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At Large: Baku’s Europa League final shambles begs the question… where is all this going?

As London-based soccer clubs Arsenal and Chelsea jet nigh-on 3,000 miles to the Azerbaijani capital of Baku for a European final, World soccer is alienating its fanbase and it doesn’t know how to stop.

24 May 2019 Eoin Connolly

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A little under a week from now, Arsenal and Chelsea will set off from London for Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, and the final of the Uefa Europa League. There will not be many people going with them.

The two teams have been allocated 6,000 tickets apiece for a stadium that holds close to 70,000, which is probably just as well as Baku’s transport infrastructure can only comfortably take 15,000 arrivals from London. Those fans who do make the trip have been warned to expect an outlay of UK£1,000 as a conservative estimate.    

Arsenal’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan won’t be travelling either, with player and club unsatisfied at the lip-service arrangements made for his safety. Mkhitaryan is Armenia’s highest-profile player; his homeland is currently locked in a bitter dispute with the authoritarian government of Azerbaijan. The incandescent Gunners feel duty-bound to play without him anyway because victory guarantees Champions League qualification and the tens of millions in additional income that brings.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan will stay in London due to fears over his safety as part of the ongoing political tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan

Arsenal and Chelsea, incidentally, are the two Premier League clubs closest to London’s 90,000-seater Wembley Stadium, and based almost equidistant from it.

Much of this, of course, could not have been predicted when the Olympic Stadium was awarded the game a couple of years ago and a print run started on a few hundred grand’s worth of ‘Road to Baku’ set dressing. AC Milan chief executive Ivan Gazidis, a Uefa executive committee member employed at the time by then-Champions League regulars Arsenal, may have figured it was some less glamorous team’s problem.

The need for a more nimble, reactive mechanism for staging European soccer finals is only a small part of this story, however. The whole episode has strung together two recent trends that are becoming ever more difficult to sustain. 

In Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character installs a baseball diamond on the remote cornfields of his struggling Iowa farm so that local fans can watch the disgraced 1919 Chicago White Sox in action. “If you build it,” he’s told, “they will come.” But Field of Dreams is a knowingly saccharine fantasy about a grieving son making peace with his late father. It wasn’t actually about the sports industry or anything.

That hasn’t prevented the emergence of a founding principle of this decade, with administrators finding less and less suitable venues for major events. National finals on other continents, Winter Olympics in cities with no snow – there isn’t much that can’t be accomplished in a briefing doc with big numbers on it. The invariable combination of impossible concepts and regimes in need of a distraction is an unfortunate given at this point.

There is some indication of this outlook approaching the firm brick wall of reality. This week, Fifa confirmed it would not pursue plans for a 48-team World Cup in Qatar or across the divided Gulf in 2022. Soccer’s governing body appears to have accepted that bringing the biggest ever edition of the world’s biggest sporting event to one of its smallest countries may not have been a goer, and that the prospect of three group games and another in the round of 16 would not be enough to resolve an intense and protracted geopolitical dispute.        

Still, the second underlying feature of the Baku fiasco shows little sign of retreating. World soccer is alienating its fanbase and it doesn’t know how to stop.

The mood music here in England hasn’t been too jaunty of late. Last week Manchester City completed a unique domestic treble by smashing up a hitherto impressive Watford in the FA Cup final. That remarkable achievement had some commentators openly wondering whether the champions’ Abu Dhabi-based owners would regret bringing so much attention upon themselves, and yearning for a European Super League to alleviate the rote tedium of sky blue success.

Meanwhile, in a week where the Premier League confirmed a UK£4.2 billion intake from overseas broadcast rights sales, a special report by the Independent’s Miguel Delaney on England’s lower league structure painted a starker picture. Among its most alarming details was that staff at Bolton Wanderers, a former top-flight mainstay now in administration, had been forced to make appeals to local food banks after going unpaid one time too many. The pyramid is a house of cards.

NYU marketing professor and entrepreneur Scott Galloway has identified two criteria for an industry ready for disruption: an available idea that harnesses technological possibility and real-world behaviour, and a big, fat, complacent incumbent whose primary concern is protecting its long-held interests. There’s no doubt soccer fits the second description handily, by now approaching Mr Creosote dimensions, sweating, breathing hard, feeling the percolations in its digestive tract.

I would confidently predict a 40 per cent decline in Champions League income in the UK rights. The drop in PL auction will be 20 per cent decline. My advice to clubs would be: cut your wage bill

Claire Enders, founder of Enders Analysis, talking at the FT Football Business Summit on the future of Premier League TV rights

This week, respected analyst Claire Enders warned the FT Football Business Summit of a potential  20 per cent drop in domestic TV rights revenues for Premier League clubs in the next three-year cycle. Champions League deals could face a 40 per cent fall. Enders recommended that top clubs look to cut their wage bills as a consequence but if history is any guide, the response will be to go global in search of new sources of income, and maybe get that trophy commissioned for a breakaway tournament.

Whether the bubble at top of the game bursts or drifts away, there are oceans of heritage and investment below and it is in those depths where soccer’s real potential lies. Some of the most dynamic, captivating activity is found in the lower reaches – from supporter groups finding ever more creative ways of expressing loyalty to local sides to a women’s game that is energising whole new groups of people. Finding that won’t be difficult; finding how to embrace it and make it pay won’t be easy.

The bigger the risks soccer takes with its audience, however, the higher the chances of someone looking for another way of doing things. There is only so far fans will follow in the wrong direction.

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