Changes are afoot

The Daily Telegraph dropped a minor bombshell on Sunday with an announcement of “Project: Big Picture”; a significant reorganization plan for the top divisions of English football, apparently led by the ownership of Liverpool (FSG) and Manchester United (the Glazer family) with some involvement from Bruce Buck, chairman of Chelsea. Since the Telegraph story is behind a paywall, a Redditor helpfully provided a summary of said changes here. [A side note: I encourage you to pay journalists for their work, in the same way I encourage you to pay artists and writers for their work. The only way they can keep bringing you stories like this is via your dollars/pounds/Euros. I’m attempting to be a minor news source, which is why I’m linking to the Reddit thread and because I’ve been out of work for over a year, which means even paying the Telegraph is difficult for me right now. But please toss these people a few shekels when you can.]

The motivating factor behind this big change is ostensibly the bailout for the lower divisions. Bereft of matchgoing fans, a lot of smaller clubs are facing rather urgent circumstances, most of which lead to bankruptcy and the dissolution of said clubs. However, this is kind of like saying that the genesis of the Patriot Act was 9/11. In the same way that a 342-page piece of legislation that led to dramatic changes in government structure and procedure wasn’t written in a few days, we know that some of the changes being presented in Big Picture have been things that entities like FSG have been talking about since 2017. Certainly, the reason that a lot of smaller clubs are willing to go along with the proposal overall is that it’s a do-or-die situation for them right now and the proposal also suggests not only a greater share of TV income coming from the top, but also more money that reinforces those clubs’ basic existence, like the infrastructure funding.

On the fans/public side, there are also concessions like the away ticketing cap (yet another acknowledgment that the PL clubs can afford to control their more aggressive compatriots because the bulk of their money comes from TV and sponsorships), as well as the increase in contributions to charitable causes. As any student of economics in the US can tell you, the way to get the ownership class to pretend to care about the welfare of the plebes is to invoke the word “charity” (in this case: “good causes.”) That isn’t to spit in the face of FSG and the Glazers if they are offering to up their contribution to society as a whole, but it always deserves some level of cynicism for what usually follows the offer to “do good.” Most billionaires didn’t get that way by “doing good.”

Then we get into the real working gears of the thing. The three options for distribution of the income from media rights are based largely on one thing: controlling the turnover at the bottom. This goes hand-in-hand with the changes to both the top division size and the changes to promotion from the Championship. What they’re trying to control is the revenue raiding by clubs that go all-in to reach the PL, bomb right back out (Hi, Fulham!), and then see massive cash flow by virtue of one year in the PL TV scheme and the subsequent parachute payments. To the top clubs, that’s simply money thrown away on reckless behavior and/or clubs that aren’t big enough to actually play in the top level. The new promotion rules reinforce this. However, limiting the third promoted team to the winner of a playoff against the 16th team of the PL is mildly ridiculous. The Bundesliga does the same thing and expecting a B.2 team to compete against a team that has had the top division cash flow and resources for a full season usually goes about as well as you’d expect. I think a lower division team has won less than one in five since the system was implemented. In essence, what these changes are trying to create is more of a mild NFL-ization of the top division. From their perspective, these are the clubs that really “belong” here and then there’s everyone else. What they’re suggesting is not a dismissal of the pro/rel system that keeps owners at least somewhat attentive (and used to keep Americans away from Euro football), but a slightly more controlled version of it.

Similarly, the veto power held by the clubs that have been in the top division the longest (that would currently be the Big 6, Everton, West Ham, and Southampton) is another effort to recreate that NFL model. It’s the transformation of English football into an American-style sports cartel. This is where the sport has been going for a while (all of the veiled threats about the creation of a European “super league” were about this very thing), so it’s not surprising that this proposal would use the leverage of the current crisis to take a couple steps closer to that ultimate goal. On the one hand, yes, that kind of control would hopefully prevent ownership situations like Wigan’s or Bolton’s or Bury’s from proceeding to the near-dissolution or actual dissolutions of the clubs in question. It would also hopefully prevent the entrance of entities like Man City’s ownership group or the Saudi government’s recent attempt to take over Newcastle or other “sportswashing’ endeavors. But the real key point of that voting arrangement is that it only requires 2/3s of the “long-term stakeholders” (the Nine/Nazgûl) to approve any new legislation. If you’re quick enough to realize that 2/3 of 9 is 6 (aka “Big 6”), then you understand the implications. The Premier League was created in the first place to give greater control to the top division and remove it from trying to keep everyone from Arsenal to Swindon Town on the same page. Back in the day, that was trying to get decent TV monies which small clubs insisted would eat into their ticket sales. It was a case of two different worlds of opportunity. Arsenal and Swindon still operate in different worlds, no matter the FA Cup glory that everyone remembers from 50 years ago. This is the next step in that progression that’s trying to keep club operations responsive to reality.

The counterpoint is that enabling that kind of control also makes the top division more of a closed shop. American professional sports are a billionaires’ playground with pretty much no one else allowed to participate. This is the exercise of the will of the ownership class, literally and figuratively. They get to make decisions. We, as fans, simply have to take them. It’s also anathema to that concept I regularly refer to: the identity of Liverpool Football Club. It doesn’t mean that FSG will automatically be as deaf to the desires of the fans as Mike Ashley has been to the supporters of Newcastle. Clearly, they’ve still listened, as evidenced by their response to the ticket price walkout a few years ago and most recently when outrage erupted over their decision to try to use the government’s coverage scheme for the staff’s paychecks. It’s not they they don’t listen. It’s just that these structural changes may make it that much easier for them to not do so.

Furthermore, there are some principles in play here. The voting rights issue is a concern of basic decency that’s inherent to other institutions. The US Senate is the most undemocratic governmental institution in any so-called “democracy”, because it gives disproportionate voting power to smaller populations, solely dependent on where they happen to live. 1 million people who live in Wyoming have just as much voting power in the Senate as the 60 million who live in California. By assigning voting rights only to the nine members that have been in the top division the longest and effectively giving control of those rights to only six members, you’ve frozen out 84 other members of the EFL. Are we all in this together or are we in it based on how much we have in our wallets? One counter-argument, of course, is that the EFL and the PL have long since proved that they’re basically incapable of functioning on major issues; the pandemic crisis being only the latest. One of the best examples of this is the 5-man substitution rule that every other league in Europe is using this season. But not the Premier League! On a question of basic health and safety for the athletes, the only concern for the smaller clubs in the PL was the supposed competitive edge that the bigger clubs would have because of their deeper squads. It’s irrational and, again, speaks to the different worlds that some of these clubs, even within the PL, are functioning in. Changing the votes from 21 (including the FA) to 6 makes it a lot easier to move forward on obvious measures like that.

What’s even more interesting about the proposal overall is that the changes involve some implicit dissension in the ranks. Making eight games exclusive to the clubs’ media operations is a shot directly at Sky, NBC, and all of their other broadcast partners. It means that said partners won’t have full access to the Premier League. It also means that fans (i.e. us) will have to pay more to get full access to a season. This is an outgrowth of the dissolution of cable packages in the US, anyway. When people started cutting the cord because of the ridiculous cost of all-in-one packages, it was inevitable that the nickel-and-diming would begin. To watch all of Liverpool’s slate this year, I’d have to pay YoutubeTV for NBC Sports’ PL lineup, Peacock for the PL games that NBC Sports doesn’t get, ESPN for the FA and League Cup games, and CBS for the Champions League. I’m willing to do that because I’m a diehard Liverpool fan and the overall cost is STILL less than what I was paying Comcast for a bunch of channels that I otherwise didn’t watch. But it will also now include paying for LFCTV, which I’ve been doing for years, anyway, but which a lot of other people may not be able to afford. That’s a burden on a fan base that is already dealing with pandemic issues in the same way the clubs are. But an equally important question is how Sky and NBC will react to getting less of what they signed up for.

Similarly, the limit on loaned players (15) is a shot across the bow of Chelsea; one of the “Big 6” clubs, since their business model has been based on loaning out a huge number of young players, developing them into actual desired assets, and then making sales. That’s how they can afford to open Roman’s checkbook as they did this past summer and still conform to FFP regulations. The Big Picture giveth with one hand and taketh with the other… But, apparently, Chelsea is on board? The proposal also calls for the cancellation of the League Cup (Yay!) and the Community Shield (Yay), which, fine. It also makes official an inquiry into the introduction of safe standing to England which… ehhh. As a Liverpool fan, I will never forget Hillsborough and I know that the families are not interested in seeing standing sections return to the game. My personal experience with standing was at a Dortmund game last year where I did have a brief moment of real concern when we were on the stairs trying to get into our section of Signal Iduna and the game was about to kick off and people got agitated and pressed together, but the experience in the stadium was fine. So… I dunno.

As expected, the outrage was swift and vocal. As one might expect, both the Premier League and the other 14 clubs in said league declared themselves to be adamantly opposed; not least because they’d been left out of the discussions and this was as much a surprise to them as anyone else. Despite it being a “surprise” to Arsenal, Man City, and Tottenham, their response was non-existent. One supposes they’d gotten some hints about what was coming and/or are completely fine with what’s been proposed, since it doesn’t affect their standing and, indeed, opens up new opportunities for them in the form of broadcasting a quarter of the season themselves, fewer teams in the pool to spread the network money, and fewer games to play in the league, which means they could be playing more lucrative European games.

The response from the lower divisions, however, was almost universally positive. Certainly, many League 1 and 2 clubs have their backs to the wall and just need something to happen before they go out of business. But there’ve been a couple comments about being pleased with the more “equitable” TV funding, which tickles that principle bone again. Just what is “equitable”? Most third and fourth division clubs don’t end up on TV in the first place. If the big clubs are bringing the sterling in, are they distributing some of it to the lower divisions because it’s the right thing to do or simply because it’s the thing that’s always been done? If Liverpool makes £100 million from TV in a season and Macclesfield Town makes zero, what’s equitable? 50-50? That hardly seems right. It’s a fair bit of cheek to suggest that someone should be paying you more when they’re the ones that have earned it, right? But, wait. Sounds kinda like taxes, right? Wealthy people make more so they should be paying more so that society is a decent place for everyone? And that seems to be the proposal’s approach. Word is that Ed Woodward of ManU and John Henry of LFC not only love the romance of the traditional English system but also recognize that the vast gulf in wealth isn’t necessarily a maintainable system. Consequently, even though the top teams in the PL don’t “owe” Lincoln City anything, like they would if players still regularly rose through the ranks of the pyramid to reach the top level, they’re still aware that there has to be some sharing to keep the world a stable and, yes, at least somewhat equitable place.

That relationship comes with the inherent understanding that Liverpool is a big club and Lincoln City is not. That’s why the sticking point is the Burnleys and Fulhams of the world; both convinced that because they’ve reached the top division, they qualify to be treated as “big clubs” when that’s clearly not the case. Yes, they’re in the Premier League, but they’re not operating in the same waters that Chelsea or ManU are; be it in money, fans, sponsorships, exposure, or pretty much anything else. They just have the crowned lion on their sleeve and will be getting paid handsomely by Sky and other networks. But there’s no honest belief that any of them will be seriously challenging for the league title or, in many cases, even European spots. But Leicester City-! Yeah, yeah, yeah. Looking at the top division for the past 40 years, do you know how many times it has been won by someone not in the Big 6? Five, including Leicester. Two of those were by Everton whom, as noted, are also part of the Nazgûl. One was by Leeds, a team that most would estimate as likely to stay up now that they’ve finally returned, barring a return to idiotic management (and given some of their fans…) And the other was Blackburn Rovers, financed by their superfan millionaire owner, Jack Walker, who basically laid the blueprint for Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour. Blackburn was relegated three years later when the money ran out and they currently reside in the Championship.

So, as much as one can look at Project: Big Picture and think of it as an NFL-ization of the Premier League, that transformation has pretty much already taken place. What this does is secure the existence of the English football pyramid (Tradition!), at the price of basically permanently solidifying a select group of clubs atop that edifice, with all of the potential pros (More substitutions!) and cons (Billionaires only club!) that that entails. On a personal level, it kind of makes me recoil, given that my image of Liverpool, even with the tide of money that has come in over the past 30 years, is still one that’s responsive to the people that are the club. Will it stay that way? Here’s hoping.

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