22_-lagos-football-shirts-devesh-ubaTHERE WAS a time when the only competition between football leagues was on the field of play – top teams from each country flexing their muscles against each other. That’s how success was measured. Today, football leagues are competing for the hearts and minds of people , along with their disposable income.  Words like “penetration”, “critical mass”, “marketplaces” and “exposure” are part of the dialogue of marketing people who are frantically selling football to the masses. It’s exciting, we are told.

At Soccerex this week, representatives of the Premier League, La Liga and Major League Soccer spoke about their plans for global domination. They could well be commodity salesmen rather than football people. All-consuming leagues such as the Premier may create one of the most visible and compelling TV products, but their aspirations also leave behind them some wreckage.

While La Liga, the Premier and Bundesliga have all flourished in recent years, and the French and Italian leagues are hanging on their shirt-tails, the story in some  parts  of Europe is not so good.

Average attendances – winners and losers

  Change % 2000-01 2015-16
Poland +104% 4,465 9,103
Switzerland +73% 6,204 10,751
Portugal +46% 7,382 10,803
Germany +41% 30,755 43,300
Netherlands +26% 15,407 19,387
Belgium +22% 9,757 11,905
Sweden +18% 8,441 9,961
Spain +17% 24,408 28,568
England +11% 32,907 36,461
Denmark +24% 5,842 7,253
Norway +21% 5,564 6,711
Czech Rep +12% 4,550 5,080
Greece +10% 3,626 3,978
Austria -3% 6,480 6,274
Serbia -10% 2,851 2,556
France -10% 23,160 20,896
Russia -11% 12,404 11,085
Croatia -17% 2,942 2,453
Scotland -20% 15,724 12,604*
Hungary -25% 4,060 2,628
Italy -25% 29,598 22,162
Romania -51% 6,778 3.345
Ukraine -54% 9,304 5,008
Bulgaria -60% 5,392 2,108

Adolfo Bara of La Liga, David Dein – “one of the architects of the Premier” – and Major League Soccer’s  Kathy Carter may have enthused about the growth and potential of their leagues, but there seems to be little regard for the impact it has on the rest of the world.

Dein, who spoke of his brainchild as being “gladiatorial and tribal”, revealed some figures which were really quite startling. The Premier has genuine global appeal – it’s 1.2bn viewers include 346 million from Asia Pacific ex-China, 42 million from China, 454 million from Europe and even 82 million from sub-Saharan Africa.  These statistics may, indeed, support the claim of the Premier to be the most exciting football league in the world, “invigorating lives across the globe”, but how much of that audience comes at the expense of support that might have otherwise be directed towards Urawa Reds, Boca Juniors, Dukla Prague or Slovan Bratislava – in other words, local clubs?

It’s a free market economy when it comes to football, so the people “selling” La Liga or the Premier are not going to worry too much about the impact on domestic football in less affluent parts of Europe. The problem is, this is not going to diminish, for league officials now see global expansion as something of an imperative, especially with the growing middle classes and favourable demographics of Asia, notably in places like China, India, Thailand and Indonesia. There’s gold in them thar hills, as they say, and it comes in the form of merchandise and TV rights.

One of the reasons that new markets are being explored could be that football in England, for example, may well have reached saturation point. Dein pointed out that Premier stadiums are at 96% capacity and some clubs, such as Arsenal, have huge waiting lists.

La Liga, of course, has the enormous benefit of having Real Madrid and Barcelona in its ranks – arguably the two biggest clubs in the world and two of the first truly global clubs. Spanish football has a new TV deal that has changed the shape of broadcasting revenues in Spain and it has clear global aspirations, but too many people refuse to look beyond the big two. Bara explained this represents a big challenge for La Liga, but there are moves to drive more content out of the other clubs to let people know that there’s more to life in Spain than Ronaldo and Messi.

Even though Major League Soccer is on a much lower plane, Kathy Carter explained that the league has ambitions to grow on the world stage. Domestically, MLS has made progress and has established itself as a credible set-up – something that has often been missing in the various incarnations of US football.

Major League Soccer – steady progress

  Av. Attendance Goals per game Champions
2016 21,471 2.82 ?
2015 21,574 2.76 Portland Timbers
2014 19,148 2.86 LA Galaxy
2013 18,594 2.62 Sporting Kansas
2012 18,807 2.64 LA Galaxy

The US may have a long way to go before it attains a broader appeal, but you sense it is a realistic goal. It is arguably at a similar stage of development as China, although you cannot see any time soon when US clubs might dominate transfer windows. “China will be a major force in football in the future,” said Dein, pointing to the money being poured into the game at home and abroad by Chinese investors. This shows no sign of letting up, so the globalization of the game will relentlessly continue.

And this will include the Premier League broadening its footprint still further. Dein said that “all markets” are a priority – he predicts a boom in Africa at some point soon – and that the league could ill-afford to be complacent – “the Bundesliga and La Liga will be breathing down our necks”.

Not on the field of play, though, for the Premier, for all its wealth, did not have a single player in the top 10 of UEFA’s rankings. Furthermore, there has been only one European trophy winner in the past eight seasons – Chelsea, who have won both competitions. Coupled with the poor performance of the national team, it does raise the question of whether the Premier is merely an overhyped, over-marketed consumer product?

Dein slightly side-stepped the tricky subject of too many foreign players as the root cause of England’s decline, almost joyful that 70% of players turning out in the Premier League cannot play for England. “These things are cyclical,” he said. “Things will change…we will produce the players.”

That might be hard if the globalisation drive carries on, which it will – especially if more and more foreign investors come into the Premier. The big football leagues lack nothing in glamour, glitz and drama. The Premier is a huge gravy train – who is going to want to get off to develop young players? Who is going to give managers the time to nurture their fledgling talent? And which club will feel the urge to look closer to home rather than keep sticking pins in a map to secure their next major signing?