In various guises, those in senior positions in English football have scored two spectacular own goals this week in the announcement of the pay-per-view (PPV) arrangements for Premier League matches and the much-criticised Project “Big Picture” proposals for the future of the game. These are the latest examples of how money has become the principal driver for many involved with football, and if that continues, the game as we know it, or perhaps as we knew it, will not survive.
The pandemic has only highlighted the dangerous financial predicament of many clubs as owners seek to gamble to reach the promised land of the Premier League. And yet many fans of Premier League fans, with many Baggies amongst them, find the “Greed League” to be unsatisfying and frustrating and recent announcements have done nothing to improve those feelings.
In principle, I have no objection to a PPV arrangement to watch Premier League games that aren’t one of the selected games, but the price at which it has been set smacks of pure greed on behalf of the broadcasters.
From what I have read and heard from different sources over the past couple of days, the price was set by the broadcasters and the clubs were given no opportunity to vote on a different price point. It was either £14.95, or nothing. So while the West Bromwich Albion hierarchy have come in for criticism for not joining Leicester City in voting against the proposals, I can understand the decision if that was the choice given.
While the £10 a game fee for an inferior iFollow service may make the Premier League’s fee seem less scandalous, the anger comes from the fact that this has been brought in without any thoughts to fans who have already bought season tickets and it is for a product that had been made available free of charge for existing subscribers for the past three months. Charging for something that was previously free is never going to go down well.
As Baggies fans, we have not had the opportunity to buy season tickets for this campaign, but there are plenty of other Premier League clubs facing renewed calls for refunds following this announcement.
The other source of anger is, of course, related to the financials of the Premier League clubs. Again, it doesn’t really apply to Albion, but spending during the transfer window has seemed largely unaffected by the pandemic and claims that the clubs need the income are somewhat ludicrous given that backdrop.
What is difficult to understand is that the broadcasters did not, apparently, foresee this backlash. Or maybe they did, and just didn’t care. Surely a price of around £5 would have been received much more positively given that many fans are struggling financially and could very well have resulted in greater incomes overall given that many seem to be determined not to pay. Furthermore, it will inevitably fuel the switch to illegal streams thereby further eroding their revenue, which will be exacerbated by the many who will opt to cancel their subscriptions in the light of this decision.
To make it worse, Sky have chosen to further inconvenience fans by switching kick-off times to ensure that no games clash with one another. That means that the next three Baggies fixtures have been moved to a ridiculous start time of 5.30pm on a Monday evening when those in employment, and therefore most likely to be able to afford to watch, will still be at work.
The only positive of the PPV arrangement is that it will be reviewed at the end of the month. At its worse, it could be the final straw for some and they may be lost to the game for ever.
As for the Project “Big Picture” proposals, they have received even more widespread criticism despite the fact that some of the proposals would actually be very good for English football. The redistribution of TV income more widely to the lower leagues and the proposed £250m boost to help with the effects of the pandemic can only be positive, but the ultimate price of such false altruism appears to be the end to any vestiges of true competition that may remain in the Premier League.
The idea that the “Big Six” plus three seemingly randomly chosen clubs should be, in Orwellian terms, more equal than the others, is utterly abhorrent in my opinion. I feel the same about the only existing arrangement in sport that I am aware of whereby Ferrari have a special status in Formula 1 because of their long-term association with the sport.
While Liverpool and Manchester United may be the most successful teams in English football, many clubs have been at the top of the game in the league’s 132 year history and the idea that Southampton, who were in the third tier ten years ago, should somehow be granted special status is laughable.
Perhaps the most positive element to this story is that the proposals have not been supported by the Premier League executive, West Ham, Southampton or Everton and there are suggestions that two or three of the big six are also critical of the proposals.
To me, it seems like an opportunistic attempt by the US-based owners of Manchester United and Liverpool to use the current crisis in lower league football caused by the pandemic to force through these proposals with the £250m “gift” as a carrot to garner support. There are many in the EFL, not least its chairman, Rick Parry, who are willing to support these proposals in return for some short term security, but it would be incredibly short-sighted for the future of the game.
The effective passing of control to the big six to enable them to negotiate future TV rights agreements would surely result in more and more of the “pie” passing to those clubs leaving the remainder of the Premier League to merely make up the numbers. There is little enough hope of success for the majority of the Premier League as it is – this would extinguish it completely.
Given that many supporters of the Premier League “also-rans” are already disillusioned, any further erosion of competitivity will see many more driven away from the game.
As it stands, the proposals seem to have little support within the football authorities, the government and the majority of Premier League clubs with the EFL, or at least its chairman, standing alongside the Liverpool and Manchester United owners as advocates of the plan as a whole.
It is possible that the proposals could be used as the basis for a negotiation, but the urgency of the financial situation amongst EFL clubs is such that there is no time for that to happen. The cash support element needs to be de-coupled from any other proposals and brought to a conclusion as soon as possible, the remainder needs an inclusive discussion involving all of the game’s stakeholders and, crucially, the government.
Having considered the Football Supporters’ Association’s Sustain The Game proposals published in August, those are far more sensible as a way forward for football than a bailout and a promise of future money in exchange for a destruction of the competitive landscape at the highest level of the game. While a wider distribution of broadcast income would be a positive, without improved governance of the ownership of clubs, it will not solve English football’s inherent problems.
In my view, football needs a more radical solution than even the FSA proposals suggest. Football Clubs should be designated as community assets and be subject to far greater controls on finances and ownership than an ordinary company. For me, that is the only way that unscrupulous and incompetent owners can be tackled. With football clubs as normal UK companies, majority shareholders can effectively do what they want with the assets of the club and the fans and the local community can legally be ignored. This is the ultimate problem.
There are many fantastic club owners who understand that they are merely a custodian of an institution that is so much more than a company, but there are those that will act primarily in their own self interest and be prepared to put the future of the club at risk for a potential upside.
Some sort of Community Asset status is the only way that such owners can be controlled or discouraged; existing football club owners will never vote for such a change in regulation, which is why the FA needs to work with the government to use legislate to make it happen. It is perhaps unlikely, but I believe it is the best solution for a sustainable future for football.
PPV is an annoyance that could have damaging effects but will hopefully short-lived; Project Big Picture is a dangerous set of proposals that will hopefully quietly be forgotten although support for EFL club during the pandemic is something that needs to happen quickly, whatever the source. The FSA’s proposals need to be discussed more widely, the national media have largely ignored them, but I feel they should go further.
Successive governments have tried to get the football industry to sort itself out – I cannot see that it will ever happen without government intervention. Football is a huge part of the British culture; it should not be allowed to self-destruct.