Is European football killing the game elsewhere?

by Sean Maslin

Football has finally arrived here in the United States. After years of being hidden in the dark European football is a major event here in this country.

Every morning supporters wake up and walk downstairs to their couches or drive to their nearest pub (miraculously enough even on the west coast at 4-5-6 o’clock in the morning) to watch the biggest stars of the game.

But while they are tuning in to the likes of Arsenal and Real Madrid they are tuning out the likes of D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls.

 

While listening to last week’s edition of BBC’s World Football it was striking to hear the plight of football in Mauritius. What was so startling to hear was that the situation bore a resemblance to issues here in the United States.

In Mauritius, much like here in the United States, local football officials struggle to get supporters to domestic matches because supporters would rather watch matches from Europe at home or at a bar.

This trend is also not limited to just Mauritius and the United States. All across Africa, Asia, Europe, and in the Americas  more and more supporters are opting to stay at home and watch matches as opposed to supporting their local clubs.

So what is to blame for the plight of domestic football and can the trend be reversed?

As with many things in this modern world, football is impacted heavily by globalization. As author Thomas  Friedman pointed out in the book The World Is Flat the uses of modern technology and communications has changed the way modern society operates and functions.

Now that people have the ability to communicate directly with people across the world with a simple click of button there aren’t the barriers that existed in the past.

How does this affect football? Whereas in the past supporters might have been limited to watching a handful of matches from the likes of FC Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, or Manchester United in a lifetime now every match is available instantaneously.

The communication revolution has dramatically expanded the reach of the top clubs and leagues in Europe and given them a much larger audience and by extension allowed them to generate much larger profits.

All of this sounds good, right? While as much as everyone looks at the beautiful game with rose-colored glasses this is a business.

The major clubs of Europe have to look at for their own selves and at times their own league. These are self-interested parties and in the end they have to pay attention to the bottom dollar.

In its most general terms this brand of capitalism is logical. However, there are plenty of negative outliers that could have long-term implications.

First, there is the loss of individualism on the pitch. With European sides not just showing their matches on television sets across the world but also setting up camps, playing exhibitions, and establishing bases of operations all across the world.

These satellite sides are not necessarily promoting an American style of soccer or a New York City style of soccer but an Arsenal or a Manchester City style of soccer. By pigeonholing people to enjoy only a specific product.

If European clubs continue down this path then they run the risk of making the product boring and uninteresting. No one will want to watch Manchester City lite in New York City when they can watch the actual thing on Saturday mornings. There has to be an end goal to these initiatives beyond just the brand.

Second, many times these clubs come into a market with a lack of understanding of the regional product and often act with a hostile attitude towards the domestic side.

 

Here in the United States, multiple different clubs have come in either to Major League Soccer (NYCFC, Chivas USA) or at more regional levels (such as Crystal Palace Baltimore) and attempted to develop a product with little to no knowledge of the region.

Although they may be able to sell a few jerseys and gain a few supporters in the end they only damage the domestic product.

To be fair the European sides are also not responsible for solving all of world football’s problems. That they are able to enter into a foreign market and command such attention and revenue speaks not just to their power but also to the problems of the domestic league.

Bayern Munich cannot be blamed for the corruption of football leagues in developing countries. Nor can they be held responsible for the voodoo economics of Major League Soccer in the United States and Canada.

So how can major clubs build their global brand but at the same time not destroy the domestic market? It is a tricky issue.

European sides aren’t likely to listen to regional organisations unless they are bound by league obligations such as with City Football Group and Major League Soccer. Even then clubs may act in their own self interest given the economic disparities.

Perhaps this is an area where FIFA could have more of a say. Given that smaller regional football associations have more power as a bloc than the European FA’s they could leverage FIFA to create stronger guidelines on development in foreign countries.

FIFA, however, has always treaded carefully when it comes to the whims and wishes of the European club sides.

In the end, much like with any multi national corporation, the European club sides will have to regulate themselves.

This perhaps might not be the ideal solution but given the lack of independent actors who could regulate such business it may be perhaps the only way that the game can continue to grow in a responsible manner.

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