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Relegation a must to keep TV cash flow

Sam Wallace


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'Play the games in neutral venues as best as possible and the league will have some leverage in the renegotiation of broadcast contracts that is coming'

'Play the games in neutral venues as best as possible and the league will have some leverage in the renegotiation of broadcast contracts that is coming'

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'Play the games in neutral venues as best as possible and the league will have some leverage in the renegotiation of broadcast contracts that is coming'

The Premier League's 29-year period of solidarity is crumbling, and come tomorrow there will be no consensus on the way forward for the most lucrative league in the world - just one side who have forced their version of the future on the others, with all the problems that usually brings.

The league's operating model is, to borrow from Paul Simon, a loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires. For almost three decades it endured, to the benefit of its members, a confederation of now 20 separate businesses of varying wealth who were united in one view at least: They were all afraid to leave the party, whether that was back down to the Hades of the Football League or in the other direction, to whatever version of a European Super League was being peddled at the time.

Coronavirus will break bigger industries than football, but few will be more spectacular than what awaits after tomorrow's Zoom call of the damned.

The bottom six clubs have embarked on a suicide mission of sorts to prevent the resumption of the league, built upon their terror of relegation and wrapped in the flag of an unholy crusade against neutral venues. But three clubs must go down, and three clubs will go down, so you wonder whether the current basement trio have thought it through to its conclusion.

Fearful Premier League chief executives are currently authoring newspaper opinion pieces at a rate that unemployed freelance journalists can only dream of. Yet none have answered the burning question as to what happens to Norwich City, Aston Villa and Bournemouth if or when Project Restart is unsuccessful and curtailment becomes the only option. When the bottom six become the bottom three, will Paul Barber, Karren Brady and Scott Duxbury oppose the relegation of their fellow rebels on grounds of principle? We can but guess at the answer.

There are no good options, just the least worst. That would be to play the games in neutral venues as best as possible, where the bottom three will have a chance to survive in the conventional way, and the league will have some leverage in the renegotiation of broadcast contracts that is coming.

In the meantime, the players are fearful, and being made more so by those clubs who have no interest in the season going ahead. The job of persuading them, as well as a doubtful nation, is colossal, and would be so even if the Premier League were not divided.

Some of the recent arguments from the bottom six have been little short of remarkable. At one point last week, Barber cited the daunting challenge of his Brighton players having to deal with the unfamiliarity of a neutral venue home dressing room. Hard to know quite how to respond adequately to this, but there is one note of consolation that can be sounded. Compared to an away dressing room smeared with excrement - as Crystal Palace discovered at the Amex Stadium after a game seven years ago - the non-dirty protest neutral version would surely get the players' vote every time.

As for the alternatives to not playing games and breaking contracts, one was raised by the Financial Times in relation to Serie A and the €1.2 billion hole of missing broadcast revenue that it urgently needs to fill. The private equity group CVC is reported to be offering €2 billion for 10 per cent of the Italian league to add to its share in Formula One, MotoGP and English rugby's Premiership. The outline of a similar deal for the Premier League pulled together by an unnamed set of American financiers was floated earlier in the month.

Being part-owned by venture capitalists, presumably creaming off a cut of any television deal before it reached the clubs, would be a disaster for a league that has so far been successful in holding the venture capitalists among its clubs' owners to some kind of social contract. The power of the collective marshalled by the league has meant that solidarity payments to the Football League are still paid and that the 20 clubs support a considerable charity foundation. What outside investor looking for a return on £2 billion would fund a separate business to the tune of £140m a year, as the league does the EFL?

This is what is at stake if the Premier League cannot build a consensus for Project Restart. There could yet be a new overlord at the table with priorities that may make the last two decades look, by comparison, like an era of glorious munificence rather than the bacchanalian frenzy of spending and wage inflation it is perceived to be. The coronavirus crisis has the potential to redefine the notion of greedy when it comes to English football's cash-hungry top flight.

The solidarity that the league is based upon is fragile but it endured longer than anyone expected. Like it or not, the league was essentially built by broadcasters in the early 1990s, initially Greg Dyke then of ITV, steering that old generation of club chairman through the end of their marriage to the Football League then later, when BSkyB had hijacked the process, it was Rupert Murdoch's executives. Later still, the previous Premier League chief executive, Richard Scudamore wrung domestic rights deals out of Sky and BT Sport that left the world dumbfounded - values rising by 70 per cent in 2015.

Now it is the broadcasters who are back in control again and who will be able to shape the market in this new world of football, without supporters in neutral stadiums. The very least they will expect for their yet-to-be-honoured £762m in broadcast contracts will be the jeopardy of a relegation battle at the conclusion of season 2019-20, whenever that is played.

The broadcasters are calling the tune now and the Premier League clubs who meet tomorrow must accept that reality and find a way to deliver a simple task. Namely that three of them are going down.

Telegraph.co.uk