Playing away 

9 March 2008

English football has come a long way over the last twenty years. When the 1985-6 season kicked off, there was no television coverage of domestic football whatsoever, because club chairmen, with an inflated opinion of the game’s worth had rejected the money on offer from the BBC and ITV.

The result: no League or F.A. Cup matches – either live or even just highlights – were shown until January, by which time the clubs had capitulated and had been forced to accept an even lower offer (£1.3m for the rest of the season compared to the £16m over four seasons they had previously turned down). (See Robin Carmody’s article in this section, Blackout).

Since then, the money football clubs earn from television has skyrocketed, but even having a television contract that is now second only to that of American Football’s NFL isn’t enough for Premier League clubs as they seek to exploit markets outside of the UK.

English football has long had an overseas following. During the 1980s, for example, Scandinavian television showed Football League matches during the winter (the Norwegian and Swedish football seasons run from the spring through to the autumn), but the Premier League has moved beyond merely selling television rights overseas and now wants to stage matches abroad as well.

The idea appears to have been dreamed up by Rod Eddington, a non-executive director of News Corporation and a former deputy of News Limited, who had the idea of staging a Premier League match in his home city of Melbourne. Eddington’s involvement with News Corp raises the possibility that Rupert Murdoch is behind the proposals. Playing football on a global scale would certainly suit Murdoch’s television interests, and it wouldn’t be the first time that News Corp has sought to influence a sport in this way, as illustrated by the so-called “Super League war” that followed its attempt to secure the rights to televise Australian rugby league in the mid-1990s.

The Premier League’s plans would see an “international round” of ten matches played in five overseas cities starting in January 2011. Early publicity suggested that each city would host a game on both the Saturday and Sunday, which would no doubt delight Sky Sports as the different time zones involved would probably allow it to cover all ten games played over the weekend rather than just two as it normally does. With cities unable to select which clubs they host, the Premier League would also be able to ensure that the most attractive games are played at the most advantageous times for television purposes.

The additional fixtures would be drawn at random, albeit with the previous season’s top five clubs seeded so that they can’t play one another. Clearly this is designed to give each city a top team, rather than even trying to be fair or at least as fair as a system where a team plays one team three times and eighteen others twice can be.

For example, attempting to be fair within an unbalanced 39-game season could involve clubs being ranked at a halfway point and fixtures drawn up accordingly -either 1st vs. 2nd, 3rd vs. 4th, etc or 1st vs. 20th, 2nd vs. 19th and so on. Under both systems clubs fighting for the league title, European qualification or to avoid relegation would play similar strength opposition. The first would, of course, see these clubs playing one another, but this would also mean fewer games involving the top clubs, which is clearly less attractive to broadcasters.

But however the fixture list for the international round is decided; a club could win the league championship or be relegated simply because it had a more difficult fixture list. Premier League chief exec Richard Scudamore dismissed this, claiming that the championship had never been decided on the last day of the season, but he is mistaken – Blackburn’s win in 1994-5 and Manchester United’s in 1998-9 were both achieved on the final day of the season.

Furthermore, in at least half the seasons the Premier League has been in operation, a club has been relegated by three points or less, i.e. one match. Most recently this occurred in 2007 when Sheffield United lost 1-2 at home to Wigan Athletic to go down by a single goal. Had there been an international round that season, one team could have played eventual champions Manchester United while the other played Watford who finished in last place. Even had both teams lost their overseas matches, their final positions were so close that even losing by fewer goals would have been enough to distort the final league table. This is absurd and changes the Premier League from a double round-robin home and away competition into one that has sacrificed integrity in exchange for even more cash.

Reporting on BBC News, the Corporation’s Sports Editor Mihir Bose claimed the move was “logical”, coming as it did in the wake of Wembley Stadium’s hosting of an NFL match between the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins in October 2007.

In fact is anything but logical, and comparison with the Giants-Dolphins game ignores one major difference between the NFL and the Premier League: to all intents and purposes, the NFL is American Football. Any attempt to sell the sport overseas, whether via television, the now-defunct NFL Europe (formerly the World League of American Football) or other means can only really be done through the NFL. The NFL use of a regular season and play-offs (culminating in the Superbowl) to determine its champions also means that unlike the Premier League it could add an overseas round without upsetting the competition’s balance.

On the other hand, the Premier League is only interested in selling its own competition overseas – specifically to North America, the Middle East and the Far East. But despite Premier League bosses’ talk of selling their “brand”, there is no Premier League “brand” as the majority of those following English football overseas will support a particular club rather than the competition as a whole.

That club is far more likely to be one of the so-called “Big Four” – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. Yet bizarrely, Bose’s blog highlights the lop-sided nature of the Premier League and then claims that the “proposals are aimed at helping the smaller clubs.”

In fact it would achieve the opposite. Seeding the top clubs to keep them apart acknowledges the fact that most of the interest is in the top five teams, and even if the money earned by the international round is split equally, the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United would still be able to use the matches to sell even more replica shirts than the likes of Bolton and Reading.

Some club chairmen now appear to have realised that Bose is mistaken. Middlesbrough’s Steve Gibson was initially quoted as being excited about earning £5m from playing overseas, but now appears to have realised that if the rest of the league gets the same Middlesbrough aren’t actually any better off, especially since the money would probably be swallowed by higher wages and transfer fees.

Birmingham City’s David Gold was also featured in Bose’s report, talking about selling the “brand”. Given his club’s league position, it’s presumptive of Gold to start planning for the 2010-11 Premier League season and rather optimistic of him to believe there’s actually much interest in his club overseas – Fox Sports would certainly have a hard job trying to sell the English Premiere-ship match between Derby and Birmingham to its viewers. Gold would be better off concerning himself with Birmingham, England rather than Birmingham, Alabama.

This concentration of interest to the Premier League’s top clubs means that playing matches overseas has a lot less potential than the NFL’s Wembley match did. That game was most spectators’ first chance to watch any American Football since the demise of the London/England Monarchs in 1998, and shirts from most if not all of the league’s 32 teams were visible in the crowd.

But football is already played worldwide. If Manchester United are drawn to play in New York, is a fan in Melbourne going to bother turning up to watching, say, Bolton vs. Reading? He or she might just as well decide to watch the Australian A-League instead, leading to the spectre of the more unattractive fixtures being played in half-empty stadia – hardly a good advertisement for the Premier League.

Arguably if the Premier League really wanted to help the smaller clubs and create a less lop-sided league then it could follow the example of the NFL in other areas, notably through greater revenue sharing and blacking out television coverage, instead of a situation where the rich get richer and most clubs’ only aim is to avoid relegation (which in turn has made the F.A. Cup the exclusive property of the “Big Four” for over a decade). But without a US-style Commissioner in charge of the sport, the chances of that happening are basically zero.

At the time of writing the BBC is, despite its initial positive spin on the Premier League’s proposals, describing the plans as being in “tatters” after heavy criticism from supporters’ groups, UEFA, FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation.

Perhaps they weren’t so “logical” after all.

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