A Bad Week For Premier League PR

by | Apr 5, 2020

Another weekend, another period without the football. Some are missing it intensely, whilst others are finding that the world carries on turning, and that there are other things to be concerned about that may or may not be considered “important”, at the moment. None of this has been good for any of us in any way whatsoever, but this week has been a disaster for the top levels of the game, with competing parties arguing amongst themselves over who should pay for what, who should take wage cuts and who shouldn’t, and what the end game of those running the biggest clubs might be, once things start to return to normal.

It’s been a week of incoherent argument and ranting into the ether, but we certainly shouldn’t be surprised by this. Nobody was expecting this – and debate over whether anyone, barring governments, should have been is neither here nor there – and the nature and timbre of the debate has reflected it. We’re all scared. We’re all confused. We’re all adjusting to something that most of us had given little thought to previously. And to assume that there are obvious and easy answers to anything is to betray a lack of understanding at how the world itself it may change in the wake of the current crisis.

Earlier this week, the common trope sweeping the internet concerned the unequal balance of wealth between professional footballers and nurses. It’s a common enough trope and superficially it’s appealing. “Footballers earn multiple times in a week what nurses earn in a year” is easy enough to turn into a meme, but obviously it’s not as simple as the black and white arguments that are so often presented. Firstly, professional footballers who do earn in this bracket are, in terms of the overall population, a vanishingly small number, and their playing careers are short and insecure. One serious injury or one run of bad form might end it for good.

The surprise and anger of people over this is surprising in itself. We live in a brutally inequitable society, and that inequality has been growing exponentially for decades. Professional footballers have been amongst the biggest beneficiaries of this, but at least we could perhaps console ourselves with the fact that this is, albeit in a completely cackhanded way, a form of restribution of wealth. After all, a large number of players come from working class backgrounds and a not inconsiderable proportion of them are minority ethnic.

If we have to have these absurd levels of inequality, then at least a small number of professional footballers are able to completely transform their lives from lives that may otherwise have been spent living in poverty. It’s thin gruel, but it’s something. There are plenty of people in the world who make millions of pounds from money that they didn’t even work for themselves. Perhaps we would be better off focusing on them a little more than we usually do.

As the week progressed, the news churn started to turn its attention to the owners of football clubs, who were beginning to furlough their staff whilst keeping their players on full wages. To a point, there is an element of logic behind this. Football’s rules insist that players are paid in full. It’s why football debts are left out of insolvency proceedings when clubs end up in financial trouble under normal circumstances. But it’s not a strong look for the game itself, and the events of the last few days seem to have resulted in a few scales from the eyes of onlookers who had not really given a great deal of though to this sort of inequality before.

The health minister Matt Hancock didn’t help with his bovine comments on the subject of players accepting a cut in wages, either. That seems to be the one thing that most people do seem agreed upon. For all the talk of players taking a financial hit, frequently for reasons unspecified, few seem to have given much thought to whether club owners should be doing the same thing, or whether clubs whose owners can afford to should be supporting all of their staff rather than merely some of them, and those who are already the wealthiest.

Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United were rightly castigated for furloughing their non-playing staff during the week, and Liverpool are in the same position today after having confirmed that they will do the same. More may well follow. The fight for the moral high ground is well and truly under way, and only thing we can say for certain is that everybody fighting it most aggressively is convinced that they are completely in the right. But the answers in these questions inevitably lead to more questions, and the further we dig, the more difficult and incomprehensible it all gets.

What would a players wage cut be for, for example? It’s been suggested that any money should be sent to the NHS, at which point we should gently point out that it’s the government’s responsibility to pay NHS staff decent wages, and that it’s our responsibility, if we want NHS staff to be sufficiently paid and for the service to be adequately funded, to vote in a government that will do so. We had the opportunity to do so in December, just as we had the opportunity to do so in 2010, 2015, and 2017. It would make more sense for wage cuts or donations to be spent on keeping football clubs open across all levels of the game.

Whether that would sit comfortably with the sort of “survival of the fittest” plutocrats who occupy the upper echelons of the professional game is, of course, open to question, when we consider that the Premier League was formed with the specific aim of  Similarly, if this money was enough to ensure that all staff are paid in full, that would make sense as well. But again, these are (mostly) companies that hire staff at below the living wage and contract out a lot of their jobs that companies which do. Why are we suddenly expecting turbo-capitalists to start changing their spots?

The parallel argument that has been ongoing this week has concerned what happens next. The Premier League wishes to to resume as soon as possible, and it has been reported that they are looking to play out the remainder of this season behind closed doors at a single venue, believed to be in the Midlands. Again, there don’t seem to be any definitively right or wrong answers in relation to this, and without knowing when some sembalnce of normality might return or whether the virus will come back in repeated waves, it’s difficult to say whether such a plan would even be feasible.

It has been reported, though, that curtailing this season – whether through expunging it or finishing it now on a Points Per Game basis – would be enormously expensive. Television money would have to be returned, likely under the threat of legal action. Whether this would even be possible remains an open question. In other words, even wealthy clubs and the Premier League itself have, to coin a discredited phrase, legitimate concerns. In the overall scheme of things, when professional football comes to a standstill but people make their livings off it… there are no perfect solutions. We don’t yet know exactly who will pay the biggest costs. All we know is that there will be costs to pay.

And everything I’ve written above sounds like a miasma of of ideas, well, there’s a reason for that. It is possible that we are witnessing the end times for professional football’s period of vast inequality. It is possible that we can emerge from all of this with the notion that football should be treated as a sport first, and a business second, and that the sport itself would be better served by its resources being distributed for equitably. It is also, however, entirely possible that the events of recent weeks and weeks to come will make the game even less equal that it already is, that conditions attached to “bailing out” smaller clubs will be so onerous that the game is entirely obliterated at all levels below the plutocrats. It could be anywhere inbetween these two extremes.

All we know for certain is that this is a seismic shock, a period of change that is unprecendented, not only for professional football, but for society in a more general sense. As such, these weekends without the football may well turn out to be trifling matters, compared with what’s to come. But if public relations do continue to be as important in the future as they have been for the last few years, this week has been a disaster for the Premier League, exposing a lot of things that the fireworks and sparkle have successfully swept under the carpet for years. And for a lot of supporters, this period has already proved to be a time for reflection on the very nature of the game that occupied so much of our time. And the ultimate question that many of us will be asking about the future is… do we want even more or considerably less of the same?