Premier League’s Gonna Premier League

by | Nov 14, 2018

So farewell then, Richard Scudamore. It’s difficult to judge the record of a man who has been in a position that is by its very nature divisive by any other means  than looking at his record, and where the Premier League sits today. And by the criteria that the league itself would most likely consider the most important, he has been hugely successful. During the 2016/17 season, the Premier League raised £4.5bn in revenue and, all things being equal, it is surely inconceivable that this figure won’t rise substantially again over the next decade or so. That phrase “all things being equal” is, however, not insignificant. The pressure from the big clubs is building. A threatened European Super League looms large on the horizon, and Scudamore’s successor, former Discovery Channel executive Susanna Dinnage, may yet find herself having to fight very different battles to her predecessor.

Scudamore’s departure has come with a little controversy attached, of course. It was reported this week that he is to receive a payout of £5m upon his departure from his position. Now, we may well baulk at the idea of anybody receiving such a huge amount of money for, well, basically doing what he was paid to do, but even this pales in comparison with the extraordinary way in which it has been proposed that this be funded, with clubs having been asked to pay £250,000 each to cover that cost. The more one considers this, the more obscene it sounds. The grassroots football crisis is current news, pushed into the limelight by the Football Association’s withdrawal from the proposed sale of Wembley Stadium to the Fulham owner Shahid Khan, and it feels like valid criticism to ask why the hell the Premier League considers it reasonable to hold a whip round for Scudamore while the grassroots are suffering to the extent to which they currently are.

It’s hardly as though Scudamore has to rummage down the back of the sofa for loose change to pay into the gas meter or anything. His basic salary was £900,000 per year, though bonuses have pushed his income as high as £2.5m per year. As such, the Premier League might have considered that he was wealthy enough, and that donating the money to some sort of charitable cause might have been a more appropriate way of spending money in his name, especially when we consider that, in the speech given in June when he announced his departure, he described his role as “too much fun to be called a job.” The idea to chuck £5m into a (presumably golden and fur-lined) hat for him came from the Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck, but Buck requires fourteen Premier League clubs to vote in favour of doing so, and it is is already being reported that “more than five” clubs are ready to reject the request.

There’s a Premier League meeting due tomorrow at which the matter will be discussed further, and it would be fascinating to know how fractious things get when this particular subject comes up. Nobody is debating Scudamore’s performance in his role – although his support for the dismal “Game 39” idea certainly deserves a place in any review of his Premier League career – but, while tickets remain exclusionarily expensive and even watching matches live on the television remains out of the reach of millions of would-be viewers (and that’s before we even get onto the subject that many of these clubs are from parts of the country within which there is currently grinding poverty at present), it’s tempting to wonder whether anyone considered tapping Buck on the shoulder and asking him whether he thought this was a great PR move or not.

Perhaps the only way to treat news like this is to consider it little more than a window into how self-regarding and divorced from the world of those who watch it elite level professional football actually is, these days.  The alternative to this, of course, is to shrug one’s shoulders and think, “Premier League’s gonna Premier League”, which may not necessarily be the most principled stance to take on the matter, but is at least more likely to preserve our mental health. As the recent leaks to Der Spiegel seem to be making absolutely crystal clear, professional football across the whole of Europe is a moral cesspit from which nobody who even touches it emerges with a great deal of credit. Perhaps the thing that we should be most surprised about regarding this entire story is our surprise itself. We should know that there is no limit to the venality and greed of these people by now, but sometimes we seem to collectively forget this and apply some basic human decency to them. We should have learned this lesson by now, really.

All of which brings us onto the subject of Scudamore’s replacement,  Susanna Dinnage. The Premier League should be congratulated on being bold enough to appoint a woman into such a position, and the glowing terms in which she’s already been described by Bruce Buck – “She is a leading figure in the broadcasting industry, a proven business executive and a great developer of people. She is ideally suited to the role and we are confident she will be able to take the Premier League on to new heights.” – hints at a hugely capable appointment. Dinnage is reported to be a Fulham supporter, but her appointment has not come about on account of her interest in the goings-on at Craven Cottage. First employed by MTV, she was involved in the 1997 launch of Channel Five and stayed there for more than a decade before moving to the Discovery Channel in 2009.

The one interesting titbit from Dinnage’s past they may become relevant in her future was her dispute with Sky over the fees that they should be paying to keep Discovery’s channels on their service. At the start of 2017, Sky came within hours of pulling them from their service over this dispute, with Dinnage saying at the time that, “We believe Sky is using what we consider to be its dominant market position to further its own commercial interest over those of viewers and independent broadcasters. The vitality of independent broadcasters like Discovery and plurality in TV is under threat.” It will certainly be interesting to see if she carries this worldview into her new position, especially with more challenges upon Sky’s now-eroding stranglehold over live Premier League television coverage. It’s likely that such a stand-off was thought of as “all’s fair in love, war, and television bidding wars”, but Scudamore had been in position at the Premier League for such a long time that a change in tone was always going to be inevitable upon his departure, to some extent.

There’s no doubt that the landscape that Dinnage surveys will be challenging. The Premier League was slow to the move towards streaming as a means of broadcasting – choosing instead to play whack-a-mole with illegal streamers instead, a policy which, to the surprise of no-one whatsoever, has not completely eradicated illegal streaming –  and now has to move away from the slowly decaying medium of broadcast television towards an online future. In addition to this, the possibility of the entire landscape being cleaved apart by either/both of a European Super League or the biggest clubs in the Football League Championship breaking away from the rest of their organisation, and the unknown world of a post-Brexit Premier League – with quotas on all foreign players and the possibility of the economy tanking – lead us to a less certain future than football has had for several decades. Bearing these considerations in mind, it might just turn out that a very rich man wanting to give a lot of money to another very rich man will turn out to be a mere drop in the water. It is to be hoped that Susanna Dinnage can meet these challenges with the skill and leadership with which she has met the previous challenges in her career, thus far.