John Henry and Joel Glazer were not on the Premier League video meeting to promote the Project Big Picture they worked up in the US to reshape English football, or to take the flak from its shooting down by the other clubs. Despite the Premier League’s emphatic statement that the plans “will not be endorsed or pursued”, Liverpool’s owner is said to regard it as a win that the 20 clubs have committed to a strategic review, in which some of his proposals will inevitably be discussed.
Some in the EFL were also trying to look on the bright side after a fraught few days that have not cast the most flattering floodlight on the inner workings of the great game. They figure that at least the idea was surprisingly raised in the Liverpool and Manchester United plan, for a 25% sharing of the Premier League’s multibillions with the EFL, and must now be negotiated.
Others, though, were feeling that in the midst of this immediate crisis for the game, they have been left with not much more to clutch than stale air.
The stinking problem for the plan was that the gleaming idea of mending the huge gap between the two leagues 28 years after the Premier League breakaway was wrapped in the horrible idea for control by the so-called big six clubs, and that looked close to another breakaway.
The fact that Henry and Glazer’s “project” envisaged each Premier League club slicing off eight live matches per season to be sold internationally via their own streaming platforms made the aim of voting control look like a plan to carve up future rights for their own treasure chests. Liverpool, United and the other top clubs are seeing that streaming will become potentially a vast earner from the fans that their clubs’ big names and appeal have garnered around the world.
This period during the 2019-22 TV deals, that were sold for £8.6bn – the EFL’s deal is £360m over the same three years – was always likely to produce a battle from the six for a greater share next time. Richard Scudamore, the Premier League chief executive who held the original TV distribution together for so long, ultimately presided over a surrender of some international rights share to the top six. Henry had publicly pressed the case for that.
Scudamore announced he was stepping down almost on the same day, the end of an era. Candidates for his replacement found reasons not to take on apparently one of the great administrative jobs in sport, before Richard Masters, then the league’s commercial director, was elevated and an end put to the search.
Perhaps Liverpool and United, having seen the vehement reaction against their bare-faced bid for voting control, may temper it through this strategic review and other arguments to come over the next round of money. Perhaps they will push on with the same demands. The Glazers were bold enough to buy United with £525m of borrowed money then make the club and their fans pay all the spirit-sapping costs; Henry is a billionaire with a very keen view of his assets’ potential value globally, and he won a battle over the international rights.
Even without a European breakaway threat to realistically wield, the six are not shy to remind the rest that they account for a very big bulk of the TV audience. Even if the 14, three of whom change every season, dig in and keep the arrangements as they are – and their own £100m-plus slices – the Champions League will expand from 2024 inevitably, so the participating big clubs will grow richer anyway.
But the startling difference in the power-seizing plan this time was the offer of 25% redistribution to the EFL. Since 1992, when the Football League First Division clubs broke away to keep all the satellite TV money, and left the other three divisions marooned and resentful behind, no other consolidation of power has offered more sharing with the pyramid. Hence the weird spectacle this week of the great majority of EFL clubs welcoming the plan for the easing it could provide of their endless financial struggles, even as it was generally denounced as a greedy grab by the wealthiest.
Some EFL clubs believe that prospect will stay on the table through this strategic review. But on the same day, the Premier League clubs announced a bare minimum of the £250m short-term crisis fund that the EFL chairman, Rick Parry, had been seeking: merely £20m guaranteed for League One and League Two clubs, with more available to be sought as loans.
Even at this stage, a possible, gloomy result of the review can be imagined, where some ugly parts of Henry’s plan, more power and money for the big clubs, are conceded, but none of the progressive parts.
Football’s deeply unequal, unsatisfactory and wobbly status quo has been reasserted, for now.