Wednesday 16 October 2019

While the rich get richer, other clubs are struggling to stay afloat

Manchester United’s Alexis Sanchez. Photo: Reuters
Manchester United’s Alexis Sanchez. Photo: Reuters

Colin Young

The Premier League is the richest league in the world and it is getting richer. It is the most popular football brand across the globe, raking in billions in television deals to ensure survival for some clubs who have been on the verge of obscurity in the last 20 years. It has also ruined others in the process.

Its beloved top six are vying for global domination with Barcelona and Real Madrid but still can't bridge that gap. Yet. At least not until Lionel Messi retires and Cristiano Ronaldo does the same, or returns to Old Trafford. Only then might we see an English club top the market which still follows, and adores, La Liga's main brands.

Yes, the rich are getting richer and they want to get richer still. Strike a deal with the Premier League for a few years, bring in a foreign owner and suddenly clubs once struggling to survive are among the biggest money-makers in the game. With a new TV deal on the horizon, no wonder Manchester United and their wealthy brethren are striking out for a bigger slice. Barcelona and Real Madrid get bigger shares in theirs, the Premier League big boys think it's high time they got the same.

And while all this is argued in Premier League meetings and the inevitable delayed, Hartlepool United fans on the brink of kissing goodbye to their club as they know it this weekend feel rightly aggrieved that the money has not seeped down to Brian Clough's first managerial posting. They know their protests about this discrepancy are pointless. Hartlepool have a £350,000 tax bill to pay tomorrow or they go out of business.

UEFA's latest report into the European club football landscape is, in their own words, "like no other publication of its kind." It is the eighth edition of UEFA's Club Licensing Benchmarking Report and confirms headlines from the previous seven. All the money is shifting towards the very top across Europe and staying there. The Premier League is big business and took hardly a cent from UEFA's prize fund last year. Hartlepool United are not mentioned in its 340 pages of endless graphs, tables and European maps. They will be at the bottom of those somewhere though.

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has described it as "forensic details on clubs from all 55 member associations on such diverse topics as foreign ownership, league formats and head coach stability". His association's financial rewards for Champions League, and to a lesser extent Europa League, progress has assisted many clubs across the continent.

But those competitions are a mirror image of the Premier League. Teams from the Netherlands, Scotland, Portugal and the whole of Eastern Europe, once the source of European winners, are no longer able to compete with squads filled with players from those leagues.

The Premier League's appeal has reached a global audience which is the envy of its French, Spanish, Italian and German rivals in particular, but perhaps it is its diversity, with a 70 per cent share of non-Englishmen among its 20 clubs, which pulls in the foreign football follower. Everyone is a Tottenham fan in South Korea right now.

It is not just the global audience that keeps the Premier League bean counters and TV execs happy. The ambiance of a full stadium suits the viewers in Sydney, Singapore and San Francisco, and the Premier League pulled in 13.6 million fans last season - the most of any league in Europe, ahead of the Bundesliga and La Liga. And then there's the Championship.

The figures are a strange mixture - astonishing, yet not surprising. The Premier League is massive, people everywhere love it, the rest of Europe can't compete because, as we all knew, that last TV deal was astronomical. Premier League clubs bring in more than twice as much money from television revenue as clubs from any other league. Barcelona and Real Madrid are still the top two earners from TV but Juventus are the only non-English club in the rest of the top 20.

The revenue of the average Premier League club is five times that of the average Serie A or Ligue 1 club although the wage bill of Premier League clubs was more than double the next highest paying league, Serie A. They spent a staggering €2.69 billion and it is soaring.

It would be wrong to pour scorn on the Premier League's success, however, because the alternative is much worse. Adrian Bevington was Club England's managing director at the English FA for five years from 2007. The invasion of foreign players may have hampered his former employers, and the seven England managers he worked with, but the transformation of English football since the Premier League's inception in 1993 should not be overestimated. The game was on the brink of ruin when Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore grabbed hold of it.

Premier League clubs bring in more than twice as much money from television revenue as clubs from any other league. Photo: Getty Images
Premier League clubs bring in more than twice as much money from television revenue as clubs from any other league. Photo: Getty Images

"The reality is that the Premier League is a juggernaut," says Bevington, "and I think you have to praise the people running the Premier League for bringing in that revenue from an English perspective because they have created this phenomenon which has a global appeal, and with that comes the challenge for other leagues across Europe to compete, and that includes the Championship in England - and the levels of finances in the Championship are minute in comparison.

"If you look at the rich list of clubs, over half are from the Premier League and if you can establish yourself over three or four years in the Premier League, you can become one of the rich list clubs. I understand it is typical but I do not think it should be used as a criticism of the Premier League. You have to applaud Richard Scudamore and his executive team. However, if you are one of the other leagues, they will look at the Premier League with very envious eyes.

"But rewind in history and, in the 1980s and early '90s, we were looking at Italy like that. When Channel 4 was broadcasting live Serie A matches, we watched in awe at the full stadiums and world superstars. I was watching Lazio v Udinese this week and the main thing that struck me was the number of empty blue seats in the Stadio Olimpico.

"As much as we like to look back at the '80s and early '90s through rose-tinted spectacles, the quality of the football was not always brilliant, we had dilapidated and half-empty stadiums. The Premier League gave football a new lease of life and now we have some of the best stadiums in the world, great investment and structure. Yes, there has been a significant decrease in the number of British and English players, and coaches, but this is a global league with global players. It is cause and effect. Is it cyclical?

"Richard Scudamore is clearly a visionary and his vision was to make the Premier League the most attractive league on the planet and he has done that with his team. I am not saying everything is perfect but the beauty of the English league is that you have wonderful football, teams playing exciting, entertaining football - not every game but I don't think anyone can dispute we see some wonderful matches on a weekly basis, some great teams, playing attacking, brilliant football, with some of the best players in the world and some of the world's highest rated coaches. They are all in the Premier League.

"The most important thing is the Premier League maintains the level of excitement and quality, that the stadiums remain pretty full, as they are, and have done consistently, because, as a product, it is incredibly attractive, domestically and internationally.

Hartlepool United were relegated from the Football League on the last day of last season, just three years short of completing a century among England's professional clubs. They are now at least £1.2m in debt with an immediate demand from the taxman for £350,000. Just-giving pledges, bucket collections on the town's streets, and a supporters' trust should ensure there is enough in the kitty to cover next week's home game, but the receivers are hovering. Hartlepool are running out of time and money as the big boys get richer.

"The Premier League has crippled clubs like us and the money swashing around at the top is what is wrong with football today," said Pools' fans' spokesperson Ron Harnish. "How can you have a situation where our club's monthly outgoings are less than half the average Premier League player's weekly wage?

"These lads only come to the Premier League for the money and they are killing the smaller clubs. And once you are out of the Premier League, the authorities hand over the parachute payments and just say 'sort yourselves out'. It is wrong that it cannot filter down to the smaller clubs like Hartlepool and this is not something you see in Germany, Spain or Holland where clubs are protected and there is significant fan ownership.

"While there is hope, we fight on and if there is one positive from this mess, it is that the Pools' fans have rallied and come together to fight for survival. But it is depressing and frustrating when you see the figures at the very top of the game. We just need a supertrooper to come through with a load of money and we'll be fine. But it doesn't look good."

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