By J Hutcherson (May 9, 2017) US Soccer Players – There’s been plenty of talk about the pro sports footprint in North America. A league like MLS has spent considerable time trying to expand theirs, but even the bigger leagues with 30 teams have plenty to consider.
The NFL opened the Jacksonville market and moved a team to Nashville and nobody followed. The National Hockey League moved to Raleigh and remains the only topflight team in that city. The NBA moved a team to Memphis. Major League Baseball took years before finally putting a team in St Pete’s domed stadium and they can wave at the other pro sports teams in Tampa across the bay.
Even when leagues have little choice with a desperate owner looking for a better deal, these are strategic steps. St Pete courted baseball for the better part of two decades before finally getting a team. The White Sox, Twins, and Mariners almost moved to Florida. When the league had the option of awarding St Pete an expansion team in 1993, they went elsewhere. St Pete as the representative of the larger Tampa Bay market finally got a team in 1998. Closing in on 20 years later, that team is now looking for a new stadium that could be in the greater Tampa Bay area or another city altogether.
The Premier League doesn’t have that luxury. There are no expansion teams that get topflight status immediately. A team packing up and moving is such a rarity the one example is still a hot button issue for its former and current fans. Promotion and relegation solves the issue of static leagues, but it also creates the same strategic issues from the other side of the Atlantic.
How does a league get to optimal? Hoe does it account for population centers, TV markets, and basic geography?
Like we learned in grade school, England is roughly the size of Massachusetts. For an American soccer fan, those geography lessons continue with a working knowledge of places that few tourists will ever see on purpose. We also know how much place matters. Cities are much closer to each other in England, but that takes nothing away from pride in locality. That’s part of what continues to fuel the popularity of the Premier League even when clubs are global brands.
It matters what clubs make up the numbers in the Premier League. Is it better for the league to be representative of the country rather than just London, Manchester, and Liverpool? Does breadth offer similar advantages to what North American leagues want?
The Premier League’s biggest population center currently takes multiple topflight slots. London has five Premier League teams with the chance that another returns through the Championship playoffs. The second biggest population center takes none. If you want Premier League soccer in the Birmingham region, it’s ten miles outside of the city with West Brom.
Does it hurt the Premier League to not have teams in other major population centers? Does the Premier League care either way?
Any European league building their reputation on a handful of clubs creates an obvious narrative. Those super clubs become the point. The global fan base that turns foreign TV rights deals into massive revenue generators tend to treat the rest of the league as teams making up the schedule. They’re not ways to tap into other populations. They’re places where the popular teams go over the course of the season.
This subverts the story English soccer would want to tell, especially the supporter ideal of local fans showing up for their local clubs. The league itself isn’t local. It’s a marketing arm for its members, focusing on the handful of clubs driving the money.
We’re in the era where business plans count every bit as much as sporting merit. The interests of the Premier League and the major North American leagues align. They want the same thing, the kind of market control that keeps the revenue flowing.
For the Premier League, the relatively small size of their home market makes their map global. There are enough soccer markets for their biggest brands to prosper alongside the league as a whole. That includes North America, where their competition is as much about the major US sports as it is the other major soccer leagues.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
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