Money talks, as Premier League eye move
It's the kind of news that is normally reserved for April the 1st. Yet those fans, managers and journalists that checked their calendars this morning will be mortified to find that 'April Fool's Day' is a few months away and plans to send the Premier League on a world tour are actually being considered by those at the top.
In essence, the idea is to create a 39th fixture Premier League season in the 2011, with ten competitive fixtures being played in various locations around the globe - potentially bringing in around £5million per club.
Cities would bid for the matches, with two games played in each venue and there is the prospect (because of the differing time zones) of having five games in a row for TV viewers on each day of a normal domestic weekend.
Yet everyone, barring the 20 Premier League chairmen and chief executive Richard Scudamore, seems to be of the same opinion; that this will not be good for the game.
Dissenting voices have sprung up from everywhere. How will these plans impact the fans who are the lifeblood of the league? What about the players who are already dragged halfway around the world every few months for an international friendly or two? And why is no-one talking about the fallout from the England game?
The problem, of course, is that many of those supporting the proposals have dollar-signs for eyes. And understandably so. For them, football is a business and the best way to run a business is to expand the possibilities for global marketing.
Indeed, it is a tantalising prospect for the Premier League's chairmen. An extra ten percent added to their annual income (on top of the money received from the £900million-a-year TV deal), the potential to unlock a whole new spectrum of support from around the world and the chance to sell their 'brand' to a host of lucrative new markets.
To want to exploit their position is entirely predictable, but those who have given their support to the plans are treading on thin ice. On the one hand, they have a desire to push the League forward. On the other they have the tradition of the English game, built up on local club support over generations.
Local fans are the lifeblood of the league. It is their money coming through the turnstiles that helps to drive the clubs' revenue and it is their support that matters.
Should the global interest in the Premier League ever wane, the clubs will, once again, rely on those closest to home to come to their rescue. The trouble being that, by that stage, many of the die-hard supporters may have dispersed in pursuit of a 'real' footballing experience in the lower leagues.
Those fans will see the plans as an insult and, for many who pride themselves on attending all of their club's away fixtures, the 39th game may prove one expense too many. Currently in evidence with the treatment of Liverpool's new American owners, fans already have a growing distrust of those who view the game they love as an international business - now it would seem the League itself has jumped on the bandwagon.
'I would refute this is a commercially driven exercise,' said Scudamore. 'But it is a way of taking the Premier League forward. If we don't do it, somebody else will.'
However, with such large amounts of money being talked about, the Premier League are deluding themselves if they think that what they are doing is for the good of the game, or that regular fans won't see through their motives.
Quite simply, it seems they have given no consideration to anything other than money.
Firstly, the effect on the players in an already congested season would be detrimental. Granted Manchester United recently used a few free days for a money-spinning trip to Riyadh recently, but their tired performance against Tottenham in a 1-1 draw a week later suggested their time may have been better spent at home.
With managers already up in arms about international friendlies, the fixture congestion that always occurs around the Christmas period and ever-increasing pressure to field full-strength sides, the Premier League seem to be adding to their list of complaints, not solving them.
Top bosses have already been flooding the media with negative reactions. 'It's bad enough with international friendlies, let alone going overseas,' Wigan Athletic boss Steve Bruce said; while Middlesbrough manager Gareth Southgate added: 'Is it April? I find it highly unlikely it would happen. I wouldn't think it would be a realistic proposition. '
Yet it is, although it seems that the effect on the title race has not been considered either. Initial suggestions seem to be that the 'international round' will be held in January, a time clubs are already under intense pressure to bring in new faces after the Christmas crunch, and one of the most important periods to pick up points.
The idea that Manchester United could be drawn to face Derby in New York (a mere seven hour flight away), while Chelsea face a 24-hour trip to Sydney to battle European chasing Everton, hardly seems fair given that the outcome of these randomly selected extra fixtures directly affects the title race.
With the fact that the 'Top Four' sides are supported in droves across the world meaning that it would be more like a home fixture for the League's elite, there is no way that you could ensure a fair outcome for each side. So often are key places in the league table decided by a single point that giving away a precious three for the victor in this circus would have clubs up in arms if their season was disrupted.
£5million from a trip to Asia is scant consolation if your side loses £30million having been relegated as a result of drawing Manchester United or Arsenal out of the hat.
If the Premier League are going to entertain this notion, then a more sensible solution would seem to be to create this round of fixtures outside the actual competition. The benefits would be that the clubs are still able to push their global brand and get interest in the league, while not upsetting the balance of a nine-month long season.
Furthermore, few people would complain about the idea of a 'Charity Shield' match being played around the world as many of the clubs choose to tour these continents in the summer anyway and you're virtually guaranteed one of the 'Top Four' will be involved.
However, while Scudamore may claim to put the clubs first, it plainly isn't about them as this would, of course, result in the Premier League not being able to sell their own brand.
All the evidence points towards the fact that the League have simply found an idea to make even more money out of advertising and sponsorship revenues than they already do. The greed with which they have grasped the idea is sickening and, without considering the impact on the fans, clubs and traditions of the game, one can only hope that this idea remains just that.
Proposals may come and go, and while the Premier League caught up with the rest of Europe and improved the options available to clubs by increasing the number of substitutes from five to seven this week, they have truly upset the masses by turning football into a 'world tour'.
One consolation is that the plans still need to be sanctioned by FIFA, who have a right to veto any game played by a league outside its borders; and the FA, who will be concerned that an extra game may add to the exhaustion of England's international players.
With such fervent opposition by fans' groups, sense should prevail when things are actually decided next year. Although the recent history of the Premier League carries a warning: money talks, and it may not be long before the game is exploited by those with more global interests at heart.