Volume XI, Number 2, Fall 2015

"The Americanization of English Soccer: A Bird’s Eye View" by Rama Venkatasawmy

Rama Venkatasawmy is a Lecturer in the Discipline of Communication and Media currently teaching in the Bachelor of Communication program at the Singapore campus of The University of Newcastle, Australia; he is a member of the Communication and Media Research group in the Hunter Creative Industries and Technology (HCIT) Research Centre and is the author of The Digitization of Cinematic Visual Effects: Hollywood’s Coming of Age (2012) and co-author of Sarawakiana series–The Traditional Kayan Wedding: Pelah Hawa (2009). He previously taught film/television production in the Mass Communication degree program at Curtin University’s Malaysian campus where he co-designed the Borneo Studies major and was also the founding Head of the Department of Mass Communication. He has also taught at Murdoch University in Australia and at the University of Mauritius. Email: rama.venkatasawmy@newcastle.edu.au

Soccer clubs in England have traditionally been, at least up to the end of the twentieth century, locally rooted community-based organizations around which significant parts of the lives of their local supporters revolve. By the early 2000s, many of these clubs were beginning a radical transformation into becoming global superbrands as a result of what has been referred to or described as the Americanization of English soccer. This began with the direct intensive involvement of American sport franchise owners and businessmen in some of the most prominent soccer clubs in England. Taking into consideration the ensuing changes in the very nature of the game, of the identities of English soccer clubs and of their supporters, it can be argued that the Americanization of English soccer is directly responsible for irreversibly modifying significant aspects of English socio-cultural life. This paper hence examines how professional soccer in England has undergone the globalizing force of Americanization as well as some of the resulting socio-cultural outcomes of resistance and adaptation to change.

Why “Americanization” specifically – as opposed to “internationalization,” “mcdonaldization,” “disneyization” or other approaches – to conceptualize, within the theoretical framework of global studies, the radical transformation of English soccer? In the present discussion, this paper specifically applies Ritzer & Stillman’s (2003, 35) definition of Americanization as ‘a powerful one-directional process that tends to overwhelm competing processes […] as well as the strength of local forces that might resist, modify and/or transform American models into hybrid forms.’ The justification for the Americanization thesis being pursued here can be found in the increasing involvement of American capital and businessmen in English soccer clubs during the past decade in particular and in how they have influenced organizational and structural changes in professional soccer in England (see for instance: Duke (2002); Giulianotti & Roberston (2004); Hoehn & Szymanski (2010); Williams & Hopkins (2011); Nauright & Ramfjord (2010); Coombs & Osborne (2012), amongst others). More significantly, central features of the Americanization thesis can be identified in how English soccer clubs are deemed, even by their very own supporters, to have become excessively profit-oriented “soul-less” entities. This is considered to be the outcome of distinctively American strategies of commodification, marketization and spectacularization that all emphasize the branding and packaging of soccer clubs and of their players alike – for the sake of attracting global television spectatorship and merchandizing revenues in particular.

Ritzer and Stillman (2003, 44) reason that if ‘globalization includes all processes affecting large portions of the world,’ then Americanization can be seen as a specific case of globalization – which does not automatically imply a process carried out solely in the interest of the average US citizen or of the so-called American “way of life.” According to Tomlinson (1991, 175):

Globalisation may be distinguished from imperialism in that it is a far less coherent or culturally directed process. For all that is ambiguous between economic and political senses, the idea of imperialism contains, at least, the notion of a purposeful project: the intended spread of a social system from one centre of power across the globe. The idea of ‘globalisation’ suggests interconnection and interdependency of all global areas which happens in a far less purposeful way. It happens as the result of economic and cultural practices which do not, of themselves, aim at global integration, but which nonetheless produce it. [emphasis added]

It would hence seem more productive to understand Americanization as a very specific way of conceptualizing the contemporary state of the world in terms of how it is being “re-shaped” predominantly according to an American model by the intermediary of the complex interaction of financial and cultural practices and pursuits – especially in the global studies and English soccer contexts inherent to this paper.

The contemporary structure and organization of English soccer originates from mid-nineteenth century English public schools. ‘After representatives from a number of selected schools came together to codify the rules governing the game in 1863, the sport quickly grew in popularity’ (Sondaal, 2013, 486), especially with the foundation of English soccer’s governing body, the Football Association, in 1863, and of the FA Cup in 1871 ― for more details about the historical origins of professional soccer and clubs in England, see Mason (1980), Tischler (1981), Walvin (2002), Kennedy (2006) and Taylor (2008). Before the end of the nineteenth century, most of the currently existing English soccer clubs had been officially established and were already competing against each other. Businessmen were apparently ‘drawn to football by the prospect of cashing on the popular connections between the working classes, leisure and sport, while politicians sensed they could gain popularity by being associated with a local successful club’ (Sondaal, 2013, 486). But for most of their history, English soccer clubs ‘have always been undercapitalized, with little or no retained profit, and they have always relied on borrowing and overdrafts as a source of funding,’ according to Williams and Hopkins (2011, 163). This can be explained by the fact that most English soccer clubs have traditionally been more concerned with contributing to the enhancement of community spirit and sense of belonging. Club players (and their supporters) have commonly been local lads more motivated by a strong sense of community loyalty than by the size of paychecks or the “glitz and glamour” associated with the club name/brand, and they usually stayed with their home team for life irrespective of how badly it may perform.

Buraimo, Simmons & Szymanski (2010, 162) explain how in the early years, soccer in England

was played mainly on an amateur basis, but the competitive nature of the FA Cup, inaugurated in 1871, and the potential to generate income from selling tickets to matches sharpened the competition to the point that players were being offered financial inducements to play. Initially, the FA was opposed to professionalism, but by the mid-1880s, this position was no longer tenable, and it was legalized in 1885. This reform led to the creation of a new format for competition (the Football League, founded in 1888) and the increased commercialization of football clubs.

The dominance of the UK’s political agenda by Thatcherist neoliberal socio-economic policies during the 1980s intensified the pressure on English soccer clubs to “modernize” so-to-speak from community-oriented organizations mostly running at a loss into profit-motivated enterprises. According to Griggs & Gibbons (2014, 601):

Processes of globalization have led elite English club soccer to witness unprecedented levels of change since the early 1990s, largely due to the ramifications of the Taylor Report, the rise of the English Premier League (since 1992) and the domination of its coverage by the satellite television company BSkyB (now commonly referred to as ‘Sky’). The latter two (along with wider European economic restructuring processes leading to significant changes in soccer brought about by the 1995 Bosman ruling) are often associated with the rampant commercialization of English soccer.

The “modernization” of English soccer hence began with the creation of the English Premier League (EPL) in 1992 as a major upgrading from the English Football League First Division in operation since 1888. From the mid-1990s, the EPL slowly began implementing the kind of strategies most commonly found in North American sports leagues – such as the broadcast of games on pay-television only, as opposed to free-to-air television, and the diversification of revenue sources (now including broadcast and merchandizing royalties) for soccer clubs in addition to stadium entry tickets sales (Nauright and Ramfjord, 2010, 431).

The subsequent Americanization of English soccer is arguably an outcome of the intensive involvement of American sport franchise owners and businessmen in some of the most prominent English football clubs from the late 1990s onward. In becoming structurally similar to many North American professional sports leagues by the end of the 1990s (for more details, see Hoehn & Szymanski (2010) and Williams & Hopkins (2011) for instance), the EPL had finally become attractive enough to American investors in particular. The latter could then see more clearly the potential financial benefits of owning English soccer clubs. Nauright and Ramfjord (2010, 429) explicate that

American presence in England’s Premiership is based on potential investors’ belief that the Premier League offers a sound business investment for them in a league with ownership and financing structures they recognize and a culture that is understandable to them at a time when the growth of several professional sports brands in the USA has levelled off.

There has been a noticeable rise in foreign ownership of English soccer clubs since 2002. Manchester United FC was purchased in 2005 by businessman Malcolm Glazer (and his sons), the owner of American football team Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Aston Villa FC was acquired in 2006 by another American, Randy Lerner, who already owned at the time American football team Cleveland Browns. In 2007, a controlling stake in Liverpool FC was jointly purchased by George Gillett Jr (then owner of Canadian ice hockey team Montreal Canadiens and of NASCAR autoracing team Evernham Motorsports) and Tom Hicks (owner at the time of American baseball team Texas Rangers and American ice hockey team Dallas Stars). By 2010, Liverpool FC had been bought by American sports investment outfit Fenway Sports Group, the parent company of the Boston Red Sox baseball team.

By the start of the 2009-2010 soccer season, foreign nationals owned or held substantial shares in eleven EPL clubs (Coombs & Osborne, 2012). Even if Everton FC was one of the rare EPL soccer clubs not under foreign control during that period, it nevertheless benefitted from massive financial investment by Planet Hollywood’s American founder and CEO Robert Earl. Professional clubs in the lower divisions of English soccer were not ignored by Americans either: Leicester City, Portsmouth, Oldham Athletic and Millwall, for example, all eventually involved American businessmen as leading investors or directors.

An immediate effect of the Americanization of English soccer has been a decrease of so-called “home-grown” English players in the EPL, which has not gone unnoticed by the English press and soccer fans alike. As observed by Griggs & Gibbons (2014, 539), ‘the relentless globalization of the EPL since the mid-1990s has led to much public debate on whether the vast influx of “foreign” players into the league has stunted the development of “home-grown” players for the English national team.’ Binder & Findlay (2012) and McGovern (2002) have also addressed this phenomenon – as illustrated by Chelsea FC, the first English soccer club not to have a single English player in its December 1999 opening line-up (see Maguire & Pearton (2000) for more details); that was also the case for Arsenal FC in 2005.

The implementation of American business practices in the operation of English soccer clubs has inevitably generated new ideas and products which, although challenging decades of socio-cultural tradition and resisted by some of their local fans, have ended up being accepted by most. As Duke (2002, 5) explains:

The American model of sport is more commercially oriented than the traditional English structure with key roles for advertising, sponsorship and particularly television. The primary function of sports team franchises is profit making. Sport is viewed as a branch of the entertainment industry, which results in a different relationship between spectator and team; the discerning consumer replaces the committed fan. [emphasis added]

As a result of the shift in focus on mainly financial concerns, the Americanization of English soccer has arguably caused the erosion of local identities in the light of radical changes brought to the very socio-cultural practices long associated with soccer clubs. Hence, the re-organized scheduling of match fixtures to best suit global television spectatorships across multiple time-zones (ultimately for the purpose of increasing TV-related revenues and royalties for soccer clubs) has been one of the first most significant outcomes of the EPL’s Americanization. For many decades, English soccer matches all traditionally kicked off at three pm on Saturday and Sunday afternoons only. But by the early 2000s onward, matches would also be regularly scheduled at lunchtime on Sundays and in the evening of practically any day of the week simply to suit live broadcasting requirements (for more details about current match fixtures/scheduling, see the EPL’s official website at http://www.premierleague.com/en-gb.html). The globally-oriented scheduling of EPL fixtures hence begins to illustrate how English soccer matches ‘no longer act as a culturally executed and experienced ritual for its fans but as profit centers for corporations’ (Coombs and Osborne 2012, 203). And the dominant profit-oriented approach to the scheduling of English soccer matches can be confirmed by the fact that, according to

a recent report from Deloitte, EPL teams had revenues of €3.9 billion for the 2013-14 season, a 32% increase from the previous year. With TV revenues of some €2.1 billion/$2.9 billion, the EPL was second only to the NFL (€4.8 billion/$6.6 billion) in terms of international sports. And it puts its ‘Big Five’ European competitors to shame: The EPL had higher revenues than the German (€2.3 billion) and French (€1.5 billion) or Spanish (€1.9 billion) and Italian (€1.7 billion) leagues combined, and none of them had TV revenues over €860 million. (Mount, 2015, online)

Compared to its European soccer league counterparts, the Americanized EPL has clearly been doing far better in terms of globalizing its revenue – especially by exploiting the intense demand for merchandizing and pay-television live programming by its considerable Asian fan base in particular. As explained by Rookwood and Chan (2011, 902), the ‘mode of fandom displayed in Asia is decidedly consumerist, with the outward display of team merchandizing common among Asian sports fans’ and the EPL being seen in many Asian cities ‘as a culturally accessible form of high cosmopolitanism.’

The major socio-cultural impact of something as seemingly trivial as the re-organization of match fixtures can only be grasped following a better understanding of English life. English soccer fan culture originates from community-based socio-cultural practices – that remained mostly unchanged for decades and across generations – often revolving around the local community’s soccer club and its associated pub (commonly located near the club’s playing grounds/stadium where training and matches occur, such as the Holte Pub at the entrance of Aston Villa FC’s Villa Park stadium). As explicated by Sondaal (2013, 486), the close link between English soccer and local communities

is a strong one since many of the earliest clubs were founded out of local community institutions such as churches, pubs, social clubs and work teams. In short, football clubs filled the void that many individuals felt when moving from the countryside to the cities in nineteenth-century England and served a as an important source of identity.

The deep tradition of support for English soccer clubs began during the industrial revolution especially when ‘workers in the factories were given half days off on Saturday. This began the traditional Saturday lunchtime at the pub followed by the afternoon football match. It helped to unite and generate civic pride in the local football club’ (Nauright and Ramfjord, 2010, p.436). And the cost of entry tickets to matches was usually kept low to enable practically everybody to afford attending a weekly fixture since English soccer clubs ‘were largely supported by the working class’ and the ‘fans identified with the team as an extension of themselves’ (Nauright and Ramfjord, 2010, 429).

From the early 2000s onward, American owners and investors began to inject much capital into the upgrading of stadium accommodation, the purchasing of expensive international players and the merchandizing of EPL clubs – which resulted in a significant increase in revenue. For example, from £20 million in 1991 Manchester United FC’s total revenue had gone up to £278 million by 2009 after American Malcolm Glazer’s 2005 purchase of the club (Sondaal, 2013, 485). According to The Financial Times, in 2014 English soccer clubs had spent $1.2 billion on players, amounting to 29% of all global spending, and were involved in 9.6% of all transfer deals while between 1992 and the 2012-13 season, club revenues increased at a compound annual growth rate of 14% and player wages went up by 16% (Blitz, 2015, online).

Due to the expanding connections with mass media agents, foreign ownership, player migration and international supporter bases, many EPL clubs are increasingly gaining autonomy from and reducing reliance on their communities in terms of finances and fan support. This, in turn, has reshaped English fandom to a degree. (Rookwood & Chan, 2011, p.908)

Hence, while Americanization – through a combination of professionalization, massive financial investment and intensive marketing – has positively contributed to the transformation of English clubs into globally more appealing and recognizable superbrands, it has also led to the transformation of English soccer ‘from an essentially working-class pastime sold at commodity prices into a middle-class entertainment’ (Hoehn and Szymanski, 2010, 56). Citing King (2002) and Crawford (2004), Gibbons & Dixon (2010, p.602) have pointed out how ‘much academic literature seeks to establish the belief that through rampant commercialization (resulting from processes of globalization) English soccer is losing its inherently “traditional” working-class qualities, that were characteristic of a so-called past “golden age”.’ And in response to the ‘anxieties brought on by globalization and the neoliberal takeover of English football at the end of the twentieth century, nostalgia became what might be termed the “cultural dominant” in terms of football discourse in the Premier League era,’ according to Ewen (2013, 470). The resulting perceived loss of a coherent national identity in English soccer is thought to have triggered a nostalgic ‘yearning for “heroic” players of a pre-Premier League “golden age” before commercialism sullied the “soul” of the game’ (Ewen, 2013, 470).

Williams & Hopkins (2011, 163) remind us that ‘the local “structure of feeling” in English cities – and the “lived cultures” at specific English football clubs – have an important part to play in explaining local resistances and accommodations to broadly global processes.’ Although the majority of supporters may have simply accepted or yielded to the Americanization of their clubs, as illustrated by continuously sold-out matches and ever-increasing global revenues, pockets of resistance have nevertheless emerged along the way because ‘fans often develop a sense of emotional investment and even ownership over a personality, sports team or club and rather than passively accepting performances or politics, they have been known to campaign for change’ (Gibbons & Dixon, 2010, 605). Several organizations and initiatives hence emerged to challenge the American-style commercialization of club soccer in England.

In 2008 for example, football activist Rogan Taylor initiated fan-based consortium Share Liverpool FC with the plan of persuading thousands of Liverpool supporters across the globe to buy club shares to ultimately ‘attempt at a £500 million buyout from its new American owners’ (Williams and Hopkins, 2011, 162). During the same year, in protest against the new American ownership of Liverpool and higher priced entry tickets at its Anfield Road stadium, one group of supporters created the entirely new AFC Liverpool local soccer club while another group of fans known as the Spirit of Shankly regularly carried out angry public demonstrations during Liverpool FC’s home games (Williams & Hopkins, 2011, p.162). In a similar vein, the Independent Manchester United Supporters’ Association was a big help in fighting off media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s takeover attempt of Manchester United FC in the late 1990s. Some years later, disillusioned Manchester United fans created the new Football Club United of Manchester – whose matches attract an average attendance of some 3000 supporters – in protest against the 2005 American takeover and the re-location of some of their club operations to the US (Nauright and Ramfjord, 2010, 438).

It should however be noted that there is at least one documented instance of an English soccer club’s Americanization being viewed more positively by its local community supporters. In the words of Coombs and Osborne (2012, 217):

Our research finds that, unlike many other foreign owners, Lerner was heralded as a savior when he purchased the club. Both those within the organization and long-time Aston Villa fans suggest that he offers a model of how owners, particularly foreign owners, can repair existing fan relations and build new ties to the community.

The genuine support and appreciation that American entrepreneur Randy Lerner received from local fans after his purchase of Aston Villa FC counteracts what the popular press and academic literature have perhaps overstated as so-called “underlying resistance” to the Americanization of English soccer clubs – as Coombs and Osborne (2012, 219) seem to suggest.

How English supporters now interact with the game (and with their clubs) has indeed been irremediably affected by a radical transformation of their soccer clubs from being localized non-profit community-oriented outfits into globalized stock exchange-listed superbrands. And rather than being seen as divisive and destructive, the Americanization of professional English soccer could perhaps simply be conceived ‘as symptomatic of a new, consumer-dominated phase of western capitalism’ (Maguire, 2011, 924).


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