There has been a mixed response to the news that Manchester United and Liverpool have proposed reducing the number of teams making up the Premier League to 18 from 20, alongside several measures to seemingly support the rest of the football pyramid. While some lower league clubs have supported the notion, fearing that they are on the brink of insolvency, others have seen the proposals as a power grab.
With COVID-19 dealing heavy financial losses to clubs across Britain, many who were already operating at the bread line are now facing financial ruin in a matter of weeks.
The Project Big Picture, however, seemingly offers a way out for those struggling. In the works since January, the plans will see the top-flight cut to 18 teams, the League Cup and Community Shield abolished, and parachute payments to relegated teams also abolished. A £250m rescue fund will be made available to the Football League alongside 25% of all future television deals. £100m will meanwhile be paid to the FA for lost revenue.
In this reimagined league, nine clubs will be given “special status”, including the so-called “big 6”, Everton, Southampton and West Ham. They would have increased voting rights.
Derby County is one of the voices supporting the moves, with chief executive Stephen Pearce telling BBC Sport that he believes the plan “will make the competition better and people will see it as a more attractive sporting product that is more competitive.”
West Ham, however, has rejected the proposals as a power-grab by the biggest clubs in the division. The loss of the extra games in the league and cup will undoubtedly affect their revenue, all while freeing up space for the bigger teams to play in an expanded Champions League. These extra games would likely also include lucrative friendlies against their fellow European giants, potentialy in the United States or Asia. It is feared that many lower league clubs will have no choice but to go along with the plan or face bankruptcy.
“The big six are using COVID for a power grab. If this goes through, over time they will just use more and more for themselves.”
West Ham source, BBC
Make no mistake, the plan by Joel Glazer and John Henry, the American billionaires behind Manchester United and Liverpool, is just that. The belief that the super-rich has suddenly developed an altruistic streak is as much a fantasy as a game of Football Manager. Rather than an attempt to benefit the system, the objectives are to set up a league within a league, an untouchable class of giants whose focus will be toward the revenue of Europe and the world rather than rainy nights in West Brom.
The Premier League, likewise, has criticised the idea. Yet, of course, their opposition comes from a position of their own vested interests.
“English football is the world’s most-watched and has a vibrant, dynamic and competitive league structure that drives interest around the globe. To maintain this position, it is important that we all work together. Both the Premier League and the FA support a wide-ranging discussion on the future of the game, including its competition structures, calendar and overall financing particularly in light of the effects of COVID-19. Football has many stakeholders; therefore, this work should be carried out through the proper channels enabling all clubs and stakeholders the opportunity to contribute.”
Premier League statement.
No matter what happens, there is the feeling that the loyal fans will have very little say in the outcome. The game of football has long been taken out of the hands of ordinary people and been placed in the hands of billionaires, bankers, oligarchs and oil sheikhs.
This is a world where human rights abusers such as Prince Mohammed bin Salman nearly takeover Newcastle at the head of a consortium. It is a league that is quite happy for the Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich to funnel £74m into far-right settler groups trying to seize Palestinian neighbourhoods in Israel. Money is the only concern of the Premier League, just as it is Liverpool, Manchester United and even West Ham. Morality, the fans and perhaps even the result, no longer really matter so long as the money keeps on flowing.
Yet, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Football is central to British culture, transcending sport. While elites once sneered at the pleasures of the common man, seeing it as a lower culture when compared with the arts of the opera or ballet, now they see it as a cash cow. Yet, if the likes of the National Gallery or Royal Opera House ran in the same way as the Premier League, with the likes of Mohammed bin Salman hovering close and the spectre of financial ruin looming large, the government would soon have their hands in their pockets.
It is not for Liverpool and Manchester United to dictate terms to the rest of the league, seeking to take advantage of unexpected poverty like some sporting Wonga. This merely makes the rest of the league beholden to the power of the chosen few, creating an elite level of billionaire clubs reflective of the class structure of society itself.
Last year, the lunatic fringe declared that Labour and Jeremy Corbyn were going to nationalise football in a communist plot to takeover sport. No, really. The hysterical coverage claimed that Corbyn’s “grubby plan” would see the government “taking control of football clubs, similar to when the USSR’s secret service controlled teams in Russia.”
The sensationalist claims came after comments Corbyn had made to Ashley Out, the campaign to get rid of Newcastle owner Mike Ashley.
“Clubs are part of the social fabric that binds us together. They are too important to be left in the hands of bad owners who put their business interests ahead of everything else, marginalise supporters and even put the financial security of clubs at risk. Sport must be run in the interests of those who participate in it, follow it and love it, not just for the privileged and wealthy few. We will ensure supporters have a say over how their club is run and review how fans can have more of a say about how our sporting bodies are run.”
Jeremy Corbyn’s “grubby plan.”
Labour’s actual plans included giving supporters trusts the power to appoint and remove at least two members of a club’s board of directors alongside enabling these trusts to purchase shares when clubs change hands. If anything, they didn’t actually go far enough.
The answer is really what the Express feared it might be, nationalising the entire football league.
Once nationalised, each club would be placed under the daily control of supporters trusts. All revenue generated by the league would then, every year, be distributed equally amongst the teams. All revenue generated by the clubs at the local level would be retained, ensuring that those clubs with a genuinely large fanbase have their status.
A percentage of the money, meanwhile, would be funnelled into developing the grassroots game. This would include academies and the advancement of the game at the national level. With the top clubs ensuring that they have the first pick of talented youth before they even make their professional debut, the academy system too would need an overhaul. Rather than individual clubs controlling these academies, they should also be under the control of the league.
In France, a system of twelve national academies was created across the country following the opening of the world-leading Clairefontaine academy southwest of Paris. Overseen by the French Football Federation, Clairefontaine and it’s sister academies were mostly responsible for the mid-90s revolution in French football that led the country to three World Cup Finals (victorious in 1998 and 2018) and a European Championship in 2000. Names that passed through the system include Nicolas Anelka, Louis Saha, William Gallas, Hatem Ben Arfa, Abou Diaby, Sébastien Bassong, Mehdi Benatia, Blaise Matuidi, Kylian Mbappé, Olivier Giroud and Thierry Henry. All costs associated with attending the academy are paid by the federation and the Ligue Nationale de Football, ensuring that those from poor and working-class backgrounds, often from immigrant communities, can remain in the sport.
While these potentially elite players are tracked and scouted by clubs while at the academies and subsequently sign for the likes of Paris Saint Germain, there is no reason that players could not be kept in the system until the age of 16 before being entered into a draft pool. Their talents would then be spread evenly amongst the clubs in the league.
The system is not that different from how the sport is run across the pond.
The United States has a somewhat peculiar culture of sport and the fact that they only show true adoration for the sports they invented and therefore lead the world in, is perhaps worthy of comment in itself. However, for a country that is so adamant in its visceral hatred for socialism, whether from the mouth of Donald Trump or Joe Biden, it is here in the US that we find the most socialised form of sport in the West.
While the NFL is not state-controlled, the division of revenue can only be described as wealth redistribution. This method by which money is distributed sees a division between what is considered local revenue and what is considered national revenue. National revenue is money generated by the NFL from TV deals, merchandising and enterprises such as the NFL Network, NFL.com and 40% of the ticket gross. Local revenue is concessions sold at the stadia, corporate sponsorship of teams and 60% of the gate.
The sum total of the national revenue is split evenly between the teams in the league, the local income is retained entirely by the team. The NFL distributed $7.8 billion to its 32 teams in 2016, by 2019 that had increased to an astonishing $8.7 billion.
The draft system meanwhile allows the fair distribution of players across the league, with the last placed team always getting the first pick for the draft. While the structure of international transfers and promotion and relegation would mean that the system would need amending, the system promotes fairness. It stops teams hoarding quality players, often benching them entirely just so they don’t join a rival club. The draft itself has become an event in American sport, with being selected first considered an honour and the live broadcast generating its own revenue and immense online exposure.
We the British often feel a sense of cultural superiority over the United States when it comes to sport, looking down our noses at how they do things while complaining about our own broken footballing system. Yet, perhaps for once, they may have found a path toward the solution. All be it, with modification and the need for state control. Under a nationalised system, no club would be allowed to become a megalith, while no club would be allowed to dissolve into bankruptcy. With money and players distributed in a fair and even fashion, the days of billionaires living out their boyish fantasies of creating dream teams would be over.
The answer to British sport’s problems are not more power for elite clubs, nor is it throwing more money yet into the mix. These are the disease, not the cure. The answer is that we finally start treating clubs and players as more than a commodity to be sold. The answer is we stop treating fans as nothing but a customer to dupe into buying what the Premier League is selling. It is time that football was taken out of the hands of the billionaires and placed back in the hands of the people.