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.

 

Deadline Day (lack of) drama


Monday 1st September 2014. Transfer deadline day. Whilst Sky Sports have sent reporters to the four corners of the English footballing universe for a sighting of a player/manager/agent/tea lady arriving in a car with blacked out windows, I am sitting outside a deserted Dripping Pan at Lewes FC. With the squad currently decimated by injuries and suspensions I am sure that any minute someone of interest will turn up.

photo 3 (2)Actually, only part of the above is true. Yes, I was at the Pan, but it was for our regular board meeting. However, who could resist the madness of transfer deadline day? The two days in the season when the transfer window closes have become the most important dates in the footballing calendar. Once upon a time, when the internet didn’t exist, the Christmas sales were widely covered on TV, with reporters positioned in the doors of Harrods to witness the madness. Given the opportunity to grab a bargain, normally calm individuals are turned into monsters. Scientists tell us this change in behaviour is related to the science of non-linear dynamic systems, aka Chaos Theory.

This theory can be applied perfectly to the madness that occurs on that final day of the transfer window, when panic and desperation replace common sense. Normally prudent football clubs act like kids in a sweet shop, grabbing any players they can as the time ticks down just so they can say to their fans that they have taken part. The expectations of fans today is that the club has to strengthen at all costs, in many cases just to keep up with Jones United. What other reason can there be for the ever increasing sums of money spent by 20 Premier League clubs?

This summer all records were broken. As clubs counted the cost of their acquisitions and players’ agents booked their holidays on their own private islands, many observers simply scratched their heads. The cost? Over £900 million.

When you look at some of the transfers, it is difficult to see how many clubs will ever get a return on their investments. As a knee-jerk reaction to the season from hell, and the indifferent start to the season, the biggest spenders were Manchester United, who paid over £153 million on players such as Di Maria (just £59 million), Danny Blind and Falcao. Whilst Manchester United have been the most successful English club of the past two decades, their record in paying big money for players has been appalling. Nani (£17 million), Anderson (£20 million), Fellaini (£27 million) and Veron (£28 million) have been the headline makers for the wrong reason, but also don’t forget Bebe, signed for over £7 million, who played twice for United. Whether the £37 million they paid for Juan Mata last season will ever be justified is another story. Incredibly expensive mistakes.

Liverpool decided to just buy the whole Southampton team this summer, spending over £115 million in total, although they did get a significant sum from Barcelona for Luis Suarez. West Ham’s outlay of £35 million included £12 million for Enner Valencia, a massively overpriced player and testament to the effect of a couple of goals in the World Cup. Mark my words, he will be loaned out to a team in Spain within a year, citing homesickness as a reason why he hadn’t scored any goals.

Clubs simply do not learn their lessons. West Ham have an appalling record of making panic buys in the transfer windows. Faced with massive valuations on English players (Andy Carroll at £15 million, for instance) they are forced to spread their net far and wide. Out of the 20 Premier League clubs, only two made English players their biggest signings (Adam Lallana from Southampton to Liverpool and Jack Rodwell from Manchester City to Sunderland). Ten of these big signings had played in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, with players such as Sanchez (Arsenal – £35 million) and Di Maria (Manchester United – £59 million) increasing their values with a couple of decent 90-minute run outs.

Interestingly, the club that spent the least amount of money this summer was Stoke City, who paid £3m for Spanish midfielder Bojan Krkic in their only real investment. In the past few years they had actually been one of the biggest spenders, not only in England, but across Europe, laying out over £63 million during the past five years. That pales into insignificance compared to Premier League new boys Queens Park Rangers, who took their spending in the same period to over £106 million with their signing of Sandro from Spurs for £10 million. ‘Appy ‘Arry also brought in Nico Kranjcar for the third time in his career. The Croatian must have something on ‘Arry – that is the only explanation for such an average player being given expensive chance after chance.

So back to a wet and windy Dripping Pan. Just like all other non-league clubs, the transfer window is irrelevant. Thanks to the quirks of the transfer system in the lower leagues we can bring in players at any time, right up until the final few weeks of the season. There wouldn’t be any late arrivals tonight, nor would there be any dramatic midnight press conferences. Would anyone new be joining the Rooks? Quite possibly, but for now Messrs. Wilson and Bloor were playing their cards very close to their chest.

 

Champions League Nights: Part 2 – Sofa United


Manchester United vs. Real Sociedad – Champions League – Venue: my couch by Luge Pravda
A7cShDyCQAArcV3Anyone who knows me well enough will know I am able to watch more live football on the weekend than I was ever able to back in the UK (thanks to no Saturday 3pm embargo; and now new US rights owner, NBC, showing every one of those 3pm game on what Americans like to call TV ‘real estate’). One casualty though has often been the Champions League ties, being as they are in midweek and in slap bang in an Eastern seaboard afternoon. Of course, for many ties there was a purely coincidental increase in ‘business meetings’ in my calendar at around 3pm Eastern Standard time, 8pm back at home: meetings between myself, a pint or two and a TV screen at the local soccer showing bar in Lower Manhattan. The best kind of business meetings if you ask me. However, as I am currently on a sabbatical I have no such worries about work inconveniently getting in the way of an afternoon European tie. At least not for the time being. Perhaps in the knowledge I would be watching the match in full, Stuart asked me if I would like to write a review of the match and who was I to turn down another slice of The Ball is Round.

First things first, I liked the look of the team the team: Jones getting a chance at center back; a chance for Kagawa, and to a lesser extent Hernandez to show what they are capable of (Chicharito could well score a hat trick but he ain’t going to usurp RVP when the latter is fit, let’s face it); and Giggs in midfield. Moyes must have expected less of an emphasis on protecting the back four – and for periods of the match this was the case – but Fellaini, who has looked off the pace and prone to wayward passes in recent weeks, must have been a tad disappointed. On the subject of Kagawa, there appears to be a ‘movement’, a body of fans railing against the club, or more accurately Moyes, for his exclusion. To those people I say this: do you see him every day in training? Moyes clearly sees something; or maybe he is simply not fully fit. And you know what Klopp, you can keep your opinion on you ex player to yourself too. Thanks.

United flew out of the traps: the first move of the match results in a goal: a wonderful snaky wriggly run from my favorite player – Rooney (despite everything that has happened or not depending on who you believe) – before the pinball confusion in the box results in an own goal from Martinez. And while I am on the subject, can we all refrain from referring to Rooney as ‘rejuvenated’ now please? I think it is fair to say that Moyes’ greatest achievement to date (sorry Community Shield apologists) is the form of the Utd number 10. Headband or no headband. But rejuvenated? Come on he never became a bad player, he just seemed disinterested at the fag-end of Sir Alex’s reign.

The atmosphere in the early minutes seemed a world away from that which descended over Old Trafford for the Southampton draw. This has something to do with the ‘singing section’ so I am told on Twitter. I would be keen to know exactly what constitutes this section and how it differs from the rest of the ground, because I genuinely don’t know. And, perhaps as a result, Sociedad seemed genuinely shaken. This bodes well for a good performance from the home team I say to myself. Continue reading

Premier ambitions


When cattle creep,
When I’m asleep,
To lands of hope I stray.
Then at daybreak,
When I awake,
My bluebird flutters away.
Happiness new seemed so near me,
Happiness come forth and heal me

The oft forgotten second verse of Bubbles

One of the most frustrating aspects of supporting a Premier League team is the simple lack of ambition 75% of clubs now have these days. Unfortunately, the league is so awash with money that real ambition has disappeared. Gone are the days when clubs would take domestic cups really seriously (there are a few exceptions such as Swansea City’s glorious season this year), deciding nowadays that the Premier League cash is more important. This leads to clubs simply being satisfied at reaching the “magical” 40 point mark, knowing that they will be on the gravy train for another season. The rich will continue to get richer, especially with the new TV deal kicking in next season. And what do we have to look forward to? A lame cup exit versus a lower division team, whilst the manager talks about “concentrating on the league”, when in reality all they care about is finishing in 17th place.

To demonstrate the massive gulf that exists within the same league, Manchester United came into this game with some fans suggesting this season hadn’t been as successful as it could have been. I’m sure the home defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League hurt, as too did the FA Cup defeat to Chelsea, but surely winning the Premier League at a canter from their nearest rivals was the number one objective of the season? Whilst West Ham’s fans would boo and jeer every touch United would have, who wouldn’t want even a small slice of the success they have had.

Premier League TV moneyI’m sure many will have believed the rhetoric in the past few weeks from the owners of West Ham regarding what will happen when we move to the Olympic Stadium in terms of being able to compete with the best, but is it going to be a couple of years too late? There are simply already too many clubs with richer owners with deeper pockets in the Premier League today. There are at most 7 European spots up for grabs, including the two cups and its fair to say that five of those are now all but sewn up on a yearly basis. Add in a Liverpool team who have the cash but just keep spending it poorly and there isn’t a lot of room for anyone else. Continue reading

Swans avoid a nightmare at the Theatre of Dreams


As Swansea City sign off on their Premier League travels, Abi Davies reflects on what could have been nearly a decade earlier.

On the 3rd May 2003, Swansea City faced Hull in order to determine whether they would retain their Football League status. Over nine and a half thousand fans poured into The Vetch Field to watch The Swans try to avoid the unthinkable, knowing that anything other than victory would see the side drop out of the Football League and into the conference. The Welsh side won the game 4-2 with James Thomas bagging a hat-trick which consisted of 2 penalties and a sublime chip over the keeper.

On Sunday, nine years on from the Hull fixture, Swansea City travelled to Old Trafford in order to play a pivotal role in concluding the destiny of the Premier League title, with their top flight status for the 2012-13 campaign secure.

Manchester United’s home form has been far from that which they have shown on the road this season, meaning Swansea had a realistic chance of denying Alex Ferguson’s side 3 points and returning from Old Trafford with more than their pride in tact.

Few would have predicted that with two fixtures of their maiden Premier League campaign remaining, Swansea would be 10 points off the relegation zone. Having taken the league by storm, Brendan Rodgers side now find themselves in a mid table league position highly reflective of their performances.

With Manchester City beating Newcastle in the 1.30 kick off, United knew that they had to record 3 points to keep alive their chances of retaining the title.  Swansea, bolstered by the return to fitness of Angel Rangel, as expected reverted back to a more traditional 4-5-1 formation for Sunday’s fixture, having experimented with three at the back during last weekends 4-4 draw at home to Wolves .

Rangel was instantly restored to the Swans back line along with left back Neil Taylor, whilst Mark Gower started in place of Leon Britton who was only fit enough for a place amongst the substitutes following the knee injury he sustained last week.

Alex Ferguson made three changes to the side that was condemned to defeat in last Monday’s Manchester derby as Ashley Young, Hernandez and Valencia were restored to the starting line up. Continue reading

Swansea “pead” off by United


Defeat by the reigning Premier League Champions on Saturday saw Swansea condemned to their first defeat at the Liberty since February 6th.  But Abi Davies is still a very proud Swan.

It took just one lapse in concentration from the home side to allow the visitors the opening to score the only goal of the game.

Brendan Rodgers made just one change to the side that drew at Anfield, as Scott Sinclair returned to the starting line up in place of Joe Allen who had to settle for a place among the substitutes, having picked up a calf injury in midweek. Sinclair regained his usual position meaning Wayne Routledge was drafted into a more central role.

The Swans got the game under way and were the quicker to settle, as they demonstrated from the outset that they were not going to sit back and absorb the onslaught of pressure that Utd would try to apply but instead continued to play their possession-based football that has served them so well thus far.

Not looking at all over-awed during early exchanges, it was the hosts that created the first opening when Mark Gower lofted a perfectly weighted ball out to Angel Rangel who picked out Danny Graham inside the box, the striker headed the ball down for Gower who could not connect properly and his effort fired wide of the target. Continue reading