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“Gawd, doesn’t he go on?” I thought as I watched Premier League CEO Richard Scudamore’s latest performance in front of a parliamentary sub-committee.I place no inverted commas around performance, as Scudamore’s overbearing contribution to last week’s session of the House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power & the UK’s influence was just that. And despite there being three witnesses, Scudamore spoke for 50 of the session’s 79 minutes. There was an obvious anomaly in the English Premier League chief addressing a committee examining “the use of soft power in furthering the United Kingdom’s global influence & interests” and “expected to consider whether the league can be still be described as a British institution.”
That said, the EPL is a considerable source of “soft power.” This is a American-born concept – shock! – born in Harvard University in the early 1990s and defined as “a persuasive approach to international relations, typically using economic or cultural influences.” Any deeper analysis would turn to psychobabble within seconds. But according to a 2012 survey by “global affairs lifestyle magazine” Monocle, the UK bests the world at using soft power – although the survey’s proximity to the London Olympics probably influenced that result.
The committee chairman, Lord Howell of Guildford, was as obsequious to Scudamore as any previous parliamentarians. He happily cited the English league’s role “in promoting British culture, influence and values around the world,” before asking the most superfluous question imaginable: “Mr Scudamore, could you elaborate?” Scudamore had the decency to acknowledge the EPL’s “unique position where people pay us for the privilege of being distributed in 212 countries,” a “reach” he correctly suggested “many other organisations pay significant sums of money on advertising and marketing to have.” And although he was led to it by Lord Howell’s introductory ramblings, Scudamore detailed the work the EPL does abroad with the British Council, without once mentioning the Football Association, even though the “community” and “social development” work he referenced was the type I’d imagined the FA would not only be involved with but driving.
Some of this sounded plain odd (e.g. working with the “social justice department in Djakarta”). But whatever it was, it sounded like English football’s governing body should be doing it, not just a league; an old, old refrain, I know. Scudamore also revealed himself as one of the few people still unashamed to drop Prime Minister David Cameron’s name. “We are about to go on a seventh trade mission with the Prime Minister,” he declared, describing the EPL’s role on such jaunts as “creating a better feel about the UK.” “On the last one,” he added, “Mr Cameron’s first four speeches referenced us as an opening gambit, where he says: ‘I’ve got something you’ve all heard of.’” Scudamore described the league as providing “some levity to lighten (such occasions)” while stress, fractionally too late, that “I’m not saying we are the vaudeville act.”
Howell’s follow-up question was about as challenging. “The extent of your popularity is not in question. Do we in the UK benefit from it?” Scudamore thought so, “hugely,” and droned on…and on…about how the “global world” (rather than the non-global one?) loved “this version” of football. To be fair, his answer here could only have been interesting had it begun: “Not really.” But there were some telling points within it. He avoided the phrase “English football,” preferring “what is produced on English soil,” to which he hurriedly added “and Welsh soil obviously” for any sons or daughters of Glendower listening. And he had clearly pondered the issue of how “English” the English Premier League was, with its ever-increasing non-UK participation on field and in boardroom. “We have a pretty sophisticated marketing machine,” he boasted, “(which is) trying to get people to understand we have a sponsor.” Match of the Day viewers will know how effective that marketing has been on the BBC…especially on Gary Lineker. Yet Scudamore rightly noted that “once you step outside the UK it’s called the English Premier League and so there is a huge association with it being quintessentially English.” The little media coverage this parliamentary session received focused on the “quintessentially English” quote and how at odds that was with the “influx” of foreign players, coaches and owners. But, as you can see, that wasn’t quite what he said. And Scudamore’s analysis was actually correct (one for the “phrases I never thought I’d type” file). The league’s usefulness to the UK as a “soft power” tool is reliant on this “huge association,” however false it is becoming. So you might have expected the Lords to be a-leaping all over the issue. Fat chance. Scudamore must have known what safe ground he was on when he could “challenge”, in time-honoured fashion, “this or any committee to come up with a… business that gives away (a higher) percentage of its revenue,” as if the league was a separate business to English football. So it was no surprise that the committee didn’t bat an eyelid between them when Scudamore claimed foreign owners were buying into the “Englishness” of the league (“something that’s very authentic”) and claimed that the league “has been here since 1888,” as if 1992 had never happened.
It got worse. The next two questions were directed solely at Scudamore. And towards the end of Scudamore’s second answer England and Wales Cricket Board CEO David Collier almost leant across Scudamore in an attempt to remind the committee that he was even there. Colin (Lord) Moynihan had reason to feel worse. As British Olympic Association ex-chairman he had much to do with the UK’s wielding of soft power in recent years. Yet here he was, treated like the no-mark Thatcher-ite sports minister he was in the 1980s. And some of the questions thrown at Scudamore could just as easily have been asked of Collier or Moynihan. Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbott’s opening gambit was also directed solely at Scudamore. But it initially promised fireworks: “Money counts for everything, if you’re rich enough, you don’t need to worry about anything,” which sounded like someone prepared to tell it like it is. And if a Tory Peer isn’t an expert on such matters, who is? Alas, his monologue nosedived into players’ bad behaviour and general meaning-light meanderings, after which you could sympathise with Scudamore’s attempts “to wrestle the question from that.”
Even when a committee member hit upon a fundamental topic, Scudamore had no bother diverting the discussion back to his usual mantra. Baroness Armstrong raised “the challenge to the concept that the Premier League is essentially a British institution.” But she ascribed it to “the feeling the supporters have that we are being taken over by foreigners.” This allowed Scudamore to turn the issue into one of “English owners, good, foreign owners bad,” adding that having been “in this job for 15 years…I’ve worked with good and bad owners, English and foreign.” As Bates was Chelsea’s owner 15 years ago, it was a fair point…but not the point. And he added: “(What) matters more…is whether they are decent owners, running the clubs with probity.” This from the man who oversaw the introduction of Thaksin Shinawatra, Carson Yeung, Venky’s and the grisly cast of Portsmouth charlatans.
Baroness Goudie, meanwhile, had “done a lot of work” on female under-representation in football administration and wasn’t about to let it go to waste. She made some fair, unarguable but misplaced points, which gave Scudamore the chance to regurgitate another old refrain; clubs as “independent companies” to whom he could not dictate employment policy. The middle section of questioning actually came across as an attempt to expose the EPL as an organisation with poor ethics and governance, which he questioners may have converted into a point about how effectively such an organisation could wield soft power. But the chairman was a reluctant intervener in beyond-remit debate and made no discernible effort to expose Scudamore to such pressure. Though if Scudamore wished to tell the committee four times that the Premier League was admired around the world then Howell was not about to stop him.
Howell didn’t even stop Scudamore offering 200+ words on a question to which the right answer was “no.” “Is the fact that were are members of the Commonwealth a factor in any of your sports?” Howell asked, looking to Collier to lead, given that cricket is a largely ‘commonwealth’ game. Scudamore was straight in with a question of his own – “can I answer first?” – to which the right answer was “no.” He carried on regardless, stating without any discernible irony that “the fact that we are members of the Commonwealth has never actually crossed my mind.” At which point you thought he might have the decency to shut up.
Instead, he gave a look of utter disdain to the Baronesses who tried to move the discussion on to cricket, before riffing on the advantages of English being the “universal language of contractual business” and of…erm…Greenwich Mean Time and “the fact that we are sat on the meridian.” By this stage, Scudamore himself was tiring of the session as much as others were tiring of him. One last question, from Howell, did bring the discussion back to the issue. But you both saw and heard Scudamore tutting when the question was pointed at football again. And the actual question appeared to place Howell’s perspective on world football somewhere around 1985, with his reference to “the extraordinary influence of the labels of Manchester United and…Everton.” You wouldn’t blamed Scudamore for tutting at that.
But, as I said, the question did at least focus on a genuine issue relevant to this committee: “Is there a danger that, as the power in the world and the wealth shifts to outside Europe and the Atlantic area, other countries are going to take over a more prominent position?” Of course, as long as the Premier League was coming home with TV deals for the screening of Premier League matches in these areas in the name of “community” and “social development” work, there wasn’t a problem. Scudamore was sure “China, India and the US will have professional league within my lifetime” (a safe bet as two of the three already do). But with the EPL on the box, Scudamore knows these leagues will suffer by comparison for years to come, although this was neither the time nor the place for him to say so. Instead he added that “if we keep the integrity of what we do…I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t keep ahead.” Areas of Portsmouth, Birmingham and Blackburn may have a view on that “integrity.”
Perhaps sensing Scudamore’s angst at that last question, Howell then asked the most obsequious question imaginable: “The Premier League does a lot in Africa, does it not? Could you perhaps say a little more?” Naturally he said a lot more, talking across Moynihan while telling the committee that the Premier League was the “most admired British institution” in some countries, ahead of “the monarchy” and “the BBC.” Given the current popularity of the latter institutions, this perhaps isn’t the boast it once was. Not bad, all the same, for an institution which isn’t “British” at all and is getting ever-less English.
The session was Scudamore at his smuggest; which is arguably what he does best. It also showed the disdainful attitude the league, as personified by Scudamore, has long-displayed towards football in general; and that Scudamore is happy to show that smug disdain for other sports too. But the EPL’s ability to wield “soft power” on behalf of the UK has to be under increasing threat from an increasing non-UK constitution of the league. Scudamore made his usual great play of EPL democracy – all decisions requiring the approval of 14 club chairmen. And while the world isn’t split into “here” and “abroad” of course, it must be questioned whether 14 foreign chairmen will want their “independent companies” used in the UK’s national interest. That issue needed vigorous examination from this committee. It didn’t get it.
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