Video game helps English Premier League grapple with Brexit
LONDON (AP) — Stepping away from his team of programmers, Miles Jacobson moves into a chair upholstered with a jersey from Premier League team Watford to talk — like so much of the country — about Brexit.
Britain’s political and sporting obsessions collide at 11 p.m. (2300 GMT) on Friday at the point of departure from the European Union and the closing of the January transfer window for Premier League clubs.
As the deadlines approach, the two issues are intrinsically linked at work for Jacobson, who runs the Football Manager game that sells millions of copies each year.
“Those who don’t use our data,” Jacobson says, “probably think of us as a little computer game.”
But the Sports Interactive operation produces so much more than a game to indulge football obsessives adopting the role of a manager building squads and making adjustments based on simulations of seasons.
The data gathered on players by more 1,000 scouts in over 50 countries is claimed to be the most comprehensive in soccer. It’s not only used by clubs chasing information before recruiting players — particularly on the biannual trading deadline days — but to help figure out the shape of the Premier League after Brexit. That is shrouded in so much uncertainty as the Premier League and Football Association, with their differing agendas, remain at loggerheads over how to deal with the likely end of free movement of workers across Europe.
Various post-Brexit scenarios have been placed into the game in the wake of the 2016 EU referendum to assess outcomes of a political decision on the national sport.
“We gathered data anonymously and then look through to see what’s been good, and what hasn’t been great, for English and British football as a whole,” Jacobson told The Associated Press. “People might find this surprising, but we’ve used this data quite extensively. We have presented the data to government ... (and) to football organizations about this. We’re very, very free sharing when it comes to this kind of data because we like to be able to show it to people and let them take their own conclusions from it.”
The English Football Association, which runs the national team, hopes more homegrown players get game-time in the Premier League after Brexit. But the Premier League wants to protect its status as the world’s richest soccer competition with teams able to sign talent freely from across Europe without work permit restrictions already in place for non-EU players.
Players from the top 50 FIFA nations are considered for work permits, with a sliding scale of previous games required. The FA has been trying unsuccessfully for more than a year to persuade the Premier League to accept a system where clubs would be allowed to sign whoever they want from abroad but only be allowed up to 13 non-homegrown players in squads.
There is still time for the footballing authorities to present their plans to the government. Although Britain’s EU membership ends after 47 years on Friday, the country will remain part of the single market during a transition period until the end of the year.
Unless the impasse between the English governing body and its top league, the eligibility requirements currently only applied to any non-EU player could dictate whether work permits are handed out to Premier League players from the 2021 January transfer window. Such criteria would not have been met by several current stars of the league, including Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kante, who helped Leicester lift the trophy in 2016 after being signed the previous year from a French second-division team.
Sports Interactive is apolitical as a company but the simulations show the pitfalls of quotas. Jacobson believes the best homegrown talent could be snapped up by the wealthiest clubs, but not necessarily feature in first teams regularly.
“It would hurt the quality of the league,” Jacobson said. “If we do stick to the current work permit system but make it global rather than for non-EU, over time and you’re looking at five to 10 years, the interest in the Premier League does drop, which means the revenue coming in drops.”
No other domestic competition generates more cash from foreign broadcasters than the Premier League, which produced a revenue rise of 35% to 4.2 billion pounds ($5.4 billion) in the 2019-2022 cycle.
“If interest drops and the revenue drops, that could leave clubs in serious trouble,” Jacobson said, “because they might still have players on long term contracts and all of a sudden the TV money isn’t as high as it has been. That’s going to cause ripple effects throughout the sport.”