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Friday, June 14, 2024

Why playing Premier League games in the US is the last thing football needs

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Even for football, it was a fairly brazen display of how these things actually work. As recently as Friday, Premier League chief executive Richard Masters said the game’s calendar is at a “tipping point” – “there is too much football being played and there is constant expansion,” he said. A week couldn’t even pass without NBC executive Jon Miller tellingThe Athletic about bringing Premier League matches to the United States.

Miller’s suggestion wasn’t quite the notorious plan of the Premier League’s ‘39th game’ – rejected in 2008 followng a backlash from fans and opposition from Fifa – but you can see the way it’s going. Perhaps of most concern was Miller’s comment that it’s “something we’ll continue to push for”. These are actually words that all of football should be alert to. With a broadcast contract of around £2bn for six years, NBC is one of the Premier League’s biggest partners, and that in the American market that all of football is obsessed with reaching. Other broadcasters have already expressed private complaints about what they perceive as the superior access NBC receives.

By Wednesday morning, much of the game was coming out against the plan, most notably the Football Supporters Association. There was also a confidence that the independent regulator could block any such plans, which might well represent its first success. All of this is why the Premier League has confirmed it has no plans to stage games abroad, but the more significant aspect is the influence exerted over the long term; the manner that these ideas are put out there and gradually normalised.

Nothing about this is normal, though. Staging fixtures abroad goes against what domestic leagues stand for, and disrupt their competitive integrity. The league can’t function fairly if some fixtures are played under different conditions than others, or extra matches are bolted on. A concern that some Premier League executives have expressed as recently as last year is that such fixtures would basically just be akin to an extra home game for the biggest clubs given the global support. It’s all about “sporting asymmetry”.

That aspect proved “insurmountable” for years, but it might be different in a world where people see the figures amid the sport’s increasing international dimension. This is also where a critical mass of American ownership is all the more relevant, and potentially revolutionary. Over half the Premier League’s clubs are already in US hands in some form, and only a majority of 14 is needed to vote through such changes.

As regards the symmetry, people will no doubt point to the different nature of fixtures during Covid-19 but that was obviously exceptional circumstances, in the truest sense of the term.

This isn’t. It’s about morphing the game, continuing to unmoor clubs from their roots and community role. There’s an irony that it comes in the same week as the Premier League takes a vote on whether to explore the idea of “anchoring” and an overall spending cap.

It’s incredible to think we’ve moved from a world where fans complained of TV moving kick-off times to this, where there is talk of moving games around the world. That’s just another area where the sport offers an illustration of the boiling frog parable.

There’s also something bigger here, quite literally. This is already a world where there’s an expanded Champions League, an expanded World Cup, an expanded European Championships, an expanded Club World Cup…

It cuts to a deeper philosophical question over what all this is for. The intention of all this is capitalistic “growth”, as if the prospect is endless. In a situation where we’re already talking about an independent regulator and the social role of the game more than ever, is this really the way football competitions should be behaving? What about just having a sustainable game?

“Expansion” is also directly contradictory to that idea.

Chelsea and Newcastle were part of the Premier League’s ‘Summer Series’ and played a pre-season friendly in Atlanta last year (Getty Images for Premier League)

What actually happens if the biggest clubs get to play more games around the planet? It just means they accumulate more of the sport’s available resources, sucking up more interest and wealth that might go elsewhere.

The role of Fifa is all the more intriguing in all of this, especially as the widespread feeling within the game is that such plans are being explored again due to president Gianni Infantino’s openness to the idea. He is, after all, directly seeking to make the global body more of a player in club football, since the expanded Club World Cup is an overt attempt for Fifa to have its own version of the Champions League.

Infantino needs money and some leverage to really make that happen, and facilitating “39th game” plans can prove a convenient part of that. Fifa are in the process of moving some of their major departments to the United States, all while deepening the relationship with the other future pole of the sport, in Saudi Arabia.

The global body argues that this is all to spread the wealth of the game beyond western Europe, but does this actually happen? It seems to just further reinforce the global power of European clubs, since they would inevitably receive more prize money.

There’s also more to it than that. If Premier League or Spanish clubs went to the US, is it actually good for American soccer? It just creates more emotional links to English sides rather than local MLS clubs. Some figures there already argue that Lionel Messi’s arrival has really just meant more interest in the game’s global dimension rather than MLS. This happens around the world.

It is actually galling to think that, when one country’s broadcast company signs a contract with a foreign league – such as the Premier League – there is no actual stipulation that any of that money has to go back into the country’s domestic game. That directly serves to cannibalise the sport. It is why competitions like the Latvian league have had to pay broadcasters themselves to be shown on television.

This isn’t how football should work at all.

But it is where football is going – more of the same, all the time.

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