13 February, 2008

Holiday with the Premier League!

caWhile news of this story broke late last week, the actual facts and logistics of the plan kind of got lost in all the nationalistic drivel and hyperbole we’ve all come to expect from the newspapers in this country…well, the ones I read anyway. So is this in fact the “DEATH OF FOOTIE” as the Daily Mail so intelligently and reasonably put it?

The bare bones of the story are this: last Thursday, the executive boards of the Premier League clubs unanimously agreed to further examine a proposal to extend the season to 39 games, by staging a new round of competitive fixtures outside the UK from January 2011. A decision will not in fact be made until a year’s time, however since the announcement, everyone from Gordon Brown to Sir Alex Ferguson to Pete Doherty has offered an opinion, so we decided to show you some choice quotes from those in the industry first, before chucking in our inevitable 2-pence-worth at the end…

In Favour of Global Expansion:

Firstly, here’s someone that actually knows what he’s talking about. Alistair Kirkwood is the NFL's UK managing director, and was therefore instrumental when American Football made history last year and staged its first regular season game outside of the country:

“Given the way that sports fans consume their media and how the media works, the NFL had to come up with a way of reaching out to more people and show the best possible aspect of our sport. That's when we came up with the concept of competitive games outside of America…
“Ultimately, no matter how major sports are structured, the vast majority of activity will still continue to be in home markets and (be focused on) giving a great experience for the home fans. It's not all about making money. It could, over the next few years, make sports leagues and teams more exciting. In 10 years time, you need to ask yourself whether you want a fanbase of 200 to 300 million, or three to four billion; if you want three to four billion, you have to make tough decisions and look at ways of being creative and possibly sacrificing things.”

NFL league commissioner Roger Goodell described this historic first as one of the highlights of the 2007 season so it was not only for the benefit of good PR. The clash between the Miami Dolphins and (future Superbowl winners) the New York Giants at Wembley in October saw a 82,000 sell-out, which earned London more than £20million, with 10,000 visitors flocking in from the United States alone. Perhaps more significantly however, the game was also broadcast in 212 countries around the world, in 21 different languages; figures that surely justify the NFL's decision to voyage into such un-chartered territory.

Here then are some further positive opinions from those within our national game at the moment…

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger:

“I'm not against an innovative attitude if it respects the competitive side of our league, if it respects the fans, and promotes the quality of our Premier League.”

Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan:

“I don't necessarily think it is a bad thing. From what I understand, it has been well thought out. The trouble with a lot of people is when something new comes into the arena, they want to find reasons to knock it. I am not against change.”

Reading chairman John Madejski:

"I think it's common sense that teams should do one match abroad every year. I don't have a problem with it at all. The fans are extremely lucky that they see a wonderful array of foreign talent playing here in England."

And finally, a slightly giddy David Gold, Birmingham co-owner:

“We are making history. The Premier League, which is the greatest league the world has ever known, is being adventurous. I find this amazingly exciting.”

Against Global Expansion:

A recurring theme sees to be that this plan will, if anything, only widen the gap between the so-called Big 4 in the Premier League, and everyone else. Sure General manager of the LA Galaxy, Alexei Lalas had these words:

“They can come over and play these games and people can come and check it out, but I think they are going to leave the stadium more often than not thinking 'I can get much better value and more excitement by going to see my Galaxy play.’ We (Americans) do not have a monopoly on rubbish soccer - it's played all over the world.”

LA Times sports journalist Graham Jones agrees with the assessment made by Galaxy's chief:

“If it's two lower-level teams who are not really fighting for anything, and haven't got any big-name players, it's not going to draw more than MLS draws now…(around) 15,000 - 20,000.”

Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Andy Burnham had these remarkably sensible words to add:

“The Premier League brings great benefits to Britain, but its success today is established on the tradition of local club support, built up over generations. The game must never forget its roots.”

Kevin Roberts, a manager at ‘Sports Business Group’ told Radio 5-Live this on Saturday:

“If you remove a home game from any set of fans you are disenfranchising the very people this game is built on."

Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp:

“Clubs could become like the Harlem Globetrotters. It will start with one game and then next year or the year after until eventually I can see us playing quite a few games in different parts of the world.”

Derby midfielder and all-round legend, Robbie Savage:

“From a player’s viewpoint, it’s daunting. It will certainly take its toll physically if we are flying half-way round the world and back before starting domestically again. We need a break and I’m all for that. But I would sooner be spending it with my family than flying off to the Far East, for example. It would be terrific to be able to spend some time with them in the middle of the season.”

Malcolm Clarke, Chairman of the Football Supporters’ Federation:

“This threatens the integrity of the league. It denies fans the chance to see their team at home. That is not right.”

So what do we think then?

Well it’s clearly quite a complex issue and to be honest I can really see both sides of the argument. On a purely executive level, there are few downsides because revenue, branding and reputation can be increased many times over. However, the lifeblood of football is the fans, so we must really think of them first and foremost.

On the one hand, it’s great for overseas supporters to be able to finally see their favourite players in the flesh, and for those players, surely it’s a great opportunity to entertain and bring back some of the showmanship sorely lacking in weekly Premier League matches. However, as many have said, it’ll be exciting to see the likes of Ronaldo and Rooney, but would anyone really pay over the odds and travel to see Fulham vs Derby, for example? Furthermore, the 38-game season works because each team plays everyone else twice, offering some kind of average over the 9 months. With this seemingly wildcard 39th game then, how would it be fair for, say, Wigan to draw fellow strugglers Bolton, while Birmingham are drawn against Manchester United? If Birmingham were subsequently relegated by a couple of points, how could you justify that to their fans or management?

The crucial point for me though is what do you say to your loyal season ticket holders at home? These are the guys who put almost every penny they earn into seeing their team, and travel around the country week after week. As a club, you are basically telling these guys that their money, their time, their passion and their unquestioning support is no longer enough. Just because people overseas will pay more, these fans with potentially 80 or 90 years support, are being told that they’re not good enough to watch their team anymore. Even if all the revenue garnered from this 39th game is pumped back into the club, will that really offset the disrespect and greed inherit in this planned move?

With Fabio Capello also strongly against this idea, what kind of effect might this have on the future of international football? How in the long-term could this ever be beneficial to the woeful state of the England team? Picture the scene: we need a result in the final World Cup 2010 qualifier, but unfortunately the whole team hasn’t slept in 2 days because they’ve all flown to the four corners of the globe and back. Sorry Fabio, you haven’t got the most out of your players and we’ve failed yet again, you’re fired mate. Taking it to extremes I know, but surely this is a slippery slope?

Finally, the proposal also begs the question of what next, if we must constantly be trying to think outside the box to expand the national game. If the money was right, would the clubs consider a 5 minute multi-ball finale? Would they sell-out the team’s name to a sponsor? Would they unveil plans to play a game in zero-gravity on the moon???

As ever, direct your thoughts, opinions and abuse to the usual address – sniffingtt@hotmail.com