Greed was the foundation stone of the Premier League, so we can hardly be surprised by an outbreak of further avarice over overseas television income
First they came for the Football League. And I did not speak up. Because I was not the Football League. Then they came for an outmanoeuvred Greg Dyke, blown out of the water by BSkyB’s covert second TV rights bid. And I did not speak up. Because I was not an outmanoeuvred Greg Dyke.
Finally, a quarter of a century later, they came for Premier League clubs outside the top six via a potentially divisive rejig of overseas TV-rights income. And this time I did speak out. Because I was Crystal Palace, Burnley, Huddersfield Town and everyone else who stands to lose something from the innate financial elitism of the Premier League being turned, finally, upon itself.
Premier League clubs reached an impasse in their discussions over the restructuring of overseas TV income on Wednesday afternoon. Further talks are still planned. Nothing has been passed. Two weeks ago Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea and Liverpool were voted down in their motion to funnel a greater proportion of these TV deals towards the top of the league. They will see progress here. Those clubs want this to happen. The Premier League wants it to happen. It is probably a step closer all the same.
For now a stalemate will be taken as a minor win for those who have condemned the financial elitism involved, albeit not always with a great deal of wider context. It is hard not to smile a little at the suggestion that directing a greater share of TV rights to the very top would threaten “the very essence” of the Premier League. In reality the league was based on exactly this principle. Greater TV cash at the very top is its very essence, the overseas rights grab a rootsy little tour back to its founding ethos.
It is an argument that can be applied more sensibly to the product itself. The strength of the current Premier League is its competitiveness, born out of a relatively even spread of riches. But even this is increasingly unclear. Petro dollars, sovereign state wealth and global marketing empires have obscured the baseline here. It’s not hard to guess who the top six are going to be before the season starts. A rights rejig whereby the top club gets a further £14m more than the bottom club – they already get £60m more – won’t exactly help. But it’s hardly going against the grain of an otherwise deeply egalitarian national sport.
Nor can any of this come as much of a surprise. From the start the Premier League has been an organisation founded by footballing greed, for the benefit of footballing greed and for the future preservation of footballing greed. It is worth recalling at this point how the initial BSkyB TV rights deal came about. In the early 1990s Sky was struggling to expand. There were three life-saving options on the table: show pornography; show Hollywood films; or show football. The first two were problematic. So football got the nod head of porn as a vehicle with which to flog the metallic grey dishes that would soon sprout up like a virulent fungal infection across suburban Britain.
The Premier League’s TV riches have always been about the hard-sell, about extreme, unfettered profit. Even the FA’s blueprint for the future of the game – the document by which it helped ensure its own sinecured irrelevance – noted that the purpose of its energetically supported “breakaway league” would be “to concentrate more commercial power in fewer clubs”.
Once the pattern had been set a successful, profitable Premier League was never likely to be enough. It is in the nature of such entities that they must always attempt to grow, just as being very rich is always a bit worse than being very, very rich. TV rights deals have spiralled. A captive domestic audience has been aggressively milked. The gap between richest and poorest has never been so great.
At which point the sudden sense of shock this week at all this open Premier League avarice over the spread of foreign TV rights brings to mind the image of Captain Renault in Casablanca wandering into Rick’s Bar, collecting his roulette winnings from a waiter and in the same breath announcing that he is “shocked – shocked! – to find that gambling is going on in this establishment”.
It should be said in its defence that the Premier League has a far more even split of TV rights than every other big league in Europe. Even with overseas revenues taken out of the equation, the Premier League would still be considerably more egalitarian in its distribution of wealth than la Liga, Ligue 1, The Bundesliga and Serie A.
Indeed there is an argument to be made that this whole overseas rights proposal isn’t greed at all, simply a fair return sought on an investment. The top clubs spend a lot more courting the casual foreign TV viewer, from tours to marketing splurges, expense that benefits everyone back home. As Ian Ayre, Liverpool’s then chief executive, noted in 2011: “In Kuala Lumpur there isn’t anyone subscribing to ESPN to watch Bolton.” A bit rude. But probably true.
So again, why the clamour? Why now? Most obviously, overseas TV rights are frontier territory, the stage for the next big boom. In years to come this proportion of Premier League income could grow dramatically while the domestic market flatlines. This is the future. Grab a share while you can.
Beyond this the current infighting is a tremor of something much wider. It is not surprising that those connected with the current Sky-fed status quo should speak out against anything that destabilises a wonderfully successful product. But change is coming for pay-TV football. And as it did before the revolution, it will start with two things: new technology and a breakaway.
It doesn’t take a huge amount of prescience to see that the moment the big internet companies decide to muscle in on Premier League football everything will change once again, with the satellite TV broadcasters cast as the old guard. The same day the Premier League was having its deadlocked talks on overseas rights, Facebook was refusing to rule out a step into the football market and describing the Premier League as “a very important partner of ours”.
If there is resistance to clubs breaking ranks and demanding a little more, some part of this is rooted in fear of what will inevitably come. There has already been talk of selling individual broadcast rights over the internet, of Facebook or Google even providing football free to air, a world where collective bargaining, pay-TV and a Murdoch-led domestic stranglehold will all come to seem like rather quaint, old-fashioned ideas.
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