A global disaster in the making?
The notion of a ‘39th game’ isn’t a new one; it’s a concept that Premier League chiefs have flirted with for a number of years now and despite being rebuffed back in 2008 the idea of taking the English game overseas is again on the agenda.
A report by the BBC has suggested that Richard Scudamore will again put forward plans to expand the Premier League into new developing footballing markets, primarily the US. Rather than pushing the previous idea of an additional ‘39th Game’, reports are now suggesting that teams will be forced to play one of their existing league game abroad.
The rationale for the move is clear; football is a game that captivates audiences the world over, its marketability continues to grow despite an ever more challenging global economy and the scope for future development appears unbounded. You only have to look at audiences for overseas pre-season friendlies to get a taste for what Premier League football truly means to those that are starved of going to live games for much of the year.
It isn’t just the Premier League that are taking advantage of the market, but a host of league clubs that are looking to tap into these opportunities. Tours to the Far East and the Americas were a rarity not so long ago, but have of late become a regular feature for clubs looking to widen their exposure and increase their financial standing.
The current TV deal for the Premier League, which began in 2013 and runs up till 2016, is worth in the region of £5.5bn, £2bn of which comes from the sale of rights overseas. In fact according to the BBC the only nations that don’t currently get involved in the bidding process are Albania and North Korea, a sure sign of the importance of the world market to the Premier League. Playing games abroad will only boost these figures, as well as pushing the merchandising and sponsorship agreements that clubs already enjoy upwards still.
In economic terms the idea of playing games abroad makes perfect sense, and for those that still see football as purely a business you can quite easily see the rationale behind it. But for those that go to games week in week out with a vested emotional rather than financial interest in their club this logic doesn’t really carry much weight.
In fact for many the plans to play games abroad are just symptomatic of a governing class that has lost touch with those that make the game what it is. In an era where fans are referred to by client reference numbers and continue to pay over inflated prices just to see their side play at a weekend, these ill-conceived plans by those that are supposed to protect the integrity of the game don’t really come as a surprise.
The FSF, a body whose primary goal is to represent fans, reacted angrily to the latest Premier League plans:
“Once again the idea of potentially huge changes to the game has arisen without consultation with one of the groups that matters most – the fans.”
“If the reaction to previous incarnations of ‘Game 39’ and the idea of matches overseas are anything to go by, we expect this proposal to be met with the strongest possible opposition from supporters.”
Considering the vitriol that greeted plans in 2008, it is unlikely that the latest efforts will develop into anything more than a hopeful attempt. But the fact that we are even talking about the issue of moving games abroad is a concern in itself. There really isn’t much of a debate to be had.
What sets our game apart from others is the relationship fans in this country and indeed across Europe have with their respective sides. This just isn’t something that we see regularly with other sports; the intricacies of other games are intriguing but as a whole package none come close to football. The bond between fans and the Premier League clubs themselves remains unrivalled, and this in itself is the product that so captivates and excites foreign audiences. The likes of Rooney and Aguero are fast becoming household names across the globe, but much of the fascination is with clubs themselves, their history and the distinctive atmospheres that have been created down the years.
Eroding the leagues integrity by trying to radically change things just detracts from this. The Premier League is an asset and as much as it pains me to say it a product which is continually auctioned off to the highest bidder. If we the Premier League wants to maintain its value for investors it should think long and hard before tampering with the key components that have allowed it to build such a unique reputation.
Sure a handful of games in Miami may well create a short-term buzz for fans further afield, but will it really bring the long-term benefits that Scudamore and co really envisage it doing? Few seem convinced.