The club is called Arsenal. It was quite natural a few generations ago to put the definite article before its name. Now, to me, this might be affecting: the case of “fakelore”. Nevertheless, in the symbolism around the stadium, in commercial branding, the club increasingly goes with “Arsenal”. There are still more references to “North London” than when I was visiting as a teenager in the 1990s. The new prematch song is local in its sentiment (“Ye Galiyaan Hamari Apni Hai”). Adidas brings a line of vintage-themed merchandise with Laurence Frequency.
What explains the ongoing dominance of the Premier League? It’s Europe’s best, but not by a margin that belies its world appeal. It has provided two of the last 10 Champions League winners. Its internal competitiveness is also exaggerated. Manchester City have won it four of the last five times. And still foreign tycoons, even sovereigns, own clubs here. Foreign visitors watch. The result is a financial mega-power: what the presidents of Spain’s top leagues call a “doped market”. Chelsea alone spent more on transfers in the winter window than any of Europe’s other major leagues.
The answer, or part of it, is all that tradition and identity. fan culture. Stadium in the middle of residential streets. Cities with some other defined institutions. (Unlike, say, Germany, where wealth and culture are more diffused through regions.) Note how often foreign buyers skip London, which leaves much to be desired for clubs in the North or Midlands to make an impression. is big. And how often they leave their mark on those communities. Thai-owned Leicester and Gulf-owned City stand out as case studies. The Premier League sells a sort of representative relationship to the outside world. It sells authenticity.
And, in the process, reduces it. Will the world still be so enthralled when the league thinks it could be anywhere? There’s a cycle here: An exclusive culture clings to the outside world, which buys it, which erodes that exclusivity, which in turn belittles the world. This is the dilemma facing Britain’s largest private schools. Parents from Peru to Japan send their children to Harrow and elsewhere because they feel there is something solid, something distinctly English. However, by definition, isn’t that true once the international share of intake crosses a certain point? Or when offshore complexes sprout up in lots of places? To serve the interest of the world, these institutions cannot be too open to it.
This is the only threat to the Premier League. It’s hard to see the other. Experts predict eight of its last zero recessions. Clubs have hardly started monetizing more foreign visitors. The pandemic, which was supposed to end the gold rush, did not.
But there could be a loss of local identity. The world loves the Premier League in part because it is so different. The best arguments against the All-Star Games, the Super League and other imported reforms are not ethical or aesthetic, but strategic. A fast earner is of no value if it reduces the attractiveness with the league over time. Manchester United may sell the naming rights to its stadium, but the storied “Old Trafford” is worth more to the commercial brand in the round. “Long term greed,” I believe is the Goldman Sachs phrase.
The French statesman Mirabeau has said that Prussia was not a state with an army, but an army with a state. England may, from the outside, look like a football league with one nation. It claims to be our number-one soft-power asset. “EPL” is a topic a stranger might raise with me after hearing my accent in America (where “premier” rhymes with “vermeer”). I’ve seen a bar in Bangkok showing West Ham at 2am around Sukhumvit Soi 12. No big shocker, until I tell you that this was a replay of the 1993–94 season.
I cherish all this about the League: Britain’s last kingdom on which the sun never sets. But to stay global, it has to stick to the local. Lyrics, artwork, “Arsenal”: This can be studied a bit. But most of the target audience is across continents.
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