The Premier League cannot get it wrong? Or can it? You would have thought that with no English clubs in either of the European competitions the Premier League will be just a little bit concerned. But not Richard-Scudamore, soon to move from long standing chief executive to executive chairman.
He tells the media: “People like what we do. We’ve never put false measures in that we must win X number of Champions Leagues. Our matches, our top clubs, the viewing is going up and up around the world, irrespective of European success or otherwise. Interestingly, Champions League audiences don’t do as well when our clubs aren’t in it.”
And who can question him? By the time the overseas television deals are done it will mean a package of £8.5 billion. Having secured £5.14 billion from domestic broadcasters from 2016-17 season Scudamore is already able to play Santa Claus with £1 billion being given to clubs outside the top flight.
Like a good Santa, Scudamore is keen to make very football child happy. So the £1 billion, a 40% or more increase, will mean more in parachute payments to relegated clubs, more in the now much advertised solidarity payments to the Football League and Conference and increased investment in grassroots sport, facilities and also more money so clubs can reduce the burden on fans by subsidy for tickets and travel for away supporters. It may not lead to lower ticket prices as fan groups want but ticket prices is something, that, says Scudamore, clubs have to decide.
What he is eager to emphasise is that: “This is unprecedented in world sport. You can’t find any another sport that is committed to this level of sharing. It’s sharing in the success of English football.”
It is clear what Scudamore is hoping to do. That is change the perception of the Premier League. “The clubs never get enough credit for what they do. This is an element of them trying to get a bit of that ground back. There will be something people ought to be able to recognise. These are significant things and if we communicate properly, I do hope over time people will appreciate what we do.”
But will it?
Let us go from the grandeur of the Premier League down to the Valley and Charlton, once of the Premier League now in the Championship and under the ownership of Roland Duchatelet, a very successful Belgian businessman. Run by a 30 year old Flemish born lawyer who has been a football fan since she “was a really little girl”, Katrien Meire is trained in EU competition law and her arrival in football shows how the wind of changes have been working in football not just in this country but in Europe.
Her club is Sint Truidense which used to be owned by Duchatelet. Meire feeling she “wanted to do something with my knowledge of football started reading and writing articles about sports law, particularly the selling of television rights. Then it was a very hot top topic. In Belgium not so many people are specialised in the selling of rights and as in the UK rights are sold collectively. The Charlton owner is very famous in Belgium. He is well known for his ideas which are always different. I saw he was thinking of doing something different in sports media rights. He was playing with the idea of selling it individually so out of the blue in 2011 I send him an email saying I am a fan of your team and actually I specialise in this field. Within a couple of hours I had a reply from him saying he was interested in hearing me out and we should schedule a meeting. We met.”
To cut a long story short two years later Meire was working for Duchatelet as legal adviser by which time he had sold Sint Truidense for Standard Liege. “It was for sale and also it was a bigger club with a bigger voice”. You can see how Duchatelet thinks. It is this thinking that, in January 2014, made him buy Charlton which, with Duchatelet far too busy managing his business, Meire has been running. For her it was a dream move as at the age of 14, on her first visit to London, she had told her parents she wanted to live in London. Meire knew the Premiership well as she had for years been following Premiership clubs such as Arsenal, Manchester United and others and was in love with Thierry Henry.
Now all this bears out what Scudamore says, the power of the Premier League. Indeed Duchatelet, who owns five clubs in Europe if we add the Hungarian club his son owns, bought Charlton because the Premier League has made English football so attractive worldwide. A struggling London club but with a history, he could see it go places and with its owners skint, they could not afford to repair the ovens at the Valley as Meire found out when she came on an inspection, was irresistible. Duchatelet wanted to add an English club to his portfolio because by buying several clubs across Europe, says Meire, “he feels that will give us an advantage of maybe coming closer to break even.”
And Meire knows how difficult this is when you run a championship club. This is where we come to what Scudamore does not say. The fact is that the Premier League, stupidly given unchecked powers by the FA when it allowed the top flight clubs of the old Football League to break up, has now restructured the rest of English football. And in this the FA has had no say. Indeed it was not even consulted. This is through the parachute payments which have created an unofficial second tier Premier League which means clubs relegated from the Premier League always have an advantage when they drop down to the Championship.
Meire, in the 14 months she has been in London, has worked this out and says: “Here in the championship there is a structural problem because you are competing with Premier League wages. We are trying to compete with the clubs that are coming down. The clubs that come down will have really big parachute payments and the same clubs will go up and down all the time. It has created a Premier League Two and that’s a shame because clubs in the championship are clubs that used to be in the Premiership. Blackpool is the only club making a profit in the championship. It is a bit crazy, everybody is losing money.”
Such is the problem the success of the Premiership has created that it also affects gates in the Championship: “There is a championship problem. If you talk to the other championship clubs, they will tell you unless you are challenging for the playoffs the average gate for the championship clubs is half the stadium capacity.”
Charlton, mid table in the Championship, averages 16,000, with a 27,000 capacity. “That’s one of the challenges, how can we get more people into the ground?”
And all Championship clubs need more fans because as Meire says: “In the championship the average turnover is £18 million and the average wage bill is £19 million. That is not the case in Belgium, the wages haven’t gone up as they have here. All the extra money we get disappears directly into the players. It’s hard for us to make football affordable for the fans. People need to stop being so insane and spend, spend, spend against each other. I am not saying football players should be paid less. They deserve to be paid good money because they have a short career. When we tried to get one of the players on loan from another club, he was being paid 20 grand a week and he was not playing and that was double what our highest player gets. It’s insane.”
The answer to this insanity, says Meire, is obvious: “I would like to see salary caps in the championship. Caps exist in Leagues One and Two. We had a meeting with the chief executive of the Football League. He told us he is working on something.”
The Championships clubs have also spoken to Richard Scudamore and, according to Meire: “He just wants the most competitive league and according to him the most competitive league is where the best players are paid the highest. He doesn’t believe in a salary cap, de facto it doesn’t exist.”
The long term answer Meire knows is for the American model. The Americans were the first to make sport into a business but everything in America is shared equally. Reflecting on that Meire adds: “Here the mentality of the people is they won’t change their mind. Charlton will be one of the clubs that will at least force them to think about certain options because it cannot continue.”
The evidence of what Scudamore is saying suggests that Meire has an almighty struggle on her hands to change the mentality and we will continue with Scudamore being the generous Santa every time the Premier League has a new contract, but nothing will be done about the structural problems the success of the Premier League has caused.
Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 29 books. The Spirit of the Game, published by Constable and Robinson, is now available in paperback. Follow Mihir on twitter @mihirbose