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Northern EYE by Bob Kimmins: The Premier League industry is back in town

Agiant TV screen showing football from England is the backdrop to a throbbing throng of gyrating disco dancers.

Published on September 8, 2007



Northern EYE by Bob Kimmins: The Premier League industry is back in town

Bob Kimmins

In this Chiang Mai nightclub, waving arms obscure part of the picture, strobe lights flicker and the rattle of rap music drowns the commentary.

Many of the northern capital's shops, restaurants, discos and bars readily show English Premier League football. Groups of watchers huddle together at Cozy Corner on Moon Muang Road, where the three-bar complex provides a huge screen and several smaller ones that can show different matches simultaneously.

Football fanatics also head for the Half Moon, O'Malley's and UN Irish Pub, where the atmosphere is conducive to sport, with few, if any, distractions. At one time girls and a pool table filled bars, but now Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United do.

Clever Premier League marketing has grabbed the attention of tourists, Thais and other Asians alike, and a host of broadcasters in Hong Kong and Singapore have between them shelled out US$360 million (Bt12.6 billion) to screen matches over the next three seasons.

With China coming in with a deal of $50 million, the Far East is now being seen as a future bonanza.  

In the space of two decades English football has changed from a sport played in front of a few thousand fans on the terraces to a marketing tool aimed at worldwide audiences.

Not only a game

Preston North End landed the first English league title in 1889 from a field of 12 sides. At the turn of the century 18 clubs formed two divisions, and in 1921 a third was added from 22 teams. A fourth division was formed 38 years later, and the first division became the Premier League in 1993.

In that time, association football developed into an English institution. It was easy to play and cheap to watch and became hugely popular among the working masses. The teams those people chose to support represented a part of themselves, a home and an identity, and the game itself has been referred to as a type of religion.

When the legendary Bill Shankly, manager of Liverpool, was asked if football was a matter of life and death, he answered, "It means much more than that."

Up until 1961 footballers in England were paid a maximum of 20(Bt1,400)  per week - a salary near to the national average. This brought the players closer to the fans and formed a camaraderie that is difficult to follow with today's untouchable superstars.

Then the wage limit was lifted. Johnny Haynes started the ball rolling by receiving a pay rise of 400 per cent. Haynes - one of his era's most gifted players - turned down a record transfer offer of 80,000 from AC Milan, and remained at Fulham for his entire playing career.  

Today club loyalty is very questionable, as Premier League players frequently move between the highest bidders offering the most attractive wages. They also create a conflict of interest from time taken out for advertising kickbacks and TV appearance money.

Are foreigners to blame?

There were only 11 non-Britons playing in Premier League football when it started 14 years ago. Now there are 340.

The first foreign manager was Czech born Dr Jozef Venglos, who joined Aston Villa in 1990, and the first club owner from abroad was Egyptian - Mohamed Al Fayed at Fulham.

Five Premiership sides are currently managed by non-Britons, and nine clubs are owned by foreigners. It was reported that Russian Roman Abramovich paid 150 million for Chelsea, and could resell the club now for more than three times that much.

Perhaps Thaksin Shinawatra had something like that in mind when he acquired Manchester City. Only time will tell.

After accruing huge financial benefit from working in the English game, foreigners seem to put little back into it. High-flying Arsenal has a French manager who tends to ignore home-grown talent, and from the four leading clubs of last season - three of which were managed by foreigners - only 13 players were eligible for England's national squad.

It has come to the point when promising English footballers can't get a game in their own country's top flight, and it must be money that drove a London club to change much of its squad in close-season transfers after just winning two major trophies.

For spectators, rising turnstile prices and pay-by-view cable make football more expensive to watch, while priority is given to public relations and sales of shirts, scarves, photos, books, magazines, DVDs and other memorabilia.

Bill Shankly was talking about the love of club, country and the game, but too many of today's entrepreneurs are led by market forces. Today the English Premier League is exploited like a must-have, gimmicky, household commodity.

Bob kimmins


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