Fan opposition to the English Premier League playing some regular-season soccer games abroad could be drowned out by the potential windfall of millions of dollars. The world’s most prominent soccer league has made a similar proposal before, but as storied teams such as Manchester United look for new revenue streams, the financial incentive to follow in the lucrative footsteps of American sports teams like the NFL and the NBA might just prove too much to pass up.
Never mind that everyone in England -- including soccer’s international governing bodies and supporters’ groups -- hate the idea of their national pastime becoming the latest English export. Europe's governing body UEFA has already made known its disapproval. UEFA wouldn't have a direct say in the proposals were the matches to be held outside of its jurisdiction, but the approval of FIFA and the national associations where the games are played would be required. U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati, who is also a member of FIFA's executive committee, has expressed reservation about the Premier League playing some regular-season matches overseas.
“You’d have to look at the effects on the domestic league and on the other regulations of FIFA when you have cross-border play or in this case two teams from abroad playing in an official competition,” Gulati said in a phone interview. “That’s different from exhibition games, which are frequently played in various places around the world.”
But it appears inevitable that the Premier League will make another bid to further enhance its already mammoth global revenue. The league brought in a record $4.23 billion in revenue in the 2012-13 season, leading the soccer world, according to an annual review by consultants Deloitte. Revenue generated by the 20 clubs swelled by $276 million from the previous season, with more than 60 percent of the growth driven by current champion Manchester City and two American-owned teams, Manchester United and Liverpool.
In its latest plans, Premier is taking its lead from the success of the two biggest sports leagues across the Atlantic. The NFL has already held the first of an unprecedented three regular-season matches overseas this year at London’s Wembley Stadium. The NBA will have two competitive games abroad this upcoming season, in London and Mexico City. One major sign of the benefits of the plan can be seen by the NFL’s television ratings doubling in the United Kingdom since the league began playing competitive fixtures at Wembley in 2007. This season, the NFL will have an unprecedented 21 live games on free-to-air TV. Meanwhile, the number of people in England playing America’s version of football at least once a month has also doubled in the past four years.
“Whether it's programming during the lead-up to the game or gameday events, the NFL has been able to educate people in England about American football,” Courtney Brunious, associate director of the University of Southern California’s Sports Business Institute, said. “In the process, they've also been able to develop relationships with corporate partners in London that help to globalize the game. The consistent exposure has widened the pool of consumers the league will be able to engage with in the future.”
It's not hard to see why the Barclays Premier League -- as it is officially known in England after its sponsor, Barclays Bank -- would be both enthralled by such success and at the same time taken with the belief that it can replicate or even potentially better it.
“The Barclays Premier League is well-positioned to take its show overseas,” Dennis Deninger, a former ESPN executive who is now a professor in sports management at Syracuse University in upstate New York, said. “There are far more soccer fans around the world that follow their league and teams than fans in Great Britain who follow the NFL. The Premier League has a worldwide audience of fans just waiting for a chance to see the product live in their home countries.”
The Premier League's packed stadiums, competitive nature, and favorable kick-off times has helped it to establish itself as as the No. 1 domestic soccer league globally, especially abroad in the U.S. and the Far East. Premier's previous three-year television deal saw a record £2.1 billion ($3.4 billion) of its £5.5 billion ($8.9 billion) total revenue come from overseas broadcasters. And that figure is expected to grow significantly in the future.
In the U.S., NBC Sports, which paid $250 million over three years for the rights to the Premier League, had 31.5 million viewers tune in to coverage in its inaugural season in 2013-2014. That's more than double the previous year. The network's average of 395,000 viewers for the Premier League games dwarfed the 112,000 average who watched it televise Major League Soccer games in 2013. It's a similar story in countries like Singapore and Thailand. Soccer fans are also increasingly wearing the jerseys of Manchester United and Liverpool, clubs who play their games thousands of miles away, rather than those who play down the street.
But the Premier League also knows fans want more up-close contact with players. That's why in recent years clubs have gone from warming up for the new season in small towns like Burton and Mansfield in the U.K. to visiting Bangkok in Thailand and Michigan in the U.S. Midwest. This summer, 13 of the 20 Premier League teams traveled to the U.S., Asia or Oceania for preseason fixtures. Eight visited the U.S.
But it’s not just getting new fans through the gates that provide the benefits for such overseas sojourns.
A list of Manchester United’s commercial partners shows how vital international deals have become in recent years. The club's sponsorship revenue jumped nearly 50 percent in the 2013-2014 season, helped by partnerships with such companies as Singha Beer, Globacom -- its telecommunications services partner in Nigeria, Ghana and the Republic of Benin, and TrueMove H -- its mobile partner in Thailand. Meanwhile, General Motors Co.'s Chevrolet brand pays £47 million ($76 million) per year to have its name emblazoned across the front of Manchester United’s shirts.
Having the overseas matches organized under the Premier League umbrella as opposed to organized on an individual basis by the clubs, means the competition as a whole can further cash in.
“A healthy percentage of their sponsors, including Barclays, are multinational firms doing business all over the world,” Deninger said. “The increased exposure these sponsors would get from overseas games would add to the value of their Premier League partnerships. Another benefit could conceivably come from having one of these sponsors add naming rights to the tour itself, or to serve as host for a game outside the U.K. where that company is looking to increase its foothold or market share.”
While there's a huge financial incentive for the Premier League, it could be some time yet before the league's plans come to fruition. Although the Premier League has an advantage over the NFL in having a larger existing fan base around the world, soccer’s global popularity also means it has more established competition in the countries in which it wants to spread. Even on the subject of exhibition games, Gulati doesn't feel the results have been wholly positive for U.S. soccer.
“I think there’s mixed results from that,” he said. “Clearly it gives people a sampling of games from around the world, especially in a country like the United States where you have such large immigrant communities. It gives them the chance to follow a team from home. Obviously to an extent that it might be during the MLS season or in the [second-tier] [North American Soccer League] season, or whatever it might be, and then in the same market, then it may not be so positive.”