There were worrying developments over in Spain the week before last, when it emerged that La Liga officials were planning to move an official league fixture over to Miami this season as part of a 15-year deal to promote the league to a wider audience. It is a potential move that echoes of the Premier League’s ‘39th game’ proposal which mercifully petered out once the powers that be realised the opposition they would face.
To date, while moves have been made by the big European clubs: undertaking high-profile pre and post season tours to markets, (for that is how they are regarded by increasingly commercially-focused clubs), that are ripe but as yet untapped, and La Liga themselves having taken the Spanish Supercup to Tangiers, the official matches have remained relatively secure. At least until now.
The motivation behind such a proposal would seem to be two-fold: firstly faced with the ever-growing commercial might and global profile of the Premier League, especially with regard to the extremely lucrative North American TV market, La Liga presumably feels that it needs to act or be left behind; secondly (European) football is increasingly finding itself in competition with the major US sports leagues (the NFL, NBA and even Major League Baseball) who are continually demonstrating a desire to tap the markets outside their traditional heartlands.
Admirably La Liga’s players have gone public in their opposition to the proposal, after a meeting last week between all the club captains, it was announced that Spain’s players’ association are asking La Liga not to play a regular league fixture in the States and haven’t ruled out strike action if their demands are not met. Real Betis manager, Quique Setién, whose team are rumoured to reportedly be in line to be made to sacrifice their home game against Barcelona, summarised the opposition succinctly: “It’s hard for me to understand. I don’t understand how you can travel eight hours on a plane, play a game and then come back when you might have a game on Thursday (in the Europa League). If we are made to go, we will have to go. What I don’t know is how we could take 50,000 or 60,000 season ticket holders with us.”
In absolute essence Setién unearthed the crux of the argument and opposition to such moves by remembering the existing fans; those that fork out their money and always have done simply to watch their team play, because it forms part of their identity and their daily life. To take us for granted is to risk alienating us altogether.
The pursuit of broadcasting, sponsorship and advertising riches has increasingly seen the interests of common or garden fans ignored in preference for meeting the needs of TV companies and the viewers they exploit serve. Why else would high profile matches, including the once sacrosanct FA Cup Final, be scheduled at a time that means the conclusion of the match comes after the last train home for a significant proportion of the travelling fans? Or consider the prospect of having Arsenal play Liverpool on Christmas Eve? Or indeed to even contemplate hosting a match thousands of miles away from the traditional heartland whatever the implication for their loyal supporters? All of this is without even mentioning the price of admission for those of us loyal (or should that be stupid?) enough to actually want to go to the matches as generations have done before us.
Increasingly it seems to this self-confessed football obsessive that we are drifting towards a market and commercially driven structure to the organisation of top-level football in Europe and perhaps even globally. One that seeks to create an American-style ‘competition’ in which the richest clubs are the only ones invited to participate.
We need only consider the bastardisation of what was once the European Cup to create the almost closed shop cartel that is the Champions(sic) League to glean a frightening indication of how things might continue to develop. While entry to UEFA’s flagship competition still nominally remains through qualification, and there is still the chance for new teams to gatecrash the party by unexpected league performances, I bet we can all pretty much predict the last eight of this season’s competition before the groups stages have even got underway.
Back in October last year the ‘Big Six’ Premier League clubs attempted to force the Football Association to change the way in which the broadcast income was distributed amongst all twenty clubs; essentially demanding a bigger share of the spoils for themselves just as the majority of their European rivals enjoy. The underlying threat to the governing body was that if they didn’t get their way they would break away and form a league with the other big clubs from around Europe. Already there is a distinct lack of competition in most of the major European leagues, some of which are at best a two-horse race, with others pretty much over before they have even started; is it really so hard to imagine a new continental competition made up of only the richest clubs?
The prospect of a European Super League with a perceived greater level of competitiveness would without doubt prove an attractive proposition to broadcasters, sponsors and corporate attendees but remains anathema to real football traditionalists who would be indisputably content with the game staying the way it was when we fell in love with it. However as we all know money talks and we don’t offer anywhere near enough of it to have our say.