Cashing in on football’s heart

Long ago football was the sport of the common people and the working class.  It was common people and the working class that would fill the terraces to watch games on a Saturday afternoon and long ago even the players were just normal people playing the game they loved at a high level.

Today, Sky and BT secured the rights to screen Barclays Premier League matches here in the UK between the 2016/17 and 2018/19 seasons.  The incredible news, though, is that the total cost of these 7 packages – 5 going to Sky and 2 to BT – is £5,136,000,000.  The rights to screen English top tier football for a season now costs an incredible £1.7 billion per year in the UK alone, with that figure likely topping £2.5 billion with overseas rights included.  It is behind only the NFL and the NBA in terms of being the most expensive sporting league to screen in the world.

Here is how the deal breaks down for the two broadcasters:

Sky – 126 matches per season, £1.4 billion, £11m per game

Times: Saturday 12.30pm, Sunday 1pm, Sunday 4pm, Monday 8pm & Friday 8pm, Midweek evenings

BT – 42 matches per season, £320m, £7.2m per game

Saturday 5.30pm, Bank Holidays

Trying to comprehend the sheer amount of money going in to the English game is tough, but context shows just how incredibly well-funded it is.  All 20 Premier League teams (from last season) featured in this year’s top 40 Deloitte’s annual Football Rich List.  The relegated sides scooped as much as £80 million for their efforts, just as much as the champions from some of Europe’s top leagues – such as Portugal.  The last Scottish TV deal, negotiated in 2012 just before the collapse of Rangers, was worth a mere £80 million, or £16 million per season.  The cost of one and a half English Premier League matches in the new TV deal is worth more than an entire season of Scottish football coverage.  It’s mind-boggling.

The question of course is whether or not the product is worth it.  Considering that these TV deals are purely for the UK and not for international networks the figures seem extraordinarily high, but these companies are still turning a hefty profit by having Premier League coverage.  A Sky Sports subscription costs £36.50 per month and a BT Sport subscription costs £13.50 per month.  When multiplied across millions of people across the country the figures start to make sense.  And beyond that you have the goldmine that is commercial licensing, for the likes of pubs and restaurants, which can cost establishments thousands of pounds per month to keep a hold of.   These prices aren’t necessarily making the game in England as accessible as possible, even though they are beaming more matches than ever before to more homes than ever before.

Another problem English football fans have is that even though teams are making so much money the cost of tickets to Premier League games are still extremely high.  The BBC’s annual Price of Football survey last year indicated that the average cost of the cheapest ticket for a game at a Premier League ground was £21.49, increasing by 13% in three years – at a time when TV revenues into the club grew by 70% and the cost of living rose 6.8%.  Matchdays are no longer even remotely a money-spinner for these top teams, and despite the high costs fans still flock to grounds week after week and stadia are rarely anything other than full.  Surely then it would make sense to reward real fans with some ticket price reductions then?  Fans are no longer the masters of the club, and no longer the focus of the game – at least in the Premier League.

Some would say the real heart and soul of football remains to be with the lower league sides, with the teams that slug it out every Saturday not for the chance of Premier League glory but to delight the few thousand that have turned out to watch them.  Since the Premier League’s breakaway in 1992, the trickle-down economics of football prize money has seen the gulf between even the top two divisions increase massively.  Now, with teams in the Premier League possibly earning as much as all the teams in the tier below, this problem is going to become even more pronounced.  Sides in the Championship received £2.3 million per year in ‘parachute’ payments from the Premier League’s last TV deal, which was incidentally more than they earned from their own.  When the income disparity between clubs could be as much as £100 million it’s almost impossible to conceive that teams with Premier League cash could really be challenged in their bids for promotion.  While this may make a Premier League that is more competitive, it could turn out to become almost a franchise style contest as in American sports – with 20 teams that can pull in money but no chance of other teams taking them on.  This would kill the beautiful premise of English football that any team can make it to the top.

Part of the Premier League’s massive income could be put to better use to help develop footballing infrastructure in the country away from the top 20 teams.  By helping football at the grassroots level, England can begin to think of developing the players they need to realise their ambitions of becoming a serious contender on the world stage again – something that I’m sure all fans and all clubs in the country could agree upon.  Despite pulling in £3 billion from the last TV deal though, the Premier League only earmarked £168 million for investing and good causes and only contributed part of the £208 million spent by The Football Foundation (along with Sport England and the UK Government) over the same three year period.  While the trend in the Premier League is towards recruiting foreign players to fill the needs of their squad, this is to the detriment of the English game and will not produce the young English talents that as recently as 2002 were being called a ‘golden generation’.  Whilst stopping development of their own national squad, the lack of investment in the local game also creates a vacuum in people’s ability to play the sport they so love.  Football is great to watch, but it should also be great to play – and the Premier League is missing a massive opportunity in expanding its role within the society of the country, and therefore its all-important brand, by not investing here as well.

The Premier League may be the most expensive football league in the world, but as much as that provides high quality football to viewers and fans – it does so at a great cost to the game’s soul.  Fans are forgotten about in the quest for more revenue, and the classic ideal of football being for the common people and the working class has been well and truly demolished.  Of course they’ll always be there – there’s no doubting the continued passion for football in England – but will the connection with their game be as strong if they aren’t made to feel as valued by those involved within it?  The Premier League may be succeeding greatly, in capitalist terms at least, but the heart of the English game is suffering at the very least.

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