The glitz and glamour of pre-season
What sort of impact are Premier League clubs' globe-trotting tours having on our game?
Pre-season is often regarded as a time for managers to whip their squad in to shape, build up the players’ fitness levels and test new signings or formations ahead of the forthcoming season. This remains an important part for every football club before getting back in to competitive action; however the concept of pre-season has changed and has now morphed in to what many label as a ‘tour'.
Trips abroad in July or August were often used across British football as a good means of fitness testing for players, with high altitude training among the sunnier weather. For many clubs this is still the case. However, for those lucky enough to ply their trade in the cash-cow that we know as the English Premier League (EPL), their trips outside the UK now have a far more significant purpose. In four of the last five pre-seasons, English Premier League sides have played more matches overseas than at home, with less than a third being played inside the UK. Current champions Chelsea have only played a dozen games on home soil in the last decade. Rather bemusing for the local fan. The purpose of why this is happening isn’t hard to identify. It’s of course got to do with money. Pre-season is now a business model within itself, an amazing marketing opportunity to maximise brand reach overseas, because that’s what Premier League football is now: a brand, right?
Every EPL club now dedicating their summer to seize this opportunity in order to reach more fans across the globe. Whether that be in Europe, or in the States, or more recently in Asia. Every country in the world has access to Premier League footage, aside from North Korea and Albania, so the brand is at an all-time high. There hasn’t been a better time for West Brom to get out to their fans in Hong Kong, or for Swansea to get to the States. I bet that would have sounded a bit odd 10 years ago.
Despite its obscurity, there is no denying how valuable these markets are to the Premier League, and vice-versa. Of the £5.5bn deal Sky and BT struck with the Premier League in 2015, £500m of it came from the Asian market, largely from China, Thailand and South Korea. The clubs recognise its value and the opportunity to attract these supporters as their own, building a world-wide brand for themselves in the process. Seven out of the twenty clubs have scheduled fixtures in Asia over the next six weeks, some against each other. The promoters who typically organise these matches make astonishing profits by selling advertising, television rights and over-priced tickets for a game that has no competitive value at all. Promoters argue this is balanced against the fact that fake EPL merchandise such as replica tops, scarfs and other wearable's are available in many parts of Asia for as little as £2, and while shirt manufacturers may not always favour Asia as a destination, the region offers other benefits for the owners of EPL clubs.
After their first trip to Asia in 2015, Manchester City’s Middle Eastern-based owners, Abu Dhabi United Group, sold a 13% stake in the club to a consortium led by China Media Capital Holdings for U$D 400 million. City recognized how marketable the region was for their growing brand, and in doing so have underlined the changing face of pre-season. Asian investors continue to keep a key interest in UK clubs with controlling stakes in former Premier league clubs such as Birmingham City, Blackburn Rovers, Cardiff City, Queen’s Park Rangers, Reading and Sheffield Wednesday. There is a growing Asian influence within British football. It goes without saying that money talks.
Questions remain over the integrity of many of the scheduled trips. Whilst there is no harm in travelling abroad to new places, meeting new people and facing new teams, it does seem a bit odd for their to be the need of a Leicester vs West Brom fixture taking place in Hong Kong, or Man City vs West Ham in Iceland, and to an extent why there has to be a Manchester Derby in the United States. In 2014, Manchester United vs Real Madrid and the fixture attracted an American record attendance of 109,000. But can anyone actually remember the score?
These friendlies are a nice opportunity for locals to go and see their favourtie football stars, but when Manchester United take on Manchester City this summer, or when Arsenal challenge Chelsea and Bayern Munich, it should be an occasion. The plans seem to feel a bit demeaning to the EPL, wasting fixtures that are usually highly anticipated on bogus round-robin tournaments that mean little or nothing to anybody other than financial directors.
There is a point to make about the players too. Although the fans in the UK may miss out on seeing their heroes during the summer (unless they have enough money to whack out on their clubs globe-trotting tour), the players can be the ones who suffer from a demanding schedule, at a stage of the season which is not often perceived as the most enjoyable for a footballer anyway. The Liverpool squad is being trailed across four continents this summer, with Arsenal and Manchester United having plans to play in three. There is no denying this is a great opportunity for players to see new parts of the world, enjoy some brilliant weather and so on, but it can also be exhausting programme, and one that runs right up to the Premier League start date. Sam Allardyce begged Sunderland Chairman Ellis Short in 2015 to shelve plans for a pre-season tour outside of Europe, as his players had suffered from the travel the previous season. To his delight, Short seen the value in keeping them closer to home. This season, Sean Dyche’s Burnley are the only Premier League club who have decided to remain on the British Isle’s for pre-season. I’m assuming it must have just been the weather that was stopping the rest from staying…
Over the past decade there has been much debate over whether scheduling an overseas ‘39th’ game on the fixture list would be a legible idea, as the Premier League brand continues on a meteoric rise. EPL chief Richard Scudamore raised the idea, claiming it would be a brilliant opportunity for member clubs, who could follow the NFL, NBA and MBL in the trend of taking competitive fixtures overseas. The idea was to explore the option of playing an extra round of matches overseas at five different venues, with cities bidding for the right to stage them. Four Premier League teams would travel to each venue, with a game played at each on Saturday and Sunday. An extra game would be expected to earn each club about £5m. However, the FA and many fans were opposed to the plan, with claims that clubs would be distancing themselves (both geographically and metaphorically) from their true roots. The debate has continually surfaced in recent years, with UEFA also voicing concern in 2014. The idea highlights the direction in which English football is heading, and indeed what their objective is. Scudamore remains optimistic on the matter, "It will happen at some point. Whether it is on my watch, who knows?” At least he’s got the game’s best interests at heart, right?
These sort of ideas are not exclusive to the EPL however. The Italian Super Cup between the winners of Serie A and the Coppa Italia has recently has since been staged in China, Libya and Qatar, with its firs overseas appearance dating back to 1993 in Washington D.C. There were also murmurs of Celtic taking on Dundee in America, with the Dee open to the possibility after a controlling stake was purchased by American owners. You can imagine that the Americans are waiting patiently for that one to materialise.
The whole fiasco of sending clubs to the end of the earth and back during the summer months can be exciting, unsurprising and disappointing all in one. It is undeniable that marketing and brand exposure is an important aspect to the modern game, and the experience of taking the clubs to new places can be beneficial for both parties, however the EPL is approaching a stage where clubs are blurring their priorities and subsequently leaving their loyal fans behind. We love the Premier League for what it is: a competitive league where even the most surprising results are possible every week. Why spoil that by pitting some of our best sides against each other at the other side of the world in glorified training games?
Football should be inclusive for all types of fans, but we shouldn’t turn it in to something it’s not. The game was built on partisan values, not on the desire to become a profitable business.