America, the Savior of English Soccer? Don’t Laugh

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- With each executive who rejects the opportunity to succeed Richard Scudamore as the next head of England’s Premier League, the likelihood of finding an appropriate candidate falls. Three people have now declined the offer, and no appointee will want the world to know that they were fourth, fifth or even sixth choice.

And they have an incredibly tough act to follow. In his 19 years leading the league, Scudamore oversaw a 14-fold revenue increase, to 3.2 billion pounds ($4.2 billion). That mind-boggling growth is almost entirely due the soaring value of broadcast rights he negotiated. The amount broadcasters are willing to pay is plateauing, so he could be exiting at the peak.

Some radically fresh thinking is needed to buck that trend. Heretical as it might sound, the world’s most popular domestic soccer competition should look to one place for a successor: the U.S. As the sound of pint glasses slamming down in disgust from Tyneside to Teignmouth abates, bear with me.

The Premier League lags the NBA and NFL when it comes to broadcast revenue. It can catch up in two ways: improve sales from international markets, not least the U.S., and wring more money out of online platforms.

America, the Savior of English Soccer? Don’t Laugh

It therefore needs to reinvigorate the way it packages and sells games. That will require a deep understanding of not only how the consumption of media is changing, but also the businesses of the key tech players, such as Facebook Inc. and Amazon.com Inc.

When the Premier League tried to attract those tech giants in last year’s rights auction, it made a pig’s ear of it. It offered two packages of fairly unattractive games concentrated in December and January, rather than scattered across the season. The value of the deal wasn’t disclosed, suggesting the league all but gave the games away.

“Suddenly the rights holders and the ones that need to monetize those rights lack the understanding of how these businesses really work,” said Victor Font, the CEO of consultancy Delta Partners and a candidate to be FC Barcelona’s next president.

For the tech firms, the rights are a way to keep consumers on their platforms in order to sell them other products. An Amazon Prime subscriber might spend thousands of dollars a year on the website. Facebook wants to boost the $20.21 average revenue per user it currently gets from serving them ads.

America, the Savior of English Soccer? Don’t Laugh

Impressive as their resumes are, the mooted appointees demonstrated a distinct lack of imagination from the Premier League. They were all broadcast or telecoms executives: Susanna Dinnage is the head of Discovery Inc.’s Animal Planet, Tim Davie runs BBC Studios, and Gavin Patterson is the outgoing CEO of BT Group Plc.

American sports leagues have, meanwhile, been faster to understand how to use new tech to earn more money from their audiences. That’s one reason why the value of the NFL and NBA sports rights deals are greater than the Premier League’s, even though their audiences are smaller. For example, they sell game subscriptions directly to fans on mobile devices. In the U.K., soccer matches are split between apps from Comcast Inc.’s Sky and BT — the Premier League doesn’t have a direct relationship with its fans.

Here are some suggestions to get the ball rolling:

  • Scott O’Neil, CEO of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment

The firm he runs owns the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and Crystal Palace of the Premier League, as well as an eSports team. The latter suggests a willingness to bet on new ideas.

  • Heidi Ueberroth, former NBA International president

Once considered a potential NBA commissioner, she spearheaded an effort which resulted in the league being televised in 215 countries in 43 languages. Her role as a board member of EA Sports gives her some insight into Silicon Valley thinking.

  • Mark Waller, NFL head of international

As the former head of NFL marketing, Waller helped make it the most lucrative sports league in the world. His tenure taking the NFL global, including bringing regular games to the U.K., is set to end this season. What’s more, he’s a Brit. Unfortunately, he’s also older than the outgoing Scudamore.

Do I think the Premier League will consider these candidates? Not really. But given that Scudamore is going to stick around anyway and can therefore help handle the famously challenging club chairmen, the league absolutely should think unconventionally if it’s going to secure another 20 years of growth.

The NFL gets bigger audience per game (that's almost exclusively in the U.S.), at about 16 million viewers versus 12 million in the Premier League. But the Premier League plays more games per season— 380 versus 256 in the NFL— so it gets a bigger total audience.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Alex Webb is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe's technology, media and communications industries. He previously covered Apple and other technology companies for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.

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