Prem sets sail in search of riches
Before multi-channel TV and the Internet, preseason friendlies meant very little to English football fans. They were barely visible, their results collated desultorily in newspapers, perhaps reporting on the odd injury or a new signing making his bow.
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Now, even after a World Cup, football will not go away. Four days after Louis van Gaal had collected his medal for Netherlands' third place in Brazil, he was leading training at Manchester United's Carrington Training Complex. Good thing holidays are for wimps. He and his new players were soon burning under a California sun.
Unlike baseball's carefully planned spring training or the NFL's preseason schedule, clubs are haphazardly dotted around exotic locations. Their results can be weird and wonderful, without too much importance being placed on them. Few would plan to read too much into Chelsea losing 3-0 to Werder Bremen on Sunday, while Arsenal fans can draw comfort from their weekend defeat to Monaco given that, after their failure to win the Emirates Cup last year, they finally ended their long wait for a trophy of genuine worth.
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Yet the Premier League's ever-growing hunger for commercial opportunities is beginning to place greater importance on these globetrotting trips. Manchester United and Real Madrid's journey to the University of Michigan's "Big House" became a major event, while United's Monday meeting in Miami with Liverpool will probably be even bigger.
When West Ham and Newcastle United are taking what insiders say was a "multimillion-pound" excursion to New Zealand, it becomes clear that preseason is now a key part of clubs' financial planning. In undertaking such a long trip -- the most recent English club to previously go Kiwi was Everton in 1987 -- both clubs may have endangered their preparations for the new season, but Hammers chairmen Davids Sullivan and Gold and Newcastle owner Mike Ashley obviously felt it worthwhile.
The Sun Life Stadium's Monday showdown between Liverpool and United -- a renewal of "the biggest game in the world," as Brendan Rodgers helpfully called it -- has taken on a competitive edge, a dream ticket for the organisers of the International Champions Cup, a tournament that has resembled a Euro Super League on tour. "Winning in preseason creates that belief and mentality, and so it's very important," Rodgers said.
"It's Manchester United v Liverpool," United's Darren Fletcher said after defeating Real in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "I know it's only preseason and it's just a summer competition, but when United play Liverpool, it's always a big deal."
United and Liverpool have participated in a timely American jamboree, its appeal augmented by the record U.S. audiences that enjoyed the World Cup. Such success will almost certainly see the competition's revival. Europe's elite have long toyed with the idea of an offseason tournament, which is probably why the idea of a Qatar Dream League seemed so plausible when London's Times newspaper was duped by a hoaxer last year. For United, exiled from European competition next season, their stateside jaunt has helped restore some relevance among their usual peers.
Such a fixture can only conjure memories of the Premier League PR disaster that was the "39th game," the ill-fated idea floated in 2008 that planned to take advantage of the global popularity of English football by playing an extra round of matches in cities across the globe. The idea of Wigan playing Middlesbrough in Kuala Lumpur appealed to the clubs' owners, but the outrage of domestic fans and the media saw the idea sink like a stone.
Foreign fans had a rather different view. ESPN's stories of the time carried many user comments from outside England expressing interest. Why should fans be denied the presence of their heroes? Six years on, the importance of such markets has hugely increased, with the proportion of TV rights a key indicator.
The Premier League, with clubs still interested, remained open to the idea until it was quietly abandoned in 2010. It would be little surprise if the concept was revived, though probably without the imbalance of adding an extra game to the regular season.
Instead, preseason might be "monetised," to use that dreaded term, to ensure those record TV revenues for the regular season are supplemented. Like those weary players doing shuttle runs at searingly hot high-altitude locations, the Premier League is ensuring its global appeal can be sweated.