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Research Finds Eager International Fan Base For Premier League’s Global Ambitions

 Dr Sue Bridgewater with Tony Adams and Stuart Pearce

Research by Dr Sue Bridgewater of Warwick Business School at the University of Warwick has found a large and eager fan base that she believes would be a ready market for the Premier League’s ambitions to engage with the global market with a number of overseas premiership games.

Dr Bridgewater, an expert in international brands and also in the business side of Football Management, points out that football in the UK is certainly a “beautiful game” but it has also developed into a global and highly visible business. In 2005-2006 the total income of English Premier League was  €2 billion or $2.9 billion. Her paper points out that other global businesses build global brands because their service is available to international customers. Even within the sport sector, sports such as American Football have now staged their first competitive match internationally with the match Miami Dolphins and New York Giants at Wembley Stadium in October 2008. More than 500,000 domestic and expatriate fans of the sport registered for tickets within 72 hours of the game being announced.

Dr Bridgewater says “The NFL match seems to be the forerunner of future initiatives in this and other sports. The mechanics of how competition works in the NFL differ from those of the Premier League. How to achieve international staging of a competitive match is the challenge, but let us not reject the logic for at least considering whether to do so as the market data show the existence of a large, and loyal international fan base for the Premier League. It would be good to reward that loyalty with a taste of a competitive match.”

Her paper divides UK fans into five groups:  “the diehards” who support their club through thick and thin, retained season tickets even when the club were not doing well on the pitch; a second group similar in profile and equally  active in their support but more negatively linked to he club  and regularly heckle players, management, board and referee – as a means of exhibiting their involvement with the club, A third group, the young fans, were more socially than emotionally connected to the club, with  a somewhat lower proportion of season ticket holders and a higher interest in the community and identity aspects of support.

However most of interest in terms of understanding overseas fans are her fourth and fifth group of  UK fans  The fourth group “the Professionals,” do not live in the region where the club was based and tend not to be season ticket holders. They do, however, attend matches as much as they were able – geography and ticket availability permitting. They are also extremely active in their support of the club via the Internet, satellite TV, newspapers. The fifth group “E Loyals,” for whom geography often meant that these fans never attend matches. Some were UK ex pats now based in international markets, although their roots were predominantly in the UK.

Dr Bridgewater points out that Professionals and E Loyals emotional support and participation in aspects of support other than match attendance is equally – and sometimes more – strong than the bedrock fans. Even if they rarely attend matches because of geographical limitations it is hard to argue against the commitment of these fans to their clubs. She notes that this type of support is very similar to that exhibited by the international fan base for Premier League clubs.

Dr Bridgewater’s own research into the perception of the “England” football brand in China confirms this view. Unlike patterns of support in the UK she found that  96% of Chinese fans said that if their national team were not playing in a major tournament, they would support another national team rather than either a) not following the tournament or b) watching without adopting a “favourite” team.  She also notes that similar behaviour was seen during the Japan and South Korea World Cup in 2002, when local fans dressed in the team colours of a range of international teams, as well as in those of Japan and South Korea. This did not appear to make these fans less loyal to their own teams.

Dr Bridgewater also found that Chinese fans owned several football shirts, reflecting support of different international national and club sides, but were still very active in their attendance and support of local football teams . This would seem to run counter to the fears of National Football Associations that attendance and interest in Premier League Football would adversely affect support for local leagues. In fact Dr Bridgewater says “Conversely, this may well raise overall interest in the game and bring increased grass roots participation and support for local clubs. Many domestic Premier league fans link their interest in football to a particular memorable match during childhood.”

Dr Bridgewater also points out that International support for Premier League clubs has grown up around particular players, for example the Japanese interest in Arsenal when Inamoto joined the club, in Greek support for Bolton after the signing of Stelios and most recently the tie up between Charlton and Shandong Luneng after the signing of Zheng Zhi last summer.

Dr Bridgewater concludes that:

“There is certainly a high level of awareness and interest in Premier League football across many international markets. That the world’s richest single football league considers whether to follow in the path of American football does not seem such a surprising step. There is no question that the global market is there. How, and indeed whether, it is possible to stage a global fixture within  the competitive league structure is the key question. If a workable solution could be found, though, it would surely be positive for the Premier League, managers, players and UK fans to give their international fans the 90 minutes they clearly all dream of.”

Read the reports:

For further information please contact:    

Dr Sue Bridgewater Warwick Business School
University of Warwick
024 76524341

Peter Dunn, Press and Media Relations Manager
University of Warwick Tel: 024 76 523708
or 07767 655860

Vin Hammersley, Media Relations Manager
Warwick Business School Tel: 024 76524124

PR14  PJD  25th February 2008