Tag Archives: EPL

The Football Business Column: MLS Expansions, Premier League Interest and the Rise of Football in the US

The latest installment in the never-ending story surrounding Major League Soccer and its expansion plans arrived last week, as Orlando City Soccer Club was officially announced as the league’s 21st franchise, to join New York City Football Club as new entrants in 2015.

The story of football’s expansion and rise in the US is impressive, especially given the context of its domestic league’s relative young age, but a look at the FIFA World Rankings shows that at 14th place (as of the time of writing), the US is here to stay.

To explore just how football has developed in America though, we have to first look back across the pond and to the Premier League, whose increasingly globalized product is at the heart of it all.

 

NBC Sports deliver polished Premier League product to US audiences

The new PL carrier in England, BT Sport, recently struck a groundbreaking deal to carry the Champions League from 2015-2018, as reported by BBC Sport.

But they’re arguably not even the biggest newcomer to have caused waves through the football television industry. That accolade goes to America’s NBC Sports, who have well and truly taken football coverage in the US up several notches, especially in comparison with the likes of FOX Soccer and ESPN.

NBC’s coverage is a curiously familiar one, especially to those already well versed in typical English broadcasts. There’s little to interfere with normal play, and the analysis shows before and after the matches—as well as during half-time—all feature English commentators and pundits.

Essentially, NBC have stuck to the basics and not delivered any coverage that might come across as patronizing towards the American viewer; they’ve assumed that their audience is familiar with football and have promoted intelligent discussion with this as the basic assumption.

Add in the aggressive marketing campaigns that NBC have embarked on—especially in New York City in the buildup to the 2013/14 season—and the conclusion thus far is that the English Premier League has been an unequivocal success. Keeping with the core English base but adding some of that famous American marketing and broadcasting technique on top? Sounds like a winner.

Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesFootball’s rise in America

For avid fans of the Premier League—and no doubt for its executive team—the fact that NBC’s coverage has been a success in America bodes well for the future of what is surely now the world’s most popular and exported professional sports league, so much so that the PL is now seen in some circles as NBC’s flagship product.

But those worried about any possible decrease in interest in the US’ own Major League Soccer because of the widespread coverage of the Premier League need not fret: According to this New York Times report, since PL coverage began on NBCSN, viewership of the eight MLS games on NBC has increased by 60 percent, while the number of unique visitors to NBC-streamed MLS games has jumped 322 percent.

There was never any worry about Americans’ interest in their own national teams in World Cup years—whether it be the men’s or the women’s tournament. Neither was there ever any worry, especially in recent years, about support of their local MLS teams, who have boasted stadium attendance numbers to rival and surpass those of both the NBA and NHL, according to this Forbes article. Nor was there any worry about American football fans paying attention to their overseas-based stars, such as Tim Howard, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey (the latter two have, of course, returned to the US).

So the fact that TV viewership of MLS is rising—and alongside the Premier League—is massively encouraging for the sport and its growth prospects in the world’s most sports-consumption-heavy country.

USA TODAY SportsMLS expansion, aggression and inevitable evolution

Given the Americans’ propensity and expertise at marketing, commercialization and business expansion—and especially given the increase in the number of American owners of European football clubs—was it any wonder that interest, both foreign and American, would eventually return to US shores?

Setting aside the increasing trend of relatively big names in Europe spending their final footballing years in MLS, the incident that really indicated the prospect of a “soccer boom” in the US was Manchester City’s investment in their joint venture, New York City FC, due to join MLS in 2015.

Sheikh Mansour interested in American growth and influence? A partnership with one of Europe’s newest big boys? Almost seems too good to be true.

If that wasn’t enough indication of a new era beckoning in American football (ahem), what about the recent announcement of the Orlando City SC franchise expansion—and the imminent possibility of a Miami-based MLS venture backed by David Beckham?

That both of these developments have hit the airwaves is not surprising: MLS have shown textbook aggression by aiming to capitalize on a rising wave of interest in football, by proclaiming that the Orlando-Miami rivalry will be one to look forward to, according to the Miami Herald. The bullish pronouncements of Orlando City’s owners, reported here by BBC Sport, regarding the possible signing of Brazilian star and AC Milan legend Kaka merely add to the hype.

And if even that wasn’t enough, surely the recent revelation that MLS franchises have increased 175 percent in value over the past five years (c/o SportBusiness.com) will do it. The current average valuation is $103 million, with seven teams—Seattle Sounders, LA Galaxy, Portland Timbers, Houston Dynamo, Toronto FC, New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City—already surpassing it. (Don’t be surprised if NYCFC and OCSC join them at the top by 2016.)

Harry How/Getty ImagesThe growth will only continue. The beautiful thing about the beautiful game is that once interest starts to grow, it snowballs. And the beginnings of a real football revolution are starting to take place in America.

Which, inevitably, leaves club owners and the league with big decisions to make over the coming years, regarding the direction that they want to take the sport in. Murmurs of instituting the promotion and relegation system, so ubiquitous in the European leagues but almost nonexistent in the US, are growing in noise level, and with MLS expanding to a grand total of 21 teams by 2015 (22 if Miami is awarded a franchise by then), that leaves MLS wanting to join the world’s collection of elite first-division football leagues with the most number of teams in it.

The rest of the infrastructure—league-paid transfer fees, league-owned players, salary caps and Designed Player systems—is currently still a universe away from what the top professionals in Europe are familiar with, and there will need to be an inevitable coming together of practices and policies if MLS are to break into that top bracket of leagues.

While that’s being pondered by Don Garber, the MLS Commissioner, and his executive team, they’ll continue to see the steady growth of the beautiful game in the US.

Perhaps one day, it’ll be they who look forward to exporting their product overseas.

 

This piece originally appeared on Bleacher Report and is also part of my Football Business Column for SWOL.co, in which I discuss some of the latest news, trends and developments on the business side of football—everything including marketing, strategy, technology and finance.

English Football Weekly: Style, Efficiency and Early Observations from Week One

City, United and Chelsea Turn on the Style

Manchester City might have been the latest to start their Premier League season, but by Monday night they were topping the table. Newcastle United have always been willing prey for City, but the manner of the 4-0 dismantling showed plenty of promise for season to come at the Etihad Stadium. Edin Dzeko, who didn’t end up on the scoresheet, was central to their attacks throughout, while Fernandinho and Jesus Navas made big impressions on their debuts. Manuel Pellegrini’s appointment raised expectations of adding a style element to City’s play, and if Monday’s result was anything to go by, City fans have a lot to look forward to this season.

Not that Manchester United were too far behind. David Moyes has had two competitive matches in charge, and both of them have been convincing wins. This latest result at the Liberty Stadium not only confirmed the sheer class of Robin van Persie, but also went about disappointing some critics who had been writing off Moyes’ chances at the reigning league champions (myself included). There are long ways to go yet, but Danny Welbeck doubled his league tally last season in one match on Saturday. In his cameo, however, new Swan Wilfried Bony showed enough to suggest that he, too, will be a force to reckoned with this season.

Save the biggest celebrations—certainly the biggest at a stadium on opening day—for Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge. The Happy One was welcomed back in heroic fashion, and duly delivered a sublime display of attacking football in the first half, before Chelsea calmed down in the second. The trio of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Kevin de Bruyne were all over the pitch, interchanging play nicely with Fernando Torres, while Frank Lampard provided a timely reminder of his undeniable goal-scoring prowess. The football that Chelsea played in the first half was out of this world. Who would’ve thought that possible under Mourinho?

 

Three Points and Early Conclusions

Plenty of domination, possession, exciting attacking play and shots on goal, but Liverpool once again had a solitary goal to show for it. The difference: the winner was scored by a still-not-fully-fit Daniel Sturridge; a heroic double save was required at the death by their first first-choice keeper in eight seasons; and it was their first opening-day home win in 12 years. Results and points have always teetered on a fine edge for Liverpool, and a win to kick off the season bodes well for the future. Kolo Toure, Jordan Henderson and Iago Aspas impressed, and if Willian really does arrive at Anfield, this could be a forward line that oozes quality—and goals.

Tottenham Hotspur also endured a nervy afternoon at sprightly Crystal Palace. For Spurs fans, this was possibly a sign of things to come, if indeed Gareth Bale does depart White Hart Lane for pastures new, but there were signs of comfort as Paulinho, Nacer Chadli, Roberto Soldado and later Etienne Capoue all debuted to great effect. Unfortunately for the Eagles, their lack of Premier League-quality players was all too evident: Here, endeavor just wasn’t enough. As for Tottenham, this new forward line could do with a sprinkle of Bale’s quality, but they showed enough to suggest that life after Bale might not be too bad after all.

Even given Arsenal’s lack of transfer activity, the ease with which Aston Villa came away with all three points will have been alarming. Indeed, most forums exploded with the anti-board (and anti-Wenger) anger usually reserved for the likes of Rafa Benitez at Stamford Bridge, and the atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium has gotten all the more venomous. You get the feeling that this is a make-or-break season for the Gunners, and it might be too late even for that. As for Paul Lambert’s side though, they look young and irresistible, especially if Christian Benteke continues his imperious form. His penalty-taking, though, needs some work.

There were also wins for West Ham United, where Stewart Downing finally did something resembling decent wing work, Southampton, where Rickie Lambert followed up a debut England goal with a peerless penalty winner, and Fulham, who left the Stadium of Light with a good three points. Sunderland failed to capitalize on their dominance, while Cardiff City and West Bromwich Albion just didn’t have enough in the tank. As for the most entertaining encounter? A 2-2 draw between Everton and Norwich. Ricky van Wolfswinkel’s excellent debut was only one out of multiple encouraging signs of things to come at Carrow Road.

 

Latest Signings and Verdicts

As we enter the final two weeks of the transfer window, the rumors are really heating up. It’s well-known that Arsenal need to strengthen—badly—and in delaying their transfer activity to after their first loss, Arsene Wenger may well have to repeat his panic buy period of 2011. But there are other teams who still need to add. There’s Newcastle United, who haven’t really strengthened at all this summer, and Crystal Palace, who still lack the quality to compete in the Premier League, and Manchester United’s joint bid for Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines reflects the need to improve the overall squad still.

But there have also been some excellent business done in the past week. Hull City added two Tottenham midfielders in Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore, who should add class, composure and PL pedigree to the Tigers squad. Etienne Capoue to Spurs was a shrewd piece of business, while Pablo Osvaldo to Southampton has been a real statement of intent. But Darren Bent and Scott Parker to Fulham represent exactly the type of low-risk, high-possible-return transfers that the Premier League needs more of. These are two new arrivals who could slot in immediately at Craven Cottage—and become instant hits.

 

This piece was my second instalment of English Football Weekly for the 2013/14 season for SWOL.co.

Liverpool 1-0 Stoke: 6 Things We Learned

Hi-res-176676967_crop_650x440

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

 

Kicking off the 2013/14 English Premier League season, Liverpool secured their first win of the new campaign. The victory came in their first game against Stoke City on Saturday, courtesy of both Daniel Sturridge’s sublime 25-yard strike and Simon Mignolet’s thrilling double save right at the death.

In the process, the Reds finally ended their opening-day hoodoo: This was Liverpool’s first opening-day home win in 12 years, and while it was done in style, it wasn’t without its fair share of drama.

But Brendan Rodgers will have been delighted to see his new signings come through the game in fine form, and he’ll have been happy to end the first week of league action with three points and a clean sheet.

Here are six things we learned from Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Stoke. Enjoy and let us know your views in the comments below.

Kolo Toure: One of the Best Signings of the Summer

Let’s start with the individuals, and one of the standout performers on Saturday was Liverpool’s new No. 4, Kolo Touré.

Slotting seamlessly into the heart of the Reds defence, Touré was at his imperious best, closing down attacks, moving the ball purposefully and committing whole-hearted tackles. More importantly, he ensured that the retired Jamie Carragher wasn’t a big miss.

His presence alongside Daniel Agger ensured that the high defensive line was a success, and allowed full-backs Glen Johnson and José Enrique to bomb down their respective flanks at will.

On the attacking side, there was also his scintillating charge up-field on an attack that he instigated; he ended up inside the box as an unorthodox forward option as Daniel Sturridge opted to shoot.

And if it weren’t for the crossbar at the Anfield Road end, Touré would’ve opened his Reds account on his debut from a first-half Steven Gerrard corner.

Add his wealth of experience and the fact that he’s clearly already gained the trust of his manager and teammates, and Touré represents a fine addition to Brendan Rodgers’ squad.

At a total transfer cost of zero, Kolo Touré, who joined Liverpool on a free from Manchester City, might turn out to be one of the best signings in the whole of the summer transfer window.

Jordan Henderson Fully Deserves Brendan Rodgers’ Faith

Throughout preseason, Joe Allen earned rave reviews from his manager, colleagues and fans alike for his hard work and improved showings compared to last season, and was widely expected to have forced his way into first-team contention in one of the advanced midfield positions.

So it came as something of a surprise that Jordan Henderson was the one chosen to start alongside Philippe Coutinho and Iago Aspas behind lone striker Daniel Sturridge on Saturday.

Perhaps this was a decision taken with the opposition in consideration: After all, Joe Allen’s form went downhill after he nearly suffered humiliation against the towering Marouane Fellaini in the Merseyside derby against Everton last year.

But Henderson’s performance proved that it was much more than that. In a performance showing plenty of energy, hard work, useful movement and goal threat, the No. 14 was one of the most impressive Liverpool players on the pitch.

And if he had shown a bit more composure in a one-on-one against AsmirBegović, or curled his shot just an inch closer to bounce in off the woodwork instead of back out, Henderson would have notched the goal that his performance deserved.

A far cry from his status last year as a makeweight in a player-plus-cash deal to Fulham for Clint Dempsey, and from his reputation as yet another big-money flop from the Damien Comolli-Kenny Dalglish era.

It seems that even Brendan Rodgers has been won over by the enthusiastic and professional Henderson. If he keeps up his form and confidence, any new attacking signing—and Luis Suarez—might face a fight to take his place from Henderson.

Await Lucas and Daniel Sturridge’s Return to Full Fitness

There was a period last season when Liverpool looked just a bit too lightweight in the center of midfield: Following Lucas’ enforced absence due to injury, Joe Allen, who was carrying a shoulder injury, had to deputize in a defensive midfield role that ultimately became the undoing of his early promising reputation.

And even when Lucas returned to the first-team fold, he was nowhere near the Lucas that Anfield had come to know and love.

Too many times he was found wanting in the midfield, seemingly having lost his pace, acceleration and tackling nous due to lack of match practice. And his absence of mind and body was to blame for one of the most embarrassing goals Liverpool conceded last season—a simple stroll through the middle of the park by Southampton’s Jay Rodriguez.

Fast forward a few months, and Lucas has seemingly returned. His tackling and positioning were much improved against Stoke, and even if he still had the tendency to commit a needless foul or to be just slightly too reactive, the defensive midfield area became much less of a liability.

Leading the line was another player stepping up his return to full fitness.

Daniel Sturridge, who had only made his first-team comeback in a preseason friendly a week prior against Celtic, scored two goals in a behind-closed-doors midweek friendly against Newcastle United. He also fired in the winner on Saturday with a rather sumptuous strike from 25 yards out.

There was still room for improvement: Sturridge’s movement, pace and strength still seemed a bit rusty, but a Sturridge on his way back to full fitness still proved the difference on the day.

A few weeks down the line, Brendan Rodgers could well have a fully fit Lucas and Sturridge in his side. That would be a massive boost to the team, judging from Saturday’s display.

Simon Mignolet Passes His First Test

It’s never easy for a goalkeeper making his home debut at Anfield, especially a new first-choice keeper.

For the best part of eight seasons there has been one main man between the sticks. That man was Pepe Reina, who signed for the Reds in the summer of 2005. He has since departed on loan to Napoli.

Simon Mignolet certainly had the hearts of most Liverpool fans in their mouths as his early flap at a deep cross allowed Robert Huth to hit the bar with a fierce volley.

A solid flying save from Jonathan Walters later, and Mignolet soon rediscovered his confidence, and never looked back.

And he passed his Anfield test with flying colors as he became Liverpool’s first-ever goalkeeper to save a penalty on his debut. His stop from Walters’ last-gasp spot-kick was as thrilling as it was important, and his instinctive save from the follow-up ensured that the Reds would end the day with three points instead of one.

A special mention to Mignolet’s opposite number, Asmir Begović, who, barring a fine match-winning strike from Daniel Sturridge, kept Liverpool at bay time and again with a series of excellent stops.

That Liverpool were linked with both Mignolet and Begovićc this summer will have been encouraging in hindsight to Liverpool fans: Both showed their undoubted quality on Saturday and either would have represented fine signings by Brendan Rodgers.

A Nervy Win That Should Become Routine

As usual, Liverpool’s opening goal was met with a series of attacks from the opposition in response.

Last season, the period immediately following the Reds taking the lead was the period that Liverpool were the most vulnerable to conceding a goal.

Against a physical Stoke City side, Liverpool fans could have been forgiven for worrying that the equalizer would come immediately—or indeed would arrive inevitably as Begović represented a one-man wall preventing the home team from extending their lead.

Sure enough, Daniel Agger obliged with a handball inside his own penalty area, and Brendan Rodgers had Simon Mignolet to thank for saving the day: The fevered celebrations from his outfield colleagues in the immediate aftermath were a sight to behold.

But as the game wore on and became increasingly nervy, it looked more and more like the type of game that Liverpool would have thrown away last season.

Instead, they held on to preserve the narrow one-goal lead, and in the process ensured that this season’s start—unlike last year’s 0-3 capitulation against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns—would ultimately be an encouraging one.

With the first potential banana skin out of the way, Rodgers needs to ensure that this mentality persists in his young side. Their attention must now turn to transforming those narrow leads into routine wins.

A Result That Bodes Well for the Future

It is precisely the end result that may shift the expectation from an inevitable dropping of points to a routine three points on the board.

A young and technical Liverpool side, especially one playing a higher defensive line, had always been susceptible to a physically dominant team: Stoke’s 3-1 win over the Reds just over half a year ago was testament to this.

If the relentless and eye-pleasing attacking can be turned into three points, and if the dominance in possession and shots on goal can be translated into match-winning goals, then Brendan Rodgers will have added the all-important end result onto his formula.

With the arrival of Coutinho and Sturridge, Liverpool have had to rely less on the talismanic Luis Suarez, and if Iago Aspas and company provide further upgrades to Rodgers’ squad options, this could be a Reds side that has access to further victories.

Perhaps it is too early to draw definitive conclusions for the season to come from their opening game, but it’s clear that the signs at Anfield were encouraging.

Now for the hard part—ensuring that they can sustain this for 38 games over the course of a season, starting with a visit to Villa Park this coming Saturday.

As Rodgers will remember well, a certain Christian Benteke tormented them at Anfield last December.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.