It will have come as no great surprise that Richard Scudamore, the chief executive of the Premier League, should have been in a distinctly crowing mood this week. Against many expectations, the top division in English football managed to squeeze even more money than it ever has before from the television companies with its new television deal, which will start from the beginning of the season after next. The amounts of money concerned are now so great that they melt in front of the eyes.
BSkyB will pay £3bn for the rights to show one hundred and sixteen live matches per season from the start of the 2013/14 season, while BT have picked up the secondary package of thirty-eight games per season for the not inconsiderable price of £738m over three years.
Scudamore is nothing if not a keen observer of prevailing winds, and he was quick to try and dismiss the idea that the overwhelming majority of money being thrown at the league will be thrown straight into the pockets of players and agents. “We are entering a new era with financial fair play, ” he said, I’m hoping it will get invested in things other than playing talent. It should also be able to achieve sustainability,” at which point, somewhere in the far distance, the vague but distinctive sound of a buzzword klaxon went off at his use of the word “sustainability.” Yet most of the comment regarding this matter since the announcement was made has been of a distinctly cynical nature, and there is good reason for this. Over the last few seasons, more and more people have come to take an interest in the annual financial reports that clubs are required to submit by law, and precious few of these documents have shown much of a trend towards ending the madness of money being thrown into the apparently infinite black hole of wages, fees and commissions.
Yet what Scudamore didn’t say is, in many respects, almost as important as what he did. Some have speculated that clubs could invest this money on reducing season ticket prices and making the game more affordable for those on lower incomes, but this seems somehow unlikely. Likewise, few have sought to answer tyhe question of where all of this money is to come from. We know that BSkyB is dependent upon live football for continuing the number of subscribers that it has, and that this probably informs the vast amount of money that they tabled as an offer to the Premier League. Yet unless we are to expect that BSkyB will simply swallow £1bn as an annual loss for three years and mark it down to the cost of keeping its subscriber base as high as it is, then somebody, somewhere is going to end up paying for this all.
If we consider that Sky already has ten millions subscribers in the UK, we can surely only consider that it is close to the maximum number of people who will pay in excess of £50 per month to watch live football on the television. This, combined with an understanding that BSkyB won’t wish to merely to concede the extra money to be paid this time around from their balance sheets, will lead many towards the belief that further prices increases for Sky subscribers are inevitable. So much for the free market driving prices down, then. Meanwhile, ESPN, who have been frozen out this time around, will likely find that their subscription base quickly whittles away come the end of next season. BT have already stated that their package will be available across multiple platforms, but for the third time since the monopolistic aspect of television rights buying for Premier League football was broken up, a change of supplier will bring upheaval for those that opt for the cheaper of the two package options.
It might also be considered that this won’t just have an effect on the clubs of the Premier League. How many owners of clubs in the Football League Championship – or lower – wiped a bead of drool from the corner of their mouths and vowed to redouble their efforts to get themselves a piece of that particular pie? And how many times before have we seen that sort of policy end in something approaching disaster? It would be unsurprising to see speculators starting to circle Championship clubs with half a chance of promotion from that division at the end of next season. Similarly, the warning signs for smaller clubs should be clear enough for anyone with a reasonable grasp of the recent economic history of football in this country. Not only will the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” (with the “haves” here being defined as the twenty clubs of the Premier League and the handful in the Championship who receive recently plumpened parachute payments and the “have nots” being everybody else.
In addition to this, with financial control more often than not comes actual control. The Premier League has been involved in a silent coup d’etat over the last twenty years which is almost complete. It seems unlikely that they will relinquish control with even money running through their clubs. Furthermore, increases to funding for the Football Stadia Investment Fund now look even more like mere crumbs – if that – from the Premier Leagues banquet table than they did before. When we add in the benefits to the biggest clubs of the Elite Player Performance Plan – Wycombe Wanderers confirmed the closure of their academy because it no longer made any sense for them to keep it over since EPPP was signed off – these increases in funding cross the line from being risible to something approaching insulting.
Indeed, the most significant things to have trickled down from the Premier League to the lower divisions in recent years have been vastly increasing ticket prices and the hyper-inflation of players wages. Either clubs that aren’t in the sacred thirty or so that will benefit from this TV deal will have to accept that this financial gap will now be all but impossible to bridge or break the bank in seeking to join it. Either way, the gap between rich and poor in English football will become considerably wider from the start of the season after next, and the only way that supporters can register their dissatisfaction at this state of affairs would be to cancel their television subscriptions. It seems inconceivable that there will be any escape from footballs culture of consumerism in the foreseeable future.
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