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Scudamore | The cool-headed diplomat who transformed the EPL

  • Chief executive surrounded himself with the best advisors to take strategic decisions
  • Diplomatic skills essential in persuading league owners of the greater power of the collective
  • Premier League expected to split up the role in search for a successor

If the trick in sport and business is always to go out on top, by the strictest definitions Richard Scudamore mistimed his decision to bring his twenty-year tenure at the Premier League to an end.

The chief executive of the world’s most dominant football league announced he would be stepping down on the same day the organisation concluded the drawn out and some would say anti-climactic auction for its domestic live media rights for the three seasons spanning 2019-20 to 2021-22. Although the league eventually received a bid from Amazon – one of the new tech players it was hoped would stoke up some competition in the market – it failed to surpass the £5.136bn it earned from BT and Sky in the previous three-season cycle.

Defenders of Scudamore’s legacy and his leadership would argue that he couldn’t be blamed for the cooling of the rivalry between BT and Sky brought about by the cross-carriage agreement the rival firms struck in the run up to the auction, and that his final domestic deal represented a correction rather than a bursting of the Premier League’s bubble. But a corollary of that argument is to ask whether he could take any more of the credit for the 70% increase in the value of the rights in the preceding cycle when the competitive landscape was fiercer and the two broadcasters were at each other’s throats.

This is also the crux of any analysis of the overall success of Scudamore’s tenure: how much of the Premier League’s extraordinary commercial growth could be attributed to the strategic decisions he took, and how much was he riding a wave that was not of his own making?

“Unquestionably there is an element of riding the wave but then there’s nothing wrong with that because many other people have found that it’s actually relatively simple to fall off,” says Rick Parry who knows all about the pressures and challenges of the job having served as the original chief executive of the league when it was founded in 1992 and had dealings with Scudamore as one of the Premier League’s twenty stakeholders in his later incarnation as the chief executive of Liverpool.

“I think it’s universally acknowledged that he’s done a really good job,” he says. “Obviously the primary objective was in building the worldwide reputation of the league, taking it to new markets, maximising TV revenues, making the league the envy of the world, and there’s no question that that’s been achieved.”

Scudamore announced his departure on the same day Deloitte published its Annual Review of Football Finance allowing commentators to make a more measured analysis of the health of the EPL. Although the report referred to financial results at Premier League clubs for the 2016/17 accounting period – and was therefore based on the previous bumper domestic television deal – they confirmed the perception of a league that was commercially far ahead of its European rivals. Overall Premier League club revenues, the report stated, had increased by 25% to £4.5bn in the period, making the league 86% larger than its nearest competitor, LaLiga.

The statistics compare favourably with those from the time Scudamore joined the Premier League some 19 years ago. Average revenues when he took over in November 1999 stood at £33.48m per club compared with £227.62m today – a more than sevenfold increase in the time he was at the helm.

Source: Deloitte Annual Review of Football Finance

These figures were overwhelmingly driven by the huge growth in the value of the league’s domestic and international media rights, the economic fount through which all of the other successes of the league flowed. Proof of how important the league’s media deals have become is shown by the latest set of accounts in which broadcast revenues made up 61% of club revenues.

Although it would be wrong to put all of the growth down to one man, Parry thinks Scudamore has to take some credit.

“In terms of the UK TV market, for example, it’s always a function of that degree of competition and in a sense the league has been fortunate with BT’s entry into the market,” he says. “But there’s a real skill in keeping that balance, keeping the parties involved, preventing the formation of a cartel and keeping the process honest. So yes, of course it’s driven by what’s happening in the market place but that doesn’t take away from the achievement of maximising the revenue.”

However, Peter Daire, founding partner of sports consultancy firm Sport Collective and a former group head of sponsorship at the FA, argues that it would be wrong to focus too heavily on the media deals struck during the Scudamore years. He thinks the outgoing chief executive’s greatest legacy is the strength of the Premier League as a competition and a product.

“The Premier League is not a success because it’s got big broadcast deals. The Premier League is a success because it’s the best league in the world,” he says. “The teams that are in it, the players that are in it and the close battles there are every week and the full stadiums, that’s what’s made it a great product, not the fact that someone’s given them loads of money to broadcast it – that’s a by-product.”

The competitiveness of the league can quite justifiably be put down to its collective structure and the more equitable way it distributes its revenues. Analysis from Deloitte of the ratio between the highest and lowest central distributions to clubs indicates that the Premier League has comfortably the lowest ratio and disparity between the top and bottom clubs of any of the European leagues.

And as the intermediary tasked with keeping the peace between the league’s 20 owners, Daire believes Scudamore takes credit for keeping the figure so low and persuading them that they were better served by a more competitive structure rather than by one that favoured the top teams.

“Having to deal with 20 chairmen and changes in chairman is no mean feat at all, it’s a really difficult task managing that,” he says. “He’s an excellent diplomat, he’s very sharp and he’s got a cool head.

“There’s constantly been talk of top-6 breakaways and he’s managed to stifle all that but do it with those clubs feeling good about the Premier League and not feeling bitter that they’re having to share out funds. They all buy into the strength of the Premier League as a unit.”

Recollections from people who worked directly with Scudamore, had business interactions with him, or observed him from a distance, reinforce the impression of a leader who governed by consent rather than force – but also of someone who was prepared to investigate new opportunities and take bold decisions. Not all of the ideas came off, but this did not appear to be to the detriment of the relationship with the clubs.

Phil Lines, who was recruited by Scudamore to head up international broadcasting and media operations at the Premier League, thinks his former boss’s skill lay in being an ‘all-rounder’ who surrounded himself with experts and trusted in their advice.

“He was the best. Richard in my opinion was, or still is, the best administrator in football,” he says. “He is a great all-rounder, he’s very strong commercially, but he’s equally very strong on the football side. Richard’s role encompassed all the commercial activities – media, sponsorship, as well as the running of the league, the relationships with government, the relationships with other sporting bodies and the relationship of course with the clubs. And he was really good at all of that.”

So what were the Scudamore’s greatest achievements in this diverse set of these spheres, and what, if any, were his greatest failures?

Click on the links below to read about Scudamore’s legacy in each of the following areas:

Part 1: Media rights sales

Part 2: Sponsorship

Part 3: International expansion and the 39th game

Part 4: Match attendances and the fan

Part 5: Scudamore’s successor

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