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Ayre’s ambitions are bad news for the Premier League

October 12, 2011

The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football and the way I see life.” – Bill Shankly

Football has changed significantly since Bill Shankly hoisted Liverpool to domestic superiority. Even in the era of the ever-expanding Premier League though, the game has not become a totally anarchic, lawless affair. The strongest sides do not yet have everything their own way. True, the concentration of capital among an elite band of sneering titans cannot be denied, but certain conditions have remained which at least pay lip service to the belief that the smaller teams matter. Now Liverpool are seeking to undermine one such condition – the collective selling of Premier League TV rights. Supporters of the league’s business model have pointed to this arrangement as evidence that it is as much a socialist construction as one of the free market. There is a painful irony to the fact that Shankly’s club appears so willing to lead the campaign for further elite enrichment.

It should be noted that Ian Ayre, Liverpool’s Chief Executive, has talked up the possibility of clubs selling only overseas TV rights individually; revenues from domestic contracts would still be distributed as normal. Ayre’s focus on international markets clearly demonstrates not just that potential earnings abroad are greater than those to be found in Britain, but also that these markets are far from being fully exploited. From the club’s perspective, one could understand the frustration that, despite being second only to Manchester United in terms of foreign presence, the proceeds from the sale of TV rights outside the UK – £1.4bn over the current three-year period – are divided up equally between the 20 Premier League clubs.

Financial Fair Play has increased the need for clubs to wring as much cash from every possible revenue stream, including media rights. There has been a lot of positivity surrounding FFP (Liverpool owner John Henry is among its supporters), football supporters hopeful that it can rein in the power of the biggest sides. Perhaps now we are seeing the downside. The need to balance the books, as opposed to relying on investment from rich owners to keep a club afloat, may mean that unpopular revenue-raising decisions are taken, such as raising ticket prices or supporting measures which benefit one’s own team at the expense of the majority. When FFP regulations need to be complied with, when marketing targets in the Far East need to be met, when a chief executive’s responsibility is solely to his own club, the interests of Bolton, Wigan and Sunderland are going to take a back seat. Burnishing the accounts is, more than ever, a club’s raison d’être.

This view that only the big teams are important, however, fails to appreciate the role played by other clubs in the competition. Liverpool, Manchester United and rest of the top six are part of a league of 20, and it is the marketing of the division as a whole that is partly behind the increased money-making opportunities in the Far East, the United States and so on. Fans tune in from all around the world not just to see the best teams, but also because they know games will often be close-fought affairs. On their day, any team can beat any opponent, so the story goes; the product thrives because it is exciting and competitive. The clubs would no doubt point to Spain as an example of a league containing top teams but no such sense of tension or unpredictability, except perhaps over which clubs will fail to find a shirt sponsor for the season.

Yet it the Spanish model that the English risk copying. Because Barcelona, Real Madrid and the rest negotiate their TV deals individually, the top two teams dominate both on the field and off it. They earn the most money and enjoy the most success; no other team looks likely to challenge them for the league crown. Not since 2003-04 has another club won the league (that was Rafa Benitez’s Valencia). The steady stream of cash into the coffers at the Camp Nou and the Bernabeu has placed a glass ceiling above third place in the table. Further enriching the Premier League’s top clubs at the expense of the rest would have a similar effect. The rich clubs would benefit financially, but the league would suffer.

Of comfort is the fact that 14 teams would need to vote in favour of a change to the way in which TV rights are sold. At the moment, that looks unlikely, and we should bear that in mind. It may be that this idea is kicked into touch, just as the idea of the 39th game was. A cavalcade of critics emerged to knock back that particular idea. Hopefully they will do the same this time. While it has been disappointing to see some Liverpool fans display their support for such an “I’m alright, Jack” proposal, it has been equally heartening to see many of them condemn Ayre’s comments for what they are: selfish, ill-conceived and dangerous.

We may be 20 years too late in standing up for fairness and competition. The creation of the Premier League ushered in an era where a handful of clubs have dominated. The time for arguing against the concentration of wealth amongst a small group of clubs may have long passed. Nevertheless, any further move in this direction would have negative consequences for the competition and for clubs shut out from the spoils of the Champions League and international recognition.

On Saturday afternoon, Liverpool’s anthem will ring round Anfield once more. Right now there are plenty of people wishing Liverpool would walk alone, and leave the rest of English football as it is.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. CrowdGoBananes permalink
    October 12, 2011 2:42 pm

    I’m also a Liverpool fan, and you’ve eruditely articulated a lot of my own feelings about all this. Cheers.

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