As the Premier League kicks off, British sport faces a new threat: Can it cope with Brexit?

From the world's most expensive transfer to the soap opera surrounding the men in the dugouts, the orgy of hype and spending that ushers in the new Premier League season, which started on Saturday, has reached unmatched levels.

But when new Culture Secretary Karen Bradley convened a meeting of British sports leaders this month, the topic was not the return of the league and its latest cycle of record-breaking spending. Britain's fraying patchwork of grassroots sports provision and coaching was not mentioned. Nor was it a celebration of its success-soaked elite after another glorious summer of triumph that stretches from Centre Court to the Champs Elysees and now Rio.

Instead, they were asked for their views on Brexit. And, specifically, whether the vote to turn our back on Europe could fatally undermine one of Britain's few remaining successful exports .

Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore had taken an unusually strong position on the referendum. He could see that his high-octane circus, increasingly overseen by a rolling cast of foreign proprietors, from US sports- franchise owners to those using football as an arm of their nation-building ambition, was philosophically at odds with the very idea of Brexit.

From the point at which the first wave of overseas superstars - the then exotic, now nostalgia-inducing likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Gianfranco Zola and Eric Cantona - swept into these shores, football in this country was a whole new ball game.

Now the biggest clubs are global brands, and hundreds of millions of people tune in around the world. The Premier League's overall TV revenue has ballooned from £191 million for its first five-year deal in 1992, to £8.3 billion (S$14 billion) for the 2016-2019 seasons.

A new Premier League football on the pitch during the match between Bournemouth and Manchester United at the Vitality Stadium in Bournemouth on Sunday. Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore described the league as "open for business, open
A new Premier League football on the pitch during the match between Bournemouth and Manchester United at the Vitality Stadium in Bournemouth on Sunday. Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore described the league as "open for business, open for discussion, and open for cooperation". PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Prior to the referendum, during the European Championships in France, when England's footballers were being  humiliated on the pitch and a minority of fans were embarrassing us off it, there was plenty of speculation about what Brexit might mean for top-flight football.

It is true that if taken literally there could be consequences for work permits and freedom of movement for European players, particularly at younger ages. But in reality, the practical impact is impossible to quantify. As with so much else in the gloomy soup of post-referendum Britain, no one seems able to explain what Brexit means.

The real dent caused by the result is to the Premier League's image, to the brand it has built over more than two decades.

None of this is to suggest that the league has been an unalloyed force for good, by any means. There are plenty of unwanted side effects, from the historic lack of trickle-down investment in the rest of the football pyramid to the rampant ticket inflation that has threatened to price out whole sections of the match-going public.

But in the mix of cosmopolitan flair and home-grown grit that characterises the Premier League's appeal, it has been an undeniable success story on its own terms.

I was once given a guided tour of the expansive studios on the fringes of west London from which the Premier League brand is beamed to the world. Amid legions of worker bees tweeting live updates to China and packaging clips for sub-Saharan Africa, two things were apparent.

One is the extent to which footballers from all corners of the globe are present, allowing far-flung viewers to claim a slice of the league for themselves. And, second, the extent to which the atmosphere and fans are central to the package, their chants turned up high in the mix amid endless cutaways of rapt, packed stands.

In his ultimately fruitless pre-Brexit intervention, Scudamore spoke of how the Premier League was "open for business, open for discussion, and open for cooperation". He added: "There is an openness about the Premier League which I think it would be completely incongruous if we were to take the opposite position."

The league is a rapacious animal of ruthless logic, but in defining its appeal in those terms he hit upon a wider truth. By accident or design, it has become a true league of nations, at odds with the inward-looking mentality stirred by Brexit.

With the Olympics under way there is now another potentially troubling side effect of the Brexit vote for sport in the UK. It is not one driven by the bottom-line business logic of the Premier League but by a threat to the very rationale for pouring hundreds of millions of pounds of public money into Olympic sport, a process that propelled Britain from 36th to third in the medal table in 16 years.

And it is one being purposefully downplayed as Team GB, lubricated by £350million of lottery and exchequer funding over four years, competes at a Rio Olympics itself troubled by uncertainty and dislocating doubt in the light of the travails of the hosts and the  Russian doping scandal.

Part of the reason the then Chancellor Gordon Brown in 2005 said yes to a huge uplift in the amount of money poured into the British high-performance system - apart from the fear of being embarrassed at our own party - was the argument that each medal would do something for the nation.

It was a vision that Britain's athletes began to deliver on in Beijing and then spectacularly realised in London four years ago amid a feel-good orgy of pride. This wasn't the nationalistic flag-waving of the dying days of the empire but a warm glow secured amid the knowledge that for once, as Sebastian Coe put it, "when the time came, we did it right".

One of the most memorable moments of the London Games was when double gold medallist Mo Farah , born in Somalia but raised and made in west London, addressed a journalist who asked if he felt British: "Look mate, this is my country. This is where I grew up, this is where I started life. This is my country and when I put on my Great Britain vest I'm proud. I'm very proud."

That atmosphere, forged in the white heat and genuine heart of Boyle's opening ceremony, all seems like something of a shimmering mirage now. At both ends of the telescope - from the cold economics of the Premier League brand to the intangible warm glow of winning British medals - the forces unleashed by Brexit feel like an undermining factor.

At a recent briefing to set medal targets, those responsible for turning that investment into precious metal expressed the bold ambition that success in Rio - even against the backdrop of rising cynicism - could help heal the divisions caused by Brexit between nations and within cities and homes.

With the best will in the world, even as the medals start to rain in and new stars are born, that feels hopelessly optimistic.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2016, with the headline 'As the Premier League kicks off, British sport faces a new threat: Can it cope with Brexit?'. Print Edition | Subscribe