How football competitions are their own competition

It's not just a 'Best League In The World' marketing line anymore

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Mark Thompson

Jun 28 2022

5 mins read

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"Father?" the little child said, looking out past their parent's face and into the distant sky, "do other football leagues proclaim themselves the Best In The World? Or is it just ours?"

In the olden days, football leagues were mere bureaucratic bodies. They organised matches and set rules. At some point the job evolved and they became entertainment businesses, like HBO but with no scripts, dragons, and only occasional nudity (remember that fan's celebration to an Allan Saint-Maximin goal).

The most famous example of this switch is also the closest to home for the Get Goalside newsletter: England's Premier League. In the early 1990s, the big clubs in England thought they'd be able to negotiate more lucrative TV rights if they were doing it by themselves and that, at any rate, the money being shared between 24 teams (at the time) was preferable to being shared amongst the entire 92 of the Football League.* They knew that what they had was an entertainment product, and there was money to be made in providing it to the people as one.

The entertainment business has changed since 1992, though. And so has the business of football competitions.

The big story of the TV biz at the moment is streaming, but another way of framing it would be as a kind of 'internetisation' of television. There are more options available, and more people able to watch the same things (legally or less legally) across the globe. As a result, domestic networks aren't just competing against each other, and not just against Netflix anymore, but against Disney+ and YouTube and Twitch and all the rest of them too.

And so the same in football. In the '90s, the way that football leagues were akin to entertainment businesses was that there was money to be made, via television and merchandise, primarily from domestic audiences. As we all know, the 21st century has seen a rocketing influence of the international audience, to the extent that the Premier League's overseas TV rights will now, for the first time, earn the league more than domestic rights.

So here we reach the main point. Just like in the television industry, football leagues are now competing much more directly with their overseas equivalents. This is why La Liga (not just Real Madrid or Barcelona) are taking it upon themselves to complain about Paris Saint-Germain's and Manchester City's finances. It's also why they have their own analysis and visualisation tool, Mediacoach, which forms part of LaLiga Tech, which launched last September. All a way of trying to make sure that theirs is the best product around.

On a slightly different scale, the relatively recently-formed Canadian Premier League has made a concerted effort to help the entire competition with its own CPL in-house analysts and expertise. For a league to succeed, the clubs need to succeed, so why shouldn't the league help facilitate that. (The CPL is also an example of using the internationalisation of football TV: matches are available to watch in the UK on BT Sport - pretty remarkable for a league whose salary cap in 2021, for players and coaching staff, was $1.2m).

The CPL push is, in part, a way of trying to provide a boost to the Canadian men's national team ahead of the World Cup in 2026, where Canada are a co-host. They're not the only country leveraging the increased competition between the world's domestic leagues for the national team's benefit. Norway's national FA and the associations of their men's and women's leagues are creating a joint project, Europatoppen, which aims to make sure everyone's working on the same page to help move Norwegian football forward.

If you're reading this newsletter you'll probably be very aware of various clashes in global fooball governance. FIFA's desire to expand the World Cup and/or Club World Cup clashes with what confederations like UEFA want to do. In turn, UEFA's desire to expand the Champions League clashes with the space that domestic football has available.

The point of all this has been to show that those Godzilla-vs-King Kong battles aren't the only fights between administrative bodies. Everybody wants to be the winner, and everybody has competitors. Even the competitions themselves.

In some ways, this isn't new. Viewers of English TV are very used to broadcasters touting the Premier League as the 'best league in the world'. The league itself has long tried to make itself marketable and appealing, which, explicitly or not, puts it in competition with other leagues in international markets.

However, as the world gets smaller the market gets tighter. And just like football teams, these leagues are getting increasingly savvy at business organisation, technology, and data in their bid to rise up the ranks.



Postscript

*It's kind of funny that the Premier League is the original example of a group of big football teams banding together to break away from an existing structure in a bid to leverage their size and power for more money, and then it was the Premier League clubs who were the catalyst for the 2021 European breakaway project's early demise because of English club supporters' anger at the idea. If the Premier League weren't so rich - partly coming from them being ahead of the curve on monetisation, which in turn partly comes from their initial 1992 breakaway - then they probably wouldn't have been so secure in saying no to the 2021 breakaway idea or as numerous in the group approached to be part of the scheme (and therefore strongly influential when withdrawing as a bloc due to the nation's cultural feeling).

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