Premier League

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Game 39?

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It’s floated down the agenda somewhat recently, what with FIFA having bigger fish to fry but it wasn’t too long ago when the Premier League wanted to copy Rugby League by having a festival weekend of fixtures in a new environment. Instead of costing clubs a home game, everyone would be away in an extra round of matches. The idea is that the biggest league in the world would grow the game to foreign markets and for the clubs, it would be a new revenue stream (read: It’s a cash harvest!). Cities would bid for the honour to host these matches, which would have different start times to accommodate the British TV viewer.

Did the Premier League underestimate the strength of feeling that fans felt?

The downsides were that teams would be playing an extra game against an unknown opponent. There was no confirmation on any possible seeding, which makes things worse. If seeded, you could see processions for the big clubs and an almost guaranteed three points, if not…suddenly the Premier League have to sell Bolton v Wigan in Melbourne. So, fixture uncertainty is one thing, potentially distorting the integrity that 38 games provides.

I can see why the idea is popular. Millenium (or Murrayfield) Magic is a great weekend for rugby league fans, as South Wales or Scotland become home to some of the best teams the sport has to offer in blood and thunder encounters (and I say that, not being a huge fan of the sport). Those games generate a superb level of revenue for clubs that desperately need it. It’s fair to say that again, the Premier League looked at America for inspiration. As Chief Executive Richard Scudamore said “if we didn’t do it, another sport will come and do it to us.”

That statement isn’t quite true. The NHL played a few regular season games  in Eastern Europe, the NBA saddled London with a game between two, frankly horrible sides as the Toronto Raptors and the New Jersey Nets played a back-to-back, losing one home game each. Lockout willing, this year Wembley will host it’s sixth American Football game. Malcolm Glazers’ Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be the designated home team  for the second time. They’re one of a few sides that don’t sell their stadium out regularly. Bringing it over here means that it will, especially with the historic Chicago Bears franchise also coming over. Although there is talk of a London team, the logistics and fan demand will still take at least a decade. The Premier League, with it’s global appeal and reach, does not have this problem and it is unlikely that another sport will usurp the popularity of the league through one barnstorm each year.

So where is the medium? Is there possibly a game that could be moved that people would want to watch?

The Community Shield is something of a tired format isn’t it? Champions vs Cup Winners. The curtain raiser will in fact be a Manchester derby, which is a perfect game to highlight the competitiveness and passion that the Premier League has to offer. This would be the game to move. Domestic fans don’t miss out too much, season ticket holders aren’t paying for a game played abroad and it’s at the start of the season, when player burnout isn’t a concern. Getting cities to competitively bid against each other for the game gives the Premier League another revenue stream and this does seem to be the most equitable solution – restricting the supply to one game would see cities tumbling over themselves to host the Premier League teams, although if a non top flight side won the FA Cup, would foreign cities be as interested?

On top of that, I would introduce a concept stolen from America – a North v South All-Star game. I’ve harboured this concept to anyone that’ll listen but the key to this is that players, coaches and fans would vote for their lineups. The only caveat would be they can’t be in the Community Shield. Fan voting would be a fun process too – there would be the usual campaign to get bad players in, but I think they would be overwhelmed by good sense and a set of fans that would want to see an exhibition to open the season. Kits could be auctioned off for charity and from this off the top of my head idea, there exists the potential to really open up revenue and charitable streams, as well as improving the engagement of fans which at the top level, is woeful to non-existent.

These games would be played on the same weekend, with the international game determining the time of the Wembley fixture.  The result would be more money for the league, foreign fans seeing a traditionally competitive game, domestic fans getting a new, interactive concept that would be seen as a true curtain raiser with more players involved and something different for people to get behind.

My view is that Game 39 is just a money-making exercise rather than a genuine attempt to spread the game. It doesn’t need any more publicity. But by sating a demand to take the teams out on foreign soil, without attacking the integrity of the competition and creating a new thing that we the people have a stake in, the Premier League can create the best publicity possible – positive word of mouth.

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