If ever there was a sign of the times in terms of attitudes towards the Premier League, then the reaction of both the media and a noisy proportion of the general public to the announcement of the league’s new television deal was about as succinct as might have been hoped for. There was a time when the amount of money announced by these deals was treated in much the same way as a fireworks display might be, with oohs and aahs at the very large number that will make some already wealthy men even wealthier, but in 2015 the reaction has come to feel considerably more jaded, with louder calls for a broader redistribution of that money than ever before.
The raw details of the deal certainly remain plenty sufficient to induce nosebleeds upon those who get too close to them. The new deal is worth £5.136bn over three years to those fortunate enough to be in the Premier League between 2016 and 2019, an amount equivalent to more than £100m per club, per season, and more than £10m per live match being broadcast. This last figure is particularly incredible when compared with gate receipts for matches. It might even be argued that, other than adding to the spectacle of the occasion – and, therefore, the value of future television rights deals – supporters at matches are no longer even required by Premier League football clubs any more.
Of course, the Premier League didn’t get where it is today by not being voracious and opportunistic, so the days of match going supporters being hung upside down until all of their money has fallen into a Premier League branded bucket aren’t quite over yet, and it is probably this instinct that led the organisation’s Chief Executive, Richard Scudamore, to state that the league “isn’t a charity” when questioned about the small matter of redistribution by the press last week, even though article three of the Premier League’s own memorandum of association states that “The objects for which the company are… To contribute to or support any charitable, benevolent or useful object relating to association football, or participants therein.” This was, in many respects, a peak Premier League moment. At the very point at which the public face of the richest domestic football competition in the world might have made conciliatory noises about trickling some of the surplus money from this deal down to address, say, the small matter of the appalling state of Britain’s park pitches or the gap in wealth between the top twenty and the rest, Scudamore opted instead to remind that world that, for the Premier League, this money, no matter how little they may have worked for it – what they might have done had all broadcasters turned up for negotiations with a sealed envelope containing the words “£50,000 per season, and be grateful you’re getting that for basically doing nothing, you wretches” is one of life’s great unknowables, but enjoyable enough to consider in a wish fulfilment kind of way – is theirs, all theirs.
Perhaps Scudamore should be more careful with his language, though. After all, the rising gap between the ultra wealthy and the rest is starting to cause considerable discomfort in broader political terms and, in terms of the overall structure of English – or perhaps even European – football, the twenty clubs of the Premier League are definitely amongst “the 1%.” There may well have been plenty of people who saw his comments on this subject and wondered whether the Premier League might be a somewhat more palatable organisation if it did behave a little more like a charity than like Hudsucker Industries. The Premier League has spent the last twenty-three years defying the belief that all bubbles burst eventually, but television rights surely cannot continue to rise at 70% every three years indefinitely, and the amount of sympathy there will be if or when this growth finally starts to slow already seems vanishingly small.
As ever, concerns over the growth of the gap between the richest and the rest have also been present and correct, but if the evidence of the last few years had taught us anything, it should probably be that football clubs – particularly those in the bottom half of the Premier League – are simply not well managed enough for this gap to become too big to breach. At present, eleven points separate the top eight teams in the Football League Championship, but of those, only two – Norwich City and Wolverhampton Wanderers – have been Premier League clubs in the last five years. Other than Norwich, the other two clubs relegated from the Premier League at the end of last season, Cardiff City and Fulham, currently occupy seventeenth and nineteenth place in the Championship table, whilst Wigan Athletic and Blackpool, also relatively recent Premier League participants, inhabit two of the division’s three relegation places. Having the money on its own, whether through being in the top division or through the generous parachute payments that come with relegation, doesn’t seem to be enough to promise anything like a return to the promised land after a fall from grace.
It’s not only in terms of long term performance that this money doesn’t seem to buy Premier League clubs happiness. This year’s FA Cup has already made something of a mockery of the gap between the richest and the rest, with only four clubs through to the quarter finals of this year’s competition at the time of writing – and Manchester United hoping to bump that figure up by one tonight, at the time of writing – and both of the top two in the Premier League having been knocked out at home, at the very first hurdle, by Football League opposition. The excuse that “they don’t take it seriously any more” certainly feels increasingly tenuous. The cost of having the sort of disposable income that Premier League clubs now have is that “we weren’t trying” ceases to become valid justification for having their buttocks handed to them on a silver platter by their supposed inferiors in the Cup. They’ve got too much money for even that to be much of an excuse any more.
None of this is to to say that we shouldn’t be concerned over the size of each new Premier League television deal, of course. For one thing, there should probably be a moral aspect to the dumping of over £5bn into the laps of twenty football clubs, even if football and morals are seldom to be seen in the same room these days. Of a more pragmatic concern to supporters may well be the possibility of these television rights reaching a point at which it starts to make financial sense for the Premier League to pull up the drawbridge and abandon promotion and relegation once and for all. At present – presuming we discount such inconveniences as “ethical considerations” or “any hint or trace of having a soul” – the rational argument for keeping promotion and relegation is a practical one on the part of the league itself. In a league in which, depending on how generous our assessment is, somewhere between three and five clubs only ever have a realistic chance of ever winning the title whilst somewhere between five and seven can finish the season amongst the gilded top four, there would be an awful lot of dead rubber fixtures played were there not the annual scramble to avoid the drop. But the Premier League takes seems to take many of its cues these days from the NFL, which is most definitely a closed shop, and the bigger the financial gap grows between the Premier League and The Rest, the more tempting pulling up that drawbridge will surely be.
If there’s one thing we can say with any degree of confidence, it’s that any decision over this will be taken entirely on practical grounds, because the Premier League gives every indication of being a moral vacuum. Consider Scudamore’s recent assessment that, “At the end of the day there’s a thing called the living wage, but there’s also a minimum wage and politicians have the power to up that minimum wage,” in response to criticism that only one Premier League club – Chelsea, for the record – is committed to paying all of its staff the living wage rather than the minimum wage. This is the visible face of the Premier League, and this is what he’s happy to say in public. Goodness knows what he chooses to keep to his inner monologue alone.
But then again, why should he care? We keep turning up and paying whatever the clubs choose to charge us. We keep our sports channel subscriptions, even though these are the driving factor behind this whole cavalcade of financial opulence in the first place. The easy, obvious response to this is to suggest that those who do object to it all simply don’t turn up any more, but this, it feels, has an air of disingenuity about it. For one thing, the most significant trickle down effect of stratospheric Premier League wages has been vast increases in ticket prices for all leagues below it for clubs trying to keep up without the comfort blanket of a multi-billion pound television contract to soften the blow. And on top of that, well, why should they? Football supporters of all hues surely understand that the bond between the supporter and their club is – even if it’s not reciprocated by the clubs, which it seldom is – and that a little give on the part of clubs who take, take, take doesn’t seem like too much to ask. Ultimately, supporting a football club is not an exercise in free market economics and clubs (as well as the Premier League itself) know this which most likely explains Scudamore’s bullish attitude towards such trifling matters as the morals of paying all club staff a living wage or pricing supporters out of the game altogether. The response to his latest £5.136bn windfall, however, shows that an increasing number of people seem to be less in thrall to eye-wateringly numbers than they used to. Perhaps, just perhaps, it’s a start.
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