How much are Premier League pre-season matches abroad really worth?

Premier League football clubs have been eagerly readying themselves for their first full pre-season since we first heard of COVID-19.

It will give them an opportunity to recoup a portion of the finances they lost because of the global pandemic while appeasing overseas sponsors, supporters and, hopefully, growing their brand in a different market.

With foreign travel disrupted for the past two years, this summer presents the first chance for clubs to start flexing their muscles on summer trips once again.

While some managers prefer to stay closer to home, there has not been a shortage of glitzy foreign tours announced.

Half of the teams competing in the Premier League have chosen to travel beyond Europe to participate in a number of fixtures and continue their preparation for the upcoming season.

Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton and Manchester City have opted for the US. Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Leeds United and Manchester United are bound for Australia.

Palace will also visit Singapore, with United traveling to Thailand for a game against Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp’s side will spend time in Singapore, too. Tottenham Hotspur are booked to go to South Korea, while Real Madrid and Barcelona will play only the third Clasico to take place outside of Spain in Las Vegas.

Mesut Ozil and Arsenal in Shanghai in 2017 (Photo: Stuart MacFarlane / Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

“There is a huge demand to go away now,” says Gary Hobson, who organizes pre-season trips for Premier League sides and those further down the pyramid. “This time last year I was scrapping around for UK camps, but this year I have never had such a busy summer in terms of trying to get teams abroad.

“A lot of these guys haven’t traveled for a couple of years, the (travel) restrictions are minimal, and the mood is that the teams want to go away.”

But how much is a summer tour really worth?

The financial impact of travel restrictions on pre-season tours was laid bare in Manchester United’s set of accounts for the year ending June 2021.

United reported almost a £ 50 million drop in commercial revenue, down from £ 279 million in 2020 to £ 232.2 million, and attributed a portion of this loss to their inability to head overseas. A trip to India was penciled in for the summer of 2020.

“COVID-19 continued to have a significant adverse impact on our reported results for the year ended 30 June 2021,” the club’s accounts read. “The impact is primarily due to a reduction in commercial and match day revenues following the cancellation of the first team’s pre-season tour at the start of fiscal 2021 due to travel restrictions.”

Although this is at the top end, you get a sense of how important clubs view pre-season in terms of generating revenue.

Some teams, however, prefer to remain in Europe and will focus on getting their players in the best shape possible ahead of the campaign. For those outside the established elite, it is not worth the travel, jetlag and disruption for relatively small fees compared to others.

“What I’m finding is the top-tier clubs, your global brands, are getting big enough fees and are commercially big enough so that they are exceeding their costs,” adds Hobson. “They are making money from it. They might pull in £ 4 million and only spend £ 1 million to achieve that.

“The issue is that for those outside of that top bracket, they are getting smaller fees yet still incur the same costs to travel. Commercially, it has to be worthwhile – especially for those traveling to Australia. ”

Juli Nadal, Barcelona’s former head of global partnerships between 2013 and 2017, was responsible for organizing the club’s pre-season tours and details their significance in bolstering finances.

Nadal says the landscape has shifted over time, with teams opting to move away from traveling to Asia and opting for the US instead.

This was largely down to the inception of the International Champions Cup (ICC) in 2013, an annual tournament held predominantly in the US.

Jose Mourinho and Chelsea playing in the ICC in New York in 2015 (Photo: Rich Graessle / Icon Sportswire / Corbis / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Talking in general terms, Nadal said: “In one good summer tour, let’s say 10 days, you could do as much (financially) as you could do with a global sponsor in one season.

“But that is for Barcelona in the good days. It is not for everybody. It was a bit like bringing the Rolling Stones over.

“We went from the good money being made in Asia when a local promoter wanted to bring the club over there. The introduction of the International Champions Cup (ICC) changed that from around 2014. It made the US very attractive for the clubs again. ”

Before the ICC, if a team chose to go on tour to Asia, they were usually reliant on several promoters as opposed to one body to organize everything. Logistically, this attracted them to America as clubs’ training facilities were taken care of and the matches were organized, with people assigned to them to make sure things ran smoothly. Plus the money on offer was not to be sniffed at.

One source suggested that sides such as Manchester United, Real Madrid and other members of Europe’s traditional elite can demand fees of over £ 2 million per game. It was also pointed out that some Major League Soccer teams will offer close to $ 500,000 (£ 410,000) to play against a “mid-range” Premier League club.

“Anything I’ve dealt with has been purely commercial-based,” Hobson says, when asked if money is the sole factor behind trips to America, Australia and Asia. “Whether it’s (also) that club having a responsibility to their supporters as they are global brands with vast support networks across the world and they have a duty to be seen, I don’t know.

“The new emerging football nations are offering fees to the big teams to expand their own market. There are a whole raft of reasons, but they are mainly based on commercial. ”

While the ICC tournaments performed lucrative for some, they did not come without relevant clauses.

Put simply, the organizers knew they had to sell tickets to start recouping the fees they were paying the clubs to make the trip. Accordingly, they would insert penalty clauses into contracts which would activate if certain players did not show up.

“A (Lionel) Messi is difficult to replace,” adds Nadal. “Cristiano (Ronaldo) is difficult to replace – and the value of your team is not that same without them in terms of selling tickets.”

Clubs could be looking at as much as a 25 per cent hit if their biggest stars, which would be agreed during the talks, did not attend.

As clubs began to realize their commercial worth overseas, aided by the explosion of social media which helped pinpoint exactly where their fans were following them from, it prompted some awkward conversations between different departments.

The manager’s priority is to prepare his players for the beginning of the season and traveling over several time zones for 10 days or two weeks is often far from ideal. Some managers have enough influence to put their foot down; others will ultimately have to do whatever the club decides.

As is often the case, however, money talks.

“It is a compromise,” Nadal explains. “By definition, the coach in the summer wants a pre-season where they just train, integrate the new players and get ready for the new season. That is in an ideal world.

“(But) after the last 10 years, everybody understands they need to compromise and go somewhere for 10 days.

“They would want good facilities, a good hotel, a training session in the afternoon and three games.

“You start to put together the schedule from a sports point of view. Then you start working out where you can fit in commercial activities. ”

These events could include meet-and-greets between players and supporters, a trip to a kit partner’s store or visiting regional sponsors.

“It is the classic give-and-take that you need to have at a big football club,” continues Nadal. “You are not going to China or the US just to train.”

Barcelona in Miami in 2018 (Photo: Ira L. Black / Corbis via Getty Images)

Hobson recalls handling Arsenal’s pre-season camps when Arsene Wenger was in charge.

For many years, the Frenchman had “carte blanche” over what his side did during the summer, which usually resulted in Arsenal going to a base in Austria which Wenger first selected ahead of the 1997-98 season. As the financial pressure of paying for the club’s move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium grew, however, different decisions began to be taken.

“His compromise was that he would always stand his ground and say the commercial aspect should not impact his pre-season,” says Hobson. “We would do the Austria trip and then two quick games in succession on our way back. We could pick up substantial fees for two games in Germany. We’d do another game in Spain towards the end of pre-season.

“As commercial pressure grew, you then saw Arsenal traveling further afield as the commercial gains were bigger.

“I wouldn’t say Arsene lost control, but it came to the point where they would have to take the money if it meant paying the stadium off and so on. He bought into that. ”

It is not uncommon for clubs which have global partnerships to have a clause inserted into the contract to visit that sponsor’s territory, or at the very least show a willingness to travel there.

This can lead to increased revenue because once that clause is activated, the team can usually expect to receive additional payments from their partner.

In light of the pandemic, the ICC stopped hosting its annual summer tournament and it is thought a new, streamlined version will replace it. No longer will there be 24 teams taking part.

This will undoubtedly continue to attract clubs to the US, especially as the alternative can often be stepping into the unknown if they decide to head elsewhere.

“It is a moment of big responsibility when you think about it,” says Nadal. “You are taking your first team to another country that you don’t know. You don’t know the stadiums, you don’t know the fans.

“Sometimes you would have offers from people that you would not take because the guarantees were not given in terms of facilities and logistics. A big club cannot afford to have a problem in pre-season. ”

Nadal explains how clubs often receive offers from countries that may have questionable human rights records or, at the very least, might lead to uncomfortable questions being asked.

These tend to be the most financially lucrative but are usually not worth taking.

Barcelona’s former head of global partnerships has a golden rule that once a destination for pre-season has been decided, all of the money should be in the club’s account before the players board the flight.

This would normally be 25 per cent on signature, 25 per cent further down the road when the promoter has been able to sell tickets and the final 50 per cent before the airplane takes off.

Some clubs have already started working on next summer’s pre-season tours, with one Premier League side heading overseas before the end of the year to scout training facilities, such is the demand to get a good spot.

And after back-to-back summers where they were unable to travel, it is no surprise that they are trying to make up for lost finances this time around.

(Top photo: David Price / Arsenal FC via Getty Images)


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