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EPL: Coming to America?

Near the end of last week, the EPL, or English Premier League or Premiership (I have been instructed by Brits to never mention Barclay’s), announced its intention to play some of its regular season matches outside of the U.K. Perhaps inspired by the NFL’s decision to play a regular season game in London at Wembley Stadium last year, the EPL is seeking to expand its brand and attract new fans to its product.

Since making the announcement though, the EPL has received mixed feedback from inside the league. Legendary Manchester United coach Sir Alex Ferguson expressed some disdain for the idea, though he clearly articulated that he was upset more with the manner the decision was made (without consulting the club managers) than with the actual decision. Meanwhile, rival Arsenal skipper Arsene Wenger expressed support for the idea to take games abroad and argued that it would help promote the league.

The question here in America though is what kind of effect EPL games in the U.S. would have on our domestic league. MLS bosses have stated that anything that raises interest in soccer in the U.S. is good for their league, yet others, such as Yahoo Sports’ Martin Rogers, have suggested that the presence of EPL games in the U.S. could hurt MLS.

Rogers recently argued that EPL games would make MLS games look amatuerish by comparison and that EPL games would open the door to other leagues, such as the Spanish Primera or German Bundesliga, also playing games in the U.S. The fear then would be that Americans would save their money for the better games and MLS would financially flounder.

However, I believe Rogers’ fears are unfounded. Regarding Rogers’ argument that MLS games would appear amateurish, I can only quote America’s own Alexi Lalas who, despite normally inserting his foot in his mouth, once sagely noted that “MLS does not have a monopoly on crap soccer.” What Lalas meant was that EPL games, though featuring an undeniably higher caliber of player, can sometimes be as boring as MLS games. Anyone who watched last weekend’s games can attest to this fact. In fact, one could argue that the lack of parity in the EPL makes the games even more boring as there are really only about four squads that have a chance (i.e., the players) to win the title.

Americans are not soccer sophisticates who only want a premium product. On the contrary, we simply want to see good games. In fact, I would posit that the average American would be happier watching two well-matched high school teams play a hard fought game than watching Chelsea beat Reading 4-0 (I said average Americans, not soccer aficionados, so please spare me the vitriol). Since most Americans aren’t familiar with Chelsea’s stars, like Drogba and Essien, they would probably be in their car at the 3-0 point just to beat the traffic.

Another thing Rogers seems to gloss over is the fact that the EPL is talking about one or two games a year abroad, not several in the U.S. alone. I readily admit that the higher quality of play could get more American’s butts in the seats for an EPL game than it would a MLS game, but it is unlikely one or even two EPL games a year could satisfy our fans hunger for live soccer. People who would have gone to the MLS games will still go to the MLS games and some people who may not otherwise have gone may enjoy the EPL product and decide to give the MLS a shot.

Finally, I note that the overseas matches would be played in January (when the MLS is in its offseason) and the matches would not even begin until 2011. Therefore, (1) no one would ever have to decide whether to go to the MLS game or the EPL game, (2) MLS has three more years to strengthen its brand (with Becks) before having to consider competing, and (3) there is not even any guarantee the EPL game America receives (assuming the EPL goes ahead with the decision and the U.S. gets a game) will be one people will want to watch. In fact, after all the debate, we could end up with Sunderland against Birmingham (not the Alabama one, though THAT would be something I would pay to see).

So, in short, EPL games in America will not likely have a huge effect on the MLS. If anything, the Premiership could only benefit the MLS by increasing Americans’ interest in soccer.

And EPL bosses: assuming Fulham is still employing more Americans than D.C. United come 2011 (and has avoided relegation), send us the damn Cottagers. We miss a lot of them here.

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