Last night, many fans of the World’s Most Popular Football League tuned in, as they often do, to watch El Clasico on TV. The reason should be obvious: Real Madrid vs Barcelona features two of the best teams in the world with the best players in the world facing each other in a match that will play a hand in deciding the eventual league champions. This is about as straightforward as it gets in football terms. Viewers weren’t disappointed, either; the game finished 3-4 for Barcelona and was packed with lots of pretty attacking football from people paid a lot of money.
What I’m guessing probably didn’t happen much at all last night is English-speaking football fans chiding other English speaking football fans for watching a Spanish league match, perhaps saying something like: “You already have everything you could ever want in the Premier League. Why do you need to go off and watch their lot?”
The Daily Mail nevertheless took the rare instance of a foreign league attracting native UK eyes to reassert the Premier League’s dominance in the entertainment stakes, as if a single El Clasico is going to suddenly make a convert out of a regular Mail reader.
But it raises an interesting point: why do we persist with the idea that foreign domestic leagues are in competition with each other for a limited set of eyeballs?
Though I’m only armed with anecdotal evidence, I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that following football isn’t what it used to be. It once involved traveling to grounds, listening over the radio, reading match reports in the newspaper and perhaps waiting for that rare weekend when your team ended up on Match of the Day. This pretty much limited you to one club in a single league. Today however football is a giant, radiating glob, with every league selling viewing rights as part of an increasingly vicious bidding war on TV, and Vined and GIF’d and YouTube’d and Blogged up the wazoo on the Internet. You watch what’s on.
People have their personal preferences of course (“I love the attacking verve of the Eee Pee El”), but in practice they’re meaningless. Even bitter MLS fans follow the European leagues, if only to track American expats on their way to stardom or irrelevance across the pond. Regular viewers of the Premier League will keep tabs on the Bundesliga and will switch back and forth depending on how bored they are with Stoke vs Cardiff. “Switching leagues” is a simple as changing the channel. Everyone follows everything. You can’t really be a Premier League fan without knowing the basics of what’s happening in Germany, because the Champions League is just around the corner.
What galls most though about the repeated, chest thumping assertions of the Premier League’s international dominance since its inception in 1992 is that it likely came in large part from its being based in an English speaking country with English speaking media. No doubt the entertaining dominance of Man United and Arsenal surely helped, but built-in English commentary and English reporting provided less of an obstacle to the curious overseas fan.
But it doesn’t really matter now in the age of digital media, with Italy’s Gazetta Dello Sport and Spain’s Marca putting out English editions and more and more league highlights going up on Youtube. A rising tide lifts all boats: the enormous success of the Premier League’s global expansion has carried with it intense interest in the other leagues as well, most notably the polyglot Champions League, which itself is an advertisement for the weekend matches. Even the EPL’s advantage in the TV rights game could shrink as competition for even remotely popular leagues intensifies among cable TV providers scrambling for the remaining live sports properties. There’s no real “competition.” Fewer and fewer fans are going to watch Premier League mid table dross while Dortmund v Bayern is on.
Just something to remember whenever that dumb pub debate comes up again. “The Premier League is just so much more entertaining than the Bundesliga.” Depends on the match, depends on the team, depends on the player, depends on the writer, depends on the Vine, the Youtube highlights, the storyline, the replica shirt, your personal mood. It depends.