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In a rich league of its own
FOOTBALL is by far the No 1 sport in Singapore, but these days you aren't likely to see people turning up in droves to catch a local S.League match. Every week from August to May each year, most football fans will probably be at their favourite neighbourhood pub, a restaurant in the heart of town, or at home in front of a big-screen TV, tuning in to the "live" action from the wildly popular English Premier League (EPL).
It doesn't really matter if the games kick off at 7.30pm or 10pm on a Saturday evening or the ungodly hour of 2.45am on a Thursday morning. Despite the time difference between Singapore and the UK, there are scores of fans who faithfully follow the fortunes of their favourite clubs, be it the top dogs like Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool, or less-glamorous teams such as Southampton, West Ham and Stoke City.
Wherever there are crowds, the chances are pretty high that you'll spot people young and old wearing their team's latest replica jerseys, which typically cost about S$100 each and much more if they have a player's name and number printed on the back.
The popularity and appeal of the EPL isn't confined to Singapore, of course. This level of fanaticism is commonplace all around the world - from Melbourne to Texas, Shanghai to Oslo.
The EPL - founded 25 years ago in February 1992 as the top tier of the English football league system - is arguably the most popular, most watched, and most entertaining league in the world by a mile.
These days, the EPL is more than just about the sport of football. It's a global brand that's worth billions of dollars, with its already astronomical value going up each time the lucrative television rights are up for renewal.
The numbers are staggering, to put it mildly. In any given EPL season, 20 teams play a total of 380 matches at some of the world's most famous stadiums, like Old Trafford (Manchester United), Anfield (Liverpool), Emirates Stadium (Arsenal) and Stamford Bridge (Chelsea).
More than 13.6 million spectators passed through the turnstiles at the various stadiums during the 2016/17 season, which ended in mid-May with a dominant Chelsea side winning the coveted trophy for the fifth time in 12 years.
The EPL is now carried by 80 broadcasters in 212 territories worldwide, and an average game is watched by well over 12 million people, which far outstrips what the other top European leagues in Spain (La Liga), Germany (Bundesliga) and Italy (Serie A) can draw.
Unless you're content with watching a grainy, sometimes choppy feed on an illegal streaming website or on Facebook, fans in Singapore have to fork out a pretty penny to catch EPL matches on cable TV.
Subscription costs have gone up substantially over the past decade or so. Pay-TV operator Singtel currently holds the broadcast rights for the EPL after winning them from StarHub back in 2009.
Singtel holds the exclusive rights for a three-season period that began in August 2016 and runs until May 2019. Singtel has been showing EPL matches in Singapore since the start of the 2010/11 season. The previous rights holder was StarHub, which had been screening the games since 1997.
As recently as 2013, Singtel offered the EPL together with other sports content for S$34.90 a month. Before this latest three-season renewal, the EPL package (named mio Stadium+) used to cost S$59.90 a month, but that has since gone up to S$64.90 a month for a one-year contract under the existing deal.
While Singtel is the rights holder, the laws in Singapore require it to share the exclusive content. The EPL is made available to other pay-TV subscribers under the government's cross-carriage measure, including those of rival StarHub.
The cross-carriage measure requires exclusive content, such as the EPL, acquired on or after March 12, 2010, to be made available to other pay-TV subscribers.
The higher fees are partly due to the soaring costs of the EPL's TV rights deals. The latest three-year contract, which kicked in last year, saw Sky Sports and BT Sport paying an eye-popping £5.14 billion (S$9.21 billion) between them, and that's just for the domestic rights in the UK.
As a result, EPL clubs found themselves raking in the cash as they shared a windfall of more than £8.3 billion from the new broadcast contracts, a 50 per cent surge from what they earned in the previous three-year deal.
The clubs' winnings aren't too shabby either. Reigning champions Chelsea reportedly took home £151 million for coming in first, and even Sunderland - the team that finished rock-bottom of the table and were relegated to the next lower division - scooped up a cool £93 million before bidding the top flight goodbye.
For the 2015/16 season, the EPL's revenues rose to a record £3.6 billion, and this is projected to have increased to £4.5 billion in 2016/17.
Each of the 20 clubs generated more on average than the entire top division of 22 clubs did in total in the EPL's first season in 1992/93, while commercial revenues exceeded £1 billion for the first time in the league's history.
Overall, the EPL is the world's richest football league, with its clubs collectively earning about two billion euros (S$3.2 billion) more than those in Europe's second richest, the Bundesliga, according to a review of football finances by Deloitte.
With takings on the up and up, the clubs' spending has also ballooned. As far as their spending on new players is concerned, EPL clubs have already lavished more than £850 million in the current summer transfer window and are on course to break their record, according to the latest data released by website Sporting Intelligence.
With nearly four weeks to go before the close of transfer business on Aug 31, EPL clubs are once again the heaviest spenders in Europe and will likely top the £1.17 billion they spent last summer.
Manchester City have spent the most so far, with £188 million on six new players. Their city rivals Manchester United have splashed £145.8 million on three players, while Chelsea - owned by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich - have dished out in excess of £130 million.
Even the three teams newly promoted to the EPL have strengthened their squads in their attempt to ensure a prolonged stay in the top flight. Huddersfield Town have spent £36.4 million, beating Newcastle United's £31.2 million and Brighton and Hove Albion's £13.3 million.
The wages that these players command are mind-boggling, to say the least. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedish striker who played for Manchester United last season, reportedly earned £367,600 a week - that works out to just over £19 million in his year at Old Trafford.
That is more than the £290,000 that the Red Devils currently pay to Paul Pogba, who, until this week, was the world's most expensive player following a £89.3 million transfer from Italian side Juventus. That distinction is now owned by Brazilian striker Neymar, who on Thursday completed a world-record 222 million euro transfer from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain.
Even Leicester City, the modest club that won the EPL for the first time in May 2016, had to pay big bucks to hang on to their star players Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez - the duo signed new four-year contracts last year with weekly salaries of £80,000 and £55,000 respectively.
As businesses, the EPL's biggest names are now worth billions. Top of the heap is Manchester United, a team that was founded in 1878 and claims to have a global support base of 659 million. A report by professional services firm KPMG released in May this year ranked the Red Devils - the most successful team in England with 20 league titles - as Europe's most valuable club.
The report studied the finances of 39 clubs based on their popularity on social media, revenues for the 2014/15 and 2015/16 seasons, and success in European football competitions. The clubs were then ranked by enterprise value, an accounting measure used to assess how much it would cost to buy any given club or company as it includes a business's total debt. KPMG also used its own formula to arrive at these valuations.
Manchester United became the first club to break the threshold of three billion euros for enterprise value, taking the Red Devils clear of Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona. In all, six of the top 10 teams on the KPMG list are from the EPL, the others being Manchester City (fifth), Arsenal (sixth), Chelsea (seventh), Liverpool (eighth) and Tottenham Hotspur (10th).
"In terms of media rights value, the EPL sits comfortably at the top of European leagues, although other major leagues have outlined well-defined strategies to compete for the attention of global fans," said KPMG's global head of sports Andrea Sartori.
Manchester United was also recently named the world's most valuable football club by Forbes for the first time in five years. The Red Devils, which won the League Cup and Europa League last season and finished sixth in the EPL, were valued at US$3.69 billion, again putting Barcelona (US$3.64 billion) and Real Madrid (US$3.58 billion) in the shade.
For the 2015/16 season, Manchester United generated revenues of US$765 million. The most profitable club in the world posted operating income of US$288 million. In May, Manchester United announced projected full-year revenues of between £560 million and £570 million, and revealed that their expected profits could exceed their current record of £191.9 million.
The club currently has 26 global sponsorship deals, including with Adidas, Chevrolet, 20th Century Fox and Uber, as well as 10 regional sponsorship deals and 28 other media and financial sponsors.
Back in 2008, there was talk of the EPL organising a so-called "Game 39" - an international round of fixtures between EPL teams to be played on the same weekend at venues around the world.
It was estimated that as much as £80 million would be generated every season due to this initiative. But the idea never gained enough traction to take off. Fans weren't too keen on it, and neither was football's world governing body Fifa.
However, this has not stopped English teams from cashing in on the popularity of the competition abroad. Pre-season friendly games, usually in July once all the players and managers have returned from their summer vacations, have turned into money-spinning international tours, with North America and Asia being the most popular destinations.
Every two years, the Premier League Asia Trophy is contested between three EPL teams and a representative from Asia. Singapore hosted the 2015 edition that featured Arsenal, Everton and Stoke City, and this year's tournament in Hong Kong was the first to include four teams - Liverpool, Leicester City, Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion.
A little over a week ago, Chelsea came to Singapore as one of three European teams taking part in the International Champions Cup tournament at the Sports Hub. The Blues brought a full-strength team to the Lion City that included Alvaro Morata, the Spanish striker who arrived from Real Madrid after a £65 million transfer.
Tottenham and Manchester United have played a series of games across the US, while Arsenal racked up the air miles with trips to Australia and China. Everton, a club that's on track to take their summer transfer spending to over £200 million, met fans and played friendlies in Tanzania, Belgium and the Netherlands.
With the pre-season travels done, the focus now shifts to the start of a brand new season on Aug 11. The first of 380 matches takes place in North London as Arsenal host Leicester at their 60,000-seater Emirates Stadium. The game kicks off at the not-so-friendly time of 2.45am here in Singapore, but you can bet your bottom dollar that their fanatical fans will be wide awake at that hour to cheer their team on.
Twenty-five years on, the pull and allure of England's top football division shows no signs of waning. No matter which way you look at it, the EPL is well and truly in a league of its own.