burned out without a winter break.
But while greed is a sin, many a time, pragmatism calls for us to take the money and then devise ways to deal with the undesirable side-effects. Money makes the world goes round, so do not be surprised if, at the end of the day, the clubs jet off happily to far-flung destinations as entertainers for the sake of more money.