Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Premier League World

"As abhorrent as it might sound, I bet you there are several Premiership chairmen who would be tempted by replicating a proper League game in the US. It's probably not as far-fetched as it sounds in my view, particularly for the midsized clubs, because the television rights and ticket sales would potentially be very large for a one-off game (and far exceed normal matchday income). There was a time when the possibility of all-seater stadia, lunchtime TV kick-offs and all-foreign Premiership XIs would have been considered unthinkable, but yet us mugs the fans are still lapping it all up." (New York Addick, 4 Feb 2007)

Tomorrow's news today; that's what you get with New York Addick. Thus I wasn't the least bit surprised when the Premier League announced intentions to play a 39th fixture abroad.

The near-universally negative reaction to the proposal was inevitable. However reading and listening to some of the views of fans and pundits, one might have imagined that the clubs had until now been run as some sort of not-for-profit foundation, and this was a sudden and utterly unprecdented departure from their norms.

When I discussed in Feb 2007 the likelihood that the Premier League would seek to go down the overseas route, it was partly in the context of the successful (and to be repeated) experiment that saw the NFL play a competitive game at Wembley.

Despite the appalling weather on that October night, the game was presumably enjoyed by most that attended (they got to see the subsequent Superbowl champions after all), and moreover it is fair to assume many were regular attendees at English 'soccer' games too. I suspect they did not spare many thoughts for the Miami Dolphins fans who lost a home game, so why their great surprise at the Premier League's move now?

Certainly American sport panders to corporate interests to an extraordinary degree. Having never attended an NFL game in the flesh myself, I asked a fan what the players are actually doing during the interminable TV breaks, and he replied, "...oh, they just kind of stand around."

Yet whilst it is easy to laugh at their excessive commercialism and hype, the differences between American sports and Premier League football are really not as wide as some of us romantics might wish to imagine. Virtually all English football clubs are, and always have been, privately-owned and ostensibly 'for profit', even if their accounts usually suggested otherwise.

Local tennis clubs, primary schools and amateur football teams are at the heart of their communities, but not professional football clubs. How could one witness the antics of their players and conclude anything but?

Surely playing a single competitive fixture abroad meanwhile is preferable to those meaningless pre-season long-distance trips that most clubs (Charlton included) have embarked upon, for seemingly no long-term commercial reward, yet which run the real prospect of severely buggering up one's preparation for the season. Others meanwhile have jokingly suggested that no-one will show up overseas to watch Wigan vs Reading, but think about it.....they don't show up in Wigan either. Indeed, I suspect the Latics would like to play all of their fixtures overseas; at least the weather would be better.

All that has changed since the 1990s is that clubs have found a way to actually make a profit, thanks to the emergence of multi-channel TV amongst which entrepreneurs (ie. Murdoch) have sought to build an entire business model around the game.

I have regularly debated on here whether football owners pursuit of profits is ultimately flawed, so I won't dwell upon that aspect here, except to stress again that football clubs have two traits which are not common to other non-sporting commercial entities.

Firstly they need to a degree to have strong competition from fellow clubs in order to keep the product exciting; no-one is interested in Chelsea vs Chelsea Reserves. And second, genuine talent is in very short supply, bidding up their price and leading to an endless cycle of wage inflation. Neither offers a great foundation for abnormal profits, and the spectre of a Leeds-esque relegation hangs over all of them. The second trait meanwhile is common in banking for example, but each entity is genuinely trying to wipe out its competitors (when they're not managing to destroy themselves from within).

Hence, once a route to profit appeared to have emerged, and thanks to certain unique characteristics of English football (history, local rivalries, short travel distances, frantic action, etc..), the Premier League swiftly emerged as the 'competition of choice', for overseas followers of football, and the TV companies that serve them. And thus, given that all but the most ardent socialist would surely agree that free trade is beneficial, capital flowed into the game from every corner of the globe, from Russia to Thailand.

Although I have a strongly-held view that all of this will ultimately end badly for the clubs and their new owners, the positive aspects of these developments have surely outweighed the negative. The Premier League is now a showcase for the world's finest footballing talents, and played largely in stadiums that are safe, modern and utterly unrecognisable from the miserable terraces of the 1980s. Certainly it is arguable whether it is truly a 'competition' any longer, but still it is difficult to form much of an argument that it hasn't been enormously successful as a 'project', at least compared to what came before it.

But if I was to play devil's advocate for a second, did it not occur to the loyal fans of the Premier League clubs that their owners (and their television paymasters), might not want something more in return than the same tired old domestic season? Something perhaps which might shock them to their core so deeply, that they might just ask themselves for once why they continue to view their club as something they are truly 'part of', rather than merely customers of?

So there you have it; I blame the fans. Not the fans of the 'big Four' because they have been rewarded for their loyalty. No, I blame those functional morons who sell out St James' Park or White Hart Lane week-in, week-out banging their naked chests and chanting 'loyal supporters', whilst their spivvy directors make a mental note to (continue to) take them for granted.

Listening to 6-0-6 on Saturday, a supporter of Manchester United moaned that he would have to get a visa, and apply for a passport if his team were drawn to play in Moscow for example. Since when was attending football matches such an obligation? Matchday revenues for the clubs may have fallen as a percentage of total revenues over recent years thanks to TV money, but they still greatly matter given clubs' wafer thin profit margins, and particularly now if, as I suggest, club directors have begun to take them for granted, preferring to focus instead on the foreign supporter.

Hence if 'disgusted from Didcot' wants to show his true angst at the way his beloved United have treated him, he should simply cease to attend, cease to buy a £3 matchday programme full of adverts, and cease to pay £40 for a piece of nylon tat masquerading as a replica shirt, but costing just 50p to make. But of course he won't, because that wouldn't be loyal would it? Yet look where his loyalty has taken him.

Certainly the writing of this blog proves that for me at least, Charlton will remain in my blood, regardless of where they play (The Valley, Selhurst, Upton Park...) but I've long ceased to feel that I somehow owe the club anything; I've given them enough of my money already. I think it's something you grow out of; in the wise words of my Mum, "...the players don't know you're there."

Luckily as a Charlton fan, we can have few complaints about how we are treated by our current Board. Matchday prices are relatively low, we have a fans director, and you sense his colleagues genuinely make decisions with us in mind, not least because they are fans too. However, for all of us there should be a 'tipping point', whether in terms of cost or other factors, which drive us to consider alternative leisure activities. After all, the cost of a season ticket is not materially less than the cost of a year's membership to golf club, and at least there the pain is self-inflicted.

But given that there is a decent chance Charlton might be involved in the infamous '39th fixture', surely I'm not the only one who thinks it'd be fun to see us play a competitive fixture abroad? Wouldn't it be amazing to watch Zheng Zhi lead Charlton out in a packed stadium in Shanghai, with 80,000 fans chanting his name?

Some will rightly say that many fans would not be able to afford the trip, or may not be so inclined, but those fans are not actually losing anything as such (the Premier League are not proposing that clubs lose a home fixture). Moreover, and without wishing to sound utterly heartless, welcome to the real world; I'd like to eat in Gordon Ramsay's every night, but I can't afford to (plus he keeps moving his best restaurants abroad too).

Also more seriously, I would imagine few Charlton fans have experienced walking into a New York pub for example, and seen Americans who wouldn't even know where to find Charlton (or England I fear) on a map, yet have decided to adopt us as 'their club'. Is it really such an unimaginable leap to go from bussing fans in from Hastings, to flying the team overseas once in a while? Charlton fans more than most should know we can't turn back the clock.

If you are the type of person that would shout 'armchair supporter' (or in their case, 'barstool') then I suspect you will already have stopped reading. But believe me, it leaves a good warm feeling, and it reminds me how far we've come as a club, our recent success coinciding with the Premier League 'bubble'.

And whilst Curbs, Murray et al kept us in the Premier League, it was the television money that laid the financial foundations to build The Valley that we can all be so proud of, and which generated fans like those above.

Progress for its own sake is not universally a good thing, but this 39th game is hardly a revolution, and it's absolutely not a precursor for revolving fixtures around the globe as some fear. Plenty of changes have occurred in football which were opposed initially, yet are now generally accepted as welcome changes (play-offs, single FA Cup replays, Champions League, the back-pass rule etc..).

Let's embrace change instead of fearing it, as Barack Obama might say (even though he's a West Ham fan). Indeed, if you want to witness the rapid (and in my view welcome) progress of change, please note that back in Nov 2006, I told readers that 13/2 on Obama being Democratic candidate was a steal (he's now odds on).


At 1:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whilst I agree a 39th game isn't taking anything away from the supporter and will be of massive benefit to the clubs involved it just can't work as a competitive fixture.

Come the 39th game of the season with a relegation battle nicely poised imagine we get drawn to play an arsenal needing a win to claim the championship whilst our relegation rivals get a team with nothing left to play for. It's just ridiculous.

At 12:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

New York, I'm with the other geezer I'm afraid. I know that teams like us would get one of the top four or five, and would be swetting on it to avoid relegation.

I also wonder, very long term, about the MK Dons effect. I can't see us being Charlton Chicago Athletic (CA might be chuffed though), but there were a lot of other things I couldn't see happening ten tears ago either.

Pembury Addick


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