It’s become commonplace to observe that Richard Scudamore was right to leave the Premier League when he did. The usual argument is that the former chief executive of the top-tier football league in England spotted the diminishing pay-television returns and exercised impeccable timing in stepping down just as media-rights valuations were perceived to have passed their peak.
Yet to watch his successor, Richard Masters, face questions during a recent UK parliamentary hearing was to appreciate that Scudamore swerved an even larger array of problems than the shifting media market when he exited in 2018.
Masters looked distinctly uncomfortable as he was quizzed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee. The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered unwelcome political scrutiny for the English top-flight and he was summoned to address why it had yet to agree a financial package to support lower league teams through the crisis. Although it appears the league has now agreed a £50m (€55.7m/$66m) bailout for League One and League Two, and conditional support for the English Championship, questions about its place in the football pyramid are unlikely to go away.
The UK government is holding a gun to the league’s head, having promised a “fan-led review” of football governance in its election manifesto. Should Masters not show a willingness to address some of its concerns, the Premier League could be forced to do penance for some of the sins committed at its creation.
Before it was founded in 1992, the top-flight’s predecessor, the Football League First Division, shared 50 per cent of its revenues with the three tiers beneath it. But until now, the Premier League has always shared a much smaller proportion of its income. The mechanism by which it distributes revenues through the rest of the game has gone through various iterations since, without ever really satisfying other stakeholders or the authorities. As it presently stands clubs relegated from the league receive parachute payments that share a decreasing percentage of the top-flight’s media revenues to soften the drop into the English Championship. This is supplemented by a series of solidarity payments to other EFL teams that were introduced at the start of the 2007/08 season to offset the distorting impact of the parachute allocation.
English Football League chairman Rick Parry – to some extent a poacher turned gamekeeper, having been one of the original architects of the Premier League’s split with the rest of the game – is now one of the most ardent advocates for reform. He appeared to be pushing at an open door when he described parachute payments in an earlier DCMS hearing as ‘an evil that must be eradicated’ and called for a ‘complete reset’ of the way football is run. When the issue has been raised previously, some MPs have called for a minimum of 7.5 per cent of the Premier League’s income to be distributed to grassroots football and demanded a fairer distribution model for the entire football pyramid.
Prompted by the threat of change being forced on the league from outside, Masters succeeded in getting all 20 Premier League clubs to commit to a strategic review before the pandemic. But the united front has been somewhat undermined by the leading clubs’ own Project Big Picture proposals. This alternative reform plan, formulated by Liverpool and Manchester United with the support of Parry, shows how the EFL chairman’s background and connections (he is also a former Liverpool chief executive), make him a formidable adversary, applying pressure from inside and outside the top flight. It also demonstrates how the collective thinking that underpins the Premier League’s successes has the potential to fray.
Assailed by government scrutiny and club scheming on the domestic front, there is little solace to be found on the continent. Although reports that leading European clubs are again hatching plans for a breakaway European Super League should be taken with the customary pinch of salt, they can’t be ignored entirely. CVC Capital Partners, the leaders of the consortium that wants to buy a stake in Serie A’s new media-rights business, is sufficiently concerned about the distorting effect such proposals would have on domestic European competitions that it is reported to want a “breakaway” clause inserted into any contract its strikes with the Italian league.
Others will argue that the real purpose of the breakaway threat is to exert pressure on Uefa to agree to even more radical Champions League reform from 2024 onwards. While this is a more palatable outcome for the Premier League, it will hardly provoke rejoicing at its London headquarters. Led by European Club Association and Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli, teams from less competitive and commercially successful leagues are known to want to increase the number of lucrative European games between the best sides while reducing the number of matches in domestic leagues. Agnelli was also an advocate of a proposal to introduce promotion and relegation between Uefa’s three club competitions last year – a move that would have completely undermined interest in domestic competitions had it not ultimately been voted down.
Change is clearly coming to football, and something will have to give. For the Premier League to retain its pre-eminent position, Masters will have to balance demands for equitable reform at home, while seeing off attractive commercial proposals from abroad and even within.
As he put it himself in the DCMS hearing: “I suspect if we don’t come up with a unifying plan, someone else will write it for us.” Somewhere on a golf course in England – lockdown restrictions permitting – Scudamore will be thankful that the task doesn’t fall to him.