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KEVIN BAXTER / ON SOCCER

Stakes are raised in English soccer this weekend

Relegation Sunday sees the crowning of a champion in the Premier League and relegates three to English soccer purgatory — all on live TV in the U.S. for the first time.

May 05, 2012|By Kevin Baxter
  • Manchester City fans celebrate after a victory over Manchester United last week put them in position to win their first Premier League title since 1968.
Manchester City fans celebrate after a victory over Manchester United… (Matt Dunham / Associated…)

As a die-hard Arsenal fan growing up in north London, and later as a standout defender for three English Premier League teams, Warren Barton learned to look forward to the final day of the Premier League season with equal parts fear and joy.

On no other day in no other sport is there more on the line than on English soccer's Relegation Sunday. It's the day when the Barclays Premier League champion is crowned, when four teams qualify for the UEFA Champions League and at least one other goes on to the UEFA Europa League. But it's also the day the three teams at the bottom of the standings are relegated to the second-tier Championship league, the purgatory of English soccer, while the top three Championship league teams get promoted to the Premier League.

"I've definitely seen a lot of tears," Barton says. "As much as it's exciting and thrilling, it's also very nerve-racking and disappointing. But it's what makes this game so special."

And May 13, for the first time, fans will be able to watch it all unfold live when nine Fox-owned properties — including cable channels Fuel TV and Speed along with the usual suspects Fox Soccer, Fox Soccer Plus and digital platforms FOXSoccer.com and FOX Soccer 2Go — join with ESPN to show all 10 Premier League games in their entirety.

"It's a huge challenge, and it's something that we're very proud to be taking on," says Barton who, as a studio analyst for Fox Soccer, will be part of the broadcast team.

"On this day," adds David Nathanson, general manager of Fox Soccer, "everything changes."

The chase for the Barclay's Premier League title has come down to Manchester City and Manchester United with a week left to play. But entering the penultimate weekend's vital clashes, four teams — Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Newcastle — were still in the hunt for two remaining invitations to play in the lucrative Champions League. While at the bottom, four teams began Saturday separated by just three points in the game of musical chairs to avoid relegation.

And that battle at the bottom of the table is arguably more important than the one at the top, given that expulsion from the Premier League can cost a team tens of millions of dollars.

"Obviously their ticket sales go down. Sponsorship goes down. TV money," Barton says. "And then obviously the city itself loses money. The likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham are not [coming to] town. So it can be very disheartening for everybody, including the local community."

Relegation Sunday, which Fox calls "Survival Sunday," is a uniquely English event — although in terms of excitement and suspense, it is reminiscent of the final day of the 2011 baseball season when the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves were eliminated from the playoffs on the final pitches of their seasons while the Tampa Bay Rays advanced to the postseason on a walk-off home run.

All those games ended within minutes of one another, which is another dramatic element the Premier League has built in: Relegation Sunday is the only day of the season that all 20 teams kick off at the same time, the better to avoid any untoward shenanigans.

The major difference between the Premier League and baseball, though, is that after their lousy 2011 seasons, the Houston Astros, Minnesota Twins and Seattle Mariners weren't sent to the minor leagues.

Late in his career, Barton, at one time the most expensive defender in English football, went from Champions League qualifier Newcastle to Derby County, which was fighting unsuccessfully to avoid relegation. It wasn't a pleasant experience.

"It's very difficult to get over," he says. "We weren't good enough. There's no way of hiding from that.

"As a player, you don't want to be down there fighting relegation. That's not exciting. That's anxious. That's tension."

And that is what will probably make Relegation Sunday a ratings winner for Fox as well.

There's no question European soccer has found a passionate audience in the U.S. Last month's four Champions League semifinals — which were also televised on Fox properties — averaged more than 1 million viewers each, up nearly 30% from last year. And Manchester City's showdown with Manchester United for first place in the Premier League on Monday drew a record 1.03 million viewers for ESPN, nearly 400,000 more than the previous high for a U.S. cable telecast of a Premier League match.

Barton's guessing next Sunday's audience will be a bit more spread out as, remote control in hand, viewers jump from game to game.

"We're going to be doing it. I hope the fans are," he says. "We've got the screens in front of us. We're going to be looking and going backward and forward and keeping updates.

"It's going to be a great climax to the end of the season."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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