Countdown to the Premier League: League rides out problems on rising numbers

Chief executive Scudamore points to soaring popularity after email scandal and World Cup woe

Chief Football Correspondent

There are few businesses in the world as successful as the Premier League who are required to defend themselves as stridently and as often – especially when the charge is that they are culpable in the decline of modern English footballers, rather than a bright shining vision of the future.

Another August and the show is starting again, today alighting on a quiet corner of Willesden in north-west London to sprinkle a little of the glamour of the most lucrative sports league in the world. At the Capital City academy, it was the Premier League which funded the students’ new 3G pitch, and in order that the world should know, the likes of Vincent Kompany, Manuel Pellegrini and Gus Poyet were brought in to tell them.

Sky Sports took it so seriously it built a studio beside the pitch, where governors of the academy had their picture taken alongside the trophy. The Premier League was keen for all to know that, as reported in The Independent  yesterday, it has pledged £10.5m to primary school sport. What is £10.5m for a league that earns £1bn annually from television revenue? Less than one per cent, but, as the league itself would point out, £10.5m more than other European leagues muster.

Richard Scudamore, the league’s chief executive, is a man whose default setting is robustly defensive. Who can blame him? On one side, 20 ultra-demanding club owners. On the other, a public blaming him for everything from rising ticket prices to England’s woeful World Cup to the dreaded 39th-game proposal.

This year, he had one more issue on the agenda. This was the first time Scudamore had discussed his recent excruciating personal scandal: his emails, leaked by a former personal assistant, Rani Abraham, in which he made sexist remarks about a Premier League employee – herself in attendance today. Scudamore survived but by a closer margin than he might have expected.

He said there is still a legal process in place – the suggestion being that Abraham accessed a private email account, an allegation she denies. Nevertheless, he did say that there was no sexist culture in existence at 30 Gloucester Place, the League’s headquarters.

 

“I think we can be absolutely sure of that,” he said. “Nearly 50 per cent of our employees are female, every single one of them – and believe you me, people were trying to goad one of them to ‘dob’ on the culture of the Premier League – will say it is a very invigorating place to work.

“There are some very aggrieved female employees who have seen the organisation characterised in the way it was. I can’t say more than that, they were private emails and you know there is a legal process that is going on which is still in train. But the ultimate test is the 40 or so females that work at the Premier League.”

Had it been difficult for a man who is not known for tolerating shortcomings in others, especially if they happen to work for the Football Association? “Of course it was difficult and I apologised straightaway. The clubs were assembled and they gave their backing unanimously to what I’ve done for how many years and hopefully in the future.”

Scudamore had heart surgery over the summer and the League’s chairman Anthony Fry has had to resign because of ill health. That, coupled with the sexism saga, would amount to a dreadful year in any other organisation, but the Premier League operates according to different rules. The Sky Sports v BT Sport war rages across the country’s billboards, pointing to yet another rise in the Premier League’s phenomenal television income when it goes to market in September for the next contract.

It is not even halfway through the current deal, worth around £1bn a year to the 20 clubs. Yet, having lost the League’s outstanding player to Spain for the second consecutive season, and endured another dismal England World Cup performance, there seems no slowing yet of the Premier League juggernaut and the fascination it attracts across the world.

John O’Shea, Phil Jagielka, Vincent Kompany and Wes Morgan at the Premier League season launch John O’Shea, Phil Jagielka, Vincent Kompany and Wes Morgan at the Premier League season launch The numbers remains staggering. The League is watched in 650 million homes in 175 countries. In the United States last season there was an estimated aggregate live audience of 115m on NBC, a 114 per cent increase. Domestically, even the BBC’s Match of the Day 2 saw an audience increase of 9.3 per cent. But nothing expresses the popularity of the Premier League like the cold hard cash of the broadcast deals.

Scudamore is unapologetic about rejecting limits on foreign players, which he says would reduce quality not enhance it. As for the World Cup, he argues that England underperformed. “We took a good crop of players. Those players ought to be able to compete on a world stage.” The clear inference being that it was Roy Hodgson and the FA’s fault that they did not, but he was too smart to spell that out.

On the future of the English footballer, Scudamore will point to the Elite Player Performance Plan, rolled out in 2012 after a great deal of research and investment by clubs in their academies. He regards that as youth development’s year zero; England’s Germany post-Euro 2000 moment. There will be no swerving from that strategy.

There is no chance of Scudamore changing his belief that FA chairman Greg Dyke’s B-team league is a bad idea. He supports the development of the Premier League’s Under-21s competition. “The idea that you would want to subject those players to playing somewhere between Conference and League Two football is not a place we want our players to go in a technical sense.”

On ticket prices and the Football Supporters’ Federation protest this week, Scudamore’s broad point is that the market dictates and the grounds are 95.9 per cent full. “I have a concern but it’s part of an overall concern of making sure the grounds are full. Clearly there is a linkage. If the attendances started to drop then one of the things you would look would be ‘Stop, have the clubs gone too far?’”

Yet there is no greater distraction from the issues of bad English World Cup performances and indiscreet emails than the Premier League itself. The madness starts again on Saturday lunchtime and, as usual, even the most trenchant critics will be rapt.

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