Premier League: The '39th Game' Abroad Might Soon Be a Reality

Ryan Bailey@ryanjaybaileyFeatured ColumnistJune 27, 2013

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 25:  Manchester City heads to the net as Chelsea defends at Yankee Stadium on May 25, 2013 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Manchester City defeated Chelsea 5-3.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

In 2008, Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore revealed plans for an idea that threatened to completely change the landscape of top-flight football: the 39th game.

The premise was that each team would play an extra match in a foreign territory, with the intention of bringing the game to fans who have only ever been able to see their team on the small screen.

Manchester United could contend the title race with Chelsea at Cowboys Stadium. Liverpool could take on Newcastle in Bangkok. Or Arsenal could play a bitter North London derby against Tottenham in the January sun of Sydney.

The plan certainly had its advantages. It would increase the Premier League's global fanbase and benefit the millions of fans who don't happen to live in the United Kingdom.

TV revenues may have reached £5.5 billion for 2013-16, but they could be even higher with increased international interest. At the time, Middlesbrough's chief executive was in favor of the plans, telling the BBC that the extra revenue it would be a "big help" in their struggle for solvency.

And other sports leagues have shown that games abroad can work. The NFL have been staging a game in London every year since 2007, and it is very difficult to find a spare ticket. In 2013, they have sold out two Wembley matches and are looking at the possibility of increasing it to three in 2014.

It won't be long, in fact, until an NFL franchise is based in Europe (could the Jacksonville Jaguars soon become the 'Union Jags'?).

The 39th game plan was supposed to commence in 2010-11, but thanks to fierce opposition from Michel Platini, Sepp Blatter, international leagues and the majority of domestic supporters, the idea was shelved.

Of course, "shelving" a plan is not the same as scrapping it. The increasing prominence of international summer tours suggests the 39th game is by no means a dead duck.

Barely a week after the Premier League season had finished, Chelsea and Manchester City played a series of games in the USA. On the same day as the Champions League final, thousands piled into New York's Yankee stadium to see some Premier League heavyweights.

According to the league's official website, 12 of the 20 teams will be taking their show on the road through July and August.

Liverpool will play at the hallowed Melbourne Cricket Ground. Manchester United will be mobbed like The Beatles as they work their way across Southeast Asia. Sunderland, Tottenham and Man City will head to Hong Kong for the Barclays Asia trophy. And Norwich and Stoke will face MLS opposition in late July.

Not so long ago, Premier League teams would play all their preseason friendlies in the UK at the grounds of lower league opposition. They would never dream of playing each other before the season started.

Could it be that we are gradually being warmed to the idea of a 39th game by the increased prevalence of these tours?

Top clubs aren't going to the effort of travelling around the world in the summer for the benefit of their staff, it's a money-spinning exercise. With an officially sanctioned game, there will surely be plenty more money on the table. And more money is the No. 1 objective.

In a few years time, we may see a new game week where the most tantalizing fixtures are sold to the highest global bidder, like a Formula 1 race. Clubs like Newcastle might argue that a fan who is living in Singapore is just as commercially valuable as a Gallowgate regular, so why shouldn't he or she get to see one game in the flesh?

Domestic fans might protest, but they also sternly object to high ticket prices while filling up stadiums. The cost of alienating a proportion of the domestic fanbase will be outweighed by the vast benefits of expanding the brand.

With a reported one in three Premiership season ticket holders unable to afford to renew their season tickets, it is clear that the English top flight sold its soul long ago. A 39th game is a natural progression.

Logistically, there might be problems with an extra game, as every team would end up playing one random rival three times. MLS fans might like to see their teams take on sides like Norwich and Stoke, but would there really be much interest if those two played each other in Houston? And managers who complain about a crowded fixture list might have their reservations.

This may just be speculation from a writer analyzing a breakaway English top tier that was set up for the sole purpose of marketing and cash generation, but don't be surprised if the international game idea is dusted off in the near future.


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