How long before the Premier League’s global bubble bursts?

What happens when the Premier League bubble bursts?

It’s not the most technical or skillful league in the world, and if you look at league tables all over Europe’s top football leagues, it’s not even the most competitive. But it is one of the more passionately supported leagues (look at the number of away fans, compared to most leagues), it is probably the most intense league, and is certainly the best marketed league.

Every year, Premier League clubs make the upper echelons of the lists compiling the richest clubs in the world, and thanks to their new TV deal, it’s safe to assume that all 20 Premier League clubs will all fit snugly into the top 30 in the next year or two.

It is fairly miraculous that Leicester City could win a Premier League title and have fans in Thailand toasting their success. And it’s also a fairly miraculous thing – in terms of world history and simple geography – that Leicester City could have every single one of their ad boards express the club’s sympathies at the death of the King of Thailand.

The obvious reason why these things can happen in Leicester is because they’re owned by a Thai billionaire. But that’s not an answer that gets to the root of the issue. Isn’t it just miraculous that Leicester City are owned by a Thai billionaire at all? But that is the global world of the Premier League.

When we talk about – and plan for – the future, we’re always flying blind. But the spectre of the past usually casts a shadow. We benefit from studying history so as to never have to suffer the pains of repeating its mistakes. Nowadays, we are losing some of that luxury. We can’t look to the peaks and troughs of the history of print or broadcast media when we’re talking about digital media. As such, change in that area is usually done through popular demand as much as looking to predict based on history. Perhaps it’s not any harder these days, but it certainly feels like it.

But when the Premier League plans for its future, it still looks at the past. In the 1990s and early 2000s, football clubs in Britain tried to crack new markets. The USA and South East Asia were targeted, Manchester United and others went halfway around the world for pre-season friendlies and were shocked by the level of attention they were getting from thousands of supporters camped outside the buildings everywhere they went, from the airport to the hotel, just to catch a glimpse.

But if finding new markets are how Premier League clubs rolled in the past, they’re trying the same thing again. Only this time, instead of just looking to connect with new lands, they’re looking to connect with new demographic groups. Social media engagement and the lure of celebrity allows them to do that. The grounds are cleaner, and the games are played by clubs who engage with fans on social media and are inclusive of everyone.

That’s exactly what football should be like. And yet, for the Premier League at least, it risks losing its edge – the rough passion and intense fervour that made people around the world fall in love with football in the first place.

And from a simple economic point of view, their strategy makes sense. A certain type of fan will never abandon football. And many others are engaged enough that they don’t really mind the media circus around it – or can ignore it. It’s also true that families, businesses, sponsors and foreign audiences who have fallen in love with the Premier League are often able to spend more money on football than the demographics that make up the more traditional fans. In fact, almost half of China’s population is not yet online, but obviously that number will grow. And for football clubs, it’s almost like a race to snap up new fans: half of China’s population represents over half a billion people, so the potential for new and dedicated fans to pitch to is an attractive prosepct.

But even if clubs did make football more affordable – both for local fans and for those traveling huge distances to see games, as both could use a financial break – the structure would fail. Imagine making a £60 ticket £20, and consider it from a club’s point of view. That might bring a different type of supporter to the game – and that’s probably a good thing from their angle – but now they have a shortfall of £40. The issue becomes, do those supporters drink enough beer or buy enough merchandise to make up for the loss? Or can that money be made up in the more intangible benefit of a more fervent atmosphere?

But now we’re back to bubbles bursting. Because if the choice is the economic one, then the Premier League becomes about selling its product around the world in televisual form, not about selling a product on a pitch in physical form to physical, in-stadium spectators. And the televisual product relies quite a bit on the sound and fury of a Premier League fixture. Very few other leagues can boast away support like the Premier League, and very few can boast such wonderful crowds, packed stadiums, and intense games where even the worst teams can beat the best.

It can’t always stay that way. If you lose the passion in the stands, you lose the sound and fury. The passion on the pitch might stay the same, though there is probably some truth in the school of thought that says that the crowd lifts the players on the pitch. Derbies always seem that bit more intense, and it often seems like a lot of that has to do with the crowd and the noise.

And if football loses that, how long before the bubble bursts? How long before people start think that the sport is no longer worth their time? That the action isn’t worth their subscription fees or the spectacle isn’t what it used to be? And will the celebrity status of footballers be able to compensate for that? Or will people come to the conclusion that other areas of entertainment do celebrity better than sport anyway?

Football is now a global game, but if it doesn’t protect the local fans who made it into what it is today, then the bubble is probably closer to bursting than we ever thought.

About author

Chris McMullan
Chris McMullan 480 posts

Chris is a sports journalist and editor of Digital Sport - follow him on Twitter @CJMcMullan_

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