A new report highlights the economic and social impact of the Premier League and its clubs to the UK. Alistair MacDonald, British Council Senior Policy Analyst, explores the role of the Premier League in the UK’s soft power.

A Premier League British icon

The figures in a new report by Ernst and Young LLP for the Premier League are startling: the authors estimate the League’s contribution to UK GDP to be £7.6 billion, with the combined total employment impact of the League and individual clubs standing as the equivalent of almost 100,000 full-time jobs. 

The figures in a new report by Ernst and Young LLP for the Premier League are startling: the authors estimate the League’s contribution to UK GDP to be £7.6 billion

Internationally, fully 188 countries receive Premier League football broadcasts, making it the market leader in terms of global reach and engagement.  The scale of the Premier League’s contribution to the UK’s image internationally can be seen in the data on broadcasting exports. In 2016/17 the League accounted for broadcast exports of £1.1 billion, surpassing the £0.9 billion total achieved by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky and the independent sector combined. On those figures it is clear that Premier League Football has far greater cultural penetration than popular international exports like Downton Abbey and the Great British Bake Off. The export data also reveals that Premier League football is more popular internationally than the other European football leagues and the North American sports leagues - the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL.

Pre-season tournaments, fan events, social media, sponsorship deals, and participation in programmes like the UK Government’s GREAT campaign and Premier Skills (its partnership with the British Council), have all served to raise brand awareness and enhance the appeal of UK football and, by association, the UK itself. Premier Skills for example currently operates in 19 countries across Asia, Africa and the Americas from Afghanistan to Zambia. To date, 20,027 coaches and referees have reached more than 1.6 million children and young people around the world. The League also partners with organisations such as the Asian Football Confederation, Indian Super League and Chinese Super League to share best practice on its operations and development to help improve local standards in all areas of the game.

Russia and future hosts Qatar have recognised that football matters for soft power - that it can shape perceptions and change behaviours

As the 2018 FIFA World Cup proved, football has a universal appeal. These days even the Americans are finally coming around to the joys of soccer. Watched and loved by millions of fans around the world, the tournament was a soft power success for hosts Russia who successfully projected a very different image of the country to that usually seen in international media. In bidding for the tournament, Russia and future hosts Qatar have recognised that football matters for soft power - that it can shape perceptions and change behaviours. 

The soft power of sport

Brands like the Premier League are essential to the international image of the UK. Cultural icons, whether it’s Harry Potter or the Rolling Stones, Rolls Royce or Liverpool F.C., all contribute hugely to the attractiveness of the UK, drawing tourists, students, and business investment to the country. But sport has a particular value to a country’s attractiveness, crossing the boundaries created by language, cultural differences and cost that can otherwise serve as barriers to engagement. 

The soft power value of sport should not be underestimated. Research commissioned by the British Council has found that sport is particularly important to the UK’s attractiveness as a place to visit, do business/trade, and want to engage with the arts and culture. Perhaps surprisingly, the UK’s world leading sports teams and events were identified as the leading driver for intention to do business with the country. 

Man City and Man Utd are recognised as Manchester’s leading brands and as vitally important to the promotion of the city as a place to live, study, visit and invest. Hosting football royalty matters. It impacts on the city’s economy and, less obviously, its influence. From Singapore to Lilongwe to Mexico City, there are people around the world who have come to know and love Manchester through their support for one of the derby rivals. Football puts Manchester on the map, it makes people think of the city as an attractive destination, but it also causes them to look to Manchester’s civic leaders for ideas in how to emulate the city’s success. 

In the past soft power has been seen as basically being about having cool stuff that other people want. This is the soft power of iPhones and Levi’s and Coke, attractiveness as a phenomenon born of prosperity and the trappings of success. People are naturally attracted to popularity, success, and excellence. The international appeal of the Premier League can be seen through this lens as sitting alongside Apple and other global super brands. After all it did come top in the British Icon Index published last summer. Yet despite having its own league tables, soft power is concerned with so much more than trophies. It is values rather than trinkets that are at the heart of soft power. Countries like the UK, Canada, and Australia are seen as the most attractive and trusted by the peoples of the world because of their values - their political freedoms, civil rights, and respect for justice and fairness, both domestically and internationally.

Premier League football is the perfect vehicle for broadcasting to the world the values the UK holds dear. Football is a game of fair play governed by rules but also by trust and sportsmanship. Success comes through talent, ambition, hard graft, and team work rather than privilege. The player base is fantastically diverse, embraces difference, and is outward-looking and international. It is also the most international league in the world, 108 of the 736 players selected by the competing national teams at the World Cup were Premier League players, 38% more than their nearest international rival, Spain’s La Liga. The fans come in every shape and size, young and old, gay, straight, or +. They can be found anywhere in the world, but all are brought together through their love of their club and the sheer joy of the beautiful game. The Rainbow Laces campaign is a reflection of the Premier League’s awareness of its national and international profile and the responsibility that places upon it. Football is for everyone.

The Ernst and Young report reveals the Premier League and its clubs make a significant, direct contribution to the UK’s GDP and supports thousands of jobs, but their role in the UK’s soft power is perhaps even more important. Premier League football plays an essential role in shaping perceptions of the UK, in attracting people to come to visit, study, live and do business in Manchester, Leicester, Cardiff, and other towns and cities up and down the country. The League and its clubs exemplify the best of the people of the UK, showing the world the UK is a modern, diverse, outward-looking country of opportunity, fair play - and really cool stuff.