If one impact of the Covid-19 catastrophe has been to hold Britain rigid and shine a merciless light on all our structures, it was inevitable that football’s struggles would culminate in a piercing look at the money. And just as there are calls for fundamental improvements to the nation’s inequities when the horror is finally over, a focus is emerging on football’s own inequalities and how sustainable they really are.
The financial gap between the Premier League and the rest has widened exponentially over the 28 years since the First Division clubs broke away from sharing with the Football League’s other three divisions, but the divide now is brutal. While the Premier League is straining to resume matches and thereby fulfil its lucrative pay-TV contracts, and seeking government support by saying that it distributes big money down the system, League One and Two clubs are contemplating packing up and fearing many could go bust.
The EFL chairman, Rick Parry, a shrewd appointment by the league, is highly experienced, an architect of the Premier League breakaway and its first chief executive, who believes the gap grew too vast. During this crisis the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, and the sports minister, Nigel Huddleston, have been given some quick home-schooling on the realities of football’s finances, and put right on two elements of classic Premier League spin.
The first came after Dowden himself said in parliament last month of his desire to get the Premier League playing again, virus permitting, “as soon as possible”, that this would “help release resources through the rest of the system”. Parry is understood not to have been slow to question that, and the EFL told Dowden that as the Premier League had already advanced half of next season’s relatively tiny “solidarity” money, no more money would be released to its clubs by the Premier League completing this season’s matches.
The second, which infuriated many football people, was the Premier League’s public assurance that it gives about £400m to the EFL a season, so the EFL made clear to the government how that breaks down. Of that total, £273m, almost 70%, is “parachute payments”, paid to the Premier League’s own few clubs when relegated, and is a profound disruptor of the financial stability and fairness of competition in the Championship.
With Dowden and Huddleston new to their roles they seem to have only just understood the maths: the total “solidarity” money shared with all EFL clubs from the Premier League’s TV deals, which are £8.65bn from 2019-22, is £98m per season, 3.4%. A further £100m has in recent years been spent on grassroots facilities and community projects, which is all good work and much admired and publicised, but it amounts also to 3.4%.
So Premier League claims that starting again will “release resources” through the system, and the folding of parachute payments into an overall lump sum of big money descending from the top, have been called out. Now, there is a true financial crisis germinating, one of very many within this public health disaster, and a government supporting whole sections of the economy will not be providing aid for a sport soaked in TV billions which trickles too little down.
At their video call on Thursday Dowden and Huddleston asked Richard Masters, the Premier League chief executive, to discuss with Parry and the FA chief executive, Mark Bullingham, how to “ensure finances from the game’s resumption supports the wider football family”. The government also said its controversial backing for football to resume in empty stadiums should be reciprocated with “widening access for fans to view live coverage”. The ministers appear to mean free-to-air TV, but the Premier League, which has never had a single live match on free-to-air since 1992, is unlikely to do too much if it risks undermining its pay-TV contracts.
Clearly there are major hurdles to overcome if football is to start again, the biggest being the terrible virus that has killed more than 40,000 people in Britain. It is not clear at all if a resumption is possible, safe, appropriate, or will boost the nation’s morale as Boris Johnson has claimed. Troy Deeney is only the latest Premier League player to question restarting in these circumstances.
But when it finally does, and Britain begins to emerge from this crisis, perhaps there could be a “reset” of football’s divided structures and inequalities, along with all the other necessary rebuilding the country will need.