Premier League's international appeal faces pandemic test
When the 100 day-wait for Premier League football comes to an end on Wednesday, the anticipation will be felt as keenly in Mumbai and Beijing as in Manchester and Birmingham.
The global reach of the English top-flight has helped secure its position as the wealthiest league in world football.
The Premier League's overseas television rights deals for the 2019-2022 three-season cycle hit a record £4.2 billion ($5.3 billion) and another £2 billion deal has already been struck for Scandinavian rights between 2022 and 2028.
That income will be all the more welcome, with uncertainty over when supporters will be allowed back into stadiums and commercial revenues expected to tumble in a global economic crisis.
However, without the atmosphere generated by paying fans, the Premier League's appeal may be diminished in football's new normal.
"What makes it special in England is the way people react to the game," former Arsenal manager and FIFA's chief of global football development Arsene Wenger told The Athletic.
"It is the best country in the world for the way the fans respond to what’s happening on the pitch. That's why I think it will be the most handicapped championship without that."
The need to cram the remaining 92 games of the season into a five-and-a-half week window also means many more midweek games with evening kick-offs in England, forcing fans in the Far East to tune in during the early hours.
Overseas broadcasters will be compensated with a reported £107 million rebate due to the change in scheduling.
However, the excitement over the Premier League's return endures, particularly among the huge number of Liverpool fans, many of whom are awaiting a first league title in their lifetimes.
Jurgen Klopp's men are just two wins away from being crowned champions of England for the first time in 30 years.
Hu Zhifei, a 26-year-old journalist and member of Liverpool's official fan club in Beijing, had planned a trip to see his heroes in action in February that was cancelled due to the global pandemic.
"Nobody is anticipating the league's restart more than Liverpool fans because we are within two wins of the title," said Hu, who will tune in to watch the Reds via internet streaming despite kick-offs in the early hours.
Excitement is also building in India, where the Premier League has built up a strong following among urban youth in a traditionally cricket-obsessed nation.
"Finally I'll watch some live EPL action. I have already chalked out a schedule for these matches," Qazi Ahmad Masood, a 17-year-old student, told AFP. "I would love to see my favourite club Liverpool lift the trophy."
'Fast and exciting'
One of the difficulties that lies ahead for the Premier League's brand will be to maintain the intensity of competition on the field in echoing, empty stadiums.
"The Premier League is fast and exciting and no matter whether it is a strong or weak team, the games are great to watch," said Hu.
Fans watching at home will be offered pre-recorded fan noise dubbed over the action to compensate for the real thing.
"There is something about the legend that is English football that is all about noise and atmosphere and proximity," Simon Chadwick, director of Eurasian sport at Emlyon Business School in France told AFP.
"That spectacle, the product, the noise, the atmosphere, the experience won't necessarily be there."
However, by overcoming a series of obstacles just to get back playing in the country that is the worst-hit by the pandemic in Europe, the Premier League is confident it will not lose ground in the long run against the Bundesliga, La Liga or Serie A in the battle for viewers across the globe.
"We know it won't be the same without our loyal supporters in stadiums but, together with our broadcast partners, we are able to ensure fans can watch or listen to each match live from home," said the Premier League's chief executive Richard Masters.
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Ben Stansall