Who knew that deep in the hearts of Premier League club owners lay a touching and purportedly genuine concern for the clubs in the lower tiers of English football? A mere matter of weeks after Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden firmly planted the ball in their court, few of us realised that the altruistic, all-caring clubs of the Premier League were working hard to develop their plans to ride to the rescue of the poor EFL clubs that are finding it harder and harder to survive during the deepening financial crisis brought by the ongoing lockout of fans from their grounds.
Last Sunday The Telegraph revealed details of a leaked document, ‘Project Big Picture’ setting out proposals for a radical set of changes designed to reshape the finances of the game in England. Reportedly driven by Liverpool owners Fenway Sports Group and Joel Glazer at Manchester United in collaboration with EFL chairman Rick Parry, the document on the face of it carries the offer of the financial bailout that clubs lower down the league are so desperately in need of (link), with potentially an immediate offer of the £250 million identified as being needed by EFL clubs to survive the season and then annual solidarity payments of 25% of Premier League broadcast revenue. There is also provision for a £100 million support package for the Football Association. So far so incredibly generous hey?
When you start to look at the other elements of the proposed reform, things start to look a lot less rosy. The main changes being proposed would alter the game as we know it forever. As part of the reforms to the structure of the game being floated are: the reduction in size of the Premier League from 20 teams to 18; only two teams being relegated each season with a play-off for the third lowest placing Premier League team with those finishing third, fourth and fifth in the Championship; and the scrapping of the League Cup and Community Shield. Admittedly none of those seem too controversial other than the reduction in size of the Premier League gravy train, it is however when you look into the proposed changes to voting rights that alarm bells should start ringing for anyone who loves football.
Project Big Picture advocates that the nine longest-serving Premier League clubs: the self-avowed Big Six of Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham along with Everton West Ham and Southampton; would be given preferential voting rights that would potentially mean that only six of them would need to agree to any changes in the structure or funding of the game, or indeed to veto them. This gang of nine would also potentially be able to block a new owner looking to break into their exclusive members club (cartel?).
Where previously any proposed change needed a majority of fourteen on a one club one vote basis, under the new regulations even highly controversial ideas such as the 39th game being played overseas, the introduction of a European, or even World, super league, and the ability to negotiate and sell their own broadcast rights as individual clubs; would simply need the agreement of the big-hitters. As so many other commenters have said this week, it is the very definition of a power grab thinly veiled as support for those in need, as the excellent Jonathan Liew in the Guardian put it: “It is the equivalent of giving a drowning man a lifejacket in exchange for his right to vote”.
Rick Parry of course was effusive in his pride at the proposed deal commenting: “The creation of a short-term rescue fund of £250m to replace lost matchday revenue this season and last will enable every club to plan to continue to play and move forward with certainty”, indeed it would but at what price Mr Parry? Or for how long?
Viewing the proposed offer more sceptically, Tranmere Rovers co-owner Nicola Palios took to Twitter to question: “What’s to stop them [the Premier League] changing the distribution methodology in future, to say ten per cent? We must not be blinded by the short-term offer of a cash lifeline. It’s like someone offering you a million pounds but shooting you soon after.” There was also outrage amongst supporters with fan groups from the Big Six issuing an open letter saying that they were “totally opposed” to the proposals within Project Big Picture.
Thankfully at an emergency virtual meeting held on Wednesday, all twenty Premier League clubs unanimously agreed: “that Project Big Picture will not be endorsed or pursued by the Premier League or the FA”. This did however mean that the £250 million offer of support to the EFL was rescinded, although a further £50 million has been offered on top of the £27.2 million solidarity payments agreed for clubs in League One and Two.
Furthermore, it was agreed that all the Premier League clubs would now work together to undertake a strategic review of the game towards creating a “vibrant, competitive and sustainable league structure”. Victory of a fashion perhaps, although it is easy to feel that this might only be the beginning, a testing of the water if you like, and this certainly won’t be the last we hear from J W Henry, the Glazers or the other members of the Big Six on how radical reform is needed to hide the relentless push for more and more wealth that is the Premier League.
Whether by deliberate action or not, the whole furore around Project Big Picture did serve to overshadow another hugely controversial development, the announcement that starting from this weekend those games not selected for broadcast by Sky or BT in the UK, will no longer be available as part of ongoing subscriptions and instead will be available behind a paywall at the cost of £14.95 per go. Through Saturday to Monday each week that represents half of the Premier League fixtures. While the arrangement is reputedly only temporary and is due to be reviewed at the end of this month, it has quite understandably enraged fans who continue to feel fleeced for all they are worth by their clubs.
While there is an element of take-it-or-leave it amongst those who have usually watched at home on TV in the past, it is a particularly snide move towards season ticket holders who would have been going to the games if they were allowed to, some of whom having already been charged for their tickets for the season. Rightly the Football Supporters Association urged a rethink: “We would urge BT Sport and Sky Sports to reconsider their pricing for these games… many Premier League clubs have already taken money from fans, particularly season ticket holders, for matches they can’t attend, so we urge them to get refunds out to those supporters as soon as possible.”
Even in these times of severe financial crisis it seems that money and power remain the key driving forces for the uber rich of the Premier League. Perhaps they ought to exercise a degree of caution however, as one might wonder how keen, or even able, the fans they used to take for granted will be to part with their cash if we are ever allowed to go back into grounds. Or maybe that is what they want, a global TV-based league where commercial interest is all that matters.