How the Premier League became an export superstar

Forget the Royal Wedding - the Premier League is Britain's biggest brand.

by Mat Snow
Last Updated: 20 Mar 2019

In July, the Brand Manager Pursuivant to the Royal Family will have awoken to the same sobering news that greeted the Chancellors of Britain’s noblest seats of learning on the Cherwell, Cam and Thames.

Pollsters Populus had surveyed 20,000 people from 20 countries and territories about 10 of the UK’s best-known institutions, companies and brands. Each one was rated for modernity, excitement, trust, global recognition and whether it enhanced the wider UK brand. The survey’s startling conclusion was that all the pomp and pageantry of our royal weddings, all the traditional excellence of our dreaming spires, simply didn’t stack up against a Monday night relegation dogfight between Crystal Palace and Huddersfield Town.

That is because that particular globally televised scrap – almost certainly taking place in the driving rain before a roaring crowd – is one of 380 annual fixtures in the Premier League which, the survey said, is simply the biggest British brand in the world.

Topping the Populus Index overall – scoring highest in eight of the 20 countries and across key demographics of men, all ages under 45, all affluent adults, affluent men, affluent 18-34s, and affluent female 18-34s – the Premier League lords it over the likes of Rolls-Royce, Jaguar Land Rover and the BBC. Moreover, it flies the Union Jack worldwide, particularly in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, more effectively than any other brand, with almost 70 per cent of the 20,000 people interviewed saying the Premier League makes them feel positively about the UK.

You can prove almost anything with figures but it is, at least, noteworthy that a bigger percentage of the population watches the competition in Thailand, Egypt and Indonesia than in the UK, according to consumer profiling firm GlobalWebIndex. All this from an organisation that only opened for business in 1992.

For most of its short history, the man at the top has been Richard Scudamore, chief executive since 1999 and executive chairman since 2014. His departure undoubtedly marks the end of an era.

Though not without critics nor setbacks, such as the dip in revenue generated by the latest deal with British broadcasters, his stewardship has been a soaraway success. In the 2013/14 season, according to a study by EY, the competition generated £3.4bn in added value for the UK economy and was responsible for 100,000 jobs.

What lies at the core of such a successful brand? Televised live football, of course. But why English football (though it usually includes one Welsh club)? England doesn’t win World Cups. Nor are Premier League clubs as successful as the Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona in Europe’s UEFA Champions League.

Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford University Business School, has a convincing answer. The league’s founding agreement, covering domestic and overseas broadcast revenue-sharing and shareholder voting (one club, one vote, with a two-thirds majority required), levelled out the clout and financial playing field for all 20 Premier League shareholder clubs (the bottom three of which are relegated and replaced by the top three clubs of the tier below every season).

This means the nine-month season is not just a predictable victory lap by the biggest clubs with everyone else making up the numbers. Poorer clubs still have good enough players and coaches to occasionally upset the richest.

By way of illustration, in the 2017/8 season, champions Manchester City earned nearly £150m, while bottom club West Bromwich Albion made just shy of £95m. Two seasons ago, bottom club Sunderland made more TV income than the champions of Germany, Italy and France.

Action-packed competitiveness is, says Chadwick, what the Premier League is all about: "On holiday in Sicily in 2012, a group of Swedish guys were watching Barcelona on TV. I was saying how wonderful they were to watch – Messi, Iniesta and so on – but they said, ‘No, this is terrible: it’s just pass, pass, pass. We like the Premier League – it’s fast and intense, a battle between big aggressive guys and quick, skilful little guys.’ It’s basic and primitive. Premier League football is about competing – to survive, to protect our identity, to ward off hostile forces."

Citing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – the motivational theory in psychology comprising a pyramid of human needs with food and shelter at the base, rising to self-actualisation at the pinnacle – Chadwick says "our self-actualisation is fulfilled by Barcelona because it’s sexy, aesthetically pleasing and glamorous. But English football is at the base, about survival, and is almost gladiatorial.

A lot of Premier League content on screen is about action, speed and goals, not tactics or player icons. If you want tense, tactical low-scoring battles, watch Italy’s Serie A. Italian football is science, Spanish football is art, English football is the struggle for survival. As a brand, that’s a very compelling point of engagement for fans around the world."

Indeed, each Premier League match – and most of them are broadcast simultaneously on Saturdays at 3pm GMT or BST, so whichever one you watch, you can’t watch the others – is viewed by an average of 12 million viewers worldwide, nearly three times the number who watch Serie A, its closest rival.

Then there are the paying fans in the stadiums, on whom the cameras zoom at goals and other moments of drama, elation or despair. Rather than being the national embarrassment they were in the 1980s, the fans in all their unreconstructed passion are now, alongside the players and coaches, the Premier League’s co-stars, something Scudamore knows full well:

"We have created safe, welcoming, liberal environments where, frankly, people are allowed to behave badly," he told the Daily Mail. "You can, quite safely in a big crowd, get angry and say things about the opposition players, manager and fans, secure in the knowledge that there are security people stopping the away fans from fighting you, plus CCTV, stewards, police, all-seat stadiums so we can identify individuals precisely. You can be tribal and act in a way that you wouldn’t in the street. And we’ve created that.

"I cannot advocate a sanitised, quiet, perfectly civilised afternoon, a tea party where we kick a ball around. A lot of the Premier League’s strengths, the speed of the game, the tribalism, the passion, are all caught up. If people were not irrationally involved it would not be the great league that it is."

Turning what had been English football’s biggest weakness into a strength has reaped huge commercial benefits. Chadwick says: "Ultimately, what digital broadcasters, sponsors, advertisers and kit suppliers are buying is the atmosphere. Why sell bank accounts in a football ground? Because the excitement, drama and tension of football enlivens brands and products.

"Right now, the terms ‘co-creation’ and ‘prosumption’ are very much in vogue. We no longer want merely to consume a product passively but be part of its creation. You see on social media how much we want to be involved in shaping it, feeling part of it. Football has always done this."

He’s right. From scarves to banter, from tattoos to pre-match and half-time rituals involving the pub, pies and lucky underpants, from fan-created blogs and online broadcasting to naming their children after J players, "fans have always been involved in co-creating and prosuming. Other industrial sectors need to learn from what has been happening in football for a long time. Some are now trying to do this."

Official instruments of UK soft power have been using the Premier League since the Blair years to counterbalance the image of ‘stately home’ Britain. "Using the Premier League in its marketing activities, the British Council has projected an image of being much more open, dynamic, successful and fresh," Chadwick says.

"For many people in China, for example, this kind of modernity is really important. And the Department of International Trade has been travelling to places like Beijing, Doha and other global economic hotspots with Premier League officials to draw in business and investment and emphasise soft power.

"While the DNA of English football remains – the style of football, the atmosphere of the fans, the history – the Premier League is a very successful, hugely dynamic sports asset which ticks all the boxes of what Britain wants these territories to see."

Universal appeal – going well beyond the traditional English football fan – was always the strategy, says the Premier League’s founding chief executive, Rick Parry. "Sky has to be given enormous credit," he says of the UK broadcaster whose enduring partnership with the Premier League has enriched both signatories.

"They were pioneers who took enormous pride in delivering something new, with great attention to detail in production, packaging and promotion. Right from the start, they did two enormously significant things: 18-camera coverage with super slow-mo and the close-up taking the players and personalities into viewers’ homes. We owe a great debt to that legacy. Everyone worldwide got the Sky signal and it was better than what anyone else was doing.

"The other thing, being a dedicated sports channel, were the 20 hours a week of support programming additional to the 18 live games a season, whereas before on ITV it was just 45 minutes of Saint and Greavsie. Sky’s support programming was completely different to what had existed before, being designed and packaged to appeal to children and women too, bringing the game to new audiences. That set a pattern that has been replicated and rolled out internationally."

Unless you are a giant like NBC, whose estimated $1bn deal for exclusive rights to screen matches in the US over six seasons disproves the received wisdom that soccer would never be more than a niche sport Stateside, media companies worldwide will not only take the live matches but pick and mix from thousands of hours of bespoke support programming produced every week in a purpose-built studio complex located in a trading estate north of Heathrow airport.

Here, global sports company IMG create a daily news show, half-time and full time world-feed programmes, a super feed, a multi-angle replay service, a clips channel, dedicated wide angle, a tactical feed, dedicated interview lines, content for blogs and social media, archive shows, documentaries, profiles of Premier League legends and more.

Not merely heavily branded but strictly quality controlled, Sky’s original benchmark of excellence and innovation ensures that even when there is no live football, the Premier League’s values and history continue to engage viewers. "The Premier League is a global narrative," says Chadwick.

"To be part of the conversation, you have to be able to talk about the Premier League. Our currency overseas is the Premier League. It has its own brand narrative, exactly the kind of thing many businesses are trying to create to involve consumers more deeply, using, for example, brand storytellers.

The Premier League doesn’t need that – the myths and J legends are already there, and when Premier League football fans talk about Arsenal versus Spurs and so on, they are co-creating that brand narrative."

Scudamore’s departure comes at a pivotal moment. Viewing figures are no longer growing remorselessly in the UK – reaching a seven-year-low in 2016/17, they grew by 5 per cent last season. Finally, after 26 years of growth, British broadcast rights revenue has hit a ceiling.

In the Premier League’s latest auction for the three years from 2019 to 2022, Sky and BT paid a combined £4.46bn, significantly less than the last rights deal. One upside is that Amazon picked up a bundle of games, introducing a huge new player to the marketplace.

Yet with 212 territories currently broadcasting Premier League football, overseas growth is unabated. With new markets opening up constantly, no one expects the current estimated £1.1bn in annual overseas broadcasting revenue to be anything like the limit.

"The Premier League has a great product that is collectively sold, collectively packaged and well marketed in a growing market," says David Gill, former chief executive of Manchester United and now a senior official at football governing bodies UEFA and FIFA. "I was in Rwanda last week on my travels with UEFA and the growth of interest was there for everyone to see."

Scudamore, with all his negotiating and political skills and years of contacts and relationships with the shareholder clubs, the governing bodies and the media (in the UK and overseas) will be a very tough act for his successor - whoever that may be after original replacement, Discovery Inc's Susanna Dinnage, pulled out of the role - to follow.

The incomer faces three major challenges. Firstly – and critically – continuing to expand overseas. Two years ago, Scudamore denied that the global appetite for the Premier League had reached "saturation point", saying "We have not really started in India and China yet."

Using the National Football League as a benchmark, the Premier League is behind the NFL but growing faster globally, with no suggestion the peak has been passed. This is certainly the case with the NFL, the ‘bend the knee’ controversy and increasing publicity about chronic injury, especially to the brain, commonplace among often shockingly young former pro players, negatively impacting domestic viewing figures and advertising revenues.

Yet unlike its American rivals, soccer is already a globally televised sport, which still has plenty of scope for growth. In the long term, the Premier League could surpass the NFL (although no serious industry analyst will put a timeline on this). Such rich potential pickings will also attract Spanish, Italian, German and French competition, so maintaining its market-leading dominance will be the second challenge.

The third is to be absolutely on top of changing technology. As Chadwick suggests, "There is some evidence that media consumption habits are in the midst of a profound change, perhaps best characterised by the phrase ‘from 90 minutes to 90 seconds’. Time impoverishment, and the growing appetite for truncated content, exacerbated by digital technology, will be a critical issue for the Premier League."

"For the major leagues, linear broadcasting will remain extraordinarily important; live sport is the great unscripted drama and you watch it live rather than stream it," says Parry. Yet he foresees opportunities "to fill the gaps with personalised content, adding data and information to allow people to consume what they want, selling content to individual customers direct; we’re going to see micro-finance and blockchain speeding and simplifying the transaction process. It’s a strategic challenge and opportunity for the Premier League, and no one can predict how that will unfold."

The good news for Scudamore's successor, says Gill, is that "As the television deal is done for the next three years, they will have time to get their feet under the table, to learn and to make contacts. I believe they will get a new chairman, so that relationship is crucial."

Merging the two roles as executive chairman for Scudamore in 2014 was, Parry says, "fundamentally bad governance. It’s too big a role for one person." Gill agrees: "I wasn’t party to that decision, but it was a unique situation to keep a highly valued, respected person happy."

One thing is clear, whoever fills the vacancy will need to have the broadcasting expertise to succeed. Britain's greatest export is "a very complex matrix" says Parry, "navigating it will require a lot of skill."


Image credits: Charlie Clift/ Premier Skills

Mat Snow is a former editor of football magazine FourFourTwo

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