Bad at foot­ball but bril­liant at sell­ing it

English foot­ball: cham­pi­ons of marketing... but not at play­ing the game

Vocable (All English) - - Sommaire -

In a league of their own.

In the world of foot­ball, English clubs are in a league of their own. The Premier League is the most watched cham­pi­onship on the planet and Manch­ester United pride them­selves on be­ing the wealth­i­est team in the world. On the pitch, the re­sults do not al­ways match their rep­u­ta­tion, but no mat­ter… The sta­di­ums are full and tele­vi­sion rights are pre­mium.

Mopeds

em­bla­zoned with Manch­ester United’s crest drone through the streets of Bangkok. Fans in Okene, Nige­ria, dance in red and white kits on the town’s an­nual Ar­se­nal Day. Of­fi­cial sup­port­ers’ groups ex­ist in Mace­do­nia, Mon­go­lia and Mex­ico, some of the 180-plus coun­tries to which matches are broad­cast. In the 25 years since it was first con­tested, the English Premier League, has be­come the most lu­cra­tive prod­uct in the world’s most pop­u­lar sport. Its clubs earned £ 4.5bn (€4.9bn) in the 2015-16 sea­son, al­most twice as much as any other foot­ball league, ac­cord­ing to Deloitte, a con­sul­tancy.

2. The puz­zle is that the game’s most renowned do­mes­tic com­pe­ti­tion is not very good. ClubElo.com, which rates teams ac­cord­ing to the op­po­nents they beat, cal­cu­lates that eight years ago four of the world’s five top sides were English. To­day none is. An English club last reached the fi­nal of the Cham­pi­ons League, Europe’s most pres­ti­gious knock­out com­pe­ti­tion, in 2012. A Premier League star last made the top five in the Bal­lon d’Or, an award for the world’s best player, in 2011. Spain, Ger­many, Italy and France, the other mem­bers of Europe’s “big five”, now dom­i­nate. Yet as the stan­dard of English foot­ball has dived, it has only be­come richer. Why are such a medi­ocre bunch so pop­u­lar?

THE LEAGUE’S AP­PEAL

3. The English lan­guage is no guar­an­tee of suc­cess (France has the wealth­i­est rugby com­pe­ti­tion, for in­stance) but it makes the chat­ter be­tween man­agers, pun­dits and play­ers more ac­ces­si­ble than in Ger­many or Italy, say. And be­ing in a Euro­pean time-zone means that early ris­ers in the Amer­i­cas and night owls in Asia can tune in to matches— some­thing that Eng­land makes eas­ier with its af­ter­noon kick­offs, which are hand­ier for Asian fans than Spain’s evening fixtures.

4. The Hills­bor­ough tragedy of 1989, in which a crush killed 96 Liver­pool sup­port­ers, led to the re­moval of stand­ing sec­tions in sta­di­ums around the coun­try. Over the next decade clubs spent £500m on ren­o­va­tions, which meant higher ticket prices and richer fans. At the same time, money flooded into the league from a tele­vi­sion deal with BSkyB, a satel­lite broad­caster, which more than tre­bled the fee that the pre­vi­ous broad­caster, ITV, had paid.

5. The ex­pand­ing cir­cus of in­ter­na­tional stars has broad­ened the league’s ap­peal. South Kore­ans tune in to watch Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur’s He­ung-Min Son; Sene­galese to fol­low Liver­pool’s Sa­dio Mané. Such play­ers have been ac­quired partly thanks to in­jec­tions of for­eign cap­i­tal. Led by Ro­man Abramovich, a Rus­sian mag­nate who bought Chelsea in 2003, the Premier League has be­come a play­ground for for­eign ty­coons. They now have con­trol­ling stakes in 12 clubs, in­clud­ing smaller ones such as West Bromwich Al­bion and Swansea City.

CLEVER MARKETING

6. English teams have also been quicker than oth­ers to mar­ket them­selves abroad. Manch­ester United be­gan mak­ing reg­u­lar pre­sea­son trips to Asia in 1995, whereas Real Madrid did so only in 2003. This summer English teams en­ter­tained crowds ev­ery­where from Hous­ton to Hong Kong. And they are ex­pand­ing with busi­ness ven­tures in new cor­ners of the globe. Manch­ester City owns clubs in New York, Mel­bourne, Yoko­hama and Mon­te­v­ideo. With its three African spon­sors, Ar­se­nal has as many as con­ti­nen­tal Europe’s five rich­est teams put to­gether. 7. And whereas con­ti­nen­tal teams sen­si­bly pour re­sources into de­vel­op­ing tal­ented youngst e rs, Engl i sh teams splurge on age­ing stars, who draw in crowds but do less to win matches, ac­cord­ing to the 21st Club, a foot­ball con­sul­tancy. Six of the Real Madrid side that won this year’s Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal joined as teenagers. By con­trast in re­cent years a num­ber of English sides have spent clu­brecord sums on older play­ers who are at the peak of their fame but have ended up spend­ing half their time on the bench. The con­stant hir­ing and fir­ing of ti­tle-win­ning man­agers in Eng­land sim­i­larly makes for great drama, though bad re­sults.

AT­TRACT­ING MEGASTARS

8. Can this suc­cess story sur­vive Brexit? The big­ger worry con­cerns mi­gra­tion. Af­ter Brexit, Euro­peans may face the same im­mi­gra­tion rules as ev­ery­one else. Star play­ers will have no trou­ble clear­ing these hur­dles, but lesser-known ta­lent may be ex­cluded. N’Golo Kanté, a young French­man who helped Le­ices­ter win their league ti­tle, had never played for his coun­try and thus would have strug­gled to get per­mis­sion to work in Bri­tain had it not been for the EU’s freemove­ment rules. 9. There is an­other prob­lem. Although English clubs have the money to ac­quire for­eign stars, the in­abil­ity to win big ti­tles is off-put­ting. This cal­cu­la­tion has al­ready lost the Premier League some of its best play­ers, such as Luis Suárez and Gareth Bale.

10. If it can­not at­tract foot­ball’s megastars, that will limit the Premier League’s ap­peal to fans. For the time be­ing, clever marketing and a com­pet­i­tive, dra­matic league have been enough to keep the world glued to Eng­land’s com­pe­ti­tion. But if they want to keep sell­ing foot­ball, English clubs will have to get bet­ter at play­ing it, too.

(BPI/Shut­ter­stock/SIPA)

Manch­ester United claims to have 659 mil­lion fans world­wide.

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