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Too much football risks burnout for fans and broadcasters

Spare a thought for Joe Aribo. In the 2021-22 football season, the midfielder played 70 competitive matches. Of those, 57 were for his then club team, Glasgow Rangers, and 13 in the green shirt of Nigeria’s national side. He spent more than 5,500 minutes on the pitch, according to Transfermarkt.Aribo is just one of many players at the sharp end of a push to give broadcasters more content to sell. England captain Harry Kane stepped on to the pitch 52 times last season, while Vinicius Junior of Brazil and Real Madrid played 53 matches. Coaches complain about burnout and the risk of serious injury from playing too much. But as the owners of broadcasting rights make the most of football’s growing global fan base, the approach taken by Fifa and Uefa — who run the international and European games respectively — is simple: more is more. European club competitions are set to expand from 2024 onwards, with the number of teams qualifying for the lucrative Champions League rising from 32 to 36, adding 64 matches. Fifa is doing the same with the World Cup, by far its biggest money-spinner. The competition hosted in 2026 by the US, Canada and Mexico will start with 48 teams, instead of the 32 set to kick-off next month in Qatar. Fifa has also toyed with holding the competition every two years instead of four, and wants a slice of the club game too. Rising demands on players and viewers is fuelling an argument put forward this week by those still involved in the European Super League, a stalled project to set up a breakaway league for elite teams, that there is too much football, and more to the point, too much boring football that nobody cares about.In a speech last Sunday, Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez — the driving force behind the ESL — made the case that this overload is alienating fans and lowering the commercial value of the world’s most popular sport, “increasing the number of inconsequential matches to the detriment of the sport itself, the players and overall interest”.He has a point. The two sports that dominate when it comes to broadcast value per game, NFL and Indian Premier League cricket, have made scarcity and consequence cornerstones of their appeal. The NFL season consists of 272 matches in total, yet generates $10bn a year in domestic broadcast revenue. The Indian Premier League tournament has just 74 matches a season, but was able to sell its rights for more than $1.2bn a year at auction this year. The contrast with football is stark. The English Premier League needs to hold about 800 matches, or two years’ worth, to match the NFL’s annual income. Meanwhile, the total number of games across Europe’s big five leagues and continent-wide competitions tops 2,000 — and that’s before domestic cups and the women’s game, which is increasingly breaking through to the mainstream.Not all matches are created equal. Under the terms of its recent UK broadcast deal with Uefa, Amazon will pay almost £9mn per game to show 17 Champions League matches in the primetime Tuesday night slot, starting in 2024. That compares with less than £600,000 per match under BT Sport’s deal for the remaining 533 European club fixtures over the same period. Neither does higher volume equate to higher value. Overall, BT will pay £305mn a year to show these matches, compared with £400mn a year for just over 400 games under its last broadcasting deal. Meanwhile, customers must keep paying more to stay in the game. A UK football fan keen to follow their team at home and in Europe now needs a subscription to Sky Sports, BT Sport and Amazon — totalling about £800 a year — a tough sell when energy bills and mortgage payments are soaring.With yet more football on the way for both broadcasters and consumers, it’s not just players like Aribo at risk of serious fatigue.

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