Premier League Breakaway 2: Electric Boogaloo
Supporters of Football League clubs awoke to a bit of a shock this morning, with The Sun reporting that sixteen clubs from the Football League Championship are threatening to break from the rest of that organisation unless they receive a sizeable increase in television money from the League’s new deal with Sky Sports. But, whilst there are issues with the amount of money that these clubs receive as well as the League’s recent handling of the streaming of matches through its iFollow service it seems fair to ask questions of this story, not least because were it to follow through to full fruition, it would cleave an even bigger schism through the landscape of English club football than the recent revelations regarding the European Super League would were that to come to pass.
It is important, of course, to consider the source of such rumours, and few would agree that a story in The Sun puffed out with some anonymous quotes from “sources” carries the same journalistic weight as a lengthy series of detailed articles in a magazine with a reputation for journalistic rigour and thousands of supporting documents. There is – as there always is with a story emanating from the gutter that is the British tabloid media – therefore a need to treat this story with a degree of cynicism. It is a truth universally acknowledged that news websites will do anything that they need to do for The Clicks, after all. But what if there’s something in this story? What if the clubs of the Football League have, inflated by their own feelings of self-importance, decided that they can do better on their own than surrounded by the relative paupers of Leagues One and Two?
Well, first of all, let’s kick off by saying that their objections aren’t completely without merit. The decision of the Football League to make all games available for streaming that aren’t taking place during the three o’clock blackout on a Saturday afternoon felt ill thought out, with the only strong likelihood to come from it all being a negative effect on match attendances for clubs affected by it. And there is obviously a case to be made for arguing that the gulf in money between the bottom of the Premier League (where clubs receive around £100m in television money per season) and the top of the Championship (where clubs currently receive around than £2.3m in television money plus appearance fees per season from a pot worth £10.8m), especially when that gulf creeps into the lower division through parachute payments for relegated clubs that also far outweigh anything received by those that do not benefit from them.
It’s not the first time, of course, that such stories have done the rounds. It’s almost exactly a year since “Premier League 2” rumours circulated with an article in Bloomberg suggesting that ten clubs were looking to jump ship. The Sun’s story provides a little more meat than previous riffs on this particular theme, identifying Leeds United, Aston Villa and Derby County amongst those agitating for a move away. The identity of these three clubs should hardly be that much of a surprise. The Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani has, through his ownership of Eleven Sports and its breaking of the 3pm curfew on a Saturday afternoon earlier this season, already positioned himself as a “disruptor” (a word that needs the pejorative air when used that it doesn’t currently quite have) within English football, while Aston Villa and Derby County have both displayed clear signs of the desperation that frequently accompanies those living in what they consider to be “reduced” circumstances over the last couple of years or so.
Before we say anything else, though, a little number-crunching. The new television deal is a five-year extension on the current deal worth £119m per year, which has been in place for the last two seasons. From next season, Championship clubs would receive £2.95m per season plus appearances from a pot that would increase from £10.8m to £17.7m per season. With a seventy per cent increase in the appearances pot compared to a thirty per cent increase in the basic television payment, it could be argued that the biggest clubs in the Championship are already being further advantaged by the new television deal. After all, the likes of Leeds United, Aston Villa and Derby County are shown on the television considerably more often than many other clubs in their division, which would lead to a far greater share of the appearances pot.
The Sun’s article also mentions that “Some Championship clubs are believed to think that they should be receiving at least DOUBLE what is on offer.” Where they’re pulling such optimism from is not known. What we can say for certain, however, is that twenty-four times £2.95m per year is £70.8m per year, which, along with the lion’s share of an increased appearance pot means that Championship clubs would already be consuming more than two-thirds of the Football League’s television money. Merely doubling that £2.95m share amongst twenty-four clubs comes out at £141m per season, which is £22m more than Sky are offering before any other considerations are taken into account, such as, say, paying a single penny to the clubs of League One or League Two.
In other words, whichever clubs think they should get twice what they currently do either believe that there is a bigger television deal that the EFL can strike, or are run by people who are fundamentally arithmetically challenged. Given the ways in which so many Football League clubs have found themselves in enormous financial difficulty in recent years, it’s difficult to say which of these is more likely to be accurate. Of the twenty-two clubs in the top division of the Football League who voted on the breakaway split in 1992, twelve are not currently members of the Premier League. It was this split that broke a fundamental tie of solidarity between clubs, and there is a certain irony to the fact that more than half of the clubs who voted against that solidarity are amongst those currently feeling impoverished by the gulf that they created.
But it entirely possible that there is something else at play here, too. “The Deal” has become somewhat fetishised within our culture, in recent years. The President of the United States of America stomps all over his country’s trade agreements with others whilst squawking that he and he alone can get them a “better deal”, whilst here in the UK certain politicians of a certain persuasion spent a considerable amount of effort persuading a lot of people that they would definitely get them a better “deal” should we leave the European Union. Since the former has led to trade wars and the latter has led all of us to where we are now, though, whether “The Deal” is as great as it is claimed to be is very much open to question, but this hyper-masculine way of seeking to do business – which might otherwise be interpreted as a modern spin upon chucking one’s toys out of one’s pram – is certainly in vogue at present. One can definitely imagine, say, Derby County’s Mel Morris standing in the ridiculous “power stance” so beloved of our current generation of politicians, for example.
But if these clubs were to come through on their threats and “break away,” where exactly would they go? Would the Premier League be keen on a second division, even though this would likely mean a reduction in income for the twenty clubs that would vote on whether to admit sixteen new members? Do they already have assurances from the Premier League that this would be be something they’d go for? Or do they believe that a new standalone division of sixteen clubs would provide a new Eldorado of television money similar to that which the Premier League clubs bagged themselves in 1992? Because tearing up the entire fabric of the league system in this country is a mighty big price to pay for a few clubs to make a couple of million of pounds extra per year, as succinctly summed up by the Brighton chief executive Paul Barber last year, after this story previously reared its head:
The bigger clubs are right in the sense that they attract the biggest TV audiences and the TV companies want those clubs. There’s no doubt that they help subsidise the clubs further down.
But if we take away the food and the nourishment and our pyramid starts to disintegrate then one of the unique propositions that we have in this country starts to fade away.
I can tell you from working in North America and when I was with the FA travelling around the world, the one consistent thing that anyone ever talked to me about was the strength of the pyramid.
There are other problems beyond this, too. For example, more than a third of the money that the Football League receives from its current television deal is from the League Cup. Leaving the Football League would end their entitlement to any share of this money. It is, of course, debatable whether the League Cup could continue in the face of another split (though the Premier League didn’t turn its nose up at continuing to appear in it after their clubs left the Football League), but the key point remains the same – further fragmentation, especially in tournaments which include clubs outside of the “premium product” that is the Premier League, seems more likely to reduce the amount of money available rather than increase it.
Perhaps there are things that the Football League could do with regard to the financial position of its clubs. It could, for example, end iFollow, or at least ensure that every single penny of it goes to clubs impacted by lower attendances. It could make it a stipulation of relegation from the Premier League that clubs entering the Championship from above give up their parachute payments to a fund to be distributed more equally amongst Football League clubs. It could separate its League Cup television deal from its League matches television deal, or tighten its rules on FFP rules in order to ensure that clubs don’t overspend in the pursuit of a sought-after place at the top table, as happened over the two seasons prior to this at Aston Villa, and has happened elsewhere at scores of other clubs over the years, or introduce considerably harsher punishments for those that break them.
Should the Football League be pushing broadcasters hard on the amount that they pay for the rights to their competition? Well, one would hope that they’ve already been pushing them as hard as they could. And there is something faintly obscene about the fact that their television contract is worth just 4% of the Premier League’s contract, all the more so because that money has to be distributed between seventy-two clubs than between twenty. But these are the inevitable after-effects of the creation of the Premier League. This was exactly the desired result. A more even distribution of a greater amount of money within the Football League would be a hugely positive step for competitive balance within the game in England, but the long-term trend has been for anybody to do whatever they need to do to get more money, more concessions, more or everything… for themselves. Solidarity is already an outmoded concept, in modern football.
We don’t believe that any of the clubs currently throwing their weight around have the slightest interest in reducing financial inequality within English league football for a second. We all know that there is massive financial inequality within English football, and we also all know that massive financial inequality sucks, unless you’re one of the small number of its beneficiaries. It seems difficult to believe, however, that any football clubs protesting the Football League’s television deal contract extension would be doing so for the greater good, if for no other reason that nobody in football ever seems to do anything much for “the greater good” these days. It’s impossible to believe that any of those involved want anything more or less than the same drawbridge that exists right now, only for the pulley for that drawbridge to exist below them, rather than above. The only question, perhaps, that still needs to be answered is how far the “disruptors” will “disrupt” in order to benefit themselves, and it’s difficult to be optimistic about what the answer to this question might be.