Premier League preseason fixtures – from national friendlies to global moneymakers

Jørn Hansen
Department of Sports Science and Clinical Biomechanics,
University of Southern Denmark

Steve Menary
A Friendly Business? A critical evaluation of the globalisation and commercialisation of the preseason friendly
137 pages, paperback.
Neuchâtel: Editions CIES 2018 (Collection Rèflections sportives)
ISBN 978-2-940241-30-9

A Friendly Business is the product of a Research Scholarship that Steve Menary was granted by FIFA. The aim of the project has been to trace the history, development and commercialisation of preseason fixtures. In particular, Menary wants to examine the tensions created by the dichotomy that preseason games are played as a mixture of preparation and commercialisation.

The book focuses especially on the development of the English Premier League (EPL), which, since its start in 1992, has achieved a global status that few other club leagues can rival. The globalization of football is a process of deterritorialization, internationalization, liberalization, universalization and westernization. Particularly the concept of deterritorialization plays an important role in the presentation as the development of large fan groups for English football teams are outside the national state boundaries.

The sources for the study consist of magazines and newspapers, reports and websites and several interviews, and in general the study is an original pioneer work in this research field.

The book consists of an introduction, ten chapters, a conclusion and some recommendations plus lists of tables, figures and abbreviations, a research note and definition of preseason. I would have preferred that both the research note and the definition of preseason had been a part of the introduction, to prevent the book from appearing as an academic dissertation.

A preseason match is categorized as a match staged after players return to training at the beginning of the new season and played until the start of the new season. In fact, originally preseason matches were not considered a serious important game seen from a competitive point of view.

When an English club played a friendly match outside Britain the atmosphere was relaxed, and many players regarded it as a sort of holiday with beer drinking. (Chapter I)

After the establishment of the English Premier League the situation gradually changed, and the globalization process was the main groundbreaker for this shift. A new marketplace, especially for the best six teams in the Premier League, began to emerge after the World Cup in 1994 in USA. In chapter II “Groundbreakers to commercialisation” Menary lists the precondition for the transformation of this commercialisation of the preseason friendly: worldwide air routes, floodlights, international overseas tournaments, Tiger-economy, and deterritorialization of international fan bases.

Over the past decade the Big 6 have mostly avoided playing in the UK in preseason as competition has grown in status and commercial value.

In chapter III “The Premier League eras” Menary discusses the importance of the expansion in Asia for the Premier League Clubs.  The expansion was driven by three key motivations: a search for new investment, satisfying existing sponsors and looking for new ones, and continuing to increase the value of televisions rights. The year 2003 was the turning point: Roman Abramovich acquired Chelsea and the English Premier League created its own Premier League Asia Trophy to try and satisfy the growing demand for English football in the region. As a result, supporters in developing economies – developing in either economic or football terms, or both – are more likely to support a well-known visiting Trans National Club playing matches in packed stadia on Television than a poorly supported local team with a smaller media profile.

In the next four short chapters Menary discusses the impact of the globalization and commercialisation process. In Chapter IV we learn about the impact on “Players and managers”, the attitudes of which have been consistently lax and appear to have changed little over the course of the past century, for which reason many fans in Asia have been disappointed when reserves have been substituted for the most famous players from Premier League Clubs. Chapter V “Fans and ticket prices” focuses on preseason tours as money making schemes, especially the hypocrisy of the statement “we are here to please our fans”. In the first El Classico (Real Madrid–Barcelona)staged outside of Spain, in Florida 2017, the tickets started at £520, which was nine times higher than the recent Champions League final.

Chapter VI is about “Television, sponsorship and brand building”, where you can read that 54% of Chinese football fans owned a shirt, with the England jersey being the most popular ahead of Manchester United. Chapter VII “Agents, promoters and governance” discusses the problem that intervention in the business of club football friendlies by the game’s governing bodies traditionally has been rare. As a result, friendly international matches are more vulnerable to match-fixers. A report from 2018 identified 32 international and club friendlies as being associated with suspicious betting.

In chapter VIII “The EPL overseas” Menary examines The Premier League clubs’ preseason friendlies touring around the world. Over the past decade the Big 6 have mostly avoided playing in the UK in preseason as competition has grown in status and commercial value. Sport as an activity of a world-wide culture assumes the role of precursor in the identity deterritorialization process, challenging the postulate according to which a perfect correspondence exists between a state, a territory and an individual identity. Because the Premier League has the fourth largest proportion of expatriate players of any league in Europe with 59%, this is part of the attraction within these clubs: that a galaxy of stars is on show.

In chapter IX “The Big Six and the Europe’s major leagues” the activities of the Big Six are compared to the Bundesliga, La Liga, Ligue 1, and Serie A.  Menary quotes from Deloitte Football Money League ranking of the world’s biggest clubs by revenue, stating that the English Premier League provides half of the top twenty with three each from Germany, Italy and Spain and one from France, and these are the transnational clubs which the Big Six are competing with for a deterritorialized fan base in the semi-periphery and periphery.

In chapter X “The future? Game 39 by stealth and the breakaway league no one noticed” Menary discusses Game 39, the idea of an extra set of games between the teams in the Premier League to be played in countries other than England. A proposal that has not been realized until now, and one of the results might be a lack of interest for the local football.

In his “Conclusion” Menary makes the following statement:

The impact of the commercialisation of the preseason friendly can be added to the list of inconvenient truths within the globalization of sport. The commercialisation of preseason friendlies is symbiotic to the globalization of the English Premier League and a tipping point has been reached. The term ‘friendly’ no longer applies to these matches, certainly at Trans National Club level, where this uncontested space can no longer be left unregulated if domestic leagues in target markets are to be protected from further weakening.

Steve Menary has made an important and interesting contribution to an until now rather unresearched field: the preseason friendly. I strongly recommend the book!

Copyright © Jørn Hansen 2019

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