July 19, 2024

There is an irony at the heart of the sports-as-entertainment business that most television executives would acknowledge but very few would ever publicly admit. It is that the part of the game — or the broadcast, or the content, or the product — that they care about the most is the one that the smallest part of their audience will watch.

Broadcasting soccer is expensive. It starts with a network’s committing billions of dollars for the rights to show the competition, and it builds from there. Each live broadcast of a domestic game is a six-figure commitment. That can be doubled, at least, for a game on foreign soil, once hotels are reserved, equipment transported and flights booked.

And then, of course, there is what is still called — though not always that accurately — the talent. Networks pay out big salaries to be able to have the most familiar faces, the most famous names and the most compelling characters sit awkwardly around a low-slung table, garlanding the coverage.

This, of course, is the irony. A huge amount of time, thought and money goes into those segments: the fevered buildup, the halftime fat-chewing, the postgame bone picking. But, as a rule, the majority of fans will see little of that: Many viewers turn on just before kickoff, use halftime to make or dispose of a drink, and then switch off a few moments after the final whistle.

The investment can be explained by the fact that those are the elements of a broadcast that most resemble television. They can assemble the best cast. They can have the best material. They can stand on the most exquisite staging. They are the parts that reflect the work of the producers. The game itself is outside of their control. Maybe it will be enthralling. Maybe it will be mind-numbing. But the studio? The studio is something the networks can control.

This week, FIFA gave the clearest signal yet that it will soon allow leagues to hold competitive games on foreign shores for the first time. The game’s governing body is pulling out all of the stops. Well, both of them: It has drawn up a checklist and is in the process of appointing a working group to study the issue.

The message, though, is clear. More than a decade after the Premier League floated the idea of adding a so-called 39th game to its schedule, this particular train is about to leave the station. In Spain, for one, La Liga is hoping to play competitive games in the United States as soon as next year, though executives in the United States believe 2027 may be more realistic.

The justification — for La Liga, in this case, though everyone else uses the same arguments — is the need to attract more fans. To maximize revenues. To explore bold and exciting new ideas, to gain access to different markets, to improve offerings in order to remain not just competitive but also popular.

If that sounds familiar, it should. Soccer’s executives use the same tropes whenever they are discussing one of their harebrained schemes, whether that is making broadcasts feel more like video games, suggesting that young people cannot pay attention for an hour and a half or establishing a continental Super League.

That elite soccer should always be quite so insecure seems a little odd; it is, after all, already the most popular leisure activity the world has ever known. But, in the case of Europe’s major leagues, the threat is now readily apparent.

The shadow of the Premier League now looms over France, Germany, Spain and Italy, not to mention Portugal, the Netherlands and Turkey. There is a keen awareness that survival — or at least survival as something other than a secondary, feeder competition — rests on finding a way to fight back.

The ground on which European soccer’s executives are choosing to make their stand, though, is instructive. It is where the games are held. It is the structure of the leagues in which they are played. It is the identity of the clubs that are allowed to contest them. As is the case for television executives, their focus is relentlessly on the parts they can control.

This weekend will draw the curtain not just on the Premier League season, but on the domestic campaigns in France and Germany, too. Italy and Spain come to a close next week. In reality, though, the races in all but England have been over for some time.

Real Madrid has held an unassailable lead in La Liga for months. Paris St.-Germain has coasted to another French title despite, it would seem, spending almost every weekend scoring late equalizers against Nantes. Inter Milan regained the Italian title in April, at around the same time that Bayer Leverkusen clinched the Bundesliga.

None of these leagues have provided especially compelling title races. The same was true for the Netherlands, where PSV Eindhoven did not lose a game until the end of March. Portugal, Belgium and Turkey did, at least, muster a little genuine competition, but it was limited.

In Portugal, Sporting Lisbon has almost twice as many points as the team in sixth place. Union Saint-Gilloise was almost 20 points ahead of the side in third before the playoffs in Belgium. In Turkey, the leader, Galatasaray, has an advantage of 40 points over Trabzonspor, its bronze medal a distant one. (Credit here to Greece, which is enjoying a rare four-way title race.)

Even in the Premier League — whose chief executive, Richard Masters, spent some portion of this week extolling the “jeopardy” that courses through his competition’s veins — the top of the table suddenly has an extremely familiar air as it enters the final day. There is Manchester City, right at the summit, for the fourth season in a row. Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United are all in the top eight.

That is not to say that the whole European season has been little more than a procession. Bayer Leverkusen is on the cusp of what could be regarded as arguably the greatest campaign any team has ever produced: Xabi Alonso needs to win just three more games to complete an unbeaten treble of maiden German title, German cup and Europa League.

In a first, Girona has qualified for the Champions League from La Liga. So, too, has Aston Villa, now certain to finish in the top four of the Premier League for the first time since 1996. Arsenal and, to a lesser extent, Liverpool, deserve kudos for keeping pace with City for as long as they did.

It is hard, though, not to wonder if perhaps it should have occurred to soccer’s executives that more people might watch their games — and might watch them to the very, bitter end, right until the point that the pundits appear — if each match was just a little more competitive, just a little more dramatic, just a little more meaningful.

Masters might have been pushing it just a touch when he insisted in front of British lawmakers this week that the Premier League is a bastion of competitive balance. But his general point holds true: What deters fans is not how long games last or even where they are held, but how little often seems to be at stake, how little prospect there is for drama.

The problem, of course, is that solving that issue is nuanced, delicate and complex. And so the focus, in the executive suites as much as in the network offices, falls on those parts of the game that are much simpler to control.

It is hard to say when, precisely, it will happen on Sunday, but you can be absolutely sure that it will. A little roar will emerge from some corner of the Emirates Stadium in London. It will pass, slowly, around the ground, as more distant fans crane their necks to see what is happening and neighbors strike up conversations in an attempt to establish if it is what they think it is.

The wave will spread through the Arsenal crowd, a whisper on the wind: Manchester City has conceded. West Ham has scored. Maybe a quarter of the stadium will hear. Maybe a half. There are many, many things that might be considered the worst aspect of modern soccer. But the winner might be people who pretend that their title rivals are losing on the last day of the season.

The Emirates will, most likely, have a strange air on Sunday. Arsenal has had a triumphant season by almost any measure: more wins than even the Invincibles recorded in 2004, the best defense in England, unbeaten status against the five teams the club considers its real peers and a praiseworthy haul of 89 points. And yet it will probably end on a sorrowful note, and Arsenal’s wait to be English champion will stretch on into its third decade.

There are plenty of reasons for hope, of course. Mikel Arteta’s side is a young one, improving at a rapid clip, and from this vantage point Arsenal seems best equipped to challenge City again next year.

The problem — the caveat — is that the air gets thinner the higher you rise. How many more points can Arsenal reasonably be expected to add next year? Would the purchase of some prized forward or a tweak to the midfield add 10 more? Five more? Would that be enough to dislodge a City team that has acquired 91 this season without really appearing to try?

Two misconceptions dominated much of the discourse around Tottenham Hotspur’s game with Manchester City on Tuesday, the one that effectively decided the outcome of the Premier League title.

The first — and most far-fetched — was that it was up to Spurs to decide whether it wanted to win the game or not, and usher the Premier League trophy in the general direction of Arsenal with a City defeat. It seemed to be forgotten, in all the moral hand-wringing over the correct way to support a soccer team, that Spurs could try as hard as it liked and still very easily lose to Pep Guardiola’s team.

The second misconception, though, was the one that seemed to annoy Ange Postecoglou, the Spurs coach. He did not seem able to fathom — at least in his public discussion of the subject — why Tottenham fans might be conflicted, at the very least, about the idea of their team’s ambitions servicing the dreams of their fiercest rival.

It goes without saying that those Spurs fans who were not entirely upset to see their team lose were being petty. It is, obviously, spiteful and small-time. Schadenfreude, as a rule, is not a good look. But it is also completely natural and entirely human, and a core component of being a fan. Your team’s success is your priority, of course. But if that is absent, your rivals’ failure is a perfectly acceptable consolation prize.

#Premier #Leagues #Dramatic #Final #Day #Masks #Bigger #Issue

About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *