Our Next Away Game is in Bangkok?

The impact of globalisation has been huge for the football industry as a whole. No longer does the team you support have to be in close proximity to your doorstep, or even be in the same country in which you live. Thanks to the rapid developments of satellite and television technologies over the last twenty years you can now follow your football team from any corner of the globe. A Liverpool fan can now just as easily be found watching their team on television in the exotic islands of Thailand as in the pubs and clubs surrounding Anfield on a matchday. The English Premier League has become arguably the most watched and most popular sporting league in the planet, followed by over half a billion people in some two hundred and two countries. Football in the Premier League era has truly gone global, with fans of all nationalities supporting English football clubs in cities all over the world. This new area of fandom is one that the businessmen in the game find very lucrative, both in terms of overseas television broadcasting deals and in advertising their club to potential new fans for commercial benefit. The Premier League is currently in high demand, especially in Asia where it is the most widely distributed sports programme. So it came as no surprise when Premier League Chief Executive, Richard Scudamore, made a dramatic and unheard of proposal to football clubs in 2008.

Game 39 was a proposal by the Premier League to play an extra round of league matches in various cities outside of England starting in the 2010/11 season. The proposal stated that the twenty member clubs of the Premier League would face off in five major cities around the world. The ten games would be split over two days, with two games being played in each city, one on a Saturday and the other on the Sunday. The cities would bid to host the games without any prior knowledge as to which teams would actually be playing and the games would be staggered along time zones to allow all the games to be screened live on television. The possible venues suggested at the time were in Australia, East Asia, South East Asia, Gulf Nations and the United States of America. All wealthy locations which had the interest in English football required to put on such an event. The reasons for the proposal were simple. The Premier League wanted to capitalise on its popularity, bringing the game to more places and therefore opening more commercial opportunities. It is thought that Game 39 could have brought in between £40 and £80 million in extra revenue for Premier League clubs. Of course the chairmen supported the potentially lucrative proposal, seeing the commercial opportunities that would arise from spreading the game around the world. David Gold, then Chairman of Birmingham City, endorsed the plan in part because the larger clubs had already been exploiting foreign markets with pre, mid and post season tours.

Gold believed the proposal could work because the revenue gained from Game 39 would be equally distributed among the member clubs. However a number of managers and powerful individuals in FIFA opposed such a concept, noting that it was powered by greed and that it would alienate the fans they rely on to fill the stands on a weekly basis. At the time FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, commented that the negative opinion surrounding the proposal could have a detrimental effect on England’s bid for the World Cup in 2018. If only we knew what would happen there, the Premier League might as well have staged an entire season in Somalia. Following the lack of support from FIFA and within football, Scudamore and the Premier League halted the proposal, putting it on ice until the 2013/14 season in order to explore different ways of making the format work. Scudamore defended the plan as consolidating the Premier League’s global reputation, saying ‘if we don’t do it, another sport will come and do it to us’.

Last week Richard Scudamore’s words came true as an American NFL team signed a deal to make London their temporary home for the next three years. The St. Louis Rams will leave Missouri to play one regular season home game at Wembley Stadium in each of the next three seasons, starting with the visit of the New England Patriots this October. The idea behind the deal is to build up a UK fanbase for the team and for the NFL to prove that a franchise could exist across the Atlantic. NFL UK Managing Director, Alister Kirkwood, even went as far as saying that if the fans in the UK get behind the St. Louis Rams on a regular basis it could pave the way for a UK team to be formed. This isn’t the first time the NFL has come to our shores, a mixture of different teams have come over from America to play a regular season game in each of the last five years. The games have been an absolute success, selling out Wembley in a manner even the England national side have struggled to manage recentely. The television ratings for the NFL on Sky Sports have also risen considerably since the NFL started to bring their sport to England.

Similar to how the Premier League wanted to exploit the worldwide interest in their product, the NFL decided to test if the British public would be receptive to embracing the sport by bringing it to our doorstep. Following the success they have earned so far the step to try and build a rapport and affinity between the city of London and one of their franchises was just the next logical step. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an NFL team from the UK taking to the field in the next ten years such has been the sports impact so far. What isn’t in doubt is that the NFL playing in London represents a very lucrative opportunity, one which they will look to capitalise on over the years to come with continued success.

The early development for Game 39 was formed in a way very similar to how the Americans brought the NFL to Wembley and the United Kingdom. The most popular clubs in England, such as Manchester United and Liverpool, have been looking to capitalise on the economic potential around the world since the mid-1990s. These clubs and others from the Premier League began to spend their pre-seasons touring different continents in the aim of increasing their fan base by bringing the footballing stars to them. The growing fanbase allowed clubs a huge range of commercial opportunities which would prove very lucrative to the Premier League. With the emergance of new communications technologies football now had a global community who could consume images and information within seconds, bringing the Premier League to television screens around the globe, similar to how the NFL’s weekly action can be viewed live here in England on television. English clubs became especially popular in Asia as we entered the noughties. The Premier League weren’t ignorant to this growing popularity and in 2003 they founded the first official competition to be held outside of England, The Premier League Asia Trophy.

The Asia Trophy allowed Asian fans the rare opportunity to see their heroes on their own soil and also allowed the English clubs involved to capitalise on the economic potential on offer in such a large continent. The Asia trophy is hosted every two years during pre-season by a different host country with Malaysia, Thailand, China and Hong Kong all hosting the competition so far. Three Premier League teams then compete with a local side, usually the national side, in order to win the Asia Trophy. More recently an exhibition tournament called The World Football Challenge has been formed in the United States of America where teams from England and other major European nations compete with American teams in venues across the country.

The continued economic success of the Premier League around the world, combined with the way teams are received when the play in these overseas competitions will continue to force the Premier League to come up with ways to consolidate their global reputation. Game 39 was flawed from the start. In an already congested fixture list there is no reasonable way of squeezing in a trip to Qatar or Melbourne. But in an economic climate which sees football clubs continue to struggle with debts shouldn’t they capitalise if there is an opportunity for economic growth. Another one of the major reasons why Game 39 was so negatively received was because of the impact it would have on the fans who support their team from the stands every weekend. It was said that this proposal was all about money and although there is no doubt that the commercial incentives are key to taking the Premier League around the world I see a different angle. As I have mentioned throughout this article, football is now a global sport, with fans scattered in cities and towns the world over. What makes a supporter who follows his Premier League team in Malaysia less of a supporter than those who live in England? They are both able to watch the game live, both see the same images, consume the same information and most importantly share the same sense of identity with the team they support. Shouldn’t everyone have the opportunity to watch their favourite team?

So what does the future hold for the Premier League? Game 39 will probably never happen in its current format and I don’t think an approach similar to that taken by the NFL would be successful either. In my opinion the Premier League needs to find a way to positively and successfully capitalise on the huge economic potential which could be on offer around the world. If we don’t I feel we could fall behind other leagues which take the initiative. Just this season the Spanish Premiera Division has taken steps to stagger kick off times in order to please the Asian television audience. Personally I’m not sure what the most effective approach would be, but I do know that it’s up for discussion. If I was told to make a decision now I would suggest that we take the Community Shield around the world instead of a regular season game. This would appease the fans who want to see the meaningful games but would also allow fans around the planet to see a competitive game instead of the usual walk-through pre-season friendlies. Another option would be to expand the already successful Asia Trophy to eight teams, taking the lead from the World Soccer Challenge in America. Doing this would give more English teams exposure in Asia and would also allow more local teams to compete creating a good rapport with the nations and building towards future successes.

What is obvious is that we have a global product here in England, a league that we should be very proud of. We also have fans all around the world hungry for more, with the desire to show that they are true fans. The English Premier League is the most watched and most popular sporting league on the planet. Let’s keep it that way.