In the discussions to inform next week’s white paper on football, many stakeholders were attempting to get the government to understand this is much more than a “once a generation” moment. They described it as possibly the only opportunity to properly assess the English game and where it’s going, since nothing like this has ever been done before. It is quite a thought, that illustrates the “enormity” of what this government are taking on. In 160 years of codified English football, there has never been anything like an attempt at a holistic assessment of the sport and what it should look like.
Even events since the Super League, like Chelsea’s spending, illustrate it is now more important than ever. There are reservations within the game over whether Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Michelle Donelan gets this, as eyebrows were raised over recent statements and questions.
“This is a really important opportunity for football,” says Niall Couper of Fair Game, “but the most important thing is it has to have teeth.”
That will likely be known on Wednesday 8 February, which is when the white paper is expected to be published. It will call for the much-debated football regulator, albeit with its powers to be determined, and announce its intention to properly recognise the community role of clubs and ensure there cannot be future collapses like Bury. Measures for that will be a strict club licensing system that will insist on financial security, owners able to prove the source of their wealth, fan engagement on key decisions and a block on joining other breakaways. The regulator will also have “backstop powers”.
Sources with knowledge of the process nevertheless fear there will be little detail on financial flow and no mention of equality standards, which MP Tracey Crouch had been adamant on in the Fan-Led Review. Fair Game are already giving leaked details a “B+” grade. If that threatens to leave the white paper short, though, this unique moment in history doesn’t necessarily mean one hit. This process could be longer than anticipated. Since the source of so many issues is the Premier League’s immense income and the stretch of financial inequality that comes from that, the elite competition has been told they can avoid “heavy regulation” if there is a “football-led resolution”. That would be a financial deal with the English Football League, which requires an agreement close to chairman Rick Parry’s position that 25 per cent of all broadcasting revenue should go to his clubs, and that parachute payments should be abolished.
It is here where the situation gets complicated, and there are so many more shades of grey than a white paper will allow for.
Some of it comes down to the maths in working out the best balance for competitiveness, but most of it comes down to the politics.
While the Premier League insist they are open to all dialogue as well as more regulation, it isn’t really a view shared within the rest of the game. Negotiations with them are described as “more like a plea, which is what the government don’t get”.
“The Premier League’s only interest is the Premier League,” Couper adds. It is why a holistic look at the game is so important.
In essence, the great financial success story that is English football in 2023 has no body overseeing where it’s going, or assessing what is actually good for the sport. “The game can’t govern itself” is a frequently repeated conclusion that has conditioned this entire process, and led to increasing calls for an independent regulator. The Football Association are described as “having long abrogated that responsibility” but that is largely because the Premier League just became too big for it. It earned far too much money.
That has made the Premier League the de facto power in English football but the body has little interest in actually exercising that power in terms of the wider game. It is after all just a members’ group, but one that has evolved into an international competition that just happens to be in England.
Its only interest, even in the words of people who have worked within the organisation, is to just keep the money coming in. The Premier League’s supreme success at that isn’t exactly compatible with grand reassessments of where the sport is or ideas about mass redistribution of income, especially when it has inherently embraced “rampant capitalism”. Those same sources accuse the competition of having “no concern about where that money goes or how it’s spent”.
The last few days, and another landmark transfer window, illustrate it just swirls around the top of the sport.
One of many paradoxes is that the more successful the Premier League becomes the more attractive it is to problematic interests whose primary concern is not football, such as nation states and opaque private equity funds. The competition’s very nature then nurtures further complications - and even occasional absurdities.
While it has been dominated by the “big six” for over a decade, that loose alliance is fracturing. The owners of the two biggest clubs, who bring in the most money, in Liverpool and Manchester United, are seen as disconnected due to the seismic moment that is both being put up for sale at the same time. Chelsea are now viewed as an outlier, and there is ongoing uncertainty about how to handle the sportswashing projects at Newcastle United and Manchester City. Their owners, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, have had a strong political alliance.
That leaves a significant rump of “the other 13”, with Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish seen as the most influential voice.
“They all rally behind him,” one executive says. In the absence of any kind of commissioner or overall body, it in effect means the wider game is led by Parish and the lower half of the Premier League. That’s also where the debates and differences in philosophy inherent to informing this white paper begin.
While they are in the Premier League, the “other 13” generally want to protect that position, which means arguing for their own income.
The profoundly contrasting view on the other side is that most of these clubs aren’t part of the Premier League system, since they are so transient, but part of the wider structure that takes in the EFL. This is what led to Project Big Picture. The view is that it is really the big six who bring in the money, with the rest of the clubs interchangeable.
That is backed by many facts and statistics. Brighton and Brentford just wouldn’t have been seen as Premier League clubs a few years ago but are now “fixtures”. The average top-division spell of all outside the big six in the last decade has been a mere five seasons, with a total of 50 clubs having passed through since 1992. That is a lot of variation.
It is why we have this situation where many clubs are arguing for circumstances that will directly work against them within a year or two.
This absurdity is further articulated in the grand debate around parachute payments, which see clubs relegated to the Championship earn multiple times those around them. This is done so that they don’t run into immediate financial difficulty from the expense required to compete in the Premier League but it raises two problems. One is the financial gap to the top competition in the first place, which essentially requires promoted clubs to immediately spend an estimated £40m.
It led one source to quip that it makes it more a “pyramid scheme than a pyramid”. The second is that it has almost created a “Premier League 2” of those who are constantly getting promoted and relegated, blocking the way for well-run and sustainable clubs like Millwall, Luton Town and Rotherham. You only have to look at how Norwich City and Fulham have exchanged places every year since 2018.
- 2018-19 - Fulham down, Norwich up
- 2019-20 - Norwich down, Fulham up
- 2020-21 - Fulham down, Norwich up
- 2021-22 - Norwich down, Fulham up
This season, 25 clubs - the 20 in the Premier League and five receiving parachute payments - will accumulate 92% of the distributable revenues of the English game, which stand at just under £3bn. That is money that can have a calcifying effect, for what is a mere moment in football history.
The position from the EFL and fan groups is that a steeper gradient is needed, so the prize money distribution from top to bottom of the Premier League is 2-to-1 and “unbridgeable gaps” are eliminated.
One reasonable response from the Premier League is that this would erode the competitive balance that has been its great virtue for so long, which would then be accelerated by the gap in Uefa prize money. There is a counter-argument that competitive balance is now an illusion, and that this is a more basic case of lower-ranked clubs never voting against getting more money. One suspicion is they don’t want to open out that “Premier League 2” tier to the Rotherhams and Millwalls.
“It just shows how people in football only ever think in terms of their club rather than the game as a whole,” was a comment by one source commonly echoed.
While the EFL’s proposed new gap in Premier League prize money of £150m-£75m from top to bottom is starker, it would mean only a £45m gap to the Championship rather than the current £90m. It just becomes more fluid all the way through. There would be less of a need to overspend to overcome “vast revenue tiers”, fostering a greater stability that conditions against community assets going out of business.
That is a core of this white paper, since the government “don’t want another Bury on their hands”.
That is also one huge positive of the documentation, since the community role of clubs is going to be enshrined.
“It’s just a question of the right level,” one figure involved in the discussions adds.
In some ways, of course, this is just a continuation of the tension that existed from before the 1992 foundation of the Premier League. The breakaway never truly broke away, since it remained a part of the same system with promotion and relegation.
There are of course more modern tensions.
The financial stretch has been pulled to previously unimaginable levels by state-owned clubs and, now, opaquely-structured private equity funds. There was - in the words of one source - “a fair degree of anger” about Chelsea’s spending, especially at the lack of self-awareness in the run-up to the white paper.
Much of this comes from the weakness of the Premier League as regards who owns its clubs. The view going back to Richard Scudamore’s time has been that almost any investment is a good investment. The effect of that, and especially the 2008 takeover of Manchester City, was that football had an unsolvable problem before it even figured out it had a problem.
“Football has sleep-walked into this,” one executive says. “You can’t imagine this in Germany or Spain.”
The Abu Dhabi takeover created a precedent for Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund to buy Newcastle United, and has now left the Premier League scrambling to retroactively improve its Owners and Directors Test.
The competition describes that as a “comprehensive review” off the back of the Newcastle takeover. The Premier League say they have been in consultation with Amnesty on the “human rights aspect”. The Independent has been told that the last meeting was October 2021.
“We’re still following up with the Premier League and hope they can find time to meet us to discuss our concrete proposals for how the league can update its ownership rules to ensure they’re properly human rights-compliant,” said Peter Frankental, Amnesty International UK’s Economic Affairs Director.
This, in the words of one source, is precisely why a regulator is needed. The EFL has significantly tightened its ownership rules, blocking a lot of buyers, but no authority is actually outlining any sort of overall vision over who should own an English football club. It’s just somewhat dubious whether the white paper will go this far. The initial fan-led review made no mention of state ownership, and Crouch did not respond to Amnesty’s letter.
It all came in the context of the government’s relationship with some of these states, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This is one of the tensions of a government-backed regulator, in that there will be challenges in terms of going against government policy and the purchase of institutions like Harrods. It’s just precisely where the arguments about the community value of clubs should come in.
The Owners and Directors Test could nevertheless offer yet another point of tension between the Premier League and the wider game. That split drives everything here.
“The only thing that’s going to challenge that properly is legislation and the ability to do that,” Couper says. “It’s why it needs teeth.”
It is why a holistic assessment of the sport has never been more necessary. How it looks is even more important.
Next week is actually a landmark moment in football history.
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