English Megaclubs Earn Big Bucks Selling World’s Game

The English Premier League in 2007 is Europe's richest and most spectacular soccer league, an athletic and economic beast, feeding on a rich diet of cable television and upmarket ad money.

But as recently as 1985, the national game was in shambles. Violence in and around the match grounds had reached crushing levels, effectively barring women and children from stadiums.

A disaster before that year's European Cup final at Brussels' Heysel Stadium killed 39 spectators and earned Liverpool, whose fans were accused of sparking the violence, an indefinite ban from international competition.

New safety requirements put into place after the Heysel disaster combined with a new approach to marketing the game -- the Premier League will be paid more than $1.2 billion for international television rights through 2010 -- have made English soccer a force in the global marketplace.

The Road to Riches

Premiership teams spent more than $500 million on players from all five continents in summer 2006. The tremendous cost of fielding a competitive side has precipitated record increases in ticket prices and new corporate sponsorships.

"Some call it the gentrification of soccer," said Simon Kuper, author and columnist for the Financial Times, "but in fact the whole [of England] gentrified. And it was reflected in soccer."

The reconditioning of the English fan came under pressure by the government and media and as ticket prices began to rise. The goal was simple. Price out the violent young males and make the venues safe for upper-class fans.

"The corporate element came out later," said Jamie Trecker, Fox Soccer's senior writer, "and what you have now is a much more highbrow game."

Dilapidated grounds and violent hooliganism have been replaced by all-seater megastadiums and a white-collar fan base. The resulting surge in revenue has made the possibility of another Heysel almost unfathomable -- clubs simply have too much at stake.

Indeed, victory in this week's Champions League semifinals, and subsequent glory in the European championship in Athens on May 23, could earn the winning club as much as 40 percent of its total yearly income, Trecker estimates.

"Liverpool netted £30.5 million -- $41.4 million -- for winning in 2005, and that doesn't even include endorsements," he said. "In terms of the difference the money can make, it's quite staggering. The Top 5 clubs in England probably made 50 times what the rest did just off playing in [European competition]."

Of the remaining Champions League clubs, three are from the English Premier League. Two of them, Liverpool and Manchester United, are owned by Americans.

The Americans Are Buying

"We are long-term sports investors and avid Manchester United fans," American Lloyd Glazer said by way of introduction in a 2005 statement to United fans. Unconvinced, the club's notoriously hostile fan base took to the streets and burned the $1.47 billion takeover in effigy.

"But everyone's forgotten about that now," said the Financial Times' Kuper. "Manchester's gone from strength to strength with no real change in club policy. The interests of the owner and fans are aligned."

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