In Soweto this afternoon, the Orlando Pirates will be playing a local derby with Moroka Swallows in South Africa’s Premier Soccer League. Across Johannesburg, there will be a rival football attraction: Crystal Palace versus Chelsea broadcast on a 100-metre square screen at “Barclays Premier League Live”.
This is the first of what is planned to be an annual event: a weekend-long jamboree touring the globe (Asia is the 2015 destination) celebrating and proselytising everything to do with the world’s most-watched league.
The Premier League is hoping to attract a total of 24,000 fans to Zoo Lake Sports Club, in one of Johannesburg’s more upmarket suburbs. They will be able to watch today’s games from Palace, Manchester United, and Arsenal, and tomorrow’s at Fulham and Liverpool.
There will also be fan zones featuring a range of interactive activities and the chance to “get up close” to the Premier League trophy along with skills sessions and mini-games overseen by coaching staff from Premier League clubs.
Robbie Fowler, Marcel Desailly and two of the few South Africans to play in the Premier League, Mark Fish and Lucas Radebe, will be in attendance. Inevitably, there will also be catering and stands hosted by clubs and league sponsors.
With free entry, what profit is made from these is not likely to cover the event’s cost but that is not the aim. Like a supermarket selling cheap baked beans this is a loss-leader aimed at luring customers in, then hooking them for the long term.
In terms of global marketing the Premier League is a huge success story. Overseas television deals are worth more than £2bn in the 2013-16 cycle. This is still exceeded by domestic rights but, at the current rates of growth, income from foreign deals will overtake that from the UK market when the next deal is signed.
But no business can rest on its laurels. In the build-up to today’s event Richard Scudamore, the League’s chief executive, warned of the potential damage to the brand by Manchester United’s current troubles. “It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “When your most popular club isn’t doing as well, that costs you interest and audience in some places.”
And audiences have a choice. The Premier League does not see itself as competing with the PSL, or any other domestic competition, but with the other big European leagues. In South Africa the TV channel Supersport will this weekend broadcast live matches from England, Spain, Italy, Germany, the United States and Nigeria, as well as South African games.
But what of the local leagues? A few years ago, the Premier League floated the idea of a “39th game”, which envisaged an extra fixture being hosted in various cities around the world. This foundered largely because of fierce opposition from other countries, who feared the impact of the English behemoth coming into their backyard.
They were wise to do so if South Africa’s experience is anything to go by. During the apartheid era, local football was generally supported by the majority black population, while British football was followed by whites of UK descent and Indians (Afrikaaners were primarily rugby fans). Two decades on, the domestic game remains largely shunned by whites but black people have begun to follow European football, and especially the Premier League.
Rams Mabote, a writer who also runs a reputation management company, grew up with an interest in the UK game and supports Chelsea, but his main love is Orlando Pirates. Today he will be at their game. Chelsea’s match he will record to watch later. “For me the two can coexist,” he said. “I like Chelsea, I also like Barcelona, but Pirates are my team.”
Mabote, however, has a 12-year-old son who sees things differently. “My son is more aware of what happens in England than in the league here,” said Mabote. “That is worrying for football here, because as he gets older I think he will sit at home and watch European football on TV rather than go to a Pirates game.”
Mosibodi Whitehead, sports editor at radio station Kaya FM and a Swallows fan, has also noted a generational shift, but says it is partly because of post-apartheid reforms. “Black and white now go to school together and because white kids, in general, still don’t follow the local teams the conversation is about the European game.”
One of the presenters on Kaya FM, which has a predominantly black audience, is John Perlman, a former TV commentator on the PSL games. He said: “When you go on Twitter the topics are the same as in England: people talk about David Moyes, about Arsène Wenger.”
Perlman also organises soccer schools for children of limited means and he said when the kids (as is customary) adopt a name to use in matches it will be “Messi” or “Ronaldo”, even in one case “Wes Brown”, rather than a player from a domestic team.
So is the BPL (as it is often called globally) killing the local game? Mabote expects there to be 10,000 fans at the 45,000-capacity Orlando Stadium for a match that would once have sold out a fortnight in advance. But it is not, says Whitehead, the Premier League’s fault.
“The football is not exciting. We have a lot of eastern European coaches who play dull football, and there are no characters in the teams. People would rather watch Messi and Ronaldo, Rooney and Suarez, on TV. The interest is still there.
“When Lucas Radebe came on the station to promote the Zoo Lake event, the questions were about Bafana Bafana [the national team] and why our players are not good enough to go overseas any more. But, with all games on TV, people can watch the Pirates, keep an eye on the Chelsea game, and not spend hours travelling.”
It seems the global telecommunications revolution, the tide of history and the PSL’s own failings are why more people in Johannesburg today might watch Crystal Palace on a big screen than Orlando Pirates in the flesh, not the expansionism of a Premier League, which argues that if it doesn’t spread the word then the Bundesliga or La Liga will.
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