The future of football - lessons from cricket
The basis of this post and the thoughts within it stem from 2 places. Firstly a discussion between @amirtheawesome1 and @deniskj on the Hive FPL discord channel which in turn has resulted in a couple of posts by the former. Secondly, the beginnings of 2 new T20 franchise cricket leagues namely the ILT20 being held in the UAE and the SA20 in South Africa.
The discussion on discord was largely around Financial Fair Play (FFP) and the emergence of several clubs over the last couple of decades who have brought their way to the top table of European club football.
My position on this is that FFP should be scraped as it is unable to curtail the actions of major investors, in many ways it only helps maintain the status quo and that governing bodies would be better investing their time and efforts to look at ways to expand the market for the sport itself.
As we've seen fairly recently, even when clubs like Man City were found guilty of trampling all over the regulations as they are written, if you have enough high priced lawyers then you can send UEFA packing with their tails firmly between their legs
What FFP really seems set to do is to limit investment in the sport while simultaneously helping to keep the rich rich and make the poor poorer which could have serious ramifications for the future of the sport and those who claim to act as its protectors and governing bodies.
The ability of UEFA to do just that has already been tested by the biggest clubs and their incredibly wealthy investors. The attempt to form a break away 'Super League' shows that if UEFA can't set the conditions for these clubs to grow their brands and profit margins within the rules they (UEFA) set, then the big clubs are happy to define things on their own terms.
I've written before about the inevitably of a Super League forming despite its near instant collapse a couple of years ago so I won't go into that again suffice to say that I haven't seen anything in the interim that would make me change my mind. If anything, the situation for football is getting worse!
Football likes to think of itself as being very secure within it's position as the world's most watched and played sport but there is reason to believe that it won't always be the case. For example Sky Sports, the major broadcaster for the Premier League in the UK for the last 3 decades reported a 19% fall in viewing figures for the first 2 months of the 2022/23 season.
Do you think that Sky or any other broadcaster is likely to pay more when the next Premier League TV deal is up for grabs? It's unlikely given that we seem to have reached market saturation and that the current cost of living crisis is going to make it even harder for Sky and everyone else to recruit new subscribers or push up the cost to existing ones.
Regulatory bodies at both continental and national level need to act fast to try and correct the oncoming problems in a proactive rather than a restrictive one like FFP, otherwise, the capital (the club owners and investors) will do it themselves. Mainly then that involves taking a look at how to make football more attractive to 21st Century audiences across the world. Ultimately, this way the aim of the Super League with the belief that fans want to see more clashes between the top clubs and their world class players.
The number of unique TV viewers exploded over the first 10 years of the IPL source
Cricket has faced exactly the same problem for many years snd yet despite the perception by many that it is a boring and outdated sport, it has actually managed to grow in popularity in recent decades largely by instigating a number of franchise leagues that have achieved what football's Super League hoped to follow.
Here are some of the reasons that interest in cricket is currently booming and how football could follow suit.
Shorter, faster, more exciting
Cricket has been tinkering with its format for the last 50 years to make itself appealing to new generations of fans. Firstly that brought about limited overs cricket and then that limited overs format went to the next level with the advent of T20.
Could football do the same?
Football has been XI vs XI with roughly the same playing conditions for almost as long as it's been a professional sport. Is it entirely implausible that it might look to change the number of players on the pitch, or shorten the length of games, or make any other number of changes that would benefit and/or encourage attacking play?
That is ultimately the success that T20 cricket has had. Time was that you might see a team bat all day in a Test Match for around 250 runs. Now T20 sides are regularly posting scores in excess of 200 within the space of a couple of hours and the opposition then come and beat that score - twice as many runs, wickets and excitement within half the time. It's not rocket science.
I guess the equivalent would be to try and increase the number of expected goals per match. Within the Premier League only 2 or 3 fixtures on average per game week have a combined total 3 or more expected goals. I think the modern consumer, living in the age of mobile devices and the many distractions that offers needs more than that!
Also, is the question of the length of the league/season itself. 38 games spread out across 9 months and intertwined with various other competitions at domestic, continental and international level is a bit of a long slog for the average punter. T20 franchise leagues tend to last anywhere from 6 to 10 weeks with matches happening on a daily basis which of course for broadcasters and the associated revenue they can derive is a really big plus.
For example, it's estimated that 2 out of 3 IPL fans watched every single game of the 2022 season! No football league around the world can come close to matching that engagement.
IPL Fan Parks attract 10s of thousands of fans per match source
Take the show on the road
We can talk about viewing figures for Sky TV in the UK falling but the trend globally shows the major European leagues remain very popular. It's estimated that anywhere between 4 and a half to 5 billion people across the planet watch the Premier League every year so the fact the viewing figures in it's home country may fall by a few million in any one season can be seen as a drop in the ocean when it comes to interest in the world's biggest league.
Of course, the concept of potentially playing EPL games outside the UK isn't a new one and back in 2008 it was the Premier League themselves who floated the idea of a 39th round of games that would take place overseas across a given weekend. The idea was to continue to drive up the number of fans (it's estimated that 1.4 billion people across the world identify themselves as a supporter of an EPL club) while also allowing the Premier League to negotiate better terms in regards TV deals overseas and leaving the league less dependent on the TV revenue it can gain from purely a domestic audience.
The plan ultimately crashed and burned on the basis that multiple stakeholders both domestic and abroad opposed elements of it.
One of those parties against the idea was FIFA who of course are now launching their own, supped up version of a World Club Cup to take place every 4 years and involve 32 teams.
This is a direct challenge to both UEFA and the popularity of the Champions League and the elite clubs across Europe most of whom were participants in the plans for a breakaway Super League. It also demonstrates that despite Sepp Blatter's comments in 2008 in regards the EPL's plans for a 39th game "Football cannot be like the Harlem Globetrotters or a circus", FIFA clearly see the value of instigating just a plan, providing they are the ones who can benefit from it.
T20 franchise leagues and in particular the IPL and PSL have been forced to play entire tournaments outside their own countries due to the pandemic and other domestic problems and yet it hasn't damaged their brand, if anything, it's helped expand it! In fact, IPL chiefs revealed that they have received invitations from overseas (they didn't specify where) inviting the IPL to come and play matches outside India and that the league is considering doing just that in a move very similar to the EPL's 39th game idea.
There will always be opposition from domestic supporters of any league that attempts to play fixtures internationally. We saw with the Super League breakaway that fans across Europe were accusing their clubs of abandoning their roots but I'm afraid the idea that these mega rich clubs should act solely in the interests of just a very tiny part of their overall fan base or indeed that they will is just farcical. These are international brands and they will act accordingly across global markets. Not only that but with domestic revenue streams at the very least stagnating, they will be forced to cast their nets wider.
Of course, if clubs/leagues don't like the idea of travelling around the world to play then the owners could decide to set-up franchises to represent their brand within domestic leagues across the globe.
In fact, we are already seeing that happen now with organisations like the City Football Group owned by the Abu Dhabi United Group who run the biggest club in world football, Manchester City and hold at least a partial stake in 11 different clubs across the world.
For now at least, the traditional branding for those 12 clubs has remained largely as they were when the City Football Group brought into them but the option to change to a more homogeneous brand in the same way that Red Bull have done with the 5 football teams that they own globally is very much there for them or any other organisation who chooses to follow suit.
As well as the better known European teams, Red Bull also own 2 sides that play in Brazil source
This has certainly been the trend within cricket too with the 2 new T20 leagues that have started this month both having teams that are at least part owned by the big IPL franchises meaning that next Saturday you can watch a team wearing the branding of the Mumbai Indians (the most successful franchise in IPL history) playing cricket in Abu Dhabi and South Africa at the same time! Talk about global domination!
Those squads then contain star players from the original Mumbai Indians franchise in the likes of Jofra Archer, Kieron Pollard and Dewald Brevis, encouraging fans back in India (by far the largest market) to follow the action happening thousands of miles away. This is also raises another question for football and all sports in the modern era as to what is the unit with the most value in the international market. Is it the sport, the league, the club or individual players? T20 cricket has come to the obvious conclusion that while the branding of the club still needs to be strong, fans increasingly follow individual players and they are utilising this within their franchise models.
Of course setting-up franchises around the world by teams who play in leagues that only last 10 weeks was always going to be a necessity in order to fill the other 9 months of the year when the original team wasn't playing. This is not a problem that football currently has but if it opted to shorten it's seasons/tournaments (see above) then the appeal of franchises in order to keep the brand relevant for 12 months of the year would become even greater.
Bring in salary caps
Going back to FFP, it's a common misconception that transfer fees are the biggest problem within football's financial system. They certainly tend to be the largest single payments clubs make and as such get a significant amount of media coverage but the fact remains that they continue to be the main source of income and not expenditure for most clubs as well as an effective way of funnelling funds down the footballing pyramid.
A bigger problem is the ever increasing wages of players which is by far the biggest expense that elite clubs have to deal with. Bringing in a salary cap would not only be a far more practical means of controlling clubs spending, it would also help prevent the stockpiling of talent which has only increased with the advent of FFP!
Leagues would be inherently more competitive if salary caps encouraged teams to dispense with talented players that they had little intention of actually playing in order to free up funds for the players they really need! It seems utter madness to think that in a system where only a small % of professional players can be deemed as truly 'World Class' that you'd want to limit their ability to play.
Most sports around the world including T20 cricket have instigated a salary cap and of course some football leagues, notably La Liga have been forced to do so as well albeit as a reactionary method against the possibility of some of their clubs going bankrupt. Instead, salary caps across T20 franchise leagues are the same for all teams and from an investors point of view make it easy to calculate the cost of running a team for any given period of time.
It'd be very difficult to imagine that a current top football league would voluntarily impose a cap on salaries because it would fear making its clubs uncompetitive in the transfer market. However, it's not totally out of the realms of possibility that any new league i.e. the Super League, might choose to do so as a means of limiting the exposure of investors.