EPL: American Sports Teams and the Poisoned Pitch
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Why should somebody who supports an American sports team support the English Premier League teams that their favorite teams' owners buy? When one looks deeper into these supposed “partnerships,” the opposite conclusion makes more sense:
Fans of the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Buccaneers should root against, respectively, Liverpool Football Club and Manchester United. The relationship an EPL team forms with teams in the United States owned by the same people is not a partnership. Indeed, their relationship is more like the relationship between a parasite and a host.
Since 2010, Liverpool Football Club has been in the middle of club-wide renovations. Constantly active on the transfer market, their ownership has been out in front of everything and willing to undertake the challenge of restoring luster to a longtime soccer powerhouse.
Also since 2010, the Boston Red Sox have undergone some painful transitions. Last season, the Red Sox came into the “trade deadline” of July 31 with one of the sport's best records. The front office decided not to make a significant move. When September hit, the proverbial wheels fell off and the Red Sox blew a huge lead to fall out of a playoff spot.
The collapse has not eased in 2012. On the weekend of Fenway Park's 100th anniversary, the Red Sox lost twice to their hated rivals the New York Yankees. The second of those losses involved a large blown lead and a manager repeatedly booed. These are not simple losses, but embarrassments in a baseball sense.
Fenway Sports Group talks about the future of Liverpool. They want to compete for Premier League titles. They want in on the UEFA Champions League. They want to place LFC atop the world soccer pyramid once again.
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Meanwhile, in Boston, the future is uncertain. Beloved manager Terry Francona was not just fired, but his personal life became tabloid fodder because somebody within the organization leaked the information. Josh Beckett, who once helped the Red Sox win a World Series, is likely past the point of no return with Red Sox fans. Even David Ortiz, the last man standing from 2004 (and the very face of the franchise today) may not come back to Boston in 2013. The playoffs are unlikely this season.
A couple of weeks ago, Fenway Park played host to a soccer match between Liverpool and AC Roma. LFC treated the match like a homecoming—proof of a partnership with one of the few American teams with the sort of support that could be compared to English soccer. No mention was made during the visit of the AL East standings, in front of which Liverpool passed the football and made their tackles. (Roma won the match, by the way.)
Since 2005, Manchester United has won four Premier League titles and finished second twice. They have qualified for the UEFA Champions League every year during that span. They currently employ two of the most famous soccer players on Earth: Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Wayne “I make this face all the time” Rooney.
Between 1999 and 2005, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers qualified for the playoffs four of six times, making the NFC championship twice and winning Super Bowl XXXVII. During this time they sported a dominant defense featuring up to four potential Hall of Fame members (Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Ronde Barber). Since 2005, the Buccaneers have qualified for the NFL playoffs twice, compiling a playoff record of 0-2.
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Last season, the Buccaneers lost their last 10 games, a streak that began with a “home game” in London. They finished dead last in the NFC South and landed the fifth overall draft pick. Last season, Manchester United was one of only two teams—both from Manchester—who held any real hopes of winning the Premier League. Man U finished second by an extremely slim margin on a miracle ending to the season.
Manchester United is quite likely the most famous sports franchise on the planet. Their payroll is through-the-roof (though, to be fair, they are also in the kind of debt that only sovereign nations and Manchester United can amass). They are constantly present in the transfer market.
The Buccaneers, meanwhile, need to take on as much payroll as they can soon or they will be in violation of the NFL's salary floor. Ticket sales are flagging, and while they have yet to be mentioned as a possible tenant of a hypothetical football stadium in Los Angeles, with their performance and attendance they are certainly not out of the running.
While this move has been sold domestically as a partnership, there is little evidence that the Buccaneers have actually received any benefits from it. The Glazer family, who owns both entities, is not well-liked in Manchester by any stretch. In two NFL games in London, the Buccaneers have failed to generate any buzz on the right side of the pond. It hasn't helped that they are 0-2 in such games.
To recap, the “partnership” between Manchester United and the Buccaneers has been entirely one-sided, at the expense of the NFL team with a much lower worldwide profile.
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Regional cable network NESN, part of Fenway Sports Group and the television home of the Red Sox, has sold Liverpool aggressively since the 2010 purchase. Weekly, New England is treated to a prime time (read: “tape-delayed”) broadcast of what NESN insists on calling “the world's most historic soccer club.”
As of August 14, 2012, there has not been a single concerted effort to build the Boston Red Sox' brand in Liverpool. There is no trend of Red Sox hats being worn around Anfield. Liverpudlians care about the Boston Red Sox today as much as they did five years ago: they don't. Fenway Sports Group has a number of plans to fix this, provided zero counts as a number.
John Henry and Tom Werner do not seem interested in selling Red Sox baseball to Liverpool, nor have they attempted to sell Red Sox baseball to fans of stock car racing, where they own a team. Red Sox fans, however, are always welcome to spend their hard-earned money on Liverpool and Roush-Fenway gear.
Tampa Bay is, for those who remember the old NASL, a pretty good market for soccer. The Tampa Bay Rowdies were so well-supported that they actually survived that league to exist well into the early 1990s. They sold tickets and gear. The Rowdies were resurrected, and now play in a lower league (and when the “higher league” is MLS, keep that in mind) to enthusiastic yet reasonable crowds.
If one of your favorite teams bought an EPL squad, how would you react?
The Glazer family has never pitched that the Rowdies return to top-tier American soccer, the way their former NASL mates in Portland and Seattle have to tremendous success. Instead, Tampa Bay is expected to get behind Wayne Rooney and the kind of large-market favorite that none of their teams in any sport have ever been.
In two appearances in London, the Buccaneers have generated no buzz at all. Grand total of preseason games held at Old Trafford: zero. It is entirely likely that Josh Freeman could attend a match there and not get recognized by a single person, unless there's a tourist from Florida in the crowd.
Oh, and then there's that part about the Bucs being 14-8 from September 2010 to their trip to London and 0-10 since that point. That's somewhat recognizable as well, as it is unlikely that a team with such a low profile would have twice been chosen to travel so far without the Manchester United connection.
Fans of American teams being dragged down the standings by an English “partner” that just coincidentally happens to be rising at the same rate can take something from these alliances.
See, Americans have been looking for a way into the European club soccer scene for a while. Ever since the expansion of cable and the advent of HDTV, the idea of waking up on weekend mornings to top tier matches works perfectly. (They're like palate cleansers before the American sports come on in the afternoon.)
The problem is, being American, we have no real rooting interest as we have no local team. Well, fans of teams with English connections now have a rooting interest.
Red Sox fans can watch Liverpool games week in and week out. To make that work, all they need to do is root strongly for the other team at all times. The instant LFC showed up, everything with the Red Sox started to go bad. These are not Boston's partners, they are a needy soccer team looking for what they can get out of Fenway Park.
Buccaneers fans should have no trouble finding Manchester United on television, and even less trouble supporting the other side. It's bad enough that their market size makes them an NFL afterthought even when they're good, but now to have to be treated like the black sheep of Man U's family is a slap in the face of the fans who stuck with a perennially terrible team until Tony Dungy showed up and fixed it all.
The Red Sox and Bucs are not alone. Stan Kroenke, who owns the St. Louis Rams, Denver Nuggets, and Colorado Avalanche, also owns Arsenal. Food for thought for supporters of those teams. Or, for supporters of Arsenal, possibly food for your team.
(Note: The author of this column will spend the English soccer season supporting Npower Championship side Nottingham Forest on the basis that none of his favorite American teams have any reported plans to purchase Forest.)
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