£5.14bn! My eyes haven’t watered this much since Thierry Henry came back to Arsenal on loan and scored that winner against Leeds. £5.14bn. It is enough to feed hundreds of millions of people. Enough to build roads, schools, hospitals, or provide clean water. It is enough to pay for training programs to put the unemployed back to work. It is what Sky and BT have paid to ensure that they are the only companies in the UK able to transmit live English Premier League games.
Speaking about an 18% fall in pre-tax profit toward the end of 2013, Jeremy Darroch – Chief Executive of BSkyB – described the 2012 Premiership television rights deal as a “one off step up”. He was wrong. He also commented that “with any set of rights there is a price beyond which we don’t think it provides value”. Sky clearly haven’t reached it.
The auction of these television rights has seen a 70% rise in price on the previous deal, which had also been a 70% rise on the one before that. Individually, BT paid 18% more than they did last time. Sky? 83%. Even Daniel Levy must be applauding the Premier League on their bargaining skills.
On top of the £5.14bn it gets from domestic buyers, there is an added £3bn or so from foreign television networks. Objectively, this is all utter lunacy. But when is anyone able to be entirely objective about football? Pope John Paul II once famously said, “amongst all unimportant subjects, football is by far the most important”. He was right. We love it too much. It doesn’t take many instances of dragging a laptop over a sleeping partner at 7am Eastern after four hours’ sleep to realize that one is a slave to the game.
We are slaves to the elation, hope, anger and despair. We are slaves to the dramatic and romantic narratives that we lack in our own lives. I’d wager nobody is engaging in a media campaign against you. I doubt you’ve gone bankrupt, had three promotions in the past four years, sold off half your assets and are now on the brink of challenging the European elite in your field. We would sneer at these plot-lines as bad writing if they were foisted upon us by middling TV dramas. When they are football related, we will discuss them until the small hours, long after those lucky enough to be addicted to something less time consuming have gone to bed.
All of this is to say, it is difficult to moralize about the money spent on TV rights that could be spent elsewhere in society. Of course it could. But the free market is what we have chosen, and in the free market, there is clearly enough desire from people to constantly consume football that it is in the interests of BT and Sky to provide it. So instead, let’s turn our attention to the effect it might have, and how the money should be used.
The Effect on the European Game
The British Empire may have crumbled to dust, but the British footballing empire is threatening to take its place. The Premier League is already too rich compared to other leagues around the world. It has been that way for some time now, but it has become more evident than ever in recent transfer windows. Everton famously have no money, but they had £28m to spend on Romelu Lukaku. Hull City spent around £50m (Abel Hernandez to Hull simply wouldn’t have been a thing, a few years ago) in one summer. Leicester City were able to offer Esteban Cambiasso wages he’d accept after a decade at Inter Milan. Stoke and West Ham got players from Barcelona and matched their wages. The television money for one week in the Premiership is more than a whole season of the Eredivisie.
The Premier League must be commended for splitting the television revenue fairly equitably amongst all of its clubs. The lack of this kind of planning has seen La Liga become – recent Atletico adventures aside – a two horse joke, at least where winning the league title is concerned. However, a landscape in which Burnley are wealthier than Ajax is an unhealthy one. Talent follows the money. It has ever been thus. What we will see to an even greater extent is the concentration of the top talent in one place, when what we should want to see is a reinvigorated Seria A, an equitable La Liga and a Bundesliga and Ligue 1 with strength in depth.
Indeed, the co-President of Ligue 1 side, St. Etienne, fears that the Premier League could become the NBA of European football, with all the power resting in England. Of course, at the same time, his club are setting up a partnership with Manchester City that will see the English champions have much greater access to the French side’s youth prospects. C’est la vie. Neither FIFA nor UEFA can wade in, here. Domestic television rights are one of the few things their long arms can’t reach. Nevertheless UEFA, and Platini in particular, will not be happy with a lop-sided transfer market, or if English clubs start dominating European competitions (which, admittedly, is not at all a guarantee).
How the Money Should be Used
I could write pages about this, but here are three simple ways in which the money could be used positively.
Ticket prices need to be reduced. This is obvious. The young and the less well-off have been gradually squeezed out of football grounds since the mid-1990s. The average stadium goer is in their 40s. Clubs have become worried about the fading atmosphere in their grounds, enough that they’re considering safe-standing sections, and singing zones (or whatever they’re called). This is corporate nonsense. The way to get atmosphere back at football is to fill the ground with young people. After all, where are the next generation of season ticket holders going to come from, otherwise? Older fans absolutely have their place, but they’re quieter and more cynical. They’ve seen too much. They know that for the most part, raucous hope is misplaced.
A living wage must be paid to club staff. It is sickening that so far only Chelsea have done this of their own volition, and if that continues then the British government should impose it upon them. Richard Scudamore, who earned over £2m in 2014, has said that paying a living wage is not a football club’s responsibility. I would describe keeping cleaning staff below the poverty line while Armand Traore takes home upwards of £40k a week as irresponsible, if not an absolute scandal.
Youth: Public access 4G pitches, undersoil heating, effective drainage, changing rooms that don’t smell like public toilets, changing rooms that aren’t public toilets. This list is endless. Do not complain about not enough young English talent coming through until you’ve put every possible infrastructure in place to make it happen. Britain doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of coaches other countries have. The coaching courses needed to obtain UEFA licenses are very expensive to individuals, but a pittance to a Premier League club. Solution? Vastly and rapidly increase the amount of qualified coaches by subsidizing these courses for interested local parties.
The new television deal is astronomical, and as explained, it doesn’t bode well for the broader football landscape unless other leagues can find ways to increase their own spending power too. Within the UK, though, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. There is an incredible opportunity for clubs to produce substantive, positive change with this money, and we can only hope that they seize it.