“We bring you the circus, pied piper whose magic tunes greet children of all ages, from six to 60, into a tinsel and spun-candy world of reckless beauty… and high-flying stars. But behind all this, the circus is a massive machine whose very life depends on discipline and motion and speed. A mechanised army on wheels, that rolls over any obstacle in its path.” Narrator, The Greatest Show On Earth
Football today is as the circus of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, or the chariot racing of ancient Rome for that matter. It is a diversion of mass appeal that allows its spectators to forget their everyday toils, both during the event and through the excitement of expectation for the months, weeks and days before it takes place.
It is this that has turned football from a community activity into a multibillion-dollar global industry. Without question it is humanity’s pre-eminent sport. But every market leader must innovate and grow lest its market share be consumed by the competition. That means football cannot stand still, neither figuratively nor, these days, physically.
Sure, many top clubs have spent fortunes on their real estate, building vast, modern arenas in which to drive match-day revenues. But nothing ties them to these grounds in perpetuity. Why shouldn’t the world’s biggest clubs be like Barnum & Bailey’s Big Top, rolling in with a fanfare, to the unfettered delight of the townsfolk? Giving fans the fare that will keep them physically engaged with these itinerant clubs and the sport they play, long after the clubs have moved back to their home territory, is to my mind as pure a motive as any.
This is a scenario that has been envisaged by the world’s richest domestic football competition, England’s Premier League, with its “international round”. Back in 2008 the League’s chief executive, Richard Scudamore, led a presentation to clubs offering to explore the possibility of holding a 39th competitive fixture of the season overseas.
The proposal garnered the enthusiastic approval of clubs but it was stillborn nevertheless. Opposition from some fans’ groups, from UEFA and from the Asian Football Confederation ensured the ’39th Game’, scheduled initially for the 2010-11 season and then postponed until the current one under way, never took place. Yet could it be that the detractors have misunderstood the benefits for all involved?
Certainly Scudamore felt, because the news leaked from within the Premier League boardroom before it had formally been explored with the game’s continental and global authorities, he never had the chance to persuade key stakeholders of its merits. (Constitutionally, of course Scudamore was obliged to seek a mandate from the clubs for his idea before speaking to external authorities. He did have a meeting planned with FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter, three weeks after the internal discussion with clubs, but by then it was too late.)
Even so, as Scudamore fought a losing battle amid a cacophony of reactionary criticism against the idea, he made some very valid points. They are worth rehearsing here. First was that you have to move with the times. “You can’t stand still and if we don’t do this then somebody else is going to do it, whether it be football or another sport,” said Scudamore. “Therefore it’s trying to ride the crest of that wave at the same time as protecting what is good and great about what we do.”
Every year in London Scudamore sees a new iteration of what is to the Englishman an alien sport. National Football League, that is to say gridiron or American football, first held a regular-season game in London in 2007. Now three matches take place in England’s capital every year. And at the Football Association’s Venue of Legends – Wembley – of all places.
It is such an enormous popular success that Scudamore’s equivalent, the NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, has said: “The more we give fans in the UK, of NFL football, the more they want. I believe you are further down the road [towards a permanent NFL franchise in the UK] because you are now three into it. That’s something we’re going to have to evaluate.”
The simple fact is: sports teams are highly mobile. NFL franchises already cover tremendous distances to play their matches too. When Green Bay Packers played the San Francisco 49ers in their regular-season match last September, they had flown for 6hrs 15mins to get there.
So Scudamore’s words, spoken less than a year after an NFL quarterback first used the exhortation “Hut, hut” in anger at Wembley, should perhaps serve as a prescient warning to administrators who do not wish domestic club football to take place overseas. “Somebody else is going to do it,” he said, “whether it be football or another sport.”
As emerging markets develop into sophisticated consumer economies, football should ask itself if it wants to lose the first-mover advantage to the NFL, to the National Basketball Association or to Major League Baseball. Reactionary attitudes would never stop the NFL trying to move in to Tokyo or Melbourne, in an effort to win over fans in territories where football has yet to overwhelm. And if those wealthy sports do pitch up in town and play meaningful competitive fixtures, football’s latent popularity risks being usurped.
This brings me to Scudamore’s second point, which was as follows: “Every time there is an evolutionary step, the reaction of the fans is not always great but I would ask them to take a step back and look at the positives.”
The rapid development of football into a multibillion-dollar industry has been something that has often caused local fans distress. Many have been priced out of the grounds where generations of their families have watched games. But, understandably as far as clubs are concerned, the follow-the-money imperative means they are chasing new forms of income that do not come from paying customers at the gate.
There is considerable additional leverage to the newly recruited overseas fan: not only does each foreign pay-TV subscriber improve broadcast income but their interested eyeballs also generate new commercial opportunities. The number of untapped fans in such markets and their accreting disposable income means they are the best opportunity clubs have for growth. So although the fan in the footprint of the stadium is the soul of the club and rightly has its most important consumer voice, his is no longer the sole commercial consideration.
This is the lesson Manchester United and Bayern Munich have learned. Indeed it is no coincidence that in recent days the European champions have announced the opening of an office in New York, where they will tour after the World Cup. Crack the largest consumer market on the planet and the club that already has the largest commercial turnover in football (after Qatar’s proprietary investment in Paris Saint-Germain) really is in business.
And this, too, brings on the third consideration for Scudamore. “When the League does well, other people in the football family do well in terms of redistribution,” he said. “We feel it is a very positive thing.”
There are many who could share in the commercial success of an international round for a European domestic league. Not least among them the domestic fan who, in England in particular, is paying increasingly unaffordable sums for season tickets. Why would some of the proceeds of an international round of competitive fixtures not be distributed to the fans in the form of discounted tickets?
Then there is the question of the host nations for the externalised fixtures. If the match takes place in, say, Kuala Lumpur, what is to say that football development in that country would not benefit? Football fans in Malaysia and many other nations in the ASEAN region have grown jaded at the corruption of their domestic leagues (FIFA’s own head of security, Ralf Mutschke, chose KL to hold a joint anticorruption conference with Interpol in February last year; in February this year an entire Malaysian team has been fined for match-fixing.)
Yet ASEAN fans are already enthusiastic consumers of European football. If properly integrated as part of a consolidated programme for the clubs, perhaps with the big European football brands cooperating with local outfits or even launching overseas franchises in time, this would surely serve as a driver for local football development.
It is all very well having confected pre-season tournaments or individual club tours against local opposition – to which the international football authorities do not object, by the way – but for the paying fan these pale in comparison to the real deal, when points and titles rest upon it. How could that not accelerate community and youth involvement to the game?
Let us not forget that one of the principal facets of the assessment of every one of the 2018/2022 FIFA World Cup bids was that phrase: “football development”. Clearly FIFA feels that bringing world-class football to territories is a boon. Yet the FIFA World Cup occurs only once every four years in but one country in the world. It might indeed be argued that such scarcity of the resource arrests the game’s development. The FIFA World Cup itself cannot take place with any greater regularity, since FIFA does not have players of its own to deploy. Club football can have that reach.
Still, the FIFA executive committee unanimously rejected the Premier League proposal out of hand. The FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, explained its rationale thus: “This idea to play a 39th round outside the country does not work,” said Blatter. “They would be playing 12 hours away west and east and 24 hours difference in the south.”
Such logistical considerations are surely for the competition organiser to succeed or fail with, not for the regulator to obviate. Perhaps some readers might object that the pen that advances the arguments in this column is English. Fine. But if I may I will make so bold as to air my own suspicion that perhaps there was a bit of inverted snobbery from overseas commentators when the Premier League raised the subject six years ago. The English are arrogantly playing at imperialism again! Let’s put a stop to that!
I feel this misunderstands what motivates the Premier League. It is not an aristocratic organisation of the landed establishment. Instead its roots are among the cosmopolitan “nation of shopkeepers”, to borrow a phrase from Napoléon Bonaparte. Its motivation here is for trade. A commercial negotiation that is to the mutual benefit of the parties engaging in the exchange. And when regulated properly (and that does not mean being shut down altogether) trade does not have to be exploitative.
It does not even follow that an international round of fixtures should be a preserve unique to the English Premier League. The export of fixtures would be as beneficial to the Bundesliga, or to competitions organised by UEFA (whose president, Michel Platini, vociferously rejected Scudamore’s idea six years ago).
What if every six months or so fans in KL or Kinshasa could see Schalke playing Bayer Leverkusen, Bordeaux playing Lille, or Napoli playing Parma? And if each one had a more permanent presence through local community facilities, academies or even franchises playing sound football where the integrity of the competition is paramount? Would not that drive enthusiasm for football and its development locally?
Football at its highest level is indeed a tinsel and spun-candy world of reckless beauty and high-flying stars. But it is not the only one, and many more distractions will emerge in our increasingly mechanised future. The game’s custodians should recognise the threats and the opportunities the 21st Century will present. It is not for them to be the obstacle in football’s path.
Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.