How Project Big Picture changed the politics of football in one swoop | David Conn | Football

The Premier League’s 20 clubs will assemble for a scheduled meeting this week with an agenda spectacularly disrupted by the Project Big Picture proposals of Liverpool and Manchester United to reshape the league itself and the English football pyramid. The other four clubs in the so-called big six are said to have been initially infuriated when the plan, for overwhelming voting control in their hands allied to a much fairer sharing of money with the EFL, was leaked on Sunday, and some time was spent assuring them Liverpool and United were not the source of it.

Liverpool’s majority owner John W Henry, the main driving force behind proposals he has worked on since 2017, is said to have been undeterred by the largely hostile reaction in the media and of the government, and to be preparing to press the case further. The EFL chairman, Rick Parry, has stressed his 72 clubs’ support and gratitude for the plan, which after months of delay by the Premier League centrally, offers to pay the EFL a £250m crisis fund immediately, and a transformational future 25% of net Premier League TV deals.

With salary caps now agreed in League One and League Two, and proposed for the Championship, Parry argues that financial discipline will be in place for EFL clubs to accept the unexpected windfall of redistribution from the Premier League, without blowing it on excessive wages to players.

The major sticking point, which led to a government statement rejecting the plans out of hand, is the aggressive move for the six – United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs – to take control of the Premier League voting rights.

The plan, summarised by the EFL rather than Liverpool or United directly, envisage “special voting rights” being given to the six, plus three more, Everton, West Ham and Southampton, who have been in the Premier League longest of the other 14. But of those nine clubs a majority of only six would have the right to make crucial rules, including deciding on future TV contracts, and appointing or removing a chief executive. There is also the proposal, so far unexplained, that six of these clubs could wield that power to block a new owner of a club even if approved by the Premier League board.

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Project Big Picture, pay-per-view TV and Arsène Wenger

The Premier League centrally has publicly denounced the plan, but the political alignment in football has suddenly been changed, as well as the parameters of negotiation with the EFL. If the four other top clubs come round to being tentatively supportive of the proposals, even if they were not ready for them to be made public, the Premier League as a body will be expressing its fierce opposition on behalf of only 14 clubs, three of whom will be relegated.

It will be difficult to find many owners among the 72 EFL clubs to oppose finally being granted the rescue package in this unprecedented financial crisis, and a previously unimagined 25% future redistribution from the Premier League. So in effect the six biggest clubs in the country could be joining with 72, leaving 14 Premier League clubs arguing for the status quo, in which they currently receive upwards of £100m TV money each.

Henry, who has not spoken publicly yet, is said by Parry to have genuinely informed himself about the English football pyramid since his investment group, FSG, bought Liverpool in 2010 then overhauled the club into European and Premier League champions.

Henry has understood that the 1992 formation of the Premier League was a breakaway of the Football League’s First Division clubs from sharing their TV money with the other three divisions, and since then the exponential growth of top-flight TV deals has enormously widened the financial gap. Parry has said that Henry has come to care seriously about this, and shares the view that the gap is damaging to the Championship and EFL more widely, and that parachute payments to relegated Premier League clubs are unfair and further distort the finances.

Others see Henry’s motivation springing from a more hard-headed recognition that the strength of the big clubs relies on a strong pyramid below. The plan to secure voting rights is said to be determined, springing from a view that the six should not be outvoted by smaller clubs that could be in the Premier League for only a season or two.

EFL clubs have also been exasperated with Premier League delays in discussing the £250m rescue fund during the months of the crisis, and various demands made in return for it. Parry produced that £250m figure in the spring as the financial cost of football shutting down then playing without supporters, but no agreement has been forthcoming from the Premier League administration in the negotiations.

Instead, it is reported that the Premier League centrally, led by the chief executive Richard Masters, has most recently offered only £50m, with a further £100m repayable loan. The Premier League is also said to have been asking for commitments in return for this bailout, including the EFL falling in line with its rules for the threshold at which the season could be curtailed if games are suspended again. Some EFL club owners are said to have begun wondering if it is even worth accepting the Premier League’s help, if it is so meagre and with so many strings attached.

Then the plans worked up by Liverpool and Manchester United finally and prematurely emerged, and the terms of engagement, for the 14 and for the Premier League’s chief executive, have been scrambled.


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