The Biggest Insult Owners Can Inflict Upon Their Team's Fans...
...Is probably something like changing an iconic blue, avian logo into a red dragon. This is what happened to a century-old Welsh soccer team's supporters as British soccer, once ultra-parochial, keeps going global.
In boxing, there is a fighter in the red corner and one in the blue corner. In politics, there are red states and blue states. Red and blue are the colors of rivals — Red Sox and Yankees, Michigan and Ohio State, Manchester United and Manchester City.
For over 100 years, the Cardiff City soccer club were on Team Blue. Their jerseys were blue. Their nickname was "The Bluebirds." But when the cash-strapped club recently accepted a $160 million investment, they also accepted a big change: this season, their emblem is a red dragon, and they'll wear red at home. (Their away jersey remains blue).
The brand overhaul was an essential condition of a cash injection by Malaysian billionaire Vincent Tan. When news of his demand leaked in May, fans reacted furiously, and Tan was ready to pull the plug on his purchase of a stake. But with Cardiff approximately $32 million in debt and losing $1.6 million every month, the club's board ultimately chose to save themselves by accepting the money and the re-brand.
To this day, says Tim Hartley — chair of the Cardiff City Supporters Trust, a fan group — "the reason for changing to red and changing the badge has never been explained,” he says. “We don’t understand why the investment was partly dependent on the change of color.”
One can easily read between the lines in Cardiff City's statement on the new uniforms, though: “The color red is widely recognized as being synonymous with Welsh culture and heritage. The color also holds strong spiritual significance in Asia, where it is seen as a symbol of power, prosperity and good fortune.”
Global appeal: English soccer is all about it these days. Some Saturday and Sunday games are now played at 12.45 pm GMT instead of the traditional 3 pm, allowing hundreds of millions of fans in Asia to watch live and still go to bed at a reasonable hour. But far more radical proposals are on the table. It will be a long time before promotion and relegation are abolished, but such a "breakaway" by a top group of teams is considered an eventual possibility. And the "39th Game" — an extra game that would be added to each EPL team’s fixture list and played in the Middle East, Asia, Australia or the US — is a real likelihood.
This season, 11 out of 20 Premier League teams are foreign-owned. Most of the prime candidates for relegation — the bottom three teams in the EPL get demoted to the second-tier Championship league, whose top two squads are then promoted, as is a third decided by a playoff — will be British-owned teams, while many of teams pushing for promotion from beneath are foreign-owned. It’s possible that 14 foreign-owned teams could start the 2013-14 season. And 14 is the magic number needed to pass any vote on Premier League rule changes, which could mean that practices like the 39th Game could become reality.
Teams (and indeed the whole EPL) ignore the imperatives to think globally at their peril. The league is currently by far the most popular in the world in terms of both revenue and viewership. Sport Markt, a German consultancy, found that fans of EPL teams worldwide accounted for 70 percent of the total global soccer fanbase of 2.3 billion people. EPL games are beamed into 643 million homes globally and the league generates £500 million ($800 million) each year from its foreign broadcast rights.
According to a survey performed by Kantar, Manchester United, the world’s biggest sports team, has 659 million supporters worldwide. 325 million of those fans are found in the Asia Pacific region. Cardiff’s entire population is just 325,000, so even a small share of the Asian market would massively boost Cardiff’s coffers.
Stefan Szymanski, a University of Michigan professor who co-wrote Soccernomics, believes that many teams are at serious risk of being left behind in this new phase of economic expansion.
“To be a club that makes it into EPL is the biggest prize in world sports,” he says. “It would be worth moving heaven and hell to get into the EPL. There’s no other soccer league to compare. It’s becoming a global league, the first truly global league in history.”
The financial rewards of playing a single season in the EPL are enormous —promoted teams can expect to earn at least £40 million ($64 million) from the EPL’s TV revenues alone. Teams in the Championship, like Cardiff, urgently need to make the leap for reasons beyond pride alone.
From an economic perspective, at least, Cardiff's beleaguered fans are ahead of the curve in soccer's scramble for Asia, fighting for a share of that enormous and still-developing market, and the cash windfall that might finally push them up into the Premiership. And so far this season, Cardiff are unbeaten in red. But they did lose an away game wearing blue.
Mark Hudson is a writer based in England. He has written about sports for the Times (London) and the Guardian and is a regular contributor to Boxing News.