I know, you’re probably sick of hearing about the 39th game and money and business and the Premier League. Maybe the FA Cup’s excitement this weekend brought you back a little taste of football’s roots. But the globalisation evangelists in world sport are not going away, and anyone who wants to understand and anticipate the future of football ought to read this revealing interview in the Guardian with Joe Bailey, a top executive with the Miami Dolphins and one of the last men standing fully behind the 39th game proposal.
All good ideas seem to get momentum. If it’s a good idea, many people will embrace it and eventually it will happen. This, in my opinion, is a very, very good idea.
‘As an operating philosophy, fortune favours the audacious. Be big and be bold. This is a big, bold statement by the Premier League. It’s for the critics, the ankle biters I like to call them, to query it, but left to the critics, nothing would ever get done. I think eventually people will say, “Why were we so stupid that we didn’t do it before?” We want matches here in Miami, absolutely, yes.’
One could make much mirth out of his Thomas Friedman-esque gibberish — “We’re in the happiness business”, “We’re all interconnected now, the world is flat.” — but as the man who brought the NFL to Wembley last year and who wants that 39th game in Dolphins Stadium, the likes of Joe Bailey are still more likely to influence Richard Scudamore than a hundred thousand signatures on a petition, unfortunately.
In pushing the idea that Miami could be a host for a Premier League game, the article raises the point — one not mentioned by US Soccer chief Sunil Gulati last week when he discussed his scepticism about the proposal — that another country does already host a competitive tournament in America: InterLiga, a post-season tournament that determines Mexico’s entrants to the Copa Libertadores. This year, the fourteen matches in the tournament were spread between Texas and California.
What the article doesn’t note is that unlike a 39th Premier League game, InterLiga is a valuable property related to Major League Soccer, whose existence is unmentioned in the entire piece. The United States is discussed as “virgin territory” but clearly, is not the case: MLS is the eleventh best attended league in the world on average per game. Over three million people showing up might not be huge relative to other American sports, but it’s not an empty space, either.
In any case, Soccer United Marketing, owned by MLS, holds the marketing, promotional and broadcast rights to InterLiga and that source of revenue is one reason why more and more investment is coming into MLS (every owner has a stake in SUM). It’s success aided the creation of SuperLiga, another valuable series of games between Mexican and MLS teams.
Perhaps if SUM is involved in organising a Premier League extravaganza in the U.S., it could happen here. But right now, the 39th game would not provide the same benefit for domestic American soccer that InterLiga does, so there’s no reason for US Soccer to allow it if FIFA remains opposed, as seems likely.
One final interesting and perhaps more positive thing is that Bailey does raise the issue of addressing the competitive imbalance in the Premier League.
You will see a much more sophisticated group of leaders in sport, of teams, of leagues, of federations. They will come to realise that the single most important thing [to a competition] is the quality of ownership. Every league will have to do a better job of screening and educating owners.
‘In soccer you will see – and I wouldn’t like to say when, but it will happen because of consumer demand – a significant push towards making the playing field equal to all, for example in terms of player acquisition. It’s not good having 17 of 20 teams knowing they cannot win the league before it starts. You need some rules that stop a team being able to buy a championship. Money, in that respect, should be taken out of the equation.’
This is a reference to two key tenets of the NFL: firstly, its much closer and stricter vetting of ownership, which might be a good thing if we want to keep the likes of Alisher Usmanov from taking over Premier League clubs. And secondly, there’s a reference to the varied methods that keep the playing field level in American sports: revenue sharing, salary caps, luxury taxes, and so on. Brian raised this on these pages just a couple of weeks ago. Applying that to a league that isn’t a closed shop or protected via anti-trust exemptions will not be easy, and Bailey doesn’t discuss this.
They are, however, things worth raising: the NFL offers both positive and negative lessons for the Premier League.