Friday 5 September ~

The opening game of the American National Football League on Thursday night was particularly welcome this year, threatening as it did to overshadow John McCain’s presidential acceptance speech at the Great Grey-Headed Herding otherwise known as the Republican Party convention. If the two occasions had anything in common besides the triumph of blah, blare and bombast over subtlety and substance, it was the unwritten sign proclaiming: wealthy people most welcome here.

One of the teams in the opening gridiron fixture was the Washington Redskins, owned by billionaire Dan Snyder. His team is consistently the most profitable in NFL and extremely expensive to follow, even by Premier League standards. It costs $40 to park at his stadium, FedEx Field, and you can buy a $100 smart card for the season just to get you to the front of the long queues on match days. Once inside, you can hire a hand-held TV to see replays and find out other NFL scores for $40 a game. There’s a huge waiting list for season tickets (the club claims 200,000 people, though sceptics scoff at the figure), even though Snyder has increased prices time and again. But if you want to buy Club or Dream Seats at the top end – $3,000-5,000 for an eight-game season – you will have no problem jumping the queue. Only his scheme to charge spectators an entrance fee for practices at the team’s training field was pulled after fans and media protested (but you still have to pay for parking).

It’s a successful sports business model all right, and it’s no surprise that England’s biggest clubs have been steadily moving in the same fiscally penetrative direction over the past decade. Snyder himself has the wandering eye for England, and said in London last October: “We’re actively looking for the right opportunity in the Premier League and are examining various opportunities. It’s a very exciting market.” Tottenham Hotspur were the rumoured target of his interest. Given that it’s 17 years since the Redskins won the Super Bowl, Tottenham might be just his kind of team.
For despite the popularity and the profits, the Redskins are pretty rubbish. Last night, to the surprise of few but the delight of many, they lost to the New York Giants. Like some Premier League teams we all know and love, they bring in big name players on gargantuan contracts but then win nothing. Yet the fans and the money keep coming, partly out of loyalty and partly because American football is more about the spectacle than the sport. A 60-minute game that takes over three hours to complete can eat up a whole day, centring on several different levels of consumption and enough male bonding over pre-match beer and barbecues in the car park to launch a testosterone-fuelled spaceship. Inside the ground, the fake noise, the numerous merchandise stands, the sale of candy floss and the underlying atmosphere of hostility (isolated drunken brawls are commonplace) make it feel more like FedEx Fairground. Let people get drunk, take their money, and distract them from the actual game as much as possible. From the team’s point of view, the outcome of the game comes a poor second to coining it in.
This is not to say that the majority of Redskins fans are dupes. You’ll hear plenty of complaints about the team and the ever-increasing amount it costs to watch them, but it’s a stoical grumbling born of impotence. They know it’s too late to do anything about it. Many fans refuse to go, and watch the less commercialised college football instead. But the 80,000-seat stadium’s always full, aside from a few of those pricey Dream Seats. Just like it is at Old Trafford, where they keep adding tiers and they keep putting up the prices. Top-flight English football fans may refuse to recognise any mirror image of themselves in the archetypal NFL fan, but if they become any more complacent in the face of over-hiked prices, over-hyped “events” (“It’s Crunch Sunday! Again!”) and limitless gimmickry and merchandise, owners like Dan Snyder will be happy to come in and squeeze them for every last pound they can laughingly bank.
Snyder grew up a Redskins fan, so he really does care when they lose. Still, the profits must help make up for the lack of glory. Once the new breed of Premier League owner realises that there are not enough league titles to go around all those expensive teams, the business model could evolve from one of watching small fortunes disappear into the black hole of an agent’s wallet and, instead, clubs will become, like almost all NFL teams, viable vehicles for profit, looking more and more to attract the kind of corporate client who likes a big day out and has the cash to pay for it. It will be increasingly about the spectacle, and less about the football. The 39th game and all that. It’s closer than we think. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (3)
Comment by The Exploding Vole 2008-09-05 12:00:49

As ever, Plenderleith is spot-on. But the EPL = NFL headline is disingenuous. There are some fairly fundamental differences between the two entities.

Under the NFL's revenue-sharing agreement, the money from televised matches - even the Super Bowl - is shared by all the clubs. This means that, with good TV ratings for other games, even a loser like the Redskins can come out ahead. It also means that, in time, every team (except New Orleans, by rule) gets a shot at the Super Bowl. Last year the Green Bay Packers - a community-owned franchise devoid of any Synderesque figure of scorn - came within one game of reaching it.

TV money has been crucial to the NFL for decades; as early as the 1960s many clubs would have lost money without it. But its importance to football over here is relatively new. "Going to the match" may still be the game's bread and butter, but for generations most NFL fans have followed their teams on television - every week, home and away. Many have never been to a game in their lives.

This, to me, is where the real danger lurks for British football: in fans not bothering to support their local team because they can watch more glamorous stuff on the box (even if it means listening to Clive Tyldesley), and in the game deriving its revenue largely from television viewers who don't really care for football but will watch the occasional match involving players they have heard of.

One suspects whatever interest Snyder and his ilk have in the "EPL" has more to do with climbing aboard the Champions League gravy-train than a desire to fleece customers on this side of the Atlantic. It's no coincidence that Liverpool and Manchester United have American owners - and that the likes of Newcastle and Tottenham do not. There's a worldwide TV market for these mega-clubs; there really isn't one for the Redskins.

Comment by Reed of the Valley People 2008-09-05 13:30:30

The other possibility is that the lower leagues of English football could be more like baseball. Here, minor league baseball is thriving by building very nice, but small, parks with a lot of extraneous "entertainment" and food options at the park in order to generate a "family friendly atmopshere."

Comment by rudi 2008-09-07 15:22:26

And don't forget that you can be the wealthiest man in the world, you still can't stroll in and buy all the best players. The salary cap the draft is a fantastic leveller (unless you're the Saints or the Lions: then you're barely ever even the bridesmaid.

Obviously the draft system is impossible in world football, but there's nothing to stop UEFA (or, hmm, FIFA) considering a salary cap system.

Every team having their own equivalent of a "Marquee" player would do wonders for the domestic game.

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