Comment: March 2015

Kevin Roberts: It's time the Premier League works on improving its image.

Years ago, satirical magazine Private Eye ran a story along these lines: Manchester United is believed to have won the English FA (Football Association) Cup in a game thought to have been played in north London. Reports differ, but suggest the score was either 2-0 or 2-1.

If memory serves correctly, football was in a bad way back then, and the piece was funny because of the post-apocalyptic picture it painted of a world in which the game had become an irrelevance. Looking back now, it also beautifully juxtaposes with the hype that surrounds the game today.

I was reminded of it when the English Premier League announced its new domestic TV rights deals that will see clubs pocket £5.136 billion for the three years from 2016/17. It’s a simply titanic sum, and is only part of the financial picture, because with the overseas rights still to be announced, it is likely that the Premier League’s bankers will need a much bigger vault.

The deal represents a 70-per-cent increase in value over the current domestic deal and will see the two incumbent UK pay-TV broadcasters hanging onto their positions, with Sky Sports retaining five of the seven packages. BT Sport walks away with the other two.

Though the final figure took most observers by surprise, there was never any doubt that it would represent a significant hike, nor that it would in some way offend just about everybody who doesn’t own a Ferrari dealership or Michelin-starred restaurant in London or Manchester.

We are told that ‘ordinary’ people are offended because the money will find its way into the obscene pay packets of players. Fans of clubs outside the Premier league don’t like it because it accentuates the wealth gap between the haves and have-nots and makes progress up the league structure increasingly difficult.

Other top leagues in Europe hate it because they fear rich English clubs will poach the best talent, and even fans of Premier League clubs are spitting blood because news of the deal was not accompanied by an announcement that ticket prices would be cut as a result. On top of that, there’s the fear that subscription fees will have to rise to pay for the increase, pushing live football further from the reach of fans.

If the Premier League is to future proof its image, it needs to highlight the positive work it does

However, football is a business that produces a product. The Premier League has been super smart in the way that it has branded, marketed and sold its product and taken advantage of competition in the pay-TV and digital communications markets to maximise revenues from customers around the world.

The money flowing into English football right now represents a remarkable achievement by those responsible for shaping the business, but success brings its own challenges.

Critics have wilfully misunderstood the fundamental point about any talent-based business: talent is a rare commodity that, under certain economic conditions, more or less names its own price. Unfounded or not, it’s a widely held perception that needs to be addressed if the Premier League brand is not to become undermined by misplaced hostility in its home market.

So long as there is competition in the marketplace, rights-fees will continue to rise and football has no control over that competition. Right now, the Premier League is the weapon of choice in the battle between two telecoms providers and its value is inextricably linked to winning that war. If one of those competitors were to find a new weapon and pull out, the super-premium value would evaporate. While there would still be competition, the value of rights as mere broadcast content would likely be lower.

Absurd as it may seem, there is currently a commercial rationale for spending an average of £10 million on games that may struggle to attract an audience of more than one million. But there is absolutely no guarantee that will be the indefinite case, or that the only way for rights-fees is up.

While there is already a lot of great work being done by the Premier League in community and social schemes, it is important for the future of the sport that it uses these continuing good times to improve its image at home.

It can do this by ensuring it is more widely seen to be making the money work at the grassroots, for the game further down the professional pyramid and for the fans who buy tickets.

You’re never going to change the minds of those who feel footballers should never earn more than nurses or policemen, but that’s something for governments to sort out. But if the Premier League is to future proof its image, it needs to be more vocal and persuasive about the way it presents itself as an industry and to highlight the positive work it does.

Before the Premier League, football in England was in a bad place and it was getting worse. It was just close enough for the Private Eye parody to be funny, and it was a place where people began not to care. If the success of the Premier League is allowed to become a source of resentment, division and disenfranchisement, there’s just a chance that it may go that way again.

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