Cronkite Professor explores how sports can offer a sliver of hope in a post-Brexit world

In 2016 on the eve of the Brexit referendum in the UK, Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore, one of the most powerful men in British football (soccer), warned the country that it would be folly to vote to leave the European Union.

Soccer, a game that at its roots was driven by loyalty to a hometown team, had become a prime example of a truly global business. English football, which began in the 1800s as a healthy local pastime for the working class, had built successful teams and modern new stadiums by being open to players, managers, fans, and deep-pocketed owners from around the world.

Scudamore and the owners of the 20 Premier League teams felt that a plan for the UK to leave the EU, in effect turning its back on globalization, was “completely incongruous” with the spirit of openness that had led to the success and growing internationalism of the UK’s most popular sport.

This wasn’t always the case. The English league’s phenomenal success over the last quarter of a century followed a century-long slide towards marginalization in the global game that – as they will never fail to remind you – the English themselves invented. 

Andrés Martinez, a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a special advisor to ASU President Michael Crow shared his thoughts recently about the impact of Brexit on soccer and globalism during a talk sponsored by the Thunderbird Football Club.

Martinez told the international business students that he sees the Premiere League – its success and the uncertainty brought about by Brexit – as “a wonderful metaphor for globalization.”

Global Business & the Premier League 

Martinez, who is currently working on a book about the globalization of the English Premier League, supported by a seed grant from ASU’s Global Sport Institute,said that 30 years ago, English first division soccer attracted neither players nor attention from outside the country. The late 1980s marked a low point in English football. Stadiums were crumbling, hundreds of fans were killed in a series of tragedies, hooliganism was rife, and even the best English players wanted to leave the country to play in Italy or Spain.

In 1992, after 104 years of the English Football League, 20 teams broke away to form the Football Association (FA) Premier League. The Premier League, which was established as a corporation, was the result of football’s troubled times and, to a great degree, created to take advantage of lucrative television rights

A willingness to work across boundaries and borders was what really turned around the fortunes of English football.How will Brexit impact that success?”– Click to tweet

Television rights may have opened the door, but a willingness to work across boundaries and borders was what really turned around the fortunes of English football and allowed it to scale internationally. The Premiere League now has the highest revenue of any football league in the world. And it is a phenomenally international business by all accounts.

Truly an International Squad

Premier League players are a global bunch, in part as a result of the Bosman Ruling in 1995, a landmark court that allowed professional players to move freely to clubs within the EU. 

At its inception, the Premier League was home to only 13 players from outside the United Kingdom and Ireland.  Overall today, only about a third of allminutes in the league is played by English players.  Take just one team: Out of 27 players on the 2018/19 roster for Chelsea, 8 of them are English. The rest come from as far away as Argentina and as near as Belgium. 

Out of the 20 Premier League teams, only five teams have a manager who is English. Other teams’ managers (coaches) come from around the world, including Spain, Portugal, France, Chile, Argentina, Norway, and Germany. 

Fans of English football, which evolved from elitist student pastime to working-class passion in the 19thCentury, also now come from around the world. The Premier League estimates that its games are broadcast to 730 million homes in 185 countries, encompassing 200,000 broadcast hours a season.

Sports & a Sense of Place

Martinez grew up in Mexico and, at 15, moved to the U.S. at a time when although he was a passionate soccer fan, it was still difficult to watch his team or find other fans to talk with about the sport. Martinez appreciates how times have changed and how global the game of soccer is now. 

“I have a 14-year-old son, and I am astonished by how plugged-in his friends are to global sports,” he said. “So many of them play soccer, and even if they don’t obsessively follow the Premier League or (Spain’s top division) La Liga, they play the EA Sports FIFA video game and follow the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi on Instagram.”

“The story of Brexit and globalsports is one of how people situate themselves in the world, how we see ourselves connecting to place, and to others, both here and elsewhere.”– Click to tweet

Although soccer is one of his passions, Martinez said he is interested less in either the sports story or politics story, but is primarily focused on “the question of how people situate themselves in the world. How do we see ourselves connecting to place, and to others, both here and elsewhere?” 

Culture plays an important role in answering that question, Martinez said, and sport looms large as an influential identity-shaping form of popular culture.  Sports have always been important beyond the playing field, he said. 

How Will Brexit Impact English Football? 

As we know now, voters were not swayed by warnings against a pro-Brexit vote. 

UK voted with a margin of 52% to 48% to leave the EU, throwing into question whether the Premier League will continue to be able to benefit from what chairman Scudamore described as global “openness.” 

“To put it bluntly, English politics, much like politics everywhere in recent years, are retreating from globalization, while English football and sports more generally have been doubling down on globalization, and thriving as a result,” Martinez said. “The question now is whether sports or politics are the leading indicator of where society is headed.”

Just as with all other business in the UK, it is still unclear what impact Brexit will have on the Premier League, its foreign stars, and influx of global investment. The biggest immediate effect on Premier League clubs, however, may come from changes in immigration. Brexit is sure to impact the free flow of business talent – players, managers, and other staff in the case of football.

Sports Offers a Sliver of Hope

Up until now, the English Premier League has seemed to have the best of both worlds:  a strong sense of place with its legacy of local teams and homegrown fans and the ability to grow and thrive because it has opened its arms to the best that the world has to offer.

Around the world, politically globalization appears to be in retreat, but not necessarily in the world of business. And the business of sport has been an important exception. 

Around the world, politically globalization appears to be in retreat, but not necessarily in the world of business. And the business of sport has been an important exception.– Click to tweet

Martinez has said that the business of global sports is an important ground to hold. Sport is a visceral way tribal fans connect to place, and each other – a compass with which they situate themselves in the world. As such, sports can offer us a sliver of hope.  

The success of global sports offers us the prospect of a more interconnected, globalized world. And, Martinez concludes, sports show us that this world isn't as imperiled as politics would suggest.

Related insights