Many of you will already be aware of the concept of “jumping the shark”. Named for an episode of “Happy Days” in which The Fonz jumped over a shark on a pair of water skis, it has come to signify a step too far. A metaphorical line which has been overstepped. Today, as you may have heard, the Premier League jumped the shark. I have been pondering over the last few weeks whether the Premier League has been orchestrating recent shenanigans for our entertainment. The low comedy of Newcastle United and the slowly building crisis at Anfield seem to have been tailor-made for cynics such as me, but I was, I have to say, caught somewhat by surprise by this. It’s an announcement so staggering in its avarice that it has taken most of the afternoon for me to fully absorb it. It’s brilliant.
For those of you that hadn’t already found this out, the Premier League wants to play matches abroad. It doesn’t end there. They plan to extend the season by one match (to thirty-nine matches) and have every club play one match abroad in January, starting in January 2011. As if that’s not enough, the plan is for them to auction off the rights to host two matches each to five different cities, with two matches to be played in each city over the same weekend. Brilliant! This is the moment at which the Emperor’s new clothes have finally vanished from view. It is the point at which any pretence of caring about anything other than money suddenly vaporises. It is the point at which the Premier League finally says to fans of clubs in its own home country that you don’t matter any more. It’s not about you. It’s about the global dollar, and nothing is going to get in the way of it. Consider, if you will, this magnificent quote from Peter Scudamore, the Premier League’s Chief Executive:
“We believe that an ‘international round’ of matches will enhance the strength of the Barclays Premier League as a competition; create extra interest in all 20 Premier League Clubs at home and abroad; and allow increased investment in talent development and acquisition, facilities as well as our football development and community programmes.”
Yes, Peter. These will be the “football development and community programmes” that have left the England football team without one single international class goalkeeper then, I presume. I’m also interested in how this creates “extra interest in all 20 Premier League clubs at home”. Isn’t there enough already? If there isn’t, there’s a reason for that. It’s because there never will be. You could build one stadium with a capacity of fifty million people and put the entire population of Britain in it with Sky Sports being broadcast on the palms of their hands and it wouldn’t be “enough”, because once you start pursuing money and money alone, enough is never “enough”. They’re fooling no-one. Everyone knows what this is about. The Fonz has done his trick and he’s already back at Arnold’s, drying himself off, whilst enjoying a root beer and a cheeseburger.
For the purposes of argument, though, let’s take a moment to consider the details of the proposition. Clubs will be seeded, so that no one city hogs all of the “big” clubs. This still, however, causes a massive degree of lop-sidedness in the fixture list. Using this season’s table as an example, someone would have to play Manchester United or Arsenal three times, whilst someone would have to play Derby County three times. Imagine being relegated on goal difference at the end of the season, knowing that your team had played Manchester United three times, while the team just above you had played, say, Portsmouth three times and beaten them in Shanghai the previous January. Would you be any happier, knowing that at least the directors of your club were £10m better off? Thought not. Imagine, if you will, being an inhabitant of, say, Los Angeles, bidding an enormous amount of money on two Premier League matches and ending up with Bolton Wanderers vs Reading and Manchester City vs Fulham. If we assume that The Big Four are separated, how many of the other six matches are going to sell out a 50,000 capacity stadium? It could even prove to be counter-productive. Having been fed a televised diet of Rooney and Ronaldo, how will the residents of, say, Tokyo react to seeing Manchester City and Newcastle United bore the hell out of everyone for ninety minutes? They may never see the league in the same light again.
When the NFL played its exhibition match at Wembley at the end of last year, a conference was held for Premier League clubs on how to market themselves abroad. The clubs appear to have left it high on a mixture of champagne bubbles and talk of big, big money, and this scheme is its logical upshot. The hubris, the self-importance and the greed of modern football are all present and correct. One of its first vocal supporters has been David Gold of Birmingham City, who seems blissfully unaware of the fact that Birmingham might well not even be in the Premier League by 2011 when he says, “We are making history. The Premier League, which is the greatest league the world has ever known, is being adventurous. It is looking forward and is looking to take an English brand global. The idea is very worthy of consideration. I find this amazingly exciting”. In fact, in calling the Premier League “the greatest league the world has ever known”, his lack of self-awareness is almost mesmerising.
The Football Supporters Federation have issued an understandably robust criticism of the idea, and one would like to think that the FA and the media would have a thing or two say about it. Don’t go holding your breath waiting for it, though. The FA’s initial statement on the matter has been unsurprisingly weak-kneed, and we can expect little more opposition from the press. Where do you think this statement might come from?
“The growth of the Premier League has been impressive in the last 15 years thanks to the sale of television rights in this country, but now the market in the United Kingdom is becoming saturated and it is the overseas market which is now the big target area. This is a chance for the Premier League to showcase its product around the world. Some fans may feel aggrieved, but their concerns will be outweighed in the eyes of the clubs by the financial advantages. The clubs will see this as a chance to make more money so they can invest in new facilities and better players. It will be like cities bidding for the Olympic Games or the World Cup”
Peter Scudamore? David Gold? Wrong. It comes from Mihir Bose, the BBC Sports Editor – a man who, if he can’t offer any more of a robust critique of such a transparently money-orientated, non-sporting proposal, should probably be relieved of his position with immediate effect and moved to their “Business” section instead. Supporters of Premier League clubs, about whose interests very little (as ever) is being said, should surely now, if they weren’t before, be wondering why they bother. The Premier League seems intent on fulfilling what it regards as its “destiny” to become a wandering, global circus. For the average English supporter of a Premier League football club, though, the message is a stark one. The fact of the matter is this – your money and your support simply aren’t enough any more. It has been coming for some time, with the renaming of the Premiership as the Premier League to align with the fact that the league is called the “English Premier League” abroad and the reorganisation of kick-off times on Saturdays to better suit Far East and American TV audiences (in case you’d been wondering why two live matches are scheduled at lunchtime and tea-time every week, that’s the reason). For the domestic audience, this might just turn out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for a good many Premier League supporters, and that, in turn, could be the best thing to happen for lower division football in England for years.