There has been an outcry today about rumoured negotiations involving Manchesters City and United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool to abandon the Premier League and join a Euro League. I’ve written about this possibility before and, having given it a bit of thought, I don’t think it can happen fast enough.
“Would you mind if we take a break for a moment? There’s someone else over there I need to negotiate with.”
Quite simply, it represents the first and best chance of reforming English football since the advent of the Premier League.
I think you should welcome the Euro League if you agree with any of the following: that tickets and TV subs are too expensive; that players are overpaid; that English youngsters are being stifled; that the national team is being sacrificed for the success of the league; that clubs shouldn’t be owned by carpet-bagging billionaires; that more clubs should have a shot at the title; that not enough TV money is making its way down the pyramid to the grassroots; that English football is, generally, pretty badly run.
All of these things, I’d argue, are a product of the Premier League and its single-minded pursuit of financial growth. They happen because a small cadre of ultra-rich clubs have seized control of English football. Publicly they insist that’s what’s good for the Premier League is good for football, while instituting a system that sucks ever more money from the pockets of fans, forces ambitious clubs to take huge financial risks, gives top clubs first pick of the best young players, allows ever fewer English players to get experience at the top flight and turns the title race into a quadopsony.
But, today, the mask has slipped. They’ve momentarily taken their hands from round the neck of English football to concentrate on throttling more money from Uefa. It’s time to run screaming from them.
To even consider leaving the Premier League for a Euro League is a clear admission that our Big Clubs value only money, that they will do anything to increase their income from the global sports rights feeding frenzy. No clubs abandoning the Premier League can possibly claim to be interested in the financial or footballing well-being of any other club in England nor can they continue to maintain a commitment to fair competition or the fundamentals of sportsmanship.
It is as though, having looked at American sport, they missed all that is great about it – competitive balance, the draft, revenue sharing, salary caps – and came away with only one idea, American sport’s worst, the closed shop.
Well, best of luck to them. At a stroke, the malign influence on English football, and its in-built blocking minority that prevents reform, could depart. Suddenly, everything is up for grabs again.
Crucially, the rump of the Premier League won’t be able to continue without involving the FA and Football League in discussions about how to reorganise the divisions.
And so, unusually, the English pyramid will find itself holding all the cards. We must demand the PL is folded back into the league, to create a unified structure, and that EPPP and the financial contribution to the league is readdressed. Regulation on player wages, a salary cap and other necessary measures to control footballing inflation should be back on the table.
These, of course, were the measures we were told couldn’t happen for fear of harming the Premier League’s competitiveness. Except now the eternal truth about big businesses is made clear: they hate competition. What they want is monopoly power, the unfair ability to dictate terms to suppliers and customers.
Now, to be fair, while the clubs had admitted being at the meeting – indeed admitted to discussing alternative European competition formats – they’ve denied specifically discussing joining a Euro League. And, who knows, they may even be telling the truth. On this occasion.
But it’s no secret that top Premier League clubs have a long-standing interest in the idea of a pan-European league, free from the profitless inconveniences of relegation and small clubs. So, sooner or later, with Stephen Ross present merely as an observer or not, they’re going to start talking about it again.***
If Uefa meet them half way on their outrageous demands, it may kick the can down the line a few years, but the Euro League is an itch they can’t stop scratching, a nagging voice waking chairmen at night, whispering the terrifying words that there exists, in some dark corner of this land, an ancient, worthless tradition of the pre-industrial age that’s preventing clubs maximising their profits. The horror, the horror.
Now, many will argue that the club are just bluffing to force Uefa to give them more money and guaranteed entry to the Champions League.
That maybe so. There’s only one way to tell, though: call their bluff.
Entry to the Champions League is already massively skewed to help big teams and the revenue split reflects market size rather than performance. In other word, they already get more than their fair share.
If they think they can do better, good luck to them. Off you go. I’ll drive you to the airport myself.
If that sounds extreme, speak to fans of Scottish football. For many of them, their biggest fear about a European Super League is that it won’t include Celtic and Rangers.
For two decades, English football has been like an intensively farmed animal, dosed on antibiotics to promote artificial growth and milked ever more frequently by people with no care for the land or the well-being of their herd.
Now, though, they’ve shown their true selves. And it’s not just fans who’ll be disgusted.
The Big Clubs have managed to get their way by shining the medium-sized clubs on that they too will get their cut. If they do stay, they still have enough for a veto. But they’ll struggle to get other clubs to do their bidding. There must be a backlash, you’d hope, from Spurs, a club investing heavily in new infrastructure to host the Big Teams. Or Everton, who’d like to. Or West Ham, whose government-gifted freebee will looked decidedly empty without Chelsea and Arsenal visiting each year.
Having screwed over fans, the England national team and the Football League, the Big Clubs have now betrayed their only remaining allies – the mid-tier clubs – by bargaining to exclude them either from the riches of the Champions League or the Euro League.
It should make for some interesting conversations at the next Premier League owner’s meeting.
Finally, then, the Big Clubs have overplayed their hands. If they go, this is the chance English football has been crying out for to remake itself into a game that combines the best elements of the modern football with the precious inheritance of our national game’s traditions. And, if they stay, they will have less influence at home and will be vulnerable to reform campaigns.
It’s crucial that the FA and the League, and would-be reformers in the Premier League, don’t flunk this.
Because, barring a collapse in TV income, we may never get another chance like this.
If you enjoyed this, please buy my book “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL”. That way I’ll have the money to write more things you might like. Oh, and please spread the word, too. Thanks a lot.
*** Even funnier than the hasty backpedalling of the ‘Big 5’ over the Euro League is the thought of Stephen Ross successfully running a sporting event. This, after all, is a man who, in seven seasons in charge of the Miami Dolphins, has overseen not one winning campaign and not one play-off appearance – giving one of the league’s grandest clubs the joint-seventh worst record in the whole NFL.
Incidentally, the teams in third, fourth, fifth and sixth on that list are the Cleveland Browns (formerly owned by Randy Lerner), the LA Rams (prop. Stan Kroenke), the Jacksonville Jaguars (plaything of multisport mega-dunce and Fulham owner Shad Khan) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (run by a family of asset-stripping gnomes called the Glazers).
Which brings up a troubling question. What does it tell us that the worst, least successful, most money-orientated NFL owners are the ones interested in the Premier League?
Why, instead, doesn’t the Premier League seek out the views of Robert Kraft, the most successful owner in the NFL? Here is a man who already owns an MLS team and has a genuine love of football, yet turned down the chance to buy Liverpool, not because he didn’t crave it, but because he saw it was a league that rewards profligacy rather than responsible ownership.
Or why not ask the Rooneys, owners of Pittsburgh and six-time Super Bowl winners, about the rule named after their family? It’s the gold standard for tackling racial bias in managerial hiring – an issue the Premier League still refuses to address.
Or how about the Maras, who founded eight-time champions the New York Giants? They recently gave their coach four years’ grace in missing the playoffs because he’d won two Super Bowls. It was unseemly, they felt, to shitcan a great servant, even one who was clearly past his best.
All these people, each with decades of ownership, know what it takes to build a club and a league. They are patient, long-termists dedicated to doing things properly and growing their sport.
But, no. Instead the Premier League has become a magnet for the NFL’s worst people – the avaricious entryists who could recognise an under-priced asset at 1,000 yards but couldn’t so much as see a beautiful sunset without wondering if there’s a way of charging people to look at it.
These, then, are the people prodding the Premier League like a side of meat – rich men who’ve contributed nothing to the league and who are so busying trying to get richer, they appear not even to recognise that the NFL goose that lays their golden eggs was raised on values that are anathema to them. Values like mutuality, fairness and competition.
They’ll fit right in over here.