Here in August 2013, it feels like there is unprecedented promotion, clamor, and attention for the English Premier League in the US.
Defending EPL champion Manchester United’s season opener is being shown nationally in the US this weekend and live matches are being shown throughout the season. This, of course, is all based on NBC sports securing the US broadcast rights for the EPL for $250M, arguably the world’s most popular soccer league. Some recent promotion by NBC includes:
- A tongue in cheek promotional video with Saturday Night Live veteran Jason Sudeikis impersonating a Tottenham manager.
- A New York city subway campaign where subway cars where painted and promoted with Liverpool and Everton colors and logos.
I’ve also noticed more and more articles on soccer and the EPL in mainstream sports sites. Articles by noted journalist Richard Deitsch highlighting NBC ‘s EPL coverage, Bill Simmons’ Grantland site on the fast play of the EPL, the Washington Post on the American stage the EPL is getting and the Guardian’s piece on the EPL’s increasing impact on US culture have recently been written.
To me, a missing part of these stories seems to be a natural question. When will the EPL create a new permanent franchise in the US? As soccer continues in popularity in the US as those articles attest and the promotion of the EPL of a wanting population suggest, an evaluation of that question is certainly happening or soon will happen. And New York would be the natural location for such a franchise. Why would this make sense?
- Money, Money, Money– If there is demand for entertainment in the US, there is inevitably the money to fund it. There will be potential owners that would pay the EPL significant sums of money to join the league. A potential windfall could await the EPL.
- Soccer momentum is building– While there have been false starts before about soccer’s ability to stick in the US, momentum continues to build. The American youth of the 80’s and 90’s that grew up playing soccer are now adults in the prime demographics for entertainment and advertisers which will propel that momentum to the next level. The sustained accessibility to leagues like the EPL through NBC and wall to wall coverage of the World Cup will enhance soccer’s standing over the next few years.
- Hockey and Baseball are in decline– Hockey has become a niche sport, and while it has a 10 year, $200M annual deal with NBC, as a sports fan, it’s rare to find regular season hockey on national TV. Baseball has been eclipsed by football as America’s pastime and has anecdotally been losing popularity with the younger demographic, with its slower pace not fully resonating with the faster, on the go society of today and continues to struggle with impact of steroids in the game. There seems to be an opportunity for that void to be partially filled by soccer.
- Americans Like the Best– Americans want to be considered the best. I feel the MLS hasn’t been fully embraced in the US because Americans know its quality isn’t truly world class. The NFL, NBA, MLB—those are clearly the best leagues in the world in their respective sports. Americans expect their sports teams to be competing with the highest caliber . The EPL is arguably the premier league in the world and likely the most popular. Americans will embrace an American team in the best league in the world.
- Globalization of Sports– We’re seeing this trend happen throughout sports. The NFL plays regular season games in London each year and the tea leaves certainly suggest the NFL may have a permanent franchise in London in the next 5 years. Major League Baseball plays regular season games in Japan, cricket stars in Australia and South Africa participate in Indian cricket leagues, and an MLS franchise for 2015 has already been approved which is a joint investment of Manchester City of the EPL and the New York Yankees baseball club. League teams outside of the league’s home country are going to increasingly start to happen.
- New York and National Pride– After 9/11, New York has taken on a galvanizing role for American loyalty and patriotism. While there is certainly regional pride when it comes to sports, if there is one US city that could house the single league team for a sport, it’s New York. Americans would rally around New York and make that EPL team America’s team.
- Add Toronto for Logistics– Since EPL teams typically play one game a week, a 7 hour flight from England to New York doesn’t feel untenable. NFL teams regularly make the East Coast to West Coast 5 hour flight as part of their once a week schedules. To alleviate any concerns about the travel, the League could consider adding a 2nd New York team or a Toronto team and have the UK teams spend two weeks in the US and Canada east coast before returning to the UK. Toronto could similarly be Canada’s national team for premier soccer.
Of course, there are complications that would have to be overcome.
- US soccer perception on EPL fans– EPL fans across the world today don’t see the US as top flight soccer and may feel adding a US team would reduce the premier status of the league. However, I’m not suggesting the New York team be made of only Americans. There would be no requirement of minimum number of American players, it could be even zero Americans and all Europeans. This would be a world class team with some of the best players in the world. If that means no Americans, so be it. Americans want to see and feel the energy of the best.
- US World Cup Success or Lack of Success – There often has been a feeling that the US Men’s National Team would need to win or come close to win the World Cup before soccer could really take off in the US. Well, the US won’t be winning the World Cup anytime soon. But I think that’s not necessary for enough demand to be in place to support a New York EPL team. The access and commitment from NBC, additional coverage of European cup and European championships on ESPN, and the mere presence of the US in World Cup events will create the demand.
- EPL’s Delegation Rules- The EPL has unique meritocracy where the bottom performing teams in the league get relegated to first division leagues while top performing teams in first division leagues get promoted to the EPL. For a single American franchise, there won’t be appetite to follow a team in the First Division after a large investment to get into the EPL. As stated before, for EPL to work in the US, Americans will be celebrating the fact that they are competing and watching the best. But the rest of the EPL wouldn’t stand for their teams to have the relegation risk each season while the American team wouldn’t have that risk. Ultimately, I think an expansion American team would get an exemption from relegation for at least the first 5 years as they build up their franchise and roster. I would also suspect that the American team will be a high spending franchise (the EPL’s salary cap rules are quite murky) which would keep them in the top 3/4 of teams after the 5 year exemption period.
- MLS- The MLS is today’s top US soccer league, with its first season in 1996. After 17 years of development and investment, the US soccer establishment won’t be eager to throw all of the blood, sweat, and tears away and watch a single EPL franchise come in and grab the nation’s attention, and relegate the MLS as second class or even a a failure. But if its clear that having an EPL franchise in New York is what fans demand, the economics are there, and it will help the sport grow and prosper in the US, I think US soccer will find a way to reconcile both investments. There may be a way where the top players from the MLS get promoted to the EPL franchise. Possibly, the relegation/promotion decision of the American franchise would be with the MLS at large. If the New York franchise gets relegated, the top MLS team gets promoted. This will be a difficult issue to reconcile as the MLS has the support of the US Soccer Federation. Certainly thorny, but ultimately, I think the money will talk and a way to reconcile will be found.
I think we’ll see an EPL franchise in New York in 7 years. I also feel the NFL will have a franchise in London in those same 7 years. Perhaps, the two leagues work together and have cross investments in each others leagues. The globalization of sports is a trend that is building across the world and the money in sports is just to large to ignore cross border opportunities. 7 years- let’s see what happens!