"Greed and Avarice" – Can the Idea of Overseas Games Be Stopped?
The prospect of playing Premier League fixtures beyond British shores, with particular focus on the fertile ground of the United States, is seen as an inevitability. How much is too much for the overlords of the domestic game and can supporter power rise up and stop it?
22 October 2014
Eight years after the trial balloon of the "39th game" was shot down by opposition from supporters groups and FIFA, the idea of playing Premier League fixtures abroad is rearing its ugly head again and English fans are preparing to mobilise once more against the forces of capitalism that govern modern football.
Emboldened by the respective successes of the NFL's foray into the British market over the past seven years with annual competitive American Football games being staged at Wembley Stadium, the tours of the United States by some of Europe's biggest football clubs over the past two summers, and the growing interest in football across The Pond, the overlords of the English game have in the past month floated the prospect of playing Premier League fixtures overseas – with most of the attention specifically (or, perhaps, just initially) on the USA.
Far Eastern money may have dominated the current overseas broadcast rights deal, with that region accounting for more than half of the £2bn the Premier League negotiated last year, but the bigwigs at Gloucester Place clearly have their sights on cracking what they believe is the largest untapped market for the game, certainly in terms of the spending power of its sport-watching populous.
They're betting on "soccer's" expansion on a sporting landscape traditionally dominated by very American products like the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB) and National Basketball Association (NBA). Association football has historically lagged even behind the National Hockey League (NHL) in terms of fandom and exposure. But in a country of 300-plus million there is plenty of "mindshare" to go around, and the demographic shifts in the US, where a fast-growing Latino population and greater interest in our game among teens and young adults, mean that the landscape there is changing.
These days, football's growth in a market typically resistant to what was so often dismissed as a sport for women, children and "soccer Moms" isn't entirely reliant on the four-year cycle of the World Cup and the relative success of the US Men's National Team therein. Of course, the exploits of Jurgen Klinsmann's team and one Tim Howard in Brazil this summer helped drive interest in football in American to historic levels – for the first time, soccer has been mentioned more times in the New York Times this year than ice hockey, basketball and baseball – but a growing fascination with club football is being fuelled in the States by unprecedented television coverage, particularly of the Champions League and the English Premier League.
NBC's £250m investment in exclusive broadcast rights to the Premier League means that for the first time ever, every Premier League fixture is shown live in the United States across its network of satellite and cable channels, including one match every Saturday on its flagship free-to-air "terrestrial" station at 12pm Eastern Time. That is supplemented by a special American edition of Match of the Day presented by former BBC Sport, Setanta Sports and ESPN UK reporter, Rebecca Lowe, with in-studio analysis from Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe.
It was a smart move that capitalised on the "Englishness" of the Premier League – where Fox Sports before them had tried too hard to bridge the Pond with American presenters and commentators, NBC placed their bet on authenticity, a strategy that appears to be bearing fruit. As we see later in this issue with the growth of EvertonUSA, it's helping birth a new generation of football fans in America who are embracing the Premier League for what makes it so unique – not least the history and cultures of each individual club – and, perhaps, for its very "un-American-ness".
Of course, it's that uniqueness, that history and the traditional bond between club, supporters and community that are most stressed by the rapid commercialisation of the game during the Premier League era which has made the mere idea of an overseas component to top-flight football even possible. The threat to the character of our national game posed by the possibility of exporting the Premier League beyond its native shores in this manner appear far greater than the other side of the coin where the behemoth of the NFL rolls on with its plans for games abroad seemingly resistent to any oppsosition at home.
That probably speaks to a culture of capitalism that has evolved with American sport and the differing relationship between the clubs and the local community, where "franchises" have regularly upped sticks and sometimes moved the breadth of the continent in search of new markets and opportunity. While Wimbledon's migration out of London to Milton Keynes represented an aberration – not to mention an abhorrence – in the English experience, all four of the US's major sports are littered with examples of clubs leaving behind their roots and moving between cities, states or, in the case of the Montreal Expos' transition to the Washington Nationals in baseball, entire countries.
Whereas Everton's proposal to move a mere six miles from Walton to Kirkby was met by strong opposition from those who resented the idea of leaving behind the city of Liverpool, the San Francisco 49ers of the NFL moved 45 miles away to a $1bn stadium development in Santa Clara this year, apparently with barely a ripple of co-ordinated opposition from fan groups. In the commercial, expansionist culture of America where the ratio of teams to potential supporters is so much smaller than in England, such a move was accepted – begrudgingly or otherwise – with those disgruntled season ticket holders who refused to renew in protest easily replaced with new ones in a market of 8 million people served by just two teams.
Mark Cuban, owner, Dallas Mavericks
Television – read "money" – is the driver, of course, in a nation where the ratios of game-going fans versus the broadcast audience skew the priorities irrevocably towards TV. And therein lies the danger to English football. In an age where Manchester City struggle to fill the 47,000-seat Etihad Stadium for a Champions League fixture against Roma and Everton's first home game in Europe for five years was attended by less than 30,000 in the face of the rising costs of attending matches and live televised coverage, the character of the game – one steeped in packed crowds paying affordable prices – risks being compromised as those in charge chase larger and larger profits.
Former Celtic manager Jock Stein's once said that "Football is nothing without fans", but with many observers regarding Premier League matches played overseas as inevitable, that observation seems increasingly to be a matter of perspective. While the purists who see the history and traditional values of our domestic game as its greatest strength, the money-men clearly have their eyes on global legions of "fans", the commercial benefits from whom would dwarf those from the domestic market and match-going supporters.
When Everton supporters group The Blue Union posed the question of the overseas game to its Twitter followers, many respondents were season-ticket holders asking how they were supposed to afford a trip to the States. It's a question typical of the Blues' committed support who would travel the earth following but it's a quaint notion in the context of the proposal for overseas matches – it's not about you, faithful homegrown fan; it's about tapping into that new market in a foreign land and growing the pot when the next broadcast rights deal comes around. With domestic fans' wallets stretched to the limit, the Premier League is looking elsewhere and, as John Reynolds of SportsBusinessDaily put it, "if you're going to fish, fish where the fish are."
Despite being a position of similar dominance of its domestic sporting audience to the Premier League, the NFL still wants to grow. This season will see three professional American Football games hosted in London – all sell-outs – with plans afoot to increase that to four next year as the League looks to build on its domination of the US sporting market by expanding its reach into Europe. That may even extend to the creation or permanent relocation of a "franchise" in London that would complete the expansion of that quintessentially American sport beyond the bounds of North America.
Pushback from fans to NFL's expansion plans
"Message to Roger the Terrible (NFL Commissioner): No one wants this. You are disgracing the fans who have supported this game over the years. The cities need their home games, and you are spitting in the face of the employees who depend on these games to make a living. It may not seem like much, being paid 30 mil/year, but there are real people who are affected by this in the USA."
"I have lost four games to London as a [Jacksonville Jaguars] season ticket holder. We were sold a bill of goods that it makes the franchise more viable in Jax – greedy owners just want more money... London is a short term money grab that will hurt the local fan base of any team in the long run. After a while you would think the owners and the commissioner would listen to its customers – the fans. I USED to watch hockey and attend games – it got too expensive. Killing the golden goose."
"Dear Roger Goodell – PLEASE STOP! JUST STOP! can you stop making change after change that does nothing to improve any part of the game with the exception of make you earn more money. Stop in your race to double profits, to take over the world, or anything else you are trying to do. Just stop. You are out of control and you are going to do irreversible harm to the game."
There is disgruntlement among gridiron fans but, in the face of the forces Simmons alludes to above, it appears to have little outlet other than comment sections online (see sidebar) and the odd lone public voice like that of the Dallas Mavericks baseball team's owner, Mark Cuban. Though he was specifically addressing the move by the NFL to regularly play games on Thursday nights in addition to Sundays and Mondays, his prediction that "the NFL is 10 years away from an implosion" surely applies to what many see as an unnecessary extension of the League.
Thankfully, fans in England appear for now to have a louder, more unified and powerful voice than do those in the States and their reaction has been predictably and rightly indignant. The disgust at the "overseas game" proposal has been echoed by the likes of Gary Lineker who voiced his opposition to the proposal on Twitter, describing it as "disrespectful avarice". The Football Supporter's Federation meanwhile stated that, "once again, the idea of potentially huge changes to the game has arisen without one of the groups that matter most – the fans".
The unified voice of supporters in England will be crucial in the fight against the Premier League's desires. Certainly, citing a lack of interest across The Pond in our game will cut no ice, not if the meaningless friendly between Manchester United and Real Madrid at Ann Arbor's Michigan Stadium this past July, which attracted a record crowd of 109,000 people, is anything to go by. But while there is clearly an appetite for the Premier League in America, there are dangers in ignoring what attracts many US fans to our League in the first place and it's heartening to see that many American observers agree.
Bill Simmons, the ESPN sport columnist and Editor-in-Chief of Grantland.com (incidentally, the original home of the Men In Blazers pod- and web-cast hosted by boyhood Blue Roger Bennett and Michael Davies – another example of the US audience accessing the sport through the conduit of authentic British rather than what can be contrived American presentation) found much to admire about football and the English game in particular when he decided a couple of years ago to finally immerse himself in a sport in which he'd previously had little interest:
There's nothing like following a sport with fans who know how to make a big game feel even bigger.
American sports have been ravaged by TV timeouts, ticket price hikes and Jumbotrons that pretty much order fans how to act. Even our NFL games have slipped – you cheer when the players run out, cheer on third downs, cheer on scores and sit the rest of the time. It's a crying shame.
European soccer stands out because of the superhuman energy of its fans – the chants and songs, the nonstop cheering, the utter jubilation whenever anything good happens, how the games seem to double as life-or-death experiences.
By pricing out most of the common fans and overwhelming the ones who remained, professional sports leagues in this country made a conscious decision: We'd rather hear artificially created noise than genuine noise. That's the biggest problem with sports in America right now. And there's no real way to solve it.
Similarly, there are risks in the potential damage to the English game inherent in hosting it in a foreign country, particularly one in which the "almighty Dollar" wields so much power. Everton's experience of the International Champions Cup was a case in point; the smothering corporate presence during that exhibition tournament was no more apparent than during gthe Blues' first match at AT&T Park in San Francisco during which commercials on the big screen were carried at high volume every few minutes during the match itself. Thankfully – and this bodes well for the future of the sport in America – the 20,000-strong crowd did its best to drown them out and they were eventually pulled for the second half.
Not only that but Everton fell victim to some ham-fisted "moving of the goalposts" after their penalty shootout victory over Juventus that saw the rules changed mid-tournament so as to engineer the most attractive final for the promoters. The ICC may have been a meaningless competition of friendlies which would not have been possible with big-money sponsorship but supporters were still disappointed to see the spirit and integrity of the game so easily compromised for commercial interests.
Swansea City Chairman, Huw Jenkins, is reputed to have told a recent fans forum that he believes a round of Premier League fixtures will be played abroad within the next 12 months to two years but the hope is that if the outcry from supporters groups isn't enough to kill it then the idea will collapse under its own logisitical weight.
As Steven Goff recently wrote in the Washington Post, "the circumstances would have to be just right: a flexible point on the calendar; proper venue with grass, suitable field width and no football markings; agreeable clubs; and at least one high-profile participant. European leagues use a balanced schedule – everyone plays one another home and away – so competitive issues would arise. Would, say, Liverpool sacrifice the tradition and advantages of playing Aston Villa on a Saturday afternoon at Anfield for the opportunity to play in Philadelphia? Unlikely."
You get the sense, however, that the inexorable desire on the part of the Premier League will be difficult to stifle without a unified opposition from the grassroots through the individual clubs themselves. Former Everton chairman, Keith Wyness, was an enthusiastic proponent of the concept of a "39th game" but his successor, Robert Elstone, has, perhaps deliberately, withheld public comment thus far on this latest proposal. You would hope that our club, one with a stronger commitment to and reliance upon its local community and ties as most in the top flight, would lead the way in trying to preserve the sanctity of the League of which it was a founder member. Lest it become part of an unwanted "first" in English football...