Thursday, 7 February 2008

Why the Premier League is nuts

First we had the increase in ticket prices.

Then we had the demand that season ticket holders buy cup matches as well even before they know where the matches will be played.

Now the Premier League club owners have decided that it would be a jolly wheeze to play matches around the world. Not exhibition or pre-season games. Nor is this the proposal for a mid-winter break which happily coincides with pointless 'tournaments' in the far east. Nope, this is the idea that each Premier League club will play an extra match, for points, in a city anywhere in the world that has bid most for the right to host it.

So expect to see Liverpool vs Newcastle in Singapore and Fulham vs Bolton in... well, probably Fulham or Bolton actually. (And the idea that the biggest clubs will be seeded to avoid each other is gerrymandering at its worst).

This is horribly, horribly wrong for a huge number of reasons but I'll settle on two for now. First, think of the poor fans. There are plenty who are proud of the fact that they have not missed a single game, home or away, for a number of seasons. They put up with exhorbitant prices and the soul being ripped out of the game for the love of their team. Now they will feel honour bound to trek off to Shanghai for yet another match.

Second, this is the first step towards franchising. We are not the US. Over there, the system is different. Teams were set up as franchises of the league and can be bought and sold and moved around the country. And they are.

But football clubs in the UK are organisations with their heart and soul based in their local communities. It may be less apparent with the big Premiership teams who sell more replica shirts in Thailand than they do in their own city, but even so, they are part and parcel of their city. Newcastle United is Newcastle. St James' Park is in the middle of the city and every night countless thousands of geordies will be wearing the black and white stripes on nights out as well as to the game itself. If you allow the club owners to go after the money then it won't be one extra game being played overseas but we will see 'city partnerships' and more and more matches will be played at alternate venues. Hello to the global football league, kindly donated by English fans.

You simply cannot import the US franchising system to UK football. Yet that is what they propose to do. The owners, a growing number of whom are American in any case, believe that when they buy the team they should have the right to do with it whatever they want. Sod the fans and sod the good of the game. The bottom line is all. So the nurturing of new and homegrown talent goes and along with it the fortunes of the England team. The ability of local fans to come and enjoy the game disappears with rising ticket prices. They are replaced by the prawn sandwich brigade and bang goes the atmosphere.

Don't forget, we have already had one English league team franchised off. The owner of Wimbledon did a shady deal with Walmart which involved shifting the club 60 miles away all so that there could be yet another out of town superstore. Sod the fans. The result - the club fell two divisions and got less people through their gates than a new club set up by the self same fans some five divisions lower.

So not only do I think that franchising is wrong in principle, but I also think it won't work.
Instead, every club should be forced to have a fan rep on the board. If they want to go as far as Brentford and Chesterfield and be completely fan owned, then brilliant. But at least let's recognise that fans are one aspect that make our game what it is.

I actually raised this subject at a Lib Dem conference many moons ago. I was told by many people that it should not be the business of politicians to get involved in sport. Apart from the obvious hypocrisy of those politicians who happily pose for pictures with successes like Beckham and the World Cup winning England rugby team, I ask - why the hell shouldn't it be. I don't think sports clubs are mere businesses. They are involved in local communities from top to bottom and we need to recognise that fact and start acting to save our beautiful game.

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