160m viewers, 202 countries: Premiership's worldwide pot of gold

Manchester United's visit to Arsenal was not just a must-watch match here but around the world. From Zagreb to Sydney the Premiership's popularity overseas is increasing. Nick Harris reports on how TV revenue and audiences keep growing
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The Independent Online

In 1972, the American mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz sought to encapsulate chaos theory by posing the question: "Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?"

In 2007, thanks to the global expansion of Premier League football, a sporting version of the same query can now ask: "Does a Thierry Henry header at the far post in London set off a storm in Mumbai or Lagos?" On the evidence of Sunday evening's dramatic events at the Emirates Stadium, yes.

Up to six million people watched the match live in the UK, with an in-home peak on Sky of 3.4 million - high for pay TV - and an estimated two million more in 40,000 pubs and clubs. But it was also possible to watch live in 201 other countries. The Premier League has a global "reach" into 613 million homes, and estimates a typical live audience for a single match of around 79.5 million. With Sunday's fixture such a pivotal occasion, featuring big clubs, it is estimated it could have drawn double that.

So to the 60,128 people at the venue, Arsenal's last-gasp winner against Manchester United was just the latest dramatic denouement to a Premiership match contested by a rainbow alliance of athletes. But to the Premier League, it represented a pot of gold.

In each of the 16 countries across three continents represented by players in that one game alone, and in many other places, there is a growing appetite to watch live, top-end English football.

That is why the League was able last week to announce it has sold its next tranche of overseas TV rights (for seasons 2007-10 inclusive) for £625m, double what it earned last time. And why the Premiership is now the most-watched league in the world. And why scenes of pandemonium from South America to Africa to the Antipodes are often found when a game is screened.

"I knew there would be interest in such an important game as Arsenal against Man United in Nigeria," said Joe Nwokoye, who watched the game live in the Lagos suburb of Ikeja. "But I was surprised by the noise in the neighbourhood when Henry scored the winner. You could hear the cheers coming out of windows, and from the square down the road where it was being shown in public. It was a big deal." Nwokoye says many of his friends support Arsenal because of their African players, especially Emmanuel Adebayor, whose parents were born in Nigeria.

Football in India has not traditionally been a big sport, and absolute ratings remain low for the Premiership, in the low millions in a nation of 1.1 billion. But the recent percentage growth is faster than in most other places, and the value of the rights, while a low absolute figure, has grown exponentially.

The fervour in Mumbai late on Sunday night, local time, verged on the surreal as large numbers of Indian Manchester United fans packed into cafés to watch. They outnumbered the Arsenal fans but it was the home team's support who had the last triumphant laugh, as one of them, Nilu Izadi, testifies on the facing page today.

Premiership football has been responsible, among other phenomena, for bidding wars in the Far East, for an Icelandic executive jumping on a plane to London to beg to be allowed to bid for rights, and for match analysts in Argentina breaking into Beatles' songs during play. Every time George McCartney plays for West Ham (all of whose games are now live in Argentina, since Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano signed), Argentine commentators are keen to remind viewers he has two Beatles' names rolled into his, which provides the perfect excuse for singing the group's numbers.

The bidding wars in Asia and elsewhere started when the League put its next foreign rights out to tender last September. Some 450 interested parties were involved, generating bids from 130 entities covering 208 countries. In all, 81 separate deals have been done, all concluded directly between the League and broadcasters, allowing the League to tailor coverage (for example supplementary magazine shows featuring local players) to local needs.

The smallest deal was Fiji TV buying the rights for Fiji (population 900,000), Vanuatu and a few other small Pacific islands, while the biggest was ESPN Star's deal for pan-territory rights ranging from Macau and the Maldives to India and Pakistan. Other major deals include C-more Entertainment buying rights for Scandinavia, and Showtime winning the rights from ART in the Middle East.

The League is reluctant to provide details on what any broadcaster pays, but there are huge variations above and below the average £7m for each of the 81 deals. Little nations may pay in the low six figures. Multination deals run to tens of millions. The most valuable per capita deals were done in the "hot spots" of South-East Asia, Scandinavia and Africa.

In Thailand, it took six rounds of bidding for UBC, a pay TV operator, to wrest the rights from ESPN Star. In Hong Kong, the pay TV operator PCCW outbid I-Cable by paying a reported £10m, in a territory of only seven million people.

In Iceland, the rights were won by the Icelandic Broadcasting Corporation, which held them prior to 2004. IBC lost out in 2004 by not bidding, assuming an agency would win and sub-license them. But its fierce rival, the Icelandic Television Co, snapped them up, leading a top IBC executive to fly to London to protest and be allowed to bid late. He was turned down then, but has won the rights back now.

The intervention of the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, has led to a new structuring of deals across Africa, to be split by several broadcasters instead of being held by the pay TV monopoly holder, Supersport. The upshot is that 390 million extra African households (most poor, many Muslim) will gain some free-to-air access of live Premiership games from next season. If it seems strange for British politicians to argue for live English football as a right in the Third World, it is indicative of the game's popularity and power.

Much more of this and the Premiership might even start to be known as the giving game, not just the global one. Although , on second thoughts, that's about as likely as 94th-minute header sealing a come-from-behind win against Manchester United.

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