Despite the introduction of pseudo-friendly tournaments such as the Emirates Cup and International Champions Cup, both aiming to promote European football’s expansion into the North American and Asian markets, the proposal for an official league match to be played abroad has once again emerged, provoking controversy and disdain from fans and players alike.
The most recent controversy surrounding the aptly described ‘media arms race’ is La Liga’s partnership with Relevent Sports* and the proposal to play Girona’s ‘home’ match against Barcelona, not only in another country, but in a different continent entirely - the USA. The removal of a hugely significant home game from last season’s 10th placed side against the current champions highlights just how far the beautiful game has been removed from its humble roots. It should therefore come as no surprise that this proposal has been met with almost universal criticism.
*the organisation who’ve run the International Champions Cup since 2013
Although plans are being put in place to subsidise travel for Spanish fans, this does not make up for the significant time and effort that it would take to attend.
Even Real Madrid has succumbed to the incessant over-reaching of the game’s official bodies to accommodate Asian and American audiences. Despite coming off the back of winning a third consecutive Champions League, their opening league game against Getafe recorded its lowest home attendance in nearly a decade. While it can be argued that Cristiano Ronaldo’s summer departure to Juventus may have been a significant factor, a 10:15pm kick off and post-midnight finish on a Monday night proved enough to deter many.
Sports doing it right
American Football and Basketball are the shining examples of other nations successfully exporting their wares abroad. In 2007 the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants played the first regular season NFL game outside North America at Wembley Stadium. A further 22 NFL games have since been played in London with an additional four scheduled for 2018. Similarly, eight NBA regular season games have now been played in the UK, with others have been played in Japan and Mexico.
Despite the NFL’s London debut being hailed as a “mud fest” by star quarterback Eli Manning, the North American import has proven to be a success despite the NFL losing money on each fixture. While the end goal is to establish a permanent London franchise and secure a new European fanbase, the move continues to be an unpopular one amongst fans in the States who’ve ultimately had a home game removed from their calendar.
An already saturated market
The quest for enhanced global broadcasting revenue remains a priority for many organisations but as TV viewership continues to decline alongside match day attendance (although exact figures remain unclear), clubs are playing a dangerous game when assuming that consistent, local support is predetermined. Potentially disillusioning your loyal fanbase for the promise of a new North American audience is a slippery slope.
The NFL experienced a 10% decline in viewership last year with analysts predicting a further reduction this season, not helped by the controversy surrounding player protests during the American national anthem. Even all-star New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has weighed in on the debate, contributing the decline to the ever-expanding variety of content: “There’s so much for us to consume… I don’t follow it [the NFL] like I used to because there are so many other things to follow.”
Just a matter of time
As of last week, protests backed by both Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos and Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets have led to the proposal being put on hold. Busquets, the vice president of the Spanish Footballers’ Association aligned with the player union’s anger at not being consulted prior to the announcement. Spanish Federation president Luis Rubiales similarly criticised Javier Tebas, the outspoken head of La Liga and driver behind the US based match. Having announced just a week before a 90% chance of the game going ahead, Tebas has since come under fire for the lack of consultation with the game’s governing bodies and the Royal Spanish Football Federation, having not gained the necessary approvals to carry out his plan.
While this combination of executive outrage and player power seems to have successfully prevented the first La Liga match from being played abroad, La Liga’s agreement with Relevent runs for 15-years, and as we’ve seen in the past, concepts such as these are rarely forgotten. For better or worse money talks and the inevitable has simply been delayed.
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