Eyebrows were raised when Thai energy drink Carabao were announced as the new sponsors of the League Cup ahead of the 2017/18 season. Cup sponsorship is nothing new, and the American credit card company Capital One had previously backed the competition, however more than a few cynics saw the deal as another roll of the dice to attract interest in the English game from the Asian market. Pre-season tours to Asia are now commonplace among Premier League teams, and a host of clubs have attracted buyers from the Far East, not to mention the absurd sums of money that Chinese clubs have paid for some very average players. These lucrative deals are extremely advantageous to those at the top end of the English football pyramid, but what does this latest piece of outsourcing – and the ludicrous 4.30am cup draws that go along with it – say about The Football League’s attitude to clubs further down the pyramid?
“The EFL Cup embodies the very essence of British football consciousness”, the statement from Pairoj Piempongsant, chairman of Intercarabao, following the announcement of Carabao’s sponsorship deal with the EFL Cup last November showed at the very least a good understanding of completely meaningless corporate tosh. Following last season’s sponsorless competition – part of the EFL’s rebrand where they proudly trumpeted their independence – an £18m deal was agreed with Carabao to sponsor the trophy until 2020. The deal is seen to be beneficial for both parties, with Carabao keen to break into a UK market that’s worth nearly £2bn, and the EFL looking to raise their profile in the Far East.
The League Cup has been much maligned for the best part of twenty years and striking this deal with a fledgling presence in the UK market could be better business from the EFL than it first looks. Given that the majority of Premier League teams use the competition as means to give their reserve and youth players first team experience, certainly until the latter stages when a cup final and guaranteed European place appear on the horizon, there have been murmurs in recent seasons to scrap it completely. To secure £18m for the competition, along with a cut of the £600m TV deal that the EFL recently agreed with Sky, gives a renewed sense of worth, particularly for clubs in the lower leagues for whom the prize money is a welcome financial incentive. Or so you’d think.
The prize money for the League Cup is comparatively paltry. Teams that enter in the first round – all 24 in Leagues One and Two and 22 teams from the Championship – are fighting it out to win £5,000 for securing a second round place. It should be noted that the prize money under Capital One’s sponsorship was exactly the same. By comparison, teams competing in the first round of the FA Cup – sponsored by Emirates in a deal worth £30m a season – will earn £18,000 for securing their place in the following round. For a team to earn anywhere near this in the Carabao Cup, they’ll have to reach the Quarter Final, where the prize money still falls short at £15,000. The total prize money for the competition is less than £1,000,000 – compared to the near £13.5m the FA cup dishes out to its entrants.
Though perhaps to focus on prize money misses the point. The grand history of cup competitions is built on those special moments, where David ousts Goliath on a boggy Yorkshire pitch in freezing temperatures. Bradford City’s run to the 2013 final included a memorable victory on penalties against an Arsenal that you could hardly describe as under strength. On the flipside of that, a year later MK Dons secured the most famous result in their long and illustrious history by beating Manchester United 4-0, an incredible feat until you looked at the visitors line-up. David De Gea aside, none of the starting XI that night are still at Old Trafford, and only a handful of others ply their trade in the Premier League. Conversely MK had Dele Alli, Benik Afobe and Will Grigg to call on to secure the victory.
Indeed, the ‘Big’ teams that entered the competition at the third round stage this season named largely second XIs, with the likes of Alexadre Lacazette, Alvaro Morata and Romelu Lukaku given the night off. Chelsea gave a substitute debut to 17 year-old Ethan Ampadu, Manchester City fielded Fabian Delph at right-back, and Arsenal even had the audacity to put David Ospina in goal. After watching his team sweep aside Burton Albion, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho was quick to deem the trophy – part of the historic treble during his first season in Manchester – a dying duck: “If you ask me could the English football survive or even be better without this competition? Maybe. Maybe we would be fresher for European competitions, for example.”
But its not the lack of prize money or the lack of big team interest that has courted controversy from the League Cup rebrand, but rather the lack of respect afforded to fans. The first round draw took place in Thailand at 1pm, and was streamed live on Facebook. So far, so very modern. The shambles of the live feed – in which the sound cut out, the graphics showed Charlton Athletic drawn twice, and then the feed crashed – was met with much eye-rolling amusement. The second round draw, this time held in England, threw up more complications as Brexiteer John Salako and ex-Football Manager impersonator Alex McLeish combined to completely balls up the draw and leave many fans unsure of whether their teams were playing at home or away. Charlton’s manager Karl Robinson was quick to criticise the farcical circumstances surrounding both draws “If they want me to start taking the cup seriously then it needs to be done right because we’ve been stitched up in two draws.”
It was the third round draw, however, that attracted the most ire. It was announced the draw would take place at 11.15am local time on Thursday 24th August in Beijing, the time difference meaning that fans of Doncaster Rovers and Barnsley in England would need to be up at 4.15am to watch the draw live. The EFL’s defence of the decision was that it was part of their plan to “use the growing global appeal of the competition to reach new audiences”. Quite where they’ve unearthed this growing appeal is a mystery, given that the average attendance from the first two rounds was a shade over 7,000 and increased to under 10,500 after the third round despite ties being held at Stamford Bridge, the Emirates, Old Trafford and Wembley chuffing Stadium – a sign that the competition doesn’t hold a great amount of appeal in its home country, let alone across the other side of the world. It also seems unlikely that swathes of fans from the Far East were popping over to boost the gate receipts at the Madjeski for Reading vs. Swansea. The fact the draw wasn’t actually broadcast in China, just via Facebook (a site blacklisted across the country) casts further doubt over the claims that it was anything other than a PR exercise in order to garner investor interest in Asia.
Unsurprisingly, the decision to hold the draw in the small hours didn’t sit well with the Football Supporters Federation, and smacked of yet another instance of cash-rich markets taking priority over followers of small clubs. Following a survey carried out by the FSF which found fans increasingly frustrated at being sidelined for overseas interest, a spokesman for the organisation surmised that “Holding the draw in Beijing at that time can only increase the sense of disconnection many domestic fans feel.”
The fourth round draw was again held in London, but presumably we’ll be heading back to Asia come the Quarter-Finals, the EFL beholden to their paymasters as another chunk of English football’s soul is sold off to the highest bidder. Surely its only a matter of time before The Football League realise that this competition requires a serious revamp in order to breathe new life into it, rather than taking it to the other side of the world and inviting businessmen to slip ¥1000 notes down its knickers.
Accrington Stanley v Yeovil Town in Doha, anyone?