Even before football was plunged into crisis by the Covid-19 pandemic, influential people in the game were discussing the need for the Premier League’s improbable fortunes to be shared more equally. As historic, stalwart lower-division and semi-professional clubs stare at ruin, and promised investment could drain from the grassroots, the argument is finally beyond credible dispute.
However the Premier League resolves its struggle to finish this season so that it can clutch the remainder of the TV money, it will still be a huge draw for broadcast billions when normal life finally returns. The pre-pandemic position, that the big clubs keep 93% of the current, 2019-22, £8.65bn TV deals, handing most of it to players in wages while trickling drops down for good works, does not look sustainable following the crisis.
Some sceptics raised eyebrows when the EFL chairman, Rick Parry, made his forthright arguments that football’s finances need a reset and described Premier League parachute payments as an “evil that must be eradicated”. Football people who are getting on a bit recall Parry as the energetic first Premier League chief executive, engineering its breakaway with the Football League’s First Division clubs, and the introduction, in 1992, of parachute payments for relegated clubs.
But Parry’s advocacy for financial reform, much more urgent and necessary now, is not a case of amnesia from the work he did earlier in his career. When he was headhunted by the EFL last year, in what seemed a turbulent period but now seems like a lost utopia, Parry is understood to have reminded people that he has long advocated closer union, and more distribution, between the leagues.
As early as 1995, with the 72 clubs in the Football League’s three divisions still seething at the breakaway of the top division teams from sharing 50% of the TV money, Parry offered to repair some of the breach. Looking to the second round of TV deals beginning in 1997, he secured agreement from the Premier League’s clubs to sell the rights jointly with the Football League, and share the proceeds 80-20.
The Football League’s response caused a huge internal row at the time, since filed away with all the other huge football rows, because the board rejected the offer. Larger clubs in what is now the Championship were furious at that missed opportunity for more sharing with the Premier League and it led to reforms, including Richard Scudamore’s appointment as the Football League’s chief executive in 1997.
Scudamore was highly rated as an operator and was promptly snapped up by the Premier League, where he came to personify its resounding worldwide growth in popularity and unfeasible broadcast fortunes. Scudamore was also an unforgiving fighter for its independence and supremacy, beating back the FA’s influence as the governing body, and cementing and widening the gap with the EFL.
Tested by government or MPs’ inquiries into the game’s divisions and commercial casualties, Scudamore also became expert at gaming political battles and doing enough to resist talk of regulation. He did prompt the Premier League into good works it is never slow to trumpet in front of governments: the community programmes, funding for grassroots facilities, and money to the EFL, touchingly described as “solidarity”. As the figures are scrutinised in these straitened times, and discounting the £273m parachute payments the Premier League likes to present as money for the EFL, the total distribution has been clarified as 6.8%.
Before the crisis hit, the discussion about more sharing was not just limited to the EFL. Some Premier League clubs, for whom relegation is a possibility, were beginning to argue for change too. Surprisingly, there is said to be some support even among the top clubs for the longstanding traditions of distributing money, genuine solidarity and strength in depth.
The argument against sharing, that the top clubs need to keep more of the money to attract players who can compete in Europe, has been rendered redundant by the Premier League’s success. Its TV deals are more than double those of the next richest European league, the Bundesliga, so the clubs can easily share more than 20% now and still be utterly dominant.
League Two clubs have decided to curtail their season, League One clubs are considering the same, and many are wondering how their futures can be sustained. These clubs say there is no point borrowing from the government’s crisis scheme, because loans will need to be repaid and they may still have paltry income next season if crowds remain prohibited. But if they know that from 2022 they will receive significant funding from joint Premier League and EFL selling of TV rights, they could borrow against that and plot a survival plan.
Before the general election, the FA was given the very surprising promise from the Conservative party of £730m for grassroots investment over the next 10 years, but that must now be in doubt. However, the need to have decent sports facilities for people to maintain and rebuild their physical and psychological fitness will be more compelling than ever in the period of national recovery to come.
The grim, greedy insistence that a few clubs must keep so much of football’s money has been damaging for years and now, in this terrible crisis, the game faces a compelling case to put itself back together again.