Friendly Fire…or how to navigate through the pre-season dance


No, no, no.  One after the other the emails from professional clubs arrive as responses to our requests for pre-season friendlies.  At least the clubs in question have had the decency to reply – 50% of the requests we send out go unanswered, consigned to the trash folders or passed around the clubs until they fall into someone’s spam filters.  We did consider the idea of requesting friendlies in writing, rather than email, but there’s even less certainty that the request will end up on the desk of the right person, or even if they are in the office during the close season.

Every season we start the planning earlier and earlier, based on feedback we get from the pro clubs that their schedules have already been locked down when we ask.  And initially they all say “it’s too early for us to be arranging our pre-season games” before letting us down gently a few weeks later.

At our level it is all about who you know – there’s very little chance of success trying to appeal to the benevolent side of a pro club, they don’t care.  They are doing you a favour and if something more attractive comes along you will be dropped like a stone.  Likewise, with the average life expectancy of a Football League manager now around 14 months, the summer is a fertile time for change and anything agreed is quickly disagreed when the new man comes in as we found out last season when an unnamed current League One club pulled out of a friendly at The Pan with a few weeks notice due to a change in manager and no chance for us to fill it with a similar fixture. Cobblers is what we said to that this time last year.

We quickly filled our local away games and extended the hand of friendship to our old friends from Dulwich Hamlet and Burgess Hill Town who would bring a fair few thirsty fans but every year we try to have one friendly that will get our fans tapping their feet in expectation.

Our “headline” act this year is a decent one and one that has come about through the patient building of a wider relationship.  We’ve enjoyed a good relationship to date with Chelsea and whilst we would have loved to have seen Conte’s men come down to the Pan, their DS side is still an attractive draw.  Who knows, there could be a famous name or two in the pack come the 22nd July.  

If you don’t ask you don’t get so we asked.  Multiple times.  And then they said yes.  It’s likely to be an attractive enough game for the fans of both sides that we will beat our budget for gate receipts from our pre-season games from this one game alone which puts us on a strong footing financially for the start of the season.

At least there is some logic in our Pre-Season plans which is more than can be said for my once beloved West Ham.  Their “European Tour” as they are calling it consists of three games against two opposition, one of which is a fellow Premier League side (someone obviously hasn’t been reading the Pre-Season Friendly rule book).   Despite the platitudes that come out of the club, surely someone up on high must have questioned the logic behind the games.  A pre-season training camp in Germany (not sure what’s wrong with Butlins at Camber Sands like in the old days) followed by two games against Werder Bremen in 24 hours but in locations over a hundred miles apart.  It’s not even that they are playing in well-known stadiums or in cities that have some link with either club – Schneverdingen has a population of around 20,000 and one of the biggest places of interest is a bog called Pietzmoor.  Twenty four later they decamp in Löhne (literal translation “wages” – how apt) in Nord-Rhein Westphalia.

But then they ramp up their preparations by heading to Iceland where they will take on Manchester City.  Iceland.  What’s the point of that?  No disrespect to Iceland but is there any relevance to the game being played there?

“It is fantastic that we will make history by becoming the first Premier League clubs to face each other in Iceland, and we are really looking forward to visiting Scandinavia, where there is a very big West Ham following.

“Iceland captured the imagination of everyone with their fantastic performance at the European Championships last year and, although the country is small in population, they have a huge love for football.”

The words of Slaven Bilic apparently.  Not sure what definition of Scandinavia he has read but according to Encyclopedia Britannica, Iceland is a Nordic Island Country and not part of Scandinavia.  But even so, what a flimsy reason to suggest why the game is being played there.  I certainly struggled to find any evidence of the West Ham Fan Club, Reykjavik branch (Chelsea and Spurs yes).  On West Ham’s official website there is a directory of hundreds of fan clubs not not one from Iceland.  Perhaps the club has confused the popularity of the discount frozen goods store in Green Street?

Good luck to the Hammers fans heading off to follow the side.  I’m sure the players will acknowledge your loyal support as always even if the club continue to wear their blinkers.

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Post-season Blues….and Citizens and Spurs


A weeks after the end of the season used to be the reserve of testimonials for long-serving players and club officials. Football has moved on, and the likelihood of a player staying at one club for 5 years, let alone a decade is very rare. Look at the final top four in the Premier League – John Terry at Chelsea (11 years since debut) is the stand out exception to this; Man City could boast Micah Richards (10 years) although 179 appearances in ten years and spending the last season on loan to Fiorentina, whilst Arsenal of course have the £2m a year forgotten man (by most outside of the Emirates anyway) Abou Diaby who made his debut in 2006.

This week Crystal Palace honoured the service of their long-serving keeper Julián Speroni who had made over 350 appearances since joining the club in 2004 with a testimonial against former club Dundee. However, Palace appeared to be the exception rather than the rule of playing post-season games with any altruistic meaning.

Yet twenty four hours after Palace honoured their keeper, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur were due to play games of their own. This time it wasn’t to honour a particular player, or reward any member of the club for long service. In fact it is hard to think of any reason apart from a commercial obligation why they would be heading to Canada and Malaysia respectively.

The clubs will argue it is all about building a fan base in new markets, but does that really stack up? With the Premier League season done and dusted less than 72 hours previous, why would Manchester City decide it was a good idea for their squad to fly 3,500 miles to Toronto? Assuming they left on Monday, that’s quite a strain on the players having just completed a full season, and one that was proceeded for many of the players by the World Cup in Brazil and also included a mid-season game in Abu Dhabi against Hamburg. Straight after the game in Toronto they then head to Texas (a mere 1,500 miles) where 24 hours later they take on Houston.

Tottenham Hotspur haven’t exactly been brimming with joy at the prospect of another Europa League campaign next season. Back in April Mauricio Pochettino admitted the Europa League is a hindrance to a Premier League club’s domestic aspirations, yet the club have already headed East for a game in Malaysia on Wednesday before flying onto Australia to take on Sydney on Saturday. They will be joined down under by Chelsea who also take on Sydney on Tuesday night after a stop in Thailand to play the”All Stars XI” on Saturday. It’s hard to have sympathy with the clubs when they complain about fixture congestion then take off on such trips.

What makes these trips even more strange in terms of their timing is a number of the players will be included in International squads for friendlies being played on the 6th and 7th June.  England, Republic of Ireland, Brazil, France, Argentina and Ghana are all due to play that weekend, putting further strain on the players.

These post season games seem to be a growing trend. Not that it detracts from their pre-season games – Manchester City will be heading to Australia to take part in the newly expanded International Champions Cup, taking on Roma and Barcelona in Melbourne, whilst Chelsea play in the North American edition against New York RedBulls, PSG and Barcelona. Spurs will be one of the other four current Premier League sides heading Stateside  as they take on the MLS All-Stars at the wonderfully named Dick’s Sporting Goods Store Stadium in he equally brilliantly named Commerce City in Colorado.

Football is a highly competitive global game on and off the pitch, but do these post-season games really help the players, who are the profit generators when viewed with commercial glasses on? Do you think Mourinho, Pellegrini and Pochettino have the same enthusiasm for these trips as adidas, Samsung, Nike, Etihad, Armour and AIA have? In some instances the club’s have to perform based on clauses in hugely profitable commercial partnerships, underlining the shift from the people’s game to a game dominated by money. That’s not a surprise. Tomorrow’s avid Chelsea or Man City fan is just as likely to live in Shanghai as he is in Streatham or Stretford, snapping up all the club have to offer in a digital format such as the ability to watch these games exclusively in the club’s online TV channel.

Tickets for the games in Thailand and Malaysia aren’t cheap. When Chelsea play in the Rajamangala National Stadium on Saturday in the Singha Celebration Match (Chelsea’s Global Beer Partner), tickets range from around £10 to close to £80, which is almost a third of the average monthly income in Thailand. Even Arsenal cannot boast that price to income ratio yet! Meanwhile over in Selangor where the average Malaysian earns approximately £900 per month, tickets for the AIA Cup (Spurs shirt sponsor) game will cost between £10 and £75 although there are no concessions at all.

I’m sure the fans who are following their teams across the world will enjoy the opportunity to visit some new cities, whilst the marketing officials and PR companies will do their best to get players to look happy at choreographed public appearances. The clubs will stand firmly behind the pretext of building their brand in new markets, but does this simply add more weight to the stealth plans of Game 39 once more?

Postscript – 28/5 – Man City’s game at the BBVA stadium in Houston was postponed after the team arrived in Texas due to issues with the pitch.  Well, that was worth it then.

The real Champions League?


Imagine a tournament where only the biggest names in European football would play, guaranteed admission despite their poor league season, assured of huge prize money irrespective of performance and free from the potential embarrassment of small up-starts humiliating them in front of a global audience of millions.

This is the dream of the biggest clubs of football, the utopia of an European Super League which has been discussed in closed meetings for many years.  Whilst UEFA will bang the drum about the Champions League, the fact it is based on merit means that sometimes the small, unfashionable teams can upset the apple cart.  Whilst Platini and co politely clap the efforts of clubs like Nordsjælland in Denmark or BATE Borisov in Belarus, their inclusion (on merit it should be said) at the expense of Manchester United or AC Milan does not fit with their agenda of raising the stakes in terms of sponsorship and global television rights dollars.  But try as they might, they cannot manipulate the tournament so only the “big clubs” qualify each year.

downloadThis season’s Champions League tournament was missing former champions including Manchester United, AC and Inter Milan.  Huge clubs in their own rights with massive global appeal but all suffered poor domestic seasons meaning that their place at the top table of European Football will have to wait for at least another year.

Football today is all about money though and these clubs are highly marketable in any and every global market.  So it was no surprise that a tournament was arranged, pitting together some of the most marketable clubs in Europe.  In fact it is amazing it took until 2013 for it to happen. In 2013 Canada and the US hosted this tournament, won by Real Madrid, which featured seven of Europe’s biggest clubs plus the Los Angeles Galaxy.  Last season’s edition featured both Manchester clubs, Liverpool, the two Milan teams, Juventus, Real Madrid and Olympiacos, playing games in thirteen venues across North America.  Whilst United beat Liverpool in the final, the main talking point was the unbelievable 109,318 fans who watched the game at University of Michigan’s “Big House”, the first time the stadium had hosted a “soccer” match.  More than 631,000 fans attended the tournament live with a global audience of over 80 million tuning in in over 150 countries. Hard to argue with the success of the tournament based on those numbers.

The clubs may dress these games up as pre-season run outs but the prize money on offer means they are incredibly lucrative for them.  Gone are the days of a trip to Scotland to play Buckie Thistle or Cove Rangers.  Today it is all about 5-star first class travel to the other side of the world to glad hand a few local businessmen and appease the global sponsors.  With North America now fast becoming the biggest overseas market for the “EPL” thanks to the success of some of its exports as well as the “Beckham” effect, it is no surprise that clubs are keen to play these games, even if they are against teams they line up against week in, week out.  Just a week after the Premier League season had finished in May 2013, for instance, 2nd place Manchester City played Chelsea not once, but twice in a matter of days in two venues across North America, watched by nearly 90,000 fans.

This isn’t the first time the USA has tried to woo English clubs over to North America.  In the 1960’s the International Super League was created by a wealthy US Businessman called William Cox who saw an opportunity to bring international football sides to the US to play local sides in more than just exhibition games.  The politics of American Soccer at the time meant that its format was never rigid and was often complicated, but was ultimately a success.  In fact, the creation of the North American Soccer League in 1969 and the import of marquee players was in part due to the success of the tournament.

In its first season in 1960 Cox managed to convince some of the biggest names in European football to play.  The concept was that the ISL was divided into two “sections” formed of six teams played at different times during the close season.  The winners of the two sections then met each other in the final.  The tournament ran for four seasons, with such big clubs as West Ham United winning the tournament.  You can read more about that tournament’s history here.

Whilst 2014 was only the second edition of the International Champions Cup, few can argue that this will be the future of our European game if Platini gets his way.  However, the 2015 version appears to take the tournament to a new level.  This year the ICC will be contested across three continents, with parallel tournaments running in North America, Australia and China.  The line-up for ICC Australia has already been announced, with Real Madrid, Manchester City and AS Roma confirmed for a three-match round robin tournament at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.  Whether the three tournaments will cumulate in a grand final somewhere in the world is yet to be seen.  Will any of those three actually be champions within their domestic leagues?  Very unlikely.

As of the start of April no other teams have announced they will take part in the tournament.  It is inconceivable to think that Barcelona, Manchester United and Chelsea would pass up a chance to play in China if offered the opportunity.  The world’s biggest population, and more importantly, the biggest economy is the market that all the top European clubs want to break.  These football-mad fans do not care that clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid or AC Milan are not champions in their domestic markets.  In some instances, the players become bigger than the actual clubs – Ronaldo and Messi for instance are almost national heroes in China.

Is it a surprise that this season’s edition of the tournament will be the biggest yet? Absolutely not. Until UEFA can engineer the Champions League so that the biggest clubs, and consequently the biggest marketing assets are guaranteed entry into the tournament every season irrespective of their final league position this tournament will continue to grow, and for the clubs involved an important source of additional revenue.

Economic Theory explained by Football – Part 5 – The fake deal in football shirts


In 2012, the major professional sports leagues in the United States lost over $13 Billion in revenue due to sales of counterfeit shirts and merchandise including a whopping $3 Billion alone from the 32 teams in the National Football League (NFL).  Some top end “authentic elite” team shirts which should retail for $250 could be found online with an 80% discount*.   These numbers, whilst staggering on their own, are just a drop in the ocean when we look at the total “black” economy which runs annually into trillions of dollars.

8835116252_85b97df617_kIn Europe, football means something very different to the American version.  Whilst the biggest NFL sides can expect to sell tens of thousands of shirts (neither official shirt supplier Nike or the NFL will actually reveal unit sales), the unit sales for the best selling “franchise”, 2014 Super Bowl champions Seattle Seahawks pales into insignificance to current European Champions League winners Real Madrid who sell over 1.4 million shirt sales per annum, the vast majority now bearing the names of twin superstars Ronaldo and our very own Gareth Bale.  Hot on their heels is Manchester United and Barcelona, each selling over a million shirts per annum. The top ten football clubs sell over 7.5 million shirts per annum across the globe, significantly more than the top ten clubs of any other sport.

Obviously these numbers only reflect the official sales.  Browsing the new adidas store at Bluewater last week I picked up a Real Madrid shirt, complete with an official Champions League badge on the sleeve. The prices tag? £60. Last month Nike and the Football Association found themselves being the talk of the town for the wrong reasons with questions even being raised in the Houses of Parliament over the price of the New England shirt, with those “authentic elite” versions again costing upwards of £90.

Football shirts are not luxury items, yet their official price tag puts them in the same category as similar types of items sold by the likes of Armani, Gucci and Versace.  £60 for what essentially is a t-shirt is simply crazy, irrespective of the new-fangled material used to differentiate the latest version from the almost identical one released the previous year.  They are a lifestyle purchase. Whilst a very small numbers of sales will be based on fashion sense, the vast majority are based on the blind loyalty that football fans have for their team.

In the last few years manufacturers and clubs alike have come under criticism for the number of new kits they bring out.  Whilst nobody is forced to buy the new, upgraded version of the shirt when it is released, that same blind loyalty has has queuing up to buy the shirt on the first day of sale.

It is the rule rather than the exception that clubs bring out a new football shirt every year.  Not just one shirt, but in some instances six different versions if you count the special “European campaign” and goal keeper ones. Chelsea, for instance, have released fourteen different kits, excluding their goalkeepers one, in just five seasons.

With the retail cost increasing every year it is no wonder that the market for counterfeit goods is swelling every year. Just last month a huge haul of fake football shirts was discovered on its way into the United States. More than $1 million worth of Chelsea, Barcelona and other major European football teams shirts were found in a container at Savannah Port in Georgia that had arrived from China.  The US Customs and Border Protection force will readily admit they got lucky in finding the counterfeit items in Georgia – hundreds of millions more pass under their noses every year without detection.

The majority of counterfeit football shirts are made in Asia where raw materials and workers wages are very low.  Over the course of the last few years I’ve been to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, the Night Market in Marrakech, the Ladies Market in Hong Kong and even the Sunday Boot Fairs of Sidcup.  Vast ranges of every major football shirt can be bought for just a few pounds.  The quality of the counterfeits varies per seller, with some offering “special edition” shirts.  When I was in. Morocco two years ago, one stall was selling Manchester United, 2012 Premier League Champions shirts, made specifically for the Reds title success.  The problem? Rivals Manchester City won the title with virtually the last kick of the season.

It is fairly obvious that you aren’t buying the real thing at the price they are being sold for, although production techniques now mean that fakes come in a variety of grades of quality.  At the low end the wrong material and non-exact match colours will be used and often there will be spelling mistakes (Liecester City anyone?) whilst the higher grade ones will often have all the bells and whistles of the real thing including holograms and inside printing.

But there is another side to counterfeit football shirts that you may not have considered and that is the conundrum of brand awareness.

Consider this situation.  Every counterfeit shirt carries the branding of not only the football club, but also their main commercial partner(s).  The whole reason why major brands invest millions into putting their logo on the front of a football shirt is to increase their brand awareness both in existing and new markets.  The hundreds of millions invested by Emirates into their sponsorship of Arsenal, Olympiakos, Paris Saint-Germain, Hamburger SV, AC Milan and now the European Champions, Real Madrid means they have huge global exposure from the sales of official shirts.  But their logo also appears on counterfeit items as well, increasing their global reach albeit through illegitimate channels.

Consumers simply associate Emirates with these shirts, irrespective of the legitimacy of the shirt.  Whilst the airline may be deeply unhappy that their logo is being used on counterfeit items, they are essentially increasing their return on investment through free advertising. I have no doubt that the sales of fake shirts are taken into commercial consideration when they are negotiating their deals, but it is a by-product that they inadvertently benefit from.

And what of the clubs themselves? Football is now a global game.  The elite clubs no longer consider the summer break as a chance to rest and relax.  They now travel far afield to play exhibition games in front of sell-out crowds in new markets.  The forthcoming Guinness International Champions Cup in the USA is an example of this where some of the world’s biggest clubs including three of Emirates sponsored teams, Olympiakos, AC Milan and Real Madrid will play a series of games around the USA to boost interest in the game.  Last year Chelsea travelled to Singapore and Malaysia, whilst Manchester United played in Hong Kong as part of their strategy of increasing their global fanbase.

Many of these fans, in the Far East especially, have significantly less disposal income than their core fans have in England.  They cannot afford the real-deal, climacool, multi-weave new shirt at £60. But they can afford the counterfeit at £5.

By buying a counterfeit shirt, one that they can afford, they are still buying into the brand, happy to market the club by wearing the badge, albeit one that may not be official. Does this make them less of a fan?  By spending 90% less on a shirt they can then afford to buy a ticket or subscribe to the club’s online streaming content.  What is more important to the club? New fans who will engage with the club on a regular basis or ones who will contribute a small amount of money once a season through an official shirt purchase.

The whole sports apparel and merchandise market is unique.  Someone who buys a counterfeit Gucci shirt or a fake IPhone charger is doing so for very different reasons than someone who buys a fake replica Barcelona shirt.  Whilst football clubs need to have a brand protection strategy in place, are counterfeit shirts the maker concern for global sporting brands? It’s an interesting debate, one that will certainly differ whether you have the emotional engagement as a fan or the commercial view as a sponsor or the club itself.

*Source:  Allan Brettman, “NFL, Nike fight to keep counterfeit products off the market,” Orgonian, November 16, 2013.

 

Win Wigan Athletic and Manchester City signed FA Cup Final balls


FA Cup with Budweiser logoThe Ball is Round has teamed up with the official FA Cup sponsors, Budweiser, to offer one lucky fan the chance to win a pair of footballs signed by this year’s FA Cup finalists, Wigan Athletic and Manchester City.

Wembley Stadium played host to one of the most dramatic finals in FA Cup history on Saturday as Ben Watson headed home a last minute goal to give Wigan Athletic their first major trophy in their 81-year history.

Before the match Budweiser premiered an epic Fan Film, embodying the magic of The FA Cup through the eyes of the fans who make it so special.

The film tells the story of this season’s FA Cup from the fan’s perspective and continues Budweiser’s commitment to bring The FA Cup closer to fans. Over the course of the competition thousands of photos have been submitted via Twitter using #tothedream. You can watch the film here

One image from Lewes FC, submitted by TBIR to #tothedream even made it onto Wembley Way as part of a display of images taken throughout the course of the FA Cup.

To be in with a chance of winning this fantastic prize simply email tbir@gmx.co.uk the answer to this question, along with your name, age and telephone number:

How many minutes of stoppage time does the Fourth Official indicate in the Budweiser Fan Film?

a) 3
b) 4
c) 5

Competition closes at 12pm (midday) on 22nd May 2013

Competition is open to 18+ and UK residents only. Terms and conditions apply.

Winning Participant will be informed via email by 3pm on 22nd May 2013. The Winning Participant must confirm acceptance of the prize via return email by no later than 3pm on 24th May 2013.

Please ensure you read full terms and conditions available at http://tsandcs.budweiser.co.uk/budweiser/tbir before entering the competition.

© 2013 AB InBev UK Limited, all rights reserved. Please drink Budweiser responsibly.

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Living the dream.


I was on the phone as I wandered down the steps of Wembley Park tube station and nearly missed it.  In fact I had to do a comedy double-take as my eye caught a glimpse of silver.  There on the wall was a picture.  Not just any picture.  But one that simply summed up the magic of the FA Cup.

8730131244_7aae835fe5_b (1)A silver foil FA Cup….but one not only featuring the badge of the mighty Rooks, but also one I had taken.  There, on the wall, about to be seen by 80,000 people.  The cup, made by Laura Brooks, wife of Club Sec Kev, was the property of young George when he took it along to Lewes’s game against Hendon, ironically played just a long throw-in away at Wembley FC.  A beaming smile spread all the way from Wembley to Brighton.

Manchester City 0 Wigan Athletic 1 – Wembley Stadium – Saturday 11th May 2013
I was here to take in the final, thanks to Budweiser.  Pre-match hospitality was top-notch and I wasn’t one of those fans whose seats are always empty 10 minutes after half time on the TV.  The match report has been read a million times by now but who didn’t cheer (apart from City fans) when Ben Watson’s header hit the back of the net.  Sitting among the City fans I allowed myself an “oooh” and then suppressed a smile, as too did the guests around me.  In one simple nod of the ball, the magic of the FA Cup returned to our hearts.  Yes, the FA have ripped the soul out of the tournament, but even as a neutral, fuelled with free food and beer, it was a day never to forget..

To the dream….


Tomorrow I will be attending my first ever FA Cup Final at Wembley stadium.  Even though I’m not a Wigan Athletic or a Manchester City fan, I am still very excited…oh, and those top chaps at Budweiser have only gone an included a couple of my pictures in the official promotional video, To the dream.  Happy days.