There's no event so passionate in English soccer as a derby fixture Liverpool vs. Everton, say, or Arsenal vs. Tottenham where the intense local rivalry is felt for miles around the ground, and the pride on the pitch makes for snappier tackles and that extra ounce of effort as fans steeped in decades of local rivalry spur their team forward. But would those games offer quite the same spectacle if they were played in Beijing or New York? The hundreds of millions of fans who tune in to TV broadcasts of the English Premier League each week may soon find out. The world's richest and most popular soccer league announced Thursday that it's pursuing plans to play 10 competitive games abroad beginning in the 2010/11 season. The matches staged over a single weekend, and involving all 20 of the League's teams playing in cities overseas who bid to host games would add to the existing 38-game fixture list. "The clubs," Premier League chief exec Richard Scudamore beamed Thursday, "are excited."
The plan is still in its infancy, however, and has not yet been adopted. The League would pick five host cities from bidders around the globe, each one staging two games over a January weekend. And it's expecting a scramble among would-be hosts, given the universal TV popularity of the English league. "The world's most pervasive game is the game that's going to benefit most from globalization," Scudamore told reporters at a central London hotel. "The Premier League is in a prime position to take advantage of this. The 'international round' is a response to that ever globalizing effect."
The effects of globalization are already visible everywhere in the English Premiership. The majority of the players in England's top flight are no longer English, but foreign stars lured there by the piles of cash accumulated from the lucrative sale of TV rights networks covering more than 200 countries paid $1.23 billion to air Premiership games over the three seasons starting last fall. And eight of the 20 teams in the league are now owned by foreigners looking to cash in on the marketing potential of what are now global brands.
Playing matches abroad is not a new phenomenon England's top teams have long engaged in pre-season warmups and other friendly games in the U.S., Asia and the Arab world, to whet the appetites of global fans and boost their own kitty. Current champions Manchester United netted a cool $2 million for playing a friendly game in Saudi Arabia just last month. But the new proposal involves competitive games on which a team's fortunes could rest, as compared to the strolling exhibition matches that have been offered abroad until now.
But exploiting fans' long-distance love of the league is more than just a short-term goal. "The domestic market is a mature market," says Simon Chadwick, professor of sport business strategy and marketing at Coventry University. "We're not seeing huge growth in the retail and merchandise markets." So, while domestic attendance has climbed this season, boosting income further means pushing up ticket prices or knocking up even bigger stadiums. That, or playing in front of a new, hungry audience. Scudamore wouldn't say how much money the proposed "international round" would generate for the teams.
The Premier League may simply be following a global trend. The NBA is aggressively marketing to a growing Chinese fan base. And long before they bagged this year's Super Bowl, the New York Giants edged the Miami Dolphins at London's Wembley Stadium last October, in the first regular season NFL game played outside the Americas. Says Chadwick, "There's a global turf war taking place in sport. It's not just about revenue generation, it's about reinforcing and preserving a competitive position." Scudamore didn't need reminding. "If we don't do it, another sport is going to come and do it unto us ... Or another football league is gonna go and do it around the the world first," he said. "There's a competitive drive that says the League can never stand still. We're either moving forward or backwards. Standing still doesn't work."
For now, the League must develop a detailed plan before the proposal is adopted. Scudamore suggested fixtures could be matched to a host city through a ballot. So, although Manchester City is owned by former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a strong bid from Bangkok wouldn't necessarily be enough to land a match involving that particular club. (And given the weather in January, don't expect Chelsea owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich to head for Moscow.) Don't expect much enthusiasm, either, from the English fans who sing their lungs out every week watching their teams play, home and away. A flight to Beijing may be a bit beyond of the means of even the most ardent traveling fans of Bolton Wanderers or Derby County.