We’re all familiar with the following saying: “With great power, comes great responsibility”. In the case of the Premier League, the power is both soft (cultural) and financial and is ever-increasingly extensive. The question is: where do the responsibilities to the wider English game start and end? More pertinently – where should it start and end?
The Premier League is on track to rake in revenues of £9 billion from its TV rights over the next 3 years – a truly astonishing amount that dwarfs the other top leagues in Europe. In fact, it represents significantly more than the top 4 other European leagues combined. Incredibly, revenues from the Premier League TV deal alone were sufficient for more than half of the league’s clubs to break even in 2016/17. In essence: clubs in the top-flight are so awash with cash that more than half of them could charge nothing for their home games, and at least break even.
This is a great success story and a reflection of the Premier League ‘product’ appeal alongside a world-leading marketing strategy. Despite the success, it does raise questions about where and how all this money is being spent, and whether any of it could, and should, be used to help other clubs who have fallen on hard times. Is the Premier League living up to it’s responsibilities in this respect?
It’s grim out there
Whilst the coffers of Premier League clubs have never been so full, the plight of clubs further down the football pyramid has become increasingly perilous. Between them, clubs in England’s second tier made a staggering combined loss of £510 million last year – that’s an average loss of £23 million. Of course, this isn’t sustainable and many of the clubs are effectively only afloat because their owners are bankrolling them. All of this, rather worryingly, comes at the same time as the EFL has reported a 50% increase in revenues. It’s clear to see that these clubs are far out-spending their income streams, and the situation isn’t tenable.
The sense of despair around the footballing fraternity at Bolton Wanderers desperate recent tale of staff needing to use food banks is palpable. Many are asking – how can this happen to a Championship club; that it gets so bad that they can’t even pay their staff? That a club who spent a decade in the Premier League and played in Europe during that time, have employees needing to use food banks to survive. They would like to know why the Premier League, with its wealth of reserves, hasn’t stepped into help. But does the Premier League have a moral obligation to help clubs that are not part of it’s exclusivity and should it even care about what goes on outside of it’s remit?
English football has a long and proud tradition stretching back to the 1800’s. During this time, clubs have traded places in the football pyramid and have played each other hundreds of times, in some cases. In times of crises over the years, clubs have been to known to help each other out – often to their own detriment. For much of this history there has been a mutual interest, even a moral obligation to help in ensuring that other clubs don’t go bust and that whatever help can be spared, is done so.
The current reference for this moral cause is Bolton Wanderers, but any number of clubs could be used as examples of recent hardship. Let’s not forget, that Bolton Wanderers are founding members of the football league, with over 145 years of proud heritage to call upon. Is it right that Premier League clubs haven’t done more to help advert the possibility of a proud club like Bolton going extinct, yet have shelled out north of £260 million on agents fees last year? Of course not – and it’s about time they did more to help those who aren’t benefiting from the Premier League windfall and lived up to their moral obligations.
Does it benefit any of the Premier League clubs if Bolton, or any other league club were to go under? No. Does it benefit them to help, in some way, keep a club like Bolton affloat? Not directly, but certainly indirectly. It may be that in a few years time, Bolton’s academy produce the next wonderkid who Premier League clubs wish to sign. It may be that Bolton hire an up-and-coming manager, that works wonders with the side and becomes a target for Premier League clubs. More importantly though, they have a moral obligation to help a club like Bolton – with it’s rich history in the game; especially when the Premier League is so awash with spare cash. To lose a club like Bolton is to lose a bit of ‘football heritage’ – thanks, Jose.
What more could the Premier League do to help?
It would be a wholly dangerous, and unhealthy idea for the Premier League, or it’s clubs, to directly bail out lower league clubs. It would raise ethical issues around a conflict of interests and would also be hugely unfair to the other clubs that cut their cloth accordingly. Instead they could consider donating a fixed % of their revenues to a ‘crisis fund’, or ‘hardship fund’ that would be available to clubs lower down the football pyramid – much in the same way that the UK government commits a % of its GDP to overseas aid. As reported already, most Premier League clubs don’t even need their ticket sales to break even, so it is surely a reasonable proposal.
This would at least buy these clubs more time to try and turn the situation around/find a new buyer/fulfill fixtures for clubs in distress, like Bolton. There would need to be well thought-out criteria around how this money is allocated and spent. For example, any one club would not be entitled to more than x per cent of the total fund. In a similar way to the Eurozone bailout of Greece, clubs who applied for money from the fund would need to demonstrate exactly how they intend to spend the money, and allow for complete financial auditory from the relevant authorities. Proper checks and balances would have to be put in place to ensure that this fund was not abused as a ‘get out of jail free card’ by mismanaged clubs.
In many ways, clubs in the Premier League could argue that they are not the arbiters of other clubs finances and nor should they be. They could also legitimately argue that their sole financial focus should be on ensuring that their revenues are spent wisely and that their club is as well run as it can be. They would also be correct to point out that a ‘hardship fund’ or similar scheme would give ‘carte blanche’ to smaller clubs to be a little less prudent with their outgoings; an easy bailout for frivolous owners.
They could even argue that they are already doing their bit, by foregoing some of the revenue generated by the Premier League; through the issuing of parachute payments to relegated teams. However these payments only last for 3 years and are around a paltry sum of £4 million a year, which isn’t even going to make a dent in the average Championship club’s losses of £23 million. Surely they have a moral responsibility to do much more.
Even if the moral obligation isn’t a compelling enough argument, it is a fact that many of the clubs currently residing in the Premier League have recent histories outside of the top-flight; equally, some have very little history in the top-flight and have spent most of their existence in the second-tier or lower. It is feasible that every club outside of the ‘big 6’ stands some realistic chance of being relegated at the start of each season.
There is a potential for these clubs to one day, find themselves in the position of a Blackpool, Bolton, Charlton, Coventry, Portsmouth etc. If this were to happen, they would be grateful recipients of the generosity that they helped to establish in the first place. Even if they don’t end up in this position, they can be proud to have helped to safeguard the welfare of English football’s less wealthy clubs. They can be proud that they have lived up to their responsibilities.