Football Without Fans Is… Fifteen Quid

by | Oct 10, 2020

Having the ability to read a room is important, these days. The social media era is littered with the battered and bruised bodies of both individuals and companies that have failed to do this, but even now, the slickest PR operations in the world can be fallible to basic human error at times. The Premier League prides itself on the quality of its self-promotion. It has spent almost three decades as The Best League In The World, and criticisms of its onward march towards world of laissez-faire (so long as it suits them) economics have largely fallen upon deaf ears.

And when they haven’t, they have broadly acted swiftly in order to protect The Brand. For example, when complaints about the cost of ticket prices reached a level at which they were starting to damage it, they quickly introduced a maximum price cap of £30 for away tickets. It cost them next to nothing, and they may well have earned that much positive coverage of this decision that it more than paid for itself. There has always been plenty to criticise about the Premier League, but the quality of its ‘game’ was not amongst them.

But recently, things have started to slide, a little. There have been cracks starting to appear in Castle Grayskull – just tiny ones, but cracks nevertheless. Domestic television contract values may have plateaued, whilst there have been major issues with them both in the Middle East and in China, where the Premier League are suing PPTV for $215.3m in missed payments. In addition to this, and regardless of what you think of the outcome of it, the League didn’t cover itself in glory over its protracted dealing in the collapsed Newcastle United takeover, while recent comments regarding Premier League B teams made by club executives have fuelled a growing feeling that perhaps they are The Evil Empire after all.

Bearing all of this in mind, their decision to pick yesterday – the Friday before an international break weekend, with plenty of TV news slots and newspaper column inches to fill – to announce that until the end of October half of their matches will be going to pay-per-view at the eye-watering price of £14.95 per match seems mind-meltingly bad. Those who will likely be expected to pay will likely already be paying a Sky Sports subscription, and may well skew towards those who have already paid for a season ticket that they cannot currently use. And these matches will, of course, continued to be played in empty stadiums, so it can hardly be argued that it’s a premium product that is being offered in return for this premium price. Google searches for “streaming boxes” are likely to be high, this weekend.

The announcement has, it should go without saying, gone down like a cup of cold sick, but what’s truly fascinating about it is the extent to which it is, on top of everything else, a PR disaster for the Premier League. The League’s reputation has already been damaged since the start of the pandemic by clubs furloughing staff and their failure to offer much outside assistance to clubs lower down the food chain. The comments of Ferran Soriano only reinforced what a growing number had believed from the outset, that any Premier League-led bailout would come with significant strings attached.

So, does the Premier League seriously believe that this was the right time to make such an announcement? Or are its clubs in such serious financial dire straits at the moment that they desperately need this cash, right now? Because that would be the obvious inference to draw from them pulling this particular trigger at this particular time. The EFL makes every game available through its iFollow service, which charges £10 a game, but it might well be argued that the financial position of EFL clubs is very different to the that of the Premier League. The Premier League’s decision to move towards pay-per-view hints that it might not be.

Respect is due to Leicester City, for being the only club to vote against the proposal, and special mention should also be made of Manchester United’s Ed Woodward who, such was the speed of the leak to the press about his role in the meeting, was presumably very keen to let it be known, though it did raise the question of why he voted in favour of it when he’d spoken so passionately against it. “To present a united front” is presumably the answer to this question, but it did leave him open to ridicule. No change there, then.

But did nobody look out the window during this entire decision-making process? Unemployment has already sky-rocketed. The furlough scheme is coming to an end, and its replacement is only likely to tighten belts considerably further than they already have been. Covid-19 cases are sharply on the rise and whole regions are back under lockdown. The financial impact of Brexit is coming. Who on earth believes that anyone, apart from those still lucky enough to still be working as per normal, would even be able to consider paying fifteen quid per match to watch a Premier League match on a channel that they’re already paying for? Are they out of their minds?

Grounds are empty at the moment, and Premier League football clubs will be wanting to fill them again once they start playing. People will, of course, flock back, but some will drift away naturally, whilst others may well have a tipping point in terms of how they are treated by their clubs. With television revenues looking unlikely to rise in the immediate future, keeping that product premium should be all-important, but while empty stadiums are understandable at the moment, empty seats when the league returns would not be a strong look. PR disasters can have practical consequences.

The coruscating nature of the replies to the Premier League’s decision speaks for itself, and the idea that they’ve done this in order to claw back positive publicity by withdrawing it seems far-fetched. It feels as though they’ve pulled off a mask, and once that mask has been removed it’s up to consumers to decide whether they like – or can even stomach – what’s underneath. Meanwhile non-league clubs have already been making hay with it all, sending out tweets pointing out that £15 will get you entry to an actual match at Step Three and below, with enough money for a pie and a pint on top. Non-league grounds are under severe capacity restrictions and far from everywhere is pay on the gate, but it would not be surprising to see some drift away towards the earthier end of the game’s spectrum.

All of which leaves that one tantalising question. Why did they reach this decision now? Was it bone-headed stupidity? A need for cleared funds so desperate that they realised they’d have to endure a torrent of extremely bad publicity? Even if we agree that they DGaF, it doesn’t seem likely that most clubs will make back in money from this what they’ll lose in ill-will, so it doesn’t even make commercial sense for them to make this choice now. Perhaps people would have been happy with paying a fiver per match, so long as the Premier League made it clear that this was only while matches were behind closed doors and free for season ticket holders. That the Premier League either didn’t realise this as a massive PR own goal or didn’t care enough to not do it (or at least water it down) is almost irrelevant – they’re both as troubling conclusions to reach as each other.