How Tracey Crouch’s fan-led review threatens to end Premier League’s fragile truce

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There is an old school of thought among the Premier League clubs and those for whom the competition is a daily preoccupation – chief executives, finance directors, chairmen and the others who do not win popularity contests – that when it comes to their show, you cannot make a Star Wars movie on a Blue Peter budget. 

Which is to say that for the Premier League to look like the Premier League, it has to have a certain level of investment because that is what they expect in the offices of NBC Sports, and beIN Sports, where they have wagered the future of their networks on billion pound-plus rights deals. Indeed, it will be the same at Sky Sports and BT Sport, whose subscriber projections and revenue is based on being able to tell everyone with a straight face that this is a Super Sunday, and not simply Satisfactory Sunday followed by Mediocre Monday. 

The reason the Premier League sells around the world is partly because of its biggest clubs and its biggest names but also because of its great scope for jeopardy, the magnificent shock factor of Watford 4, Manchester United 1 or Manchester City 0, Crystal Palace 2. 

What future, then, for the delicate competitive balance, this coalition of rivals, as Tracey Crouch MP’s fan-led review arrives, and the Premier League finds itself caught between some major demands? It is, as Crouch herself says, a “global success” and, as she also says, very much part of the problem. By the end of the review it is clear that a lot is to be asked of the league itself, from unspecified extra distributions to the English Football League, to a transfer levy, and the forensic examinations of the “integrity and reputation of close family members” of potential investors. 

The review’s aim is to smooth the inequalities, usher a meaningful fan power over the threshold and to try to stop the financial self-annihilation of clubs seeking to reach the Premier League itself – all of which we can sign up to. But the Premier League is a finely balanced phenomenon – less the infamous “golden goose” to be tucked protectively under the arm of its lucky owner, as per Aston Villa chief executive Christian Purslow, than a financial success built on a surprising 20-club democracy. 

There is an assumption that the game’s greatest generator of wealth can have any demands placed upon it and will simply continue to be the same competition and the top-down funder of the game down to the grassroots. Part of the league’s attraction is the jeopardy of falling out of it or gaining a place within it. Solving the question of how that risk and reward plays out in the Championship is harder than simply demanding the latter be given a greater share of revenues. 

The proposed regulator will not even be enshrined in legislation in time for the deadline that the review set for the Premier League to reach agreement with the Football League on new, more generous redistribution of broadcast income. It would mean handing over a greater share than it already does, around 15 per cent, to leagues including the Championship that even the EFL chairman describes as being in the grip of a form of “insanity” when it comes to spending. By Crouch’s own admission, the wages-to-revenue ratio at some Championship clubs is almost 200 per cent. 

The black hole of Championship ambition, without any salary cap or cost controls, feels it could consume any amount of money that the Premier League poured into it, more even than the share of the £1.6 billion solidarity payments from the Premier League over the next three years. The clubs of the second tier have so far been unable to come up with an agreement on how they might curb their spending, but they would doubtless have many ideas on how to increase it. 

There are no firm alternatives suggested to the deeply divisive measure of parachute payments, which account for half of the Premier League’s solidarity payments, although the review acknowledges that the wage inflation that parachutes drive is part of the reason for self-immolation of clubs such as Derby County. These are the issues that the game has wrestled with for years, and that have led Rick Parry, the EFL chairman, to adopt a radical anti-parachute stance to try to force the Premier League into a different approach. 

The review’s position seems to be that football cannot live without them, and it cannot live with them. “The last time I looked we did not live in Russia, China or North Korea”, wrote West Ham vice-chairman Karren Brady in her newspaper column this weekend, in response to the notion that government could force Premier League clubs to hand over a greater share to Championship clubs who are effectively rivals. Yet Brady’s West Ham also benefit from a profit-sharing agreement that many Politburos throughout history might approve of. 

The collective bargaining agreement that has underpinned the Premier League’s success means that clubs such as West Ham are protected from the likes of Liverpool, United, Arsenal and certain others selling their own rights individually. The biggest clubs enjoy some benefit through the system of league finish merit payments but nothing like the advantage they could secure were they to go it alone in the television market. 

That potential extra earning is sacrificed for something bigger: the kind of league which attracts the biggest broadcast revenues because of its competitiveness and those days when the big names are unexpectedly beaten. That is the unspoken agreement between the 20 clubs, a fragile truce that has been under threat in the past 13 months from Project Big Picture and the European Super League breakaway. Both of those misadventures worked on the basis that certain elements could fiddle with the Premier League as much as they wished and the competition would be the same and the television executives would still queue to pay up. 

The Crouch review makes a similar assumption: that those who take the risks, and those who pay the prices, will do so forever, and perhaps they will, but it could be a wild ride to find out whether that is the case.

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