Aston Villa have unique US opportunity as '39th game' returns to Premier League agenda

Aston Villa in action on their 2023 US pre-season tour against Brentford
Aston Villa in action on their 2023 US pre-season tour -Credit:Patrick Smith/Getty Images

With Aston Villa having ambitions to break up the dominance of the Premier League's so-called ‘big six’ on a regular basis, key to the growth required to help bridge the financial gap will be just how effectively the club can cut through in the United States.

Villa owners Wes Edens (through his part ownership of the Milwaukee Bucks NBA team) and Nassef Sawiris (through his shareholding in Madison Square Garden Sports, the parent company of the New York Knicks and New York Rangers) will be well versed on the direction of travel for sports fandom in North America.

With the addition of capital and expertise from Atairos, the club is positioning itself for a run at competitive success in the coming years, something that will, in turn, yield greater financial returns. For decades the main focus of artists from outside the US was to ‘crack America’. That hasn’t really gone away, for those who do manage to gain relevance, platform, and popularity in the land of the stars and stripes can be sure to be bestowed with plenty of riches.

READ MORE: Rebuilding Villa - the four people NSWE have tasked with taking club to next level

READ MORE: John Townley's notebook - V Sports appointment, Watkins transfer advice and Villa contract confirmed

Football is now where music was, and America is a willing consumer of European ‘soccer’, and in a big way. While the domestic league of the MLS may still have some way to go, even if the Lionel Messi effect at Inter Miami has helped raise the profile to a level not seen since David Beckham joined LA Galaxy back in 2007, the Premier League is resonating with a US audience.

Broadcasters see this trend, and with the FIFA World Cup heading stateside in 2026 there is a unique opportunity for clubs to get a foothold in the American market and appeal to a mass, English-language audience with disposable income.

Like five of the ‘big six’, Villa will be heading out to the US this summer, taking in friendlies with Columbus Crew in Columbus, Ohio, before a game against Bundesliga side RB Leipzig in Harrisburg, New Jersey. It will be a chance for Villa to showcase their wares to a US audience at a crucial time, with the potential of a ‘39th game’ seeming closer than it has been for more than 15 years.

It is an idea that has been kicked around for many a year. At a shareholder meeting of 20 member Premier League clubs back in February 2008 the idea was proposed, and supported by a number of prominent club owners, that a 39th game would arrive on the calendar of English football’s top tier.

At a time when the Premier League and English Football Association chose to ignore the views of the wider football pyramid and do away with replays in the FA Cup from the first round proper onwards, with the stresses and strains of such a demanding schedule at the top one of the chief reasons for doing so, the idea of a 39th game now seems laughable. And while it might not be an additional game, the idea behind it is almost certain to manifest itself over the coming years.

A fan with a cardboard FA Cup trophy
There is a vocal campaign to restore FA Cup replays -Credit:Eddie Keogh - The FA/The FA via Getty Images.

The idea of ‘Game 39’ was to play an extra round of Premier League matches outside of England in a bid to grow the brand of the world’s most popular domestic football league even further. Markets such as Asia and North America were the targets, both with huge demographics where football was seen to have enormous scope for growth.

Speaking to the Athletic earlier this week, NBC Sports’ president of acquisitions and partnerships, Jim Miller, addressed the potential for a Premier League game to be held in America. NBC Sports are currently in a six-year deal with the Premier League to broadcast games in the US.

Miller said: “We've had conversations with the Premier League and they've been very open and receptive to listening to me. We did the Premier League Summer Series (in pre-season) last year where we had six teams come over; Fulham, Aston Villa, Newcastle, Chelsea, Brighton & Hove Albion and Brentford. We had nine games in seven days in five cities around America (and 265,000 fans were in attendance). It was great.”

Premier League CEO Richard Masters’ stance has been that it is not something that the league are actively pursuing, but it is something where the door remains ‘ajar’ for developments in the future. The idea was that the games would begin from the 2010/11 season, when a new television broadcast rights deal was to begin. But in the May of 2010, and with former FIFA president Sepp Blatter having expressed his opposition to the idea, it was announced that it was no longer an avenue that the Premier League was actively pursuing.

But just as will happen with the European Super League (ESL), whether it be in five, 10, 15, or 20 years' time, as certain traditions become held in less high regard by new generations who consume the sport in different ways, there will be a moment in time where the idea is tweaked enough to pacify fans. When the opposition starts to soften, that’s when the moves will be made.

In the case of the ESL that won’t be any time soon. But the idea of Premier League regular season games being played abroad, or even major European finals such as the Champions League being played out in, for example, New York City or Riyadh, might not be as far-fetched as it once might have appeared.

For years now the biggest clubs in England have boarded planes and travelled around the world in the build-up to a new season, playing exhibition games to adoring fans in different countries who don’t get the chance to see some of the heroes they watch on television each week in the flesh. For fans it is something tangible, while for clubs it offers the chance to grow the presence, which means more money from merchandising and other offerings that can generate revenue for clubs.

It’s also a hugely important period for the commercial partners that pay such big sums of money to be associated with clubs, and to have their brands adorned on shirts, training tops and LED advertising hoardings around stadiums on Premier League matchdays. Many clubs have key partners in the Gulf States, North America, and Asia, and that means that these companies want a slice of the action and to activate their partnerships in a meaningful way once a season.

But there is never anything on the line in these pre-season tours. Yes, they may be sponsored tournaments such as the Audi Cup or Standard Chartered Trophy, but they aren’t hotly contested pieces of silverware. They are just exhibition games with a chance for some good commercial activation. Instantly forgettable affairs.

North American major sport has for some years been willing to take its major league teams across the globe for regular season games. The NBA has been a regular visitor to the O2 Arena, Tottenham Hotspur has a multi-year deal with the NFL to host a regular season game each year on their home ground, while the Olympic Stadium, home of West Ham United, will this year host a Major League Baseball regular season encounter between the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies in June.

This has become par for the course for fans of these teams in the US. American sports teams are franchises, and if the market they exist in doesn’t perform well commercially then they will move to one that offers a better chance of doing so. The rules around tradition are different from that which exist in European football, particularly in England, a country with a football pyramid that is deeper and richer than anywhere else on the planet.

But we’re starting to see some things happen that will start to pave the way for competitive regular season games to head overseas, and it is likely a serious conversation will be had between the 20 member clubs in the not-too-distant future, especially at a time when domestic broadcast rights are showing signs of stagnation, costs are rising, and revenue growth will struggle to keep pace through just relying on commercial activity and matchday income.

Speaking ahead of Manchester United and Arsenal's pre-season game at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey last summer, a game that broke the stadium's attendance record for hosting a football match, Democratic Governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, told assembled media prior to the game that "we would die" to have a competitive game of European football in the US.

Super League promoters A22 say Premier League clubs have held talks with them since Decembers ECJ ruling
The European Super League has caused mistrust across the continent -Credit:PA Archive/PA Images

Murphy said: "I know that the clubs have not been wild about that in Europe but I'd love to think that it would happen. You would have Barcelona playing Real Madrid in New Jersey at some point in a regular season or in a Champions League game. I would love that. I would just appeal either to the Champions League, if that's UEFA, and play a game here. I can say unequivocally, we would die to have a real competitive game anywhere in America. If it was in New York-New Jersey, you wouldn't get near that game. It would be overwhelming. To have a Champions League game, you wouldn’t be able to get near it."

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin hinted last year that the Champions League final could one day be played in the US. As the appetite grows in countries such as the US for what European football has to offer, and the Premier League in particular, so too will the appetite from clubs and leagues to maximise the benefits of that in the future.

Until now, FIFA had blocked attempts to play competitive fixtures outside of the territory of the respective member associations. Back in 2018, Relevent Sports Group, a New York-based events promoter, had sought to bring a competitive La Liga fixture involving Barcelona and Girona to America. That plan was blocked by FIFA.

But in a legal development in the US last month, Relevent dropped FIFA as a defendant in its antitrust lawsuit against world football’s governing body and the US Soccer Federation, as first reported by the Athletic. The resolution, filed with the US District Court of Manhattan, could still be heard by the US Supreme Court, with Relevent arguing that blocking such moves to bring competitive competition to the US is in violation of antitrust laws.

A statement from Relevent to the Athletic stated that the agreement was made "while FIFA considers changes to its existing rules about whether games can be played outside of a league's home territory. Relevent Sports looks forward to supporting FIFA as both sides work to grow the game."

FIFA said it "has not admitted any liability and continues to deny the legal claims alleged in Relevent's complaint." In 2022, speaking to Spanish media, Relevent CEO Daniel Sillman said: "I can assure you before the 2026 World Cup there will be LaLiga games on North American soil."

This past week has seen things move on again, with LaLiga’s outspoken president Javier Tebas revealing his belief that a regular season game in Spanish football’s top flight will be taking place before the end of the 2025/26 season.

He told Spanish newspaper Expansion: “I think it could be in the 2025-26 season, but LaLiga will play official matches abroad. An official match in the US will strengthen our position in the North American market, which is the second market for LaLiga after Spain. Other very competitive leagues are coming so we cannot always do the same thing, but we cannot allow them to overtake us.”

The Premier League’s commercial success has been a thorny issue for LaLiga, and Tebas, for some time. It has been a financial juggernaut that has hoovered up audience and commercial spend, and increased the brand of English football’s top tier globally.

But LaLiga will always have Real Madrid and Barcelona, and in sensing the undoubted pushback that would occur in the event of English clubs pursuing an international round of games in the US, a nation where ‘soccer’ is now catching on in a big way and where the World Cup will be held in 2026, Tebas and LaLiga sense that this is the moment for Spain to regain some ground, to enhance the brand in a meaningful way which the Premier League has not been able to accomplish.

It would be naive to think that LaLiga’s very public desire from the very top to pursue this avenue hasn’t ruffled some feathers among the Premier League’s biggest clubs, as well as the officials that run the competition and whose duty it is to ensure that it doesn’t diminish on the world stage under their watch. When you consider that of the six biggest clubs, four of them are under North American ownership, you can see where the direction of travel may lie.

Fans cheer during a game between Aston Villa and Fulham at Exploria Stadium on July 26, 2023 in Orlando, Florida.
Fans at a pre-season game between Aston Villa and Fulham in Orlando in 2023 -Credit:Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images for Premier League

LaLiga have been looking at regular season games in Spain since 2018, a decade on from when the Premier League first floated the idea. But no movement on the Premier League side has emboldened LaLiga to put its flag in the ground in the US, and that could be impactful in the longer term for the biggest clubs in England, especially given that the international broadcast deals are to be the ones with real growth potential in the next two cycles, not domestic ones. The US, for the current cycle, was worth £2bn to the Premier League, and that figure will almost certainly be more for the next cycle.

But with an independent regulator for football coming down the tracks there is little surprise that the Premier League has started to push back on the regulator publicly, with Premier League CEO Masters making his feelings known in an editorial that appeared in The Times earlier this month. There will be concern that potential avenues for growth will be stymied by the existence of an independent regulator.

Last week, London Mayor Sadiq Khan spoke about how he wanted to bring the Super Bowl, the NFL’s showpiece event, to London. He also spoke on how he wanted NBA games and WrestleMania to be held in London too.

Bringing the Super Bowl to London? That would not go down well in the US. NFL seasons are short, just 16 regular season games, and chances for fans to watch their teams are more limited than they are for football in this country. It seems a little foolish to think that this country could take the showpiece event from another, but have real opposition to taking a round of games overseas once a year.

English football is bound by tradition. It is what makes it unique, and what makes it so special, so compelling. But the game is moving quickly, and the opportunities for growth will come thick and fast in the next decade or so, and that is likely to change the landscape considerably.

The problem that the Premier League has is: Who are they wanting to satisfy the most? Fans on home soil, whose passionate presence is one of the compelling elements of the Premier League product in the first place? Or the hundreds of millions abroad who are less bound by tradition and from whom significant revenue can be generated?

It might not be this year, next year, or the year after, but the issue will be raised again, and whatever is decided isn’t going to please everyone. There is limited capital out there, and not everyone, contrary to popular belief, is wanting to own a football club. The interest exists because of growth potential, and the Premier League will know that when the growth potential starts to diminish, so, too, will the amount of people willing to invest.

It is an issue that may not seem major right now, but it could be a potentially defining moment for the future of English football’s top flight.

Villa, like other major Premier League sides, are wanting to ensure they are being seen in the US now, not losing any ground in what is a hotly contested market for eyeballs and attention, where there are major leagues across multiple sports all vying for a similar audience.

Champions League football next season would help raise that profile and give them some leverage, particularly if they can show they are intent on sticking around for the long haul at European football’s top table.

America offers many opportunities for Premier League clubs, but for clubs like Villa they may have a unique voice if they can disrupt what has for so long been the established order of things in the English game at the right time.

What do you think about the Premier League hosting a '39th game' abroad? Join the debate in the comments section...