He is a commodities trader who has mastered the intricacies of the futures market to build a vast personal fortune, so it would not be wise to bet against the intentions of Liverpool's principal owner John W Henry. But British football's response to his club's suggestion that they might pursue their own international TV rights deals reveals he is in a trade to test even his commercial powers.
The idea was dead in the water before even surfacing, yesterday, with not a single elite Premier League side supporting the view, posited by Henry's managing director Ian Ayre, that the international rights allocation to modest clubs like Bolton Wanderers is disproportionately high. The Independent revealed yesterday that the two clubs with equal or greater overseas appeal than Liverpool – Manchester United and Chelsea – will fall in line with the Premier League collective negotiating position and today it emerges that neither Arsenal nor Manchester City agree, too, that Liverpool are being put at a competitive disadvantage to Real Madrid and Barcelona, by taking the same share of £1.4bn overseas TV rights as smaller clubs. Liverpool – who need 14 of the league's 20 clubs to back them if the case is put to a vote – stand to be overwhelmed by the same 19-1 majority that Peter Kenyon encountered when he made the same case, when Chelsea chief executive eight years ago.
Ayre has possibly not pursued the case simply to establish an individual club's rights to sell rights, but rather to lay down a marker down about making some of the international TV earnings performance related, as 25 per cent of the £1.6bn domestic TV earnings are. But the backlash from those clubs who Liverpool have suggested should get less of a share was swift yesterday. Bolton declined to comment, having been singled out in Ayre's comments, though the signing of Hidetoshi Nakata and Lee Chung-yong has seen a big rise in their Far East appeal, sponsorship and merchandising. "Diabolical," the Wigan chairman, Dave Whelan, said of Ayre's idea. "It's the 'American Dream', this. What Liverpool are calling for would absolutely wreck the league. They are thinking 'how can we get more money?'"
Liverpool's decision to brave this storm reflects the determination of their chairman Tom Werner - whom Henry hired for his media savvy and creativity at the Boston Red Sox – to dispense with convention as Fenway Sports Group (FSG) sweat the club's assets. Henry is the more conservative of the two Americans, but he made it clear on the day he assumed control at Anfield, exactly a year ago, that since he did not "have 'Sheikh' in front of my name," he needed to drive up the club's revenues.
The TV rights strategy is a long shot, given that that equal share of international rights for the Premier League's 20 clubs has created an equitable competition – a 'narrative' as its executives like to call it – which is a major part of its attraction to the rights holders. Henry's own narrative is how to create the revenues to compete at the lucrative top end of that competition, as he did when taking baseball's Red Sox toe-to-toe with the New York Yankees.
The really difficult part is how to replicate the model adopted by Manchester United – the Yankees of the Premier League, to Henry's mind. The 'facility model', it is known as within football, and it involves building a 60,000+ stadium and using match-day incomes from it to build a future. In revenue terms United's 75,000 capacity stadium makes them become £61.1m richer than Liverpool (45,276 capacity) every year. While United have a 20-year head start on Liverpool , others clubs are in hot pursuit. Arsenal are five years down the stadium route at the Emirates, Chelsea's determination to buy back the freehold of Stamford Bridge from their pitch owners reflects similar ambitions and when Manchester City are satisfied they can fill a 60,000 Etihad Stadium they will gladly expand. For now, they have a £350m Etihad Campus sponsorship deal to be going on with.
Liverpool, meanwhile, seem to have been grappling with a new stadium for an eternity. Henry finds himself cursed by the dithering of his predecessors, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, whose prevarications over a Stanley Park stadium design allowed steel prices to rise, financial markets to crash and architects plans to head into mothballs. Now, as disagreements with Liverpool city council stall the notion of a redeveloped Anfield, Liverpool must sweat on whether a stadium-naming rights partner will ever emerge with the cash for a stadium to put his name to.
Don't overlook football results, incidentally, as an equally significant a factor as the value of TV contracts in the growing gulf with Barcelona. Liverpool earned £6.4m more from the Champions League than the Spaniards as recently as 2006-07 and, last season, £39m less than them as they scraped through the Europa League. Football finance analyst Andy Green observed in his andersredblog yesterday that the value Liverpool receive for domestic competitions has actually grown faster over the past five years than the equivalent in Spain, when the devaluation of the pound against the euro is factored in. This is why Henry so desires a top four spot in the Premier League. He has spent £71m on that particular futures market since last January. Saturday's lunchtime encounter with Manchester United at Anfield might tell him whether that punt has a little more promise than Ayre's, but don't bank on it.
Clubbing together: Big 4 stand firm
Manchester United Ever since the Glazer family pitched up in the Premier League as United owners in 2005 it has been an article of faith at Old Trafford that they will not buck the collective TV rights negotiating system. United are the club with most to gain from going it alone with overseas rights, but it is the owners' belief that to do so would be to seriously undermine the potential international returns.
Chelsea They have more than flirted with the idea of pursuing their own TV rights deal in the past, emerging on the wrong end of a 19-1 vote in 2005. Chelsea's adherence to the Premier League's collective bargaining position includes a feeling that the 70 per cent support required would make Ian Ayre's idea impossible to get off the ground
Arsenal The Gunners have always fallen in line behind the Premier League collective position and do so now. Majority shareholder Stan Kroenke suggested in a interview last month that he felt the league were the ones to negotiate.
Manchester City Quite what reception the club's former chief executive Garry Cook would have received for suggesting that City's take from international rights be greater than smaller clubs leaves little to the imagination. But City, whose appeal to overseas markets is some way behind United's, have no desire to break out of the collective bargaining system. The comments of the Anfield hierarchy about City's £350m Etihad sponsorship have been noted in east Manchester.Reuse content