With as near as he can manage to understatement, Richard Scudamore confirmed this afternoon that his idea of play-off matches for the fourth Champions League place will not be taken any further forward – for now. It was something of a surprising decision. Unlike Game 39, this new idea didn’t require a great deal of support from outside of the Premier League. The smaller clubs, it was assumed, would sell their grandmothers for a sliver of a chance of getting into the qualifying rounds of the Champions League and the big clubs – who were obviously keen not to see their hegemony broken up – were against it, but didn’t hold enough of a blocking vote to prevent it from going through.
Where, then, did the plan fall flat? The official line isn’t exactly convincing. Fixture congestion has been reported as one of the biggest issues, but why this should be is a very interesting question. We are, after all, talking about maybe three extra matches at the end of the season here, and the reward for the winners would be a colossal amount of money. Considering their propensity to fly halfway across the world on marketing missions to “untapped markets”, it doesn’t quite add up that the clubs that would have a chance of making money from this would think that just three extra matches would make any difference to them.
It was also noted that such a change would not have been able to be brought in until after the current television contract is over. The other significant attraction of play-off matches for the Premier League would be the ability to offer a new feature for the television companies at a time when it is starting to become a concern for clubs that the upper limit of what can be raised from selling television rights may have been met. Would the television companies pay more for a Premier League package with play-off matches? Because the Premier League is tied into the contract that it is already in for three years and would, in all likelihood, have to give these matches to Sky and ESPN for nothing (or next to nothing) until they can renegotiate. The combination of these two factors may have been enough to persuade some sitting on the fence that change, right now, is not what is needed.
Even these two factors, though, shouldn’t have been enough on their own to convince clubs that Premier League play-offs for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow were not for them at the moment. Clubs need the money. So, what else might have been said in the Premier League’s meeting that isn’t being made public? We know that it’s not about principle. If it was, we can bet that the chairs of the clubs that had made a stand wouldn’t have been able to resist the temptation of blabbing about it to the press. Not all of them have been completely silent on the issue, either. Indeed, one of those that traditionally likes the sound of his own voice, West Ham United’s David Gold, has made a public statement on the matter already:
It was just a physical thing, finding time in the calendar. We certainly looked at it and the board looked at it but said physically we just can’t do it. The clubs that would be involved in a play-off could also be involved in the FA Cup and Champions League, so it just could not be done. They tried but it could not be done. It wasn’t a question of being unanimous or not, there was not a date. The very top clubs are not keen on it and you can make a case that they are right. But there was a feeling in the room that a play-off could make the league more exciting and bring more clubs the possibility of getting into Europe. But the Premier League is the most exciting league that the world has ever known and no one is looking to damage that.
The key phrase is right at the very end, there – almost hidden away. “No one is looking to damage that”, meaning . When we consider that statement, it starts to feel as if someone, at some point, pointed out that the Premier League is having to deal with a considerable amount of criticism at the moment. Over the last couple of years, almost everybody else in the game – the FA, UEFA, FIFA, the media, the government, even – has had a pop at it. Perhaps they realised that instigating something that would likely prove to be death knell for the FA Cup would be a step too far, even if the FA might have been assuaged over any concerns about the wellbeing of the FA Cup with the promise of more revenue generating matches for Wembley.
They may also have looked at the figures from play-off matches abroad – play-offs of a similar sort were used in the Netherlands for several years but were scrapped because of a lack of public support and in Greece, where a similar system is used, figures have been similarly underwhelming – and taken that into consideration. It may even be possible that they have been reading the comments sections of newspaper websites, where support for the idea has been scant. We will probably never know the exact truth, but it is possible that these factors (and possibly more) somehow combined and managed to convince them that this isn’t something that they should be touching for now.
Of course, there are ways that the Premier League can increase excitement. They could act to a more equitable share of prize money and television money or, if they were feeling particularly revolutionary, introduce a degree of gate receipt sharing. This, however, is unlikely to happen unless forced upon the league. We should be grateful at least that this damaging end of season jamboree isn’t going to be introduced for the forseeable future, though, and there might even be a lesson in that for the Premier League. If, by any chance, domestic disquiet amongst ordinary fans was anything to do with the reason for jettisoning it, admitting as such and saying that they’re listening to those ordinary fans would at least give the impression that they are listening, even if they aren’t.