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Premier League 25th Birthday: Many financial returns but little happiness

By Tom Reed

The Premier League reached its 25th year on August 15th but there will be no popular English celebrations for the milestone, no big gatherings like the Premier League fan parks in Mumbai, few “Well done’’ messages from down the football ladder or glasses raised to its executive chairman Richard Scudamore. Instead a muted media highlights package, at odds with the League’s rapturous reputation abroad, focusing on the glory days of Shearer, Bergkamp and Le Tissier over the nothing years since the money really took hold. We were promised a ‘whole new ball game’ but fans didn’t reckon on an altered, if not virtual, reality where pockets are emptied as fast as goals are scored.

This week, the BBC ran a party-pooping report on the £100 million gap between the top flight and the Championship which had emerged even before the record £5.136bn TV deal was announced in 2015 and which has likely widened since. ‘Closed shop’ was the term used and one that came as no surprise to those who saw through one-season-wonders Leicester City and have studied the long-term dominance index of a league towered over by its richest and most powerful clubs.

It could have been so different, if basic controls had been placed on the nascent Football Association Premier League on its inception in 1992. Instead, the F.A made room for the big clubs’ land grab, quite literally in the case of Bert Millichip who offered the breakaway conspirators a room in which to plot while his Soho Square blazers busied themselves with their ‘Blueprint For The Future Of Football’ and a ‘move upmarket so as to follow the affluent middle class consumer in his or her pursuits and aspirations’.

Perhaps then we could have had a national side capable of seriously challenging for tournaments at senior level rather than collecting tick-box youth cups with English talent then packed away in dusty garage academies like performance cars kept from the main roads by their owners.

The Elite Player Performance Plan would and should never have been tabled if some semblance of rationality was applied to the running of the Premier League. Quite obviously you cannot have a situation in which billions of TV monies are shared between clubs to spend on off-the-shelf purchases of complete players from abroad while also hoarding the nation’s top youth prospects and rarely giving them first-team starts.

Yet this is the mad situation we deal with and a reason why very few fans of the England side will be sending their salutations for the Premier League’s silver anniversary to Gloucester Place. B-Teams in the Football League Trophy came as a recent knock-on, an unhealthy sign from the EFL that the Premier League is sacrosanct, inviolable and that it should be the rest of football that shoulders the top league’s failure to blood English youth via its first elevens. Sod the fans who are so against it that they have to boycott their own clubs to make a point.

Of course, the aforementioned BBC report also focused on comments from Kieran Maguire, from the University of Liverpool who said that the EFL’s own Championship is at risk of becoming the ‘basket case’ division as more and more clubs gamble on attaining the riches of Premier League status. In 2016, 16 out of 24 Championship clubs spent more than 100% of their turnover on staff costs, including their players, coaches, management and administrators according to Maguire. The Championship now resembles a premium airport lounge jammed with nouveau-riche gamblers spending millions on duty-free and waiting for the Premier League private jet which only has space for three.

Then there’s the parachute payments, that old chestnut, which means that the sporting measure of a free flow through the leagues right up to the Premier League title is nigh on impossible. But nothing can be done right? Well wrong when you look at the NFL and its competition integrity measures that ensures there are only 6 teams at odds of longer than 100/1 for the Superbowl while half the Premier league are priced at 1000/1 or more for the league title.

Feel then, for the Football League Chairmen like Ben Robinson at Burton Albion getting blood from stones to propel his unfashionable club to Championship heights and coming up against relegated clubs pocketing £91 million over three years on their exit from the top flight.

But then why worry about well-to-do club owners when the poor have been let down most by the Premier League and the rest of football. When the F.A were thumbing their noses at the ‘significant minority’ of fans whose ‘purchase decisions’ were driven ‘primarily by price’ towards a ‘mass dynamic’ of the ‘more affluent consumer’ in the 90’s even they couldn’t have envisaged a time when hard up folk were eased out of the grounds by high ticket pricing and then, potentially, out of the pubs with landlords struggling to pay their TV bills and beer at £5.00 a pint.

Compound the worry too, now that terms like ‘working poor’ have entered our popular consciousness.

Those supporters with a bit of spare cash, actually able to get into matches should never have had to take to the streets as they did with the marches through London to PL HQ.  A living ticket price for fans alongside a living wage for club staff is the least the Premier League could have committed to, given access to the Scrooge McDuck style cash reserves from our televisual addiction to football.

Instead, the Football Supporters Federation claims that fans could be let in for free and clubs be not worse off after another bumper TV deal was lost amidst the noise of tills whirring. What they got was a paltry cap on away tickets only, while the maxim ‘twenty’s plenty’ can now be applied to a couple of burgers and chips as well as home tickets which remain in the stratosphere. Think of the minimum £1000 Arsenal season ticket when you see their fans pulling their hair out on Arsenal Fan TV.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the pay TV subscription monies were subject to some sort of windfall tax whereby the grassroots were flush with cash but that is not the case. The Premier League promised to pay 5% of its TV income support grassroots football in 1997 yet currently only stump up 3.7% as a contribution to facilities and community programmes according to David Conn of the Guardian.

Instead we have a situation where our municipal grass pitches, which have supported football from the bottom up are left to rack and ruin and sold by hard up councils, with insufficient 3G developments often expected to fill the gap.

If the Premier League has furnished football with anything, it is that everything is for sale, from players to advertising, to pre-season tours to the shirt for your back. Meanwhile those trying to keep up to in the lower leagues are subject to the ‘market forces’ cash is king model that the Premier League has embraced for good or bad. Brazilians bosses at Morecambe, Jordanians at Bristol Rovers and Chinese in charge of Northampton Town. Meanwhile, the Premier League has a dearth of fans reps on the boards of its clubs despite the late, great Brian Lomax of Supporters Direct warning at the same time as the Premier League’s inception that fans need to be partners in the running of teams. Shamefully, Supporters Direct, the body tasked with saving clubs and facilitating fan-ownership has faced budget problems of it own, despite the game swimming in cash.

But what about on the pitch. Has the quality improved in line with the transfer fees which top £1 billion this season? Not really. When the story of the Premier League is told it will be the Klinsmanns, the Bergkamps and the Cantonas who are remembered for their technique rather than the endurance athletes who get paid in the hundreds of thousands a week to close games down. There was beauty in the imperfection of football before 100k a week and perhaps, most importantly, character.

The true winners are the marketing execs who have been paid fortunes to take everything the fans built and nurtured and sell it back to them at a premium price. Who was one of the six named special advisors on the aforementioned 1991 FA Blueprint? Saatchi and Saatchi of course.

Like everything in this country including the housing market, football has been systematically turned into a product: gain control, buff it up, polish ‘improve’ and shift it for a profit. Except that the result is nothing you can call ‘home’. Go to West Ham and see it is very possible to drown in opulence while a few miles down the road a perfectly good ground is in ruins, while the locals try to fill the void. A little mention for agents too, in line with the little slice they take off ramping up their client’s value and the little mention their role in football’s inflationary disease gets in the press.

Yes, back to “community’, a good place to end and an idea the Premier League has seemingly sidelined for global markets. Richard Scudamore, the leader of the so called best league in the world, yet strangely rarely seen where fans can get to him, recently talked up the importance of foreign supporters to English football clubs. Speaking at the Asia Trophy Scudamore said  “I would put a lot of people here on these trips up against anyone back home, pub quiz, in terms of knowledge of the club. The fact they haven’t walked down through terraced houses, smelt the hot dogs and onions and the dodged the police horse crap on the pavement you have to step in in order to enjoy your Premier League experience, I understand they haven’t sensed that – but that’s not to say there isn’t  an appreciation, a knowledge, a passion, an interest and it’s that which is being channelled to make the game what it is.’

Yeah the horse shit, the sirens, the pubs, the notches on the ticket office counters, the clickety clack of turnstiles, the terraces, all things that local communities found their true sport in and that the Premier League seemingly has lost sight of in their never ending quest for a round of games abroad. The warm embrace of Mounted Division dung round an Adidas Trimm Trabb feels more than a streamed match and an imagined fan culture from 1000’s of miles away.

Maybe the ultimate destination for the Premier League is to break away from itself and take it’s ‘Big 6 clubs to a European Super League, led by Birthday boy Scudamore. Now that would be a reason for celebration for the significant majority of clubs and supporters who have lived in their shadow of the top division for too long. A chance to press the rest button and do things right.

So no party for the Premier League’s 25th, instead a wish for better things to come, followed by an early night. No dancing girls or fireworks. It could have been better, it should have been better…