A sporting commodity planning for growth but abandoning the roots

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The Independent Online

Rupert Murdoch, Jean-Marc Bosman, Eric Cantona, Sun Jihai, Cristiano Ronaldo. Take your pick, but whichever of these foreigners you choose, they have all played a part in making top-flight football in England – the nation that gave the game to the world – into the sporting commodity of the 21st century.

None of them alone could have brought about an astonishing transformation that, by January 2011, will probably see a weekend of simultaneous Premier League games in the Middle East, Asia, the US, and maybe Australasia and Africa. But without a serendipitous alignment of them and others since 1992, it would not have happened.

They each went in search of one thing – Murdoch in search of Pay-TV viewers, Bosman in search of an honest crust, Cantona in search of redemption, Sun in search of a career break and Ronaldo in search of glory and a stonking contract – but all have helped the Premier League to find something unforeseen: status as unrivalled the No 1 sports league on the planet, in terms of international appeal and brand awareness at least.

The short explanation for how the Premier League finds itself selling its wares by staging games on foreign soil is simple enough. English football in the Eighties was at its nadir, marred by hooliganism, crumbling stadiums, exile from European competition, low crowds and no interest from TV. The Premier League was formed – partly as a result of recommendations arising from the Hillsborough tragedy – as a competition aimed at families who could attend games in safety in all-seater stadiums.

Murdoch's Sky TV bankrolled it. Foreign players started to come in again. (They had been here before in numbers since 1978, when a ban on foreigners was lifted). Cantona arrived in 1992 at Leeds, helped them win the title, moved to Manchester United and acted as a catalyst not just for United's dominance of the game but also as a spur for other clubs to try their hand in the overseas market.

Jürgen Klinsmann arrived at Tottenham in 1994. Scandinavians appeared en masse. Dennis Bergkamp arrived at Arsenal in 1995, and that same year Bosman won his landmark legal case that revolutionised the transfer market and opened the floodgates for foreign players. Gianfranco Zola came in 1996, Sun Jihai and Fan Zhiyi became the first Chinese in English league football, at Crystal Palace, in 1998. By Boxing Day 1999, when Chelsea fielded the first all-foreign XI in the Premier League, the reverse colonisation of English football was complete.

The players have kept coming, and so has the global interest. The two are intertwined. It is the reason the Premier League can sell its rights in more than 200 countries. And the reason that the League made £625m from its overseas rights alone for the current three-year deals (2007-10 inclusive). In turn, all this time the quality (or perceived quality) has risen. Crowds have increased, Sky has pumped in more money, the players get richer, the honeypot becomes ever more attractive, more stars arrive, the circle continues.

The other significant factors at work in the same period have been the increase in the number of foreign managers, from Arsène Wenger to Jose Mourinho to Rafa Benitez, and these managers also tend to recruit foreign players from countries where the appetite for English football increases again. A single player can have a massive effect: one example is Manchester United's Park Ji Sung, almost solely responsible for more than one million Koreans now owning a United credit card and many more having an active interest in the game. The "Park effect" is being repeated in many dozens of other countries across Asia and Africa, to greater and lesser extents, thanks to other players.

The result? Tottenham versus Middlesbrough (or similar) in Bangkok (or similar) in January 2011.

One word of warning. While feeding the beast of expansion, do not ignore the roots, or the potential audience. The Premier League sold its overseas rights in China to a small cable subscriber station WinTV. From a potential TV audience of some 30 million (on free to air), it is now so low it cannot be registered. Ignore claims of audiences of billions. They are simply untrue, Bangkok 2011 or not.

Expanding Horizons: How other sports seek new audiences

NBA BASKETBALL

The NBA has promoted organic international growth for decades, establishing offices worldwide including Paris, Shanghai, Hong Kong and London (opened 2007). In 1990, it became the first American professional sports league to play regular season games outside its shores, when Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz played in Tokyo, a regular venue since. Exhibition and pre-season games have been played in various countries, England included. Regular season games have also been played in Mexico, with China and England on the horizon. The NBA commissioner David Stern said last year that the O2 Arena, as well as arenas in Berlin and Rome, could see future regular season games.

NFL AMERICAN FOOTBALL

America's No1 sport hosted its first-ever regular season game outside continental America in London in October when the New York Giants (who went on to win SuperBowl last weekend) beat the Miami Dolphins at Wembley. The 88,000 seats sold out in 72 hours. It was the first regular season game outside the USA since a record NFL crowd of 103,467 watched the San Francisco 49ers play the Arizona Cardinals in Mexico City in 2005. The NFL now has permanent offices in Mexico, London and elsewhere as it looks to expand. It is considering more games outside America but there is opposition from some fans, coaches and players.

MLB BASEBALL

It was announced last month that the first ever Major League Baseball regular season games in China will be between the LA Dodgers and San Diego Padres on 15-16 March in Beijing, breaking new ground for MLB games played overseas. The MLB played its first ever league game abroad in 1996, in Mexico, and has also played in Canada. Further expansion is planned.

NHL ICE HOCKEY

You probably missed it, but the current regular NHL season, 2007-08, actually opened in London, with a double-header between the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks at the O2 Arena in Greenwich on 29-30 September last year. (The Kings are owned by AEG, who are the owners of the O2 Arena and LA Galaxy among other assets). The only other regular season games to be played outside North America were three seasonal openers in Japan in 1997, 1998 and 2000. Plans are afoot for more league games in London, Prague and Stockholm in future seasons.

BEST OF THE REST

Though not a club-based event, the Tour de France has tried to widen its appeal by taking in other countries, including England in 1974, 1994 and 2007. In golf, The European Tour has expanded to stage events in the Middle East, China, South Korea, India and South America, not always with approval from local regional tours.

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