The National Football League continued its expansion into the British market with the first of an unprecedented three matches to be played in London this season when the Oakland Raiders and Miami Dolphins met at the famed Wembley Stadium. Now it seems England's brand of "football" may be set to return the favor. Perhaps inspired by gridiron's continued success at the home of soccer, the English Premier League is widely mooted to be considering taking the next step in its own global outlook by playing a full round of matches, involving all 20 teams, overseas.
The notion of the Premier League looking worldwide to improve its revenue streams is far from a new development. Indeed, the league -- formed as a breakaway competition from the rest of England’s soccer pyramid in 1993 -- has been a pioneer in doing so, both in the world of soccer and sports as a whole. Of the £5.5 billion pounds ($8.9 billion) it secured from its last three-season television deal, £2.1 billion pounds ($3.4 billion) was from overseas broadcasters, putting other European leagues in the shade.
And the Premier League clubs have aggressively and increasingly pursued further income from the global market in recent years. The sight of English teams contesting friendly matches has become a regular feature of summertime in the United States. The league’s richest club, Manchester United, has been leading the pack in chasing the dollar. In August this year, it played Spanish giants Real Madrid in Ann Arbor’s Michigan Stadium in front of a more than 109,000 people, a record for a soccer match in the United States.
Asia has been another popular destination. The continent has long been the biggest driver of overseas TV rights and makes up £940.8 million pounds ($1.5 billion) of the latest deal, with Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong leading the way. For the last three years, Hong Kong has hosted the Premier League Asia Trophy, a preseason competition often featuring some of the less glamorous Premier League teams. It is these clubs that perhaps stand to benefit most from turning the occasional summer overseas forays into a competitive contest arranged by the league rather than on an individual basis. While pedigreed teams such as Manchester United and Arsenal may attract huge crowds wherever they go due to their huge exiting worldwide fan bases, the same is not true for the likes of Swansea City and West Bromwich Albion.
As the NFL realized in 2007, when it decided to shift from holding exhibition games overseas to taking regular season fixtures on the road to London, the way to truly grab hold of a market is with something tangible on the line. However, it's probably of no coincidence that the NFL chose the Raiders, Atlanta Falcons, and Jacksonville Jaguars -- all teams with less-than-stellar attendance and win-loss records as the designated home teams for 2014 games in London.
In the Premier League’s case, going from scarcely competitive contests, often featuring back-up players, to having three points up for grabs and full-strength teams on show is likely to be significant in attracting the more discernable fan to shell out for the cost of a ticket.
Not only has the growing interest in the Premier League worldwide likely prompted this renewed focus on playing a round of matches abroad, for all clubs there are new financial imperatives to maximize revenue. From last season, the Premier League joined Europe’s governing body UEFA in imposing Financial Fair Play restrictions, limiting clubs’ losses. It has long been common place for clubs to be run on sketchy financial grounds and huger debts commonplace. In the 2012-13 season wage bills exceeded 70 percent of turnover for 11 of the 20 Premier League teams.
That new reality could push the clubs to go ahead with the overseas plans this time, unlike when it was first suggested in 2008. Then the proposal was for a “Game 39,” an extra round of fixtures to be staged overseas. But the idea was scrapped following opposition from fan groups and world governing body FIFA.
“The clubs wanted it [the regular season game abroad in 2008] and they all would still probably want it now, “ Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore told the BBC in August. “It will happen at some point. Whether it is on my watch, who knows?”
There is unlikely to be any shift in position from supporters, however. Fans of Premier League clubs in England have regularly voiced their frustrations at huge ticket price increases -- in some cases a more than 1,000 percent hike in the last 25 years -- and the idea of losing one of their home games does not appeal.
“Once again the idea of potentially huge changes to the game has arisen without consultation with one of the groups who matters most -- the fans,” read a statement from the Football Supporters’ Federation. “If the reaction to previous incarnations of 'Game 39' and the idea of matches abroad is anything to go by, we expect this proposal to be met with the strongest possible opposition from supporters. “
Convincing soccer’s world governing body FIFA to sanction an unprecedented move will likely remain a challenge, too. There will doubtless be concerns that the progress of the lower-standard domestic competitions will be damaged in the countries where the Premier League juggernaut comes to town. In the U.S., the Premier League, which has all 380 games per season screened on NBC Sports, already attracts much higher viewers than Major League Soccer. Now the Premier League could be making direct encroachment into its territory.
“Is that good or bad for MLS? Is that a pioneer vision or a pirate move?” Tim Leiweke, president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns MLS franchise Toronto FC, said at the Leaders in Sport conference in London. “Therein lies the debate. North Americans are spoiled. They have the best basketball players in the world, the best hockey players, the best baseball players and the best NFL players. We do not have the best soccer players in the world.”