Sport Premier League

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Relief at Suarez departure shows image is everything

Published 18/08/2014 | 02:30

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Luis Suarez during a training session with Barcelona
Luis Suarez during a training session with Barcelona

What is the image of a rebel?" asked the Canon television advertisement before, in the next 30 seconds, Andre Agassi confirmed every suspicion that was then held about him as, among other things, he whipped his shirt off before throwing it towards the camera, lay in a pair of pink shorts and rubbed his hand through his mullet as he drove in an open-topped jeep.

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"Image," said Agassi earnestly as he pulled down the sunglasses just far enough to reveal his eyes, "is everything."

"Overnight the slogan becomes synonymous with me," wrote Agassi two decades later in his autobiography. "Sportswriters say I have no substance, because I haven't won a Slam. They say the slogan is proof that I'm a pitchman, trading on my fame, caring only about money and nothing about tennis."

Had Agassi not subsequently won eight Grand Slams while also finishing a season as world No 1, two years after being ranked 110, "image is everything" would have been his epitaph. It was doing things, rather than trying to look good doing them, which proved his greatness.

Last week, the Premier League chief executive accused Luis Suarez of damaging the Premier League brand by his actions at the World Cup and receiving his third suspension for biting. If there was ever an insight into the mind of a marketing man in a football world, this was it.

"I can't say I'm sorry to see him go," said Scudamore. "If you spend your time trying to promote what's good about the Premier League, you're always waiting for the next thing to come along.

Accident

"Probably the time had come. . . He's a great player but an accident waiting to happen and this one in the summer, although it was with Uruguay, although it didn't directly involve the Premier League, clearly it reflected on Liverpool as one of our great clubs. And it reflected on us."

The advertising writers at Canon couldn't have put it any better.

Then, in defending the Premier League's ability to attract the world's best players by comparison to Spain, Scudamore chose to reference a man who made the money of the world's greatest players without ever being anywhere near them.

"We lost David Beckham as well, remember," said Scudamore. "Economically we've got 20 of the world's top 50 clubs now. And that to me is more important in many ways, that the matches are competitive. We've got enough stars, and we don't need absolutely every world megastar name to make this a successful league."

It's a slightly cheap shot to compare but while biting opponents certainly isn't a good example, neither is sending sexist emails, albeit not meant for public consumption, as Scudamore did several months ago but which he considered not to be a resigning offence.

The Premier League clubs, too, felt his previously unblemished record and sincere apology was enough that he shouldn't be sanctioned and so, other than embarrassment, there was no harm done. Not a mention about the image of the Premier League anywhere.

On Saturday, the league began with its usual mix of faux controversies, dreadful defending and excitement and, presumably to Scudamore's delight, a batch of competitive games between economically sound teams, who will remain in that state so long as they don't get relegated or their owners don't decide they want their money back.

The fact that several of these economically sound teams were charging exorbitant prices to fans or basing match attendances on tickets sold rather than people who actually attended is unlikely to have bothered him or the marketing men too much.

Figures released last week showed that Arsenal's average attendance - as counted by the Metropolitan Police Service who monitor the number of people actually at the game rather than tickets sold - was 53,788, which is still impressive but isn't quite as good for the image as announcing "sold out" at a 60,000-seater stadium.

So long as tens of millions in Asia, Australia, United States and everywhere else in the world are tuning in and ensuring that the next television deal is worth billions, who cares if the cheapest ticket for non-West Ham members to watch them play Tottenham comes in just over €68?

From a purely entertainment point of view the fans at Upton Park got their money's worth - two red cards, controversy and an injury-time winner from a debutant - but then, with the prices that supporters are expected to pay, those in charge of the Premier League have long forgotten that their brand is meant to be about an actual sport rather than a WWE-style sports entertainment.

It's understandable if supporters of clubs other than Liverpool were happy to see Suarez leave but, even for love of the game which may have long-since been buried, there ought to be an element of sadness.

Not so for those in charge, however, who could happily hear the sounds of televisions around the world being turned on and turnstiles whirring with hundreds of thousands of people safe in the knowledge that there might not be many great players on show but, sure, nobody would be bitten.

For the image, apparently, it's better that way.

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