Newcastle United & The Premier League’s Impossible Choice

by | Jul 1, 2020

Another month passes, and still the takeover of Newcastle United has yet to be ratified by the Premier League. Most in the media seem of the opinion that it will eventually be approved, though somewhat fewer believe that it should, and all of this feeds into the growing belief that the Premier League has found itself stuck between a rock and very hard place indeed over this particular sale.

The delay in confirming the takeover of Newcastle by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF) largely centres around television rights in the Middle East. The Premier League has a lucrative TV contract with beIN Sports, the Qatari broadcaster which has served as a post-misogyny scandal bolthole for Richard Keys and Andy Gray. The League’s three year contract, which is worth £500m, is the biggest overseas television contract it has.

For the last three years has been pirated by a company called beoutQ, which is understood to be based in Saudi Arabia, all part of a series of ongoing difficulties between the two countries (a matter sufficiently complex to warrant a Wikipedia page.) Towards the end of May, it was reported that the World Trade Organisation (WTO), have been investigating it all, were due to publish a report which might throw a spanner in the works of the takeover by implicating the Saudi Arabian government in the whole deal. The usual back and forth between supporters and journalists bounced around for a couple of days, but then, a couple of weeks ago, the 93 page was published (PDF available here).

The WTO had found that Saudi Arabia had facilitated the beoutQ operation and had “acted in a manner inconsistent” with international law protecting intellectual property rights, and called for the country to “bring its measures into conformity with its obligations” under international law. And this put the Premier League in a particularly sticky spot, particularly in relation to one of its most maligned (and, if we’re completely honest with ourselves, misunderstood) regulations: the Owners & Directors Test (ODT). The Premier League’s version can be found in this PDF, under section F. The League itself describes it thus:

The Owners’ and Directors’ Test outlines requirements that would prohibit an individual from becoming an owner or director of a club. These include criminal convictions for a wide range of offences, a ban by a sporting or professional body, or breaches of certain key football regulations, such as match-fixing.

The Owners & Directors Test has long been criticised as unfit for purpose. It exists as a blunt instrument of little to no efficacy, a series of binary questions which have not evolved with the changing profile of individuals coming into clubs. It consists of simple ‘yes/no’ questions which somehow contrive to be completely muddy. Every line is open to interpretation, and it’s not particularly surprising to find that, to pick a pertinent example, there is no reference to being involved in piracy being an excluding matter, even though piracy costs the Premier League a considerable amount of money each year.

And the Saudis have not exactly helped themselves, at times. Following the ruling, the Saudi mission to the WTO issued a press release containing erroneous statements related to the case. The release featured a superimposed WTO logo at the top of the document, indicating it was an official WTO-endorsed document, and it claimed that the global trade body had supported measures undertaken by Riyadh on the grounds they were taken to protect Saudi security interests.

This seems to have infuriated the WTO, whose spokesman Keith Rockwell confirmed in an interview with Al Jazeera that the WTO is a neutral body and that they will not allow their logo to be used to “endorse a position”, adding that:

If there is an instance in which someone is using our logo in a way that might indicate that there is a position being taken by the secretariat, then we have the responsibility to inform this member of our logo policy. The logo is not to be used in any sort of way for endorsing a position or for a product or anything of that nature.

After Rockwell’s interview was broadcast, the Saudi government’s communication office’s Twitter account deleted the Tweet with the press release attached. No apology, however, seems to have been forthcoming for what looks very much like the officially-sanctioned released of this misleading statement.

Such behaviour, from top to bottom, has put the Premier League in an extremely difficult position. It’s not that the Premier League as a body would want to keep them out. Investment is investment, so far as they’re concerned, and the League may well welcome extra competition towards the top of the table, from the point of view of its “global branding.” And it should be added that the Premier League did wave through the sale of Manchester City by the Abu Dhabi Group, and have said little about human rights violations there.

That, however, was then, and this is very much now, and it speaks volumes about the intricacies of what has to be picked through that a decision has not already been reached. The ODT is muddy enough for the Premier League to be able to decide whatever the hell it likes, but the likelihood of legal action should they reject it would be high, and there will be clubs who, entirely out of their own self-interest, may apply pressure to block it. With talk of a European Super League ongoing, how would the Premier League react if the other big clubs wanted this takeover voted down?There has been talk that ending beoutQ’s service was the key to getting the deal approved, and even this isn’t an open and shut case. The satellite operation has been ‘closed down’, but the IPTV operation has remained up and running.

New Premier League chief executive Richard Masters was staying tight-lipped this week when questioned by a DCMS committee, telling them only that there is ‘no particular time frame’ set because ‘some takeovers are straightforward and others aren’t’. But the original application was made to them almost three months ago, now, and they can’t carry on deferring forever. And whatever decision they reach, they’re going to be heavily criticised. If they approve the deal, they’ll stand accused of kowtowing to the Saudi Arabian government, and of putting money before human rights concerns. If they don’t approve the deal, they’ll likely end up in court and earn the undying loathing of Newcastle supporters.

But sometimes there is no answer that will be make everybody happy. It’s entirely plausible that the Premier League like to approve the deal, and that it’s only interested in the potential financial cost of angering the Qataris. But this is what Premier League football has become, and the Premier League itself doesn’t deserve any sympathy for not having seen something like this coming. Being purchased by a state that stands accused of repeated human rights violations is a terrible look that they might have seen coming, or that they might have dealt with in a more robust manner after the Abu Dhabi United group bought Manchester City.

Note again, though, that what matters is the impression of caring about human rights rather than actually caring about them. The Premier League’s obsession with mammon had for years insulated them against the sort of uncomfortable question that they face over this takeover. So long as it was all about the money and nothing else, they could at the very least claim complete objectivity over their decision-making. This time, though, things are different to normal, and something is going to have to give. The insiders remain extremely confident that it will go through, but as with more or less everything associated with Newcastle United over the last half century or so, this is complicated.