Wednesday, October 12, 2011
ESPNsoccernet: October 13, 10:21 AM UK
Liverpool need TV deal for redemption
John Brewin, Senior Editor
Attendance at Old Trafford these days will draw your attention to advertising for a Mr Potato. It seems this is a popular brand of snacks from Malaysia. Fancy refreshment on Manchester United's concourse and you may find yourself supping some Singha, a Thai beer.
The Premier League and its elite clubs are now home to product placement from brands across the globe, with the Eastern Asian market especially prevalent. A football club formed by 19th century Mancunian railwaymen is now a marketing tool for businesses started in Kuala Lumpar and Bangkok. At Manchester United, an asset is being sweated in an unending search for worldwide revenue streams.
When Liverpool chief executive Ian Ayre broke ranks to suggest that the Premier League's biggest names should be able to negotiate their own overseas TV rights, he made his club the first to cross the Rubicon into the sector where revenues can be great rivers rather than mere streams. By going first, Ayre's previously inoffensive anonymity has been transformed into instant pariah status.
Yet Liverpool are a club of commercial firsts, and Ayre is following something of a forgotten tradition. They became the first British club to carry a sponsor's name on their shirts when, in 1979, they agreed a deal with electronics giant Hitachi, an early adoption of partnership with Asian interests.
Many of the club's may fans lament a post-1992 world when the old Football League, dominated by their club for decades, gave way to the Premier League. However, one of the architects of the gleaming new structure of English football was one Noel White, a recently-deposed Liverpool chairman and a director until 2007. His club were a key mover in the 'Big Five' - Liverpool, Everton, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United - whose machinations were key in the new league's eventual formation.
Liverpool entered the Premier League with their primacy still largely intact, with 18 domestic titles to their name, and four European Cups to proclaim. Those triumphs had been in the recent past, and though this was a club with significant other factors to consider, with Kenny Dalglish's departure the most public fall-out of the Hillsborough Disaster, the two decades that followed have seen Liverpool drop far from their perch. A failure to move with the times has endangered a glorious legacy.
Only since the arrival of Fenway Sports Group have Liverpool embraced modernity in the same way their rivals had done for some time. On the field, Liverpool have finished above Manchester United just once in 20 seasons, while Chelsea and Manchester City have leapfrogged their resource levels with the fell swoops of billionaire takeovers. David Moores, who led Liverpool into the Premier League, tried and failed to run the club in its former traditions while others looked abroad for both owners and sponsors. In 2007, he catastrophically courted first George Gillett and subsequently Tom Hicks to set the club on a road to near-ruin.
A new Anfield never arrived, by contrast to Arsenal's Ashburton Grove project. The Emirates, as it became, will eventually secure their future, and now the Gunners lead the Premier League in matchday revenue. Anfield's 44,000-capacity stays static, in a city where geography and economic decline do not make it a leading tourist attraction. The stadium itself lies in one of the most depressed areas in the entire continent of Europe.
Local regeneration seems a distant prospect. There is no London Olympics to aid it. West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur's bitter fight over the Olympic Stadium draws much from a battle for the corporate opportunities it can offer.
With such avenues closed, Liverpool need to look elsewhere for the finance to compete, and from there enrich their owners. They have spent two years in absentia from the Champions League, and are not guaranteed to return to it next year. The foreign market, where their legacy and name remains strong, has become something of an only hope.
TV revenue and its equal share is undoubtedly discussed in every football boardroom. It would be fatuous to suggest that feasibilty studies and Powerpoint presentations have not been primed when considering the potential division of foreign rights on an individual club basis. Manchester City and Chelsea, with less of a global reach, may have denied any interest, but Sir Alex Ferguson pointedly suggested last month that, while a domestic deal is "fair", Manchester United deserve more from their TV rights, a nod to his club's vast foreign TV audience.
To more explicitly announce similar intentions has opened Ayre to accusations of greed, and fuelled fears of imbalance. But of all clubs it is Liverpool who most need the ability to sell their own foreign TV rights. Without that opportunity, their already shaky place in the elite is endangered.