There are many ironies surrounding the comments of the Liverpool Managing Director, Ian Ayre, concerning the future of overseas television rights and how they should be distributed amongst the clubs. Those of an ideological indisposition to Liverpool – and preferences amongst football clubs have, in recent years, come to take on the appearance of being somewhere between the followers of a cult and a lifestyle choice – may have taken some degree of amusement from a club which couldn’t even qualify for European football last season make such exapnsive claims regarding its grandeur. Others may have been repulsed and amused in equal measures by Ayre’s middle-management-speak with statements such as “Personally I think the game-changer is going out and recognising our brand globally” (a sentence which so brutalises the English language that is tempting to reach the conclusion that the Premier League has managed to plug the gap in its landscape left by the recent departure of Garry Cook from his position at Manchester City), whilst others still – probably a majority – might well have wondered what on earth Ayre thought he was doing, making a unilateral statement on a subject that was always likely to be divisive without, apparently, consulting with the other big clubs – if the statements from both Manchester United and Chelsea yesterday afternoon were anything to go by.
The comments were perhaps most notable, however, for bringing a conversation into the public domain that should have been being had for the last two decades – that of equality and inequality in modern football. Before we go any further, it is worth pointing out that football, from a financial perspective, isn’t fair, and hasn’t been since at least the introduction of professionalism at the start of the 1880s. There are “bigger” clubs and there are “smaller” clubs, and there always been, although how these have been determined has changed over the years, from those with the most benevolent butchers, bakers or candlestick makers at very start of the game’s transition into a business, through to those that made the most of the more modestly expansive commercial opportunities of the early 1980s.
The debate over the collective selling and even distribution of television rights, however, is not about being “fair” and, as such, the Liverpool supporter who commented this morning that, “If you want equality, move to Russia in the 1980s” on a supporters forum yesterday was, even allowing for the logical leap of faith that such a statement requires, somewhat missing the point. Football is a sport which should be played for the benefit of those that, at an amateur level, play it or, at the professional level, those that watch it. The point is that rules such as collective bargaining rights for television rights are in place for the purposes of retaining competitive balance. Those in a position to make such rulings within the game realised long ago that even many – if not most – of those that support the biggest clubs do not want to see competition so distorted that every game becomes an absolute thrashing.
Over the years, however, the checks that were put in place in order to protect competitive balance in the game have been worn away, piece by piece. It used to be that gate receipts for matches were shared between home and away clubs, and this was abolished. There was a time when television deals signed were for the four divisions of the Premier League, but the biggest clubs (the majority of whom have spent at least a spell below that level since) broke away and headed out on their own paths. Since 1992, there can be no question that a lucky few have come to enormously benefit from the new status quo, and very few complained about it. Certainly, those with reservations about the formation of the Premier League had their concerns drowned out in the hype of Sky’s “whole new ball game”. None of this is to say that football in England at the very start of the 1990s didn’t need a radical overhaul. Hilllsborough, if nothing else, demonstrated this beyond reasonable doubt. That overhaul, however, was seized by those that acted the quickest, and those that did were the clubs that went on to form the Premier League, hand-in-hand with Sky Television.
That ending collective bargaining and the equal distribution of television rights has a distorting effect upon the competitive balance of the game cannot be questioned. The lack of collective bargaining for television rights for La Liga in Spain was been ruinous for all bar two clubs. The likelihood the likes of Valencia or Deportivo La Coruna winning the competition – as they both did during the first decade of this century – could not look further from ever happening again. In Scotland, economic dominance has come about in a different manner, but the Glasgow giants have been rumoured to be looking to break-away from the collective deal in Scotland as well. “We reserve the right to continue to explore those options [selling their own rights] not only for the longer-term benefit of Celtic Football Club but for everyone involved”, was the comment of Celtic’s chairman John Reid when the current television deal for SPL clubs was confirmed during the summer of 2009.
What has actually happened over the last thirty-six hours, however, has been more damaging to Liverpool Football Club than to anybody else, for now, at least. The comment that “Ian Ayre is only saying what the owners of the other biggest clubs are thinking” – a common trope yesterday morning – was completely undermined by the statement issued by Chelsea on the matter (“We are supportive of the Premier League on this and want to continue with the way they sell collectively”) and the understanding that Manchester United were also distancing themselves from his comments. Ayre had, therefore, achieved the fairly singular achievement of making Manchester United and Chelsea look like the good guys and, without the support of at least these contemporaries, any proposal to change the way that television rights are negotiated by the Premier League would be doomed to failure. Meanwhile, Ayre has tarnished the name of the club that he serves. How, we might well ask, will he be able to look the representative from Bolton Wanderers in the eye at the next Premier League meeting? Over the last day and a half or so, Liverpool FC has become a byword for the arrogance and sense of entitlement, and Ayre’s words are a betrayal of the tradition of the club’s history and tradition.
It could be argued that we are at least having a debate on the nature of competitive balance in the English game, and that this, of itself, is healthy. It is likely that that the new generation of Premier League owners were attracted to this league because of its relative lack of regulation and the belief that they could deregulate still further. The threat of a break-away European Super League is of the same narrative, and it is hardly surprising that some are now saying that if this is the way that the next ten years is to play out, then the biggest clubs should simply be allowed to split and set up their hermetically-sealed European league. Indeed, it is possible to argue that if they are to do this, it should be absolute, with expulsion from everything that UEFA, FIFA and other governing bodies can offer in the way of infrastructure and the continuation of tradition. The worst case scenario for European football might well be a European League dominating all, while effective reserve teams continue to hoover up all before them in domestic competitions because the gap between those gorging themselves at a Super League trough and the rest has grown so massive. At the very least, “the rest” might hope that at least a break-away league might revive the notion of competition in domestic leagues.
For now, though, it seems unlikely that there will be much of a change in the collective bargaining for television rights, and Ian Ayre’s loose tongue has set a debate in motion which could yet go either way. However, it certainly seems far from implausible that the “distancing” carried out by other clubs was a PR reaction to comments which were never likely to receive positive press, and the idea that the biggest clubs wouldn’t want to sell their own television rights seems unlikely. With this in mind, we should probably consider this to be the beginning of an ongoing debate that will end in some form of split within the game, but it would be preferable to see any split that may come to be absolute, than to be a half-way house which strangles British or European football for the benefit of a few plutocrats.
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