The world will be watching Liverpool vs Manchester United – and both clubs know it

As the rivals prepare to meet again the basic premise of Project Big Picture – that the teams who attract the most fans, and therefore income, should have more say – is again looming on the horizon

Tony Evans
Friday 15 January 2021 10:08 GMT
A TV camera films Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold
A TV camera films Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold (Getty Images)

Manchester United are top of the Premier League with Liverpool one place and three points behind. England’s two biggest clubs meet at Anfield on Sunday in the biggest game of the season so far. It is always the biggest game of the campaign when these sides clash.

That is the uncomfortable truth that every other club in the top flight has to come to terms with. No other domestic team attracts anywhere near the same number of television viewers. A study of armchair audiences by the Centre for Sports Business at the University of Liverpool Management School last year underlined that point by finding that United and Liverpool boost small-screen viewership by almost a third more than the closest of their rivals.

The north-west giants were behind the Project Big Picture (PBP) plan to revamp the financial structure of the pyramid that caused fury after it was leaked in October. That initiative was shot down and dismissed as a big-club power grab. As Liverpool and United prepare for a league and FA Cup double header over consecutive weekends, the basic premise of PBP – that the teams who attract the most fans, and therefore income, to the English game should have more say in its governance – is again looming on the horizon.

There are suggestions that the Premier League’s Strategic Review is heading towards similar conclusions to the University of Liverpool’s research. The academic report found that a number of factors engaged viewers: title races, European qualification and relegation battles. Even more important, though, was what the study called the “brand effect.”

Put simply, television audiences want to watch the biggest clubs. There is little evidence to support the idea that there is an appetite for competitive balance, with more Leicester City-style title wins and outsiders disrupting the Big Six on a regular basis. The Premier League’s own review is likely to reject the notion that there is any public groundswell for innovations that level the playing field. At least in broadcast terms – the area that provides the biggest source of income for the game – customers are happy with the status quo.

John W Henry and Joel Glazer, the main drivers of PBP, have largely remained in the background since the furore over their blueprint for the future but the conversation has not gone away. The owners of Liverpool and United remain determined to revolutionise the English game. Their critics complain that they are driven by greed. It is easy to be cynical about the image of Glazer trying to persuade Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur that the strength of the English game is in the pyramid. Yet the counter argument from the American billionaires behind PBP is straightforward: money and power are flowing in the direction of Anfield and Old Trafford, anyway. Liverpool and United have little to lose if things do not change. Not many clubs are in such a cossetted position.

Richard Masters, the Premier League chief executive, told a Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee in December that the strategic review should be completed by the end of March. Masters was made aware of PBP 11 months ago and the pandemic has accentuated the need for financial restructuring across the sport. The game needs to adapt quickly to the shifting landscape. Henry, Glazer and their allies may have made a tactical retreat but they are a long way from giving up.

It would be foolish to believe that their commitment to remodelling the fiscal landscape is driven by anything more than self-interest. It is clear that the Americans fail to see what the likes of Burnley add to the Premier League other than making up the numbers. For now, though, they can see the value of giving 25 per cent of top-flight income to Football League clubs and introducing a variety of other reforms. It might well be a by-product, but they think their proposed reforms will make everyone stronger.

Liverpool and United remain the biggest box office draws in the game
Liverpool and United remain the biggest box office draws in the game (Getty Images)

Henry, in particular, is driven by data. The Boston-based tycoon will be carefully watching the back-to-back fixtures against United and comparing the numbers to other Premier League matches – especially the global viewing figures. The case for the industry’s giants to exert more influence grows with every Super Sunday, at least in the eyes of the architects of PBP. It is hard for the likes of Brighton to make a convincing rebuttal when the bottom line is cash.  

Liverpool and United’s owners are awaiting the conclusions of the strategic review avidly. It will reignite the controversy. Like it or not, they feel they are dragging much of the Premier League along behind them.

On the pitch, Jurgen Klopp’s team will tussle with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men for supremacy. In the boardroom the great rivals are secure that their duopoly dominates the English game by generating the most income and interest.

The world is watching Liverpool and United. Much, much more than they are watching anyone else.

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