We don’t usually do speculative thinking on Pitch Invasion, but the Premier League’s increasingly disastrous 39th game concept has got us thinking. Was this a major PR goof — they seem to have pissed off everyone in world football not wearing Barclays English Premier League shades — or do they have some clever fall-back plan in mind? We raise a frightening prospect.
I’ve seen it argued in numerous places that the plan all along has been for the Premier League to back down from such an audacious proposal as an entire extra round of games, argue there’s still a need for international exposure, and agree to a watered down plan that sees some teams sacrifice home games for abroad. The problem with this is it would do little for the smaller clubs, who know a Wigan-Birmingham clash won’t sell tickets in Shanghai. Moreover, it would have much less appeal to the big clubs, who already earn huge amounts at home games: the extra revenue they’d generate by playing abroad would be minimal. They’d rather play glamorous friendlies overseas instead as extra games, surely. Could be possible, but I think there’s a smarter and scarier alternative.
What’s needed is to find a way to play more meaningful games abroad with the biggest teams guaranteed to be involved, whilst not intruding on the league schedule and giving a chance for the smaller clubs to be involved and make money. Are you thinking playoffs, too? (Thanks to Dave Boyle for raising this prospect to me) Say the top eight qualify, for example.
Here are some reasons why this could work (note: “could” does not mean “should”):
- Playoffs already exist within the English league structure, having been introduced to the Football League in 1987. They are still used to determine the final promotion spot for the three leagues below the Premier League. Therefore, the Premier League will be able to say they are not a foreign concept to English league football.
- They will argue that a playoff to decide the winners will “even the playing field”. They will link it to the historic appeal of the F.A. Cup, as fans love a knockout tournament. They will say it gives smaller clubs a chance to compete with the biggest clubs, ending the endless and damaging hegemony of your Arsenals, Chelseas and Man Utds for the title. Smaller clubs will vote for it if it’s a playoff of six or eight teams, thinking they can sneak in at the bottom end and win the whole thing. It would be perfect for the likes of Everton and Tottenham.
- It will be a massive money-spinner. Think of the build-up a big Premier League clash gets on a given weekend and multiply that by four. Compared to the 39th game idea as a television event, why would fans in Asia be more interested in watching Man Utd-Wigan in a regular league game in New York than in Manchester? They would, in fact, be less so as it removes the heritage and atmosphere they’re interested in. But add an extra meaningful game that decides something, and it’d be a big television draw.
- They could play the games anywhere and there’d be fewer complaints than moving a league game abroad. Perhaps the first round would be home and away fixtures (thus giving local fans an extra game), then a final four-team tournament over a weekend in a different country each year — a real event that New York or Tokyo might actually want to bid for, three games with massive television exposure worldwide. They would sell-out anywhere for all games, unlike for many of the prospective 39th games.
None of those things, of course, make it the right thing to do. There are also some obvious negatives:
- It’s manifestly unfair to award the title to a team other than the one that won the “regular season” league based on everyone playing everyone twice. Why should the playoffs decide this? Playoffs in the North American sense are a reasonable way to decide things given the divided conference system, which mean not everyone plays everyone else an even number of times. Sure, it’s not as fair as a straight league, but it gives a reason for the playoffs to exist. This is not the case for the Premier League. Unfortunately, they can point to the Football League playoffs as an example of this unfair system already existing in England. There’s no reason in terms of fairness for the third placed Championship team not to be promoted automatically and to possibly lose out to the sixth place team via the playoffs, but it happens every year.
- The scheduling would be a serious problem. It’s hard to see how they could make room for an extra tournament at the end of the season, especially in World Cup years. It would further exhaust players.
- It would devalue the regular season enormously. Only Champions League qualification and seeding for the playoffs would give the race to the finish any appeal. The integrity of the league would be destroyed.
- It would also destroy the F.A. Cup. The big teams would treat it with even more cavalier contempt, as no-one would want that extra game interfering at the end of the season. It would introduce another knockout tournament with more television appeal. We know the BBC prefers to show Wigan-Chelsea than Liverpool-Havant & Waterlooville already.
- It would be a major challenge to other international tournaments if it was a commercial success. An early summer major event would impact on the Champions League, European Championships and World Cup negatively. It would also generate further huge revenue for the Premier League teams, furthering their international buying power and forcing La Liga or Serie A to pursue moneyspinning ventures themselves to compete or face losing the best players. But there’d be little anyone could do: it’d still be a money-spinner even if FIFA ensured they played the play-offs domestically.
- The rich would still get richer. Just as teams have bankrupted themselves chasing the pot of Champions League fools gold, so Premier League teams would burst a gut trying desperately to get into the playoffs. Even mid-table teams would feel the need to spend lavishly at the January break to give themselves a shot at the Big Title. But given their larger resources, we’d know the Big Four will always make it, and the rest would be fighting for a few spots. It’d be a big, tempting and foolish gamble for mid-level clubs to go for. Meanwhile, the likes of Liverpool would have ever more guaranteed lucrative income to pay down their massive debts.
That final reason is why this could still be pursued as an alternative. Even the elite Premier League teams need to find new revenue streams, and if the 39th game doesn’t work out, you can bet this will be a serious possibility. What do you think?