The Premier League 5, Breakaway & Leverage
In some respects, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that there was no great “exclusive” about the fact that representatives from five of the wealthiest Premier League clubs had been in talks about something. It was one of football’s worst kept secrets, with hints being dropped in various podcasts and articles that something was afoot. But there they all were, representing Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United, in a hotel in London, discussing how they could best carve up European club football. Also present was Stephen Ross, the billionaire organiser of the International Champions Cup, the global pre-season jamboree from which the high profile entrants do very nicely, financially, at least.
The Sun, however, may have been mistaken in their belief that this meeting was related to a “breakaway” European Super League. To the extent to which there has been open talk on the subject, this has largely seemed to emanate from the rest of Europe, where even some of the biggest clubs have been expressing concern at the ever increasing financial strength of the Premier League. This growth – of which there have been few signs of any form of abatement – may even be threatening to eclipse the Champions League, in which too many unbalanced fixtures have led to sluggish television audiences this season. For a club like Bayern Munich, for example, a breakaway league taking the top four or five English clubs with them – and the word “top” should be carefully defined here; there seems little chance of Leicester City being invited to this party, should it ever take place – would lead to television and sponsorship deals that would propel them to another financial level altogether.
For the Premier League Five, however, the matter at hand is a very different one, and it allows them the luxury of being able to say that they do not want a European Super League without having to cross their fingers behind their backs. They are already benefiting from the luxuriousness of Premier League television contracts, and these are set to increase still further this summer. As things stand, they are the biggest beneficiaries of the Premier League, the Champions League and the International Champions Cup. Any television and sponsorship deals to come from any breakaway league would have to be phenomenal, even by the dizzying standards of modern television contracts, to tempt them away.
Even if they were more open to the idea of breaking away than they are commonly believed to be, the logistics of doing so would not necessarily be easy. For one thing, a true breakaway would require breaking away from UEFA, and quite possibly FIFA and the Football Association. It’s difficult to imagine the circumstances under which there wouldn’t be a furious response from the governing bodies which would be a public relations disaster for the clubs involved. Said clubs are also tied into legally binding deals for the current television money that they receive from which they may not be able to extricate themselves. And, presuming that such a radical move on the part of the biggest and already richest clubs might well provide such a waspish backlash from supporters and the media, would broadcasters – who do pretty well out of the current status quo themselves – really be that keen on tying their names to something this controversial?
On a balance of probabilities, then, the idea of a breakaway super league – which has, let’s not forget, been floating around for at least a couple of decades – would be a leap into the unknown which would likely be reputation damaging and would create all manner of legal issues, and in return, from the perspective of the English branch of the Super Clubs, for an amount of money that may not even necessarily be that life-changing in comparison with what they’re making now. And the richest ten clubs in Europe already make £500m per year from the Champions League between them. So, with a system that is already skewed hopelessly in their favour and no great desire to risk everything on a breakaway that would likely cause greater logistical problems than money could resolve, why are they meeting the billionaire owner of the tournament that already makes them more money than is thought about before the start of each season?
It is possible that Arsenal’s statement on the matter was a pack of lies – after all, it’s not as if saying one thing for a long time and then performing a complete volte face isn’t exactly what clubs did over the formation of the Premier League in the first place – but the answer in this case is, most likely, leverage. The rewards of that Premier League/Champions League double are huge, but they only apply in full if you get there in the first place, and of the five clubs that met at The Dorchester, three of them – Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool – are at serious risk of not qualifying for next year’s tournament, at present. And missing out on all that lovely loot – as well as something indefinable about “status” – isn’t something that the current generation of club owners would have anticipated when they got involved with these clubs in the first place. The rules, they may well rationalise, therefore need to change.
Never mind the fact that “wild card” entries – the very name of which hints at a randomness that we can rest heartily assured will not be applied should the matter come to ever be negotiated – ride roughshod over every principle that European football culture has held since the commencement of continental competition in the 1950s. Never mind, even, that calling on the biggest football clubs in Europe to hold much regard for the integrity of the game in the face of a cheque with many zeroes on the end of it is like asking a cow to quack. In the 1980s in England, the biggest clubs pushed through the end of gate receipt sharing for league matches. In the 1990s, they took the vast majority of television money through the formation of the Premier League. Already this century the Premier League has pushed through the EPPP in order to hoover up the best of the academy system for young players. Any proposal to be leveraged in UEFA’s direction, it seems reasonable to say, would be most likely to benefit the few, rather than the many.
It is a wearyingly familiar cycle. Every few years, the clubs start to make noises about withdrawing into their own world. UEFA make concessions that benefit them. The world keeps turning, with the richest a little richer than before. There should, however, come a line in the sand, a point at which the governing body of the whole of European football, says enough. In an ideal world, perhaps UEFA would treat these implied threats for what they are and tell the biggest clubs that, “We believe that you have a big enough slice of the pie already. We stand for the whole European football and must make clear that we will offer you no further concessions in order to keep your attention. Should you wish to break away, then go ahead and attempt it. The integrity of European club football, however, is our paramount interest and even greater shares in revenue and wild card entries would fundamentally harm our very principles.”
As has been shown time and again in the past, however, we do not live in an ideal world.
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