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Last Updated: May 20, 2007 - 10:48:48 AM
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Cash flood paying dividends for English Premier League
May 11, 2007 - 3:35:51 PM
There's similar grandeur on offer at Chelsea's Stamford Bridge stadium, too, where business leaders are escorted to their suite by glamorous women in sharp suits.

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[RxPG] London, May 11 - Any guesses for what it takes to be the most successful football league for the world?

Take a look at the English Premier and the answers are galore. Backed by wealthy American investors like Tom Hicks and George Gillet and tapping into a huge fan base all over the world the Premier League clubs have struck gold, according to a report in the latest edition of Time magazine.

The flood of money is paying dividends and three of the four semi-finalists in this year's Champions League are Premier League clubs. With an inflammation of interest among faraway fans in Asia and beyond, the supporters of the league can look forward to 'a much brighter future of growth,' says Hicks.

Teams in English football's top flight notched up around $2.5 billion in revenue last season, almost triple the level of a decade ago, making it the world's richest football league by a country mile.

New owners are piling in: foreign investors have snapped up four clubs in the past year - Liverpool, Portsmouth, Aston Villa and West Ham United - to add to the three which already had non-British owners.

The rush isn't over; in April, Stan Kroenke, owner of the Denver Nuggets basketball team and ice hockey's Colorado Avalanche, increased his stake in Arsenal, of London, to more than 12 per cent.

For Liverpool fans, who celebrating their club's first European Cup for 21 years in 2005, the game was one for the ages. Hicks, who is also the owner of the Dallas Stars ice hockey team and baseball's Texas Rangers, had agreed to buy Liverpool for $430 million with his partner, Gillett, the money behind the Montreal Canadiens hockey franchise.

The Americans duo defeated Dubai International Capital in the take over race. The Dubai group had offered $300 million for the club. The takeover is now complete, and Hicks and Gillett are set to move to the next stage of the deal - building a brand-new arena for the 115-year-old team.

'Liverpool has a history that's at the very top,' says Hicks, who pledges to 'make sure we keep a great thing going great.'

If so, that would be one of the business world's more improbable turnarounds. Less than 20 years ago, English football was known more for radical fans and decrepit stadiums than for the sort of classy crowd that fills the suites at the Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford.

But the question that arise is that how did the local game of the English working class become a global business? And can it stay on top?

Before English football could take over the world, it had to sort itself out.

And just as Liverpool's change of ownership has come to epitomize the state of the Premier League now, so its fortunes two decades ago demonstrated the depths to which the English game had plummeted.

Though a powerhouse on the field - its teams were champions of Europe four times between 1977 and 1984 - Liverpool's fans had a reputation for being a dangerous disgrace. When some of them rioted at the 1985 European final in Brussels, 38 fans of the Italian team Juventus were killed. It would be five years before English teams were allowed to play again in European competitions.

Back home, aging stadiums offered neither comfort nor safety; in 1989, 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death on an over-crowded terrace at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. Financially, too, the game was a mess.

Most top-flight team owners poured money into their local team in the hope of boosting their social standing, not its bottom line. Even Manchester United, English football's most successful team in the last decade, was led through much of the 60s and 70s by an enterprising local butcher.

But the 1990s brought change. The official report into the carnage at Hillsborough mandated that top grounds had to be all seated by mid-1994; the government even offered millions of pounds to help pay for reconstruction.

Out went crumbling terracing; in came safer seating and improved facilities that made fans feel more like spectators than animals. And as the game began rebuilding its domestic appeal, a handful of chairmen with a sharper eye for profits made a bold move.

For years, the top teams had threatened to split from England's four-tier, 120-year-old football league, claiming that with a domestic game in the doldrums and top clubs impotent against Continental opposition, they needed a greater say over their own affairs - and the enhanced broadcast revenue they thought they could win.

In 1992, England's top clubs walked out of the Football League to form the Premier League, a commercially independent alliance able to hammer out its own TV deals on behalf of all its teams. Nobody went short. Sky, a satellite-TV broadcaster that is part of Rupert Murdoch's media empire, forked out around $350 million to air the elite's first five seasons in Britain

The game was transformed. For fans accustomed to the stodgy - albeit free - coverage offered by terrestrial channels, Sky's whizzy stats and graphics brought football up to date, and made it much more entertaining. Fans were treated to fireworks and dancing girls at grounds.

As player salaries have ballooned, talented foreign players have made a beeline for England; there are now more than 300 overseas players on Premier League clubs' books. When the four top teams clashed one weekend in January - Liverpool against Chelsea, and Arsenal against Manchester United - players from 18 different countries, from Togo to Norway and Serbia to Brazil, took to the turf in those two games alone.

Businesses have been booming too. Current league sponsor Barclays Bank recently committed $125 million in a new three-year deal, up 15 per cent from its present agreement.

To see the new face of football, there's no better place than Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United. The ground has been expanded three times in the last 12 years, and now holds 76,000 compared with just 44,000 in the early 1990s.

There are two-dozen suites hosting between 44 and 700 on a match day, and 164 boxes, costing between $34,000 and $300,000 each for a season. There's fine dining - you can get smoked halibut and quails' eggs with caviar in the Gallery. Even the canvasses on the restaurant's walls are up for sale.

There's similar grandeur on offer at Chelsea's Stamford Bridge stadium, too, where business leaders are escorted to their suite by glamorous women in sharp suits.

For all its success at home, it is the Premiership's global reach that sets it apart from other sports leagues, the magazine concluded.

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