Gunner Thoughts

Premier League’s dependence on TV money to retain “Best League” claim

As Sky Sport dangles their £170m, golden carrot in front of clubs it is clear the Premier League as a real dependence on TV money to stay afloat, be the “best league” and it drives all the decision making – for better or worse.

There are a handful of reasons that people believe the Premier League to be the greatest league in the world – it arguably isn’t based on the Champions League results consistently having other leagues possess more finalists and winners in recent history, but for many, that is not what makes Premier League “best”. When you look at the most popular sporting leagues across the world there are two things that are highly sought after – first parody, then superstars.

The two don’t always go hand in hand and finding leagues with both is a rarity. Takes America’s NFL for example. They have worked very hard to create a league that offers general parody throughout the league through means of salary caps, player drafts, and free agency, that provide week in, week out drama. “Any given Sunday”, they say. Any week a lower team is capable of beating the best. There are still teams that dominate or are consistently great, but within a year or two of proper building, a struggling team can challenge to win the trophy, and people enjoy that.

The other aspect people like in leagues is superstars. Big names, household names. Again, let’s look at America’s sports, but this time at the NBA. The NBA might be the best example of people loving what superstars provide a sport simply because of how obvious it is. With 5 players on the court, superstars have the ability to dominate, control, alter, and take over an entire game – and it’s thrilling for many. With a league filled with big names teaming up to form “super teams,” fans love the drama of players moving teams, superstar dynamics in locker rooms, and the matchups it produces on the court.

Now to truly be the best, a league has to have some level of both. The NBA often lacks complete parody with 40% of the league being decent to great, and the rest being pretty poor, which means fans that simply support their home team, rather than the movement of stars, are often turned off from the game. But doesn’t the Premier League offer fans relatively high levels of both? Millions of dollars in transfers for people to follow stars and more parody than Serie A, the Bundesliga, La Liga generally offer. But it has come at a cost.

Yes, there is the “Big 6” within the Premier League who are consistently at the top and one can easily argue that there is a drop off in play after the top 10-12 teams, but when relegation-threatened Watford romps through undefeated Liverpool 3-0 or newly promoted Sheffield United can find themselves in 7th with a real chance to finish strong and qualify for Europe next year, it is impossible to deny parody. Never mind the 2015/16 campaign that saw Leicester win it all. But to pull this off, teams needed money and not just “some” money, they needed a lot of it.

Enter TV money. In the last 10 years, the money given to Premier League teams for broadcasting has skyrocketed and it has unlocked the Premier League’s ability to offer a league filled with parody and some of the biggest names. To be on the outside looking in must be pretty hard. Take Scotland’s Celtic for example. They have completed their 9th straight league title, been present in the Champions League and yet every year are ransacked by Premier League clubs, with fewer accolades, that just so happen to have a lot of money. Virigil Van Djik and Victor Wanyama to Southampton, Gary Hooper to Norwich back the day.

In general, they can’t afford to retain their players. Moussa Dembele after his early success, Kieran Tierney, arguably the best Scottish left back (wink at Arsenal plug, sorry Andy), Edouard is linked with richer clubs for this summer – every year for them involves wondering which players they can keep off their meager earnings. Last year for their participation in the Champions League and winning of the Scottish league they raked in less cash than the 17th place Premier League team and it has created a major division of wealth.

The Premier League has played its role in the inflated, currently bursting market due to the pandemic and likely even driven much of it. Every window they rattle off the amount spent, often to the tune of well over a quarter to half a billion pounds, but it has bought the league a high level of both parody and big-name players. Chances are you can rattle off a handful of players on each team that many clubs would bend over backward to have. Even bottom of the league Norwich has Todd Cantwell and Max Aarons – not to mention Teemu Pukki, another Celtic player from the past.

But why is this important? Because as a result of this pandemic, we have seen the instability of club’s finances and structures and the amount of money that clubs in the Premier League would be on the hook for paying back to broadcasters if the league isn’t completed. In recent news, it was revealed that the number is somewhere around £762.2 million in total (domestic and international) and roughly £330m even when if the campaign is finished.

The difference between those two amounts alone is massive and either amount is, frankly, an amount that clubs can hardly afford at the moment. To add to the situation, leading broadcaster Sky Sport has dangled a £170m, gold, sparkling carrot in front of clubs saying, if they can complete the competition, they will push back the timeline on clubs paying their share for a full year. It’s an offer that clubs can hardly refuse, and it is a clear incentive for getting this season done and dusted – safely and with integrity or not.

We saw a 4th round of testing result in no COVID19 positive samples, followed by a 5th round with 1 positive sample. It’s small numbers and the league is taking precautions, but has clearly sent a message that the league “will be finished”. Yes, they are meeting to discuss curtailment options, but with the amount of money on the line and the threat that debt has to club’s future financial freedom, the options are clearly a last resort. It’s a power that the league has given the commercial side of the game and broadcasters. The downside of “selling out” or “selling your soul”, for all you cynical fans.

It’s a hard thing to see this dependence changing. No one wants to have a drop in the quality of their product. No team wants to lose their best players. No fans want to watch their team be worse than it used to be. And it means bending over backward and turning a blind eye to some things while hoping for the best to please those pumping in the most money – even if it might not be best for the global game and will produce future problems for the league and the division between top leagues and the rest. 

Truly, “the show must go on” has never been truer. No crowd, no natural atmosphere, no problem. It is generally safe and that’s the “number one priority”, right? TV can still air games, air their commercials, and make their money. So, dance Premier League monkey, dance! Those that pay your bills still have money to make and if you want to keep hold of your best players and best product, you’ll get on with it.

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