Commercialisation and corruption challenge the pre-season friendlies
With Euro 2016 starting on June 10, international football should be centre stage but the increasing commercialisation of pre-season club friendlies is threatening this opportunity.
What was once a loosely organised series of matches used mainly by club managers to test new players and formations ahead of the forthcoming season has changed completely.
In three of the last five pre-seasons, English Premier League (EPL) sides played more matches overseas than at home (see Table 1). Last summer, 18 out of the 20 EPL clubs went overseas in pre-season.
Table 1: Home pre-season friendlies vs Overseas matches by EPL teams
Ironically, one of the two teams to stay at home were surprise champions Leicester City. That fact might give some clubs pause for thought but not those transnational clubs using pre-season friendlies to pick up new fans overseas.
In 2014, a crowd of 109,318 people watched Manchester United play Real Madrid in Michigan in a pre-season fixture; the attendance was the largest to watch a football match in the United States.
That match was part of the International Champions Cup, which is organised by New York-based promoters Relevent Sports, which this year is bringing the competition to Europe with Barcelona playing Liverpool at Wembley in London on August 6.
£1 million or more per match
For transnational clubs such as Barcelona and Liverpool, pre-season is a chance to grow market share, and make more money. Typically, these clubs charge £1 million or more to play increasingly mediatised games abroad with fans at home all but forgotten.
A study published in the academic journal Soccer & Society shows that EPL clubs played in 41 different countries in the decade to summer 2014 with the USA hosting the most games.
Over this period, the five traditionally largest EPL clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United – played 319 senior first XI pre-season matches. Just 97 were in the United Kingdom with Chelsea only playing a dozen senior first XI games there.
Leading EPL clubs are increasingly shunning not just home fans in pre-season but sides from their own country. Of those 97 UK-based games played by the big five EPL sides, only 62 were against other British clubs.
Focus on the Far East
The study shows that Europe remains the main region as a whole for EPL pre-season trips after hosting three times as many matches as Asia and the CONCACAF region, but there is tension between clubs and the EPL over the choice of destination.
Virtually all the games in CONCACAF are in North America, where NBC is screening matches free-to-air to US audiences. Pre-season tours are vital to supporting this TV deal and in 2015, seven out of the 20 EPL clubs visited the USA: Bournemouth, Chelsea, Manchester United, Newcastle United, Sunderland, Tottenham Hotspur and West Bromwich Albion.
As a league however, the EPL’s focus is on the Far East, where the biennial Premier League Asia Trophy has been staged since 2003. And here lies the paradox between the ambitions of the EPL and its members.
Fake football shirts are not prevalent in North America, but can be bought for as little as £2 in some parts of Asia according to the Criminal Law & Justice Weekly.
Club owners rather than promoters and fans benefit
Five EPL clubs did travel to Asia last summer with Liverpool taking in Malaysia and Thailand, while Arsenal and Stoke City visited Singapore for the Premier League Asia Trophy and Manchester City for a controversial game in Vietnam.
Tickets to this match cost up to U$D85 in a country where the average wage is around U$D150 a month, and this is where the contradiction lies.
Asian fans won over by a pre-season tour can buy a fake EPL shirt for as little as £2.
The promoters who typically put on this matches then try to recoup their outlay of £1 million or more, by selling advertising, television rights and over-priced tickets for a game that has no competitive value at all.
While shirt manufacturers may not always favour Asia as a destination, the region offers other benefits for the owners of EPL clubs.
After venturing to Asia last season, Manchester City’s Middle Eastern-based owners, Abu Dhabi United Group, sold a 13% stake in the club to a consortium led by China Media Capital Holdings for U$D 400 million.
Asian investors also control another six former EPL clubs: Birmingham City, Blackburn Rovers, Cardiff City, Queen’s Park Rangers, Reading and Sheffield Wednesday.
Other European leagues also look overseas for investors
The EPL was however not the first league to venture overseas en masse in pre-season in order to look for new investment and to commercialise their product.
The Supercoppa Italia between the winners of Serie A and the Coppa Italia was first staged overseas in 1993 in Washington DC and the match has since been staged in China, Libya and Qatar.
Spain’s La Liga have also taken to the road with the LFP World Challenge kicking off in 2014 and taking in countries as diverse as Australia, Chile and Thailand.
German clubs host pre-season tournaments such as the Schalke 04 Cup, but these are typically at home, which reflects the pre-season activities of the Bundesliga.
The study showed that in 2014, 74% of pre-season matches played by Bundesliga were in Germany, while only 52% of EPL matches were played in Britain.
After the USA, Germany is the next most popular destination for EPL clubs.
Friendlies subject to match-fixing suspicions
The growth of the pre-season market in neighbouring Austria, where agents use ski resorts to accommodate visiting teams and lower league grounds for games, makes this country the third most visited destination.
In Austria, the Österreichischer Fussball-Bund regulates this burgeoning industry with each fixture vetted individually by the ÖFB at a cost of €100 to promoters who are only allowed to use Austrian match officials.
This type of regulation is in contrast to other countries where there are concerns exist over match-fixing in pre-season games. Between January and November 2014, Sportradar ‘escalated’ 16 friendly club matches due to suspicious betting activity.
In January 2015, the International Centre for Sports Security claimed that a match-fixing gang had manipulated dozens of friendlies at training camps in southern Spain.
These concerns focused not just on pre-season, but mid-winter breaks, such as a mid-season friendly in Spain in January 2015 between Belgian side Standard Liege and Heerenveen. Concerns arouse about this game after a series of dubious penalties prompted the Dutch side’s goalkeeper to walk off the pitch.
As the 2016 pre-season gets underway, the notion of a ‘friendly’ slips ever further from view.