The EPL can not only remain the world’s top national football league but actually increase the gap with rivals if it can persuade the Big 6 to stop flirting with the other big clubs in Europe on super league plans
Mark OliverMark Oliver is the chairman and founder of Oliver & Ohlbaum Associates, leading the firm’s advice on media, entertainment and sports investments to both investors and target companies/organisations, covering over £20 billion of deals since 1995.
Gandhi’s famous phrase “become the change you want to see” might not seem like the obvious starting point for the new CEO of the English Premier League (EPL) when the appointment is eventually made – but it should be.
Football (or soccer to our American friends) is the world’s only truly global sport, generating nearly $50 billion a year in revenue, over three times the size of its nearest rival in money terms – American football, which is largely the NFL.
The EPL, through a mix of good fortune and good leadership, has become the wealthiest national league in the world’s largest sport, contributing £7.2 billion ($9.4 billion) a year to the UK economy, according to EY’s recent report, and one of the three main organisations synonymous with the UK globally, according to consumer surveys (the other two are the Royal Family and the BBC).
It’s a league that attracts some of the best players around the world (although often not ‘the best’ players – something we will come back to), with at least six globally recognised team brands competing for titles and qualification to the Uefa Champions League. All this within a fast-moving and physical game style, in a highly charged atmosphere of passionate and vocal fans still mostly driven by almost 150 years of English (and Welsh) tribalism.
Europe’s other major national leagues can only look on with envy: only the leading Spanish league, La Liga, gets near to the EPL in profile and money
Europe’s other major national leagues can only look on with envy: only the leading Spanish League – La Liga – gets near to the EPL in profile and money. But this is mainly about the appeal and on-pitch success in Europe of just two clubs – Real Madrid and Barcelona – which do attract and pay for ‘the best’ players in the world, driven by an older and historically rather dark political rivalry. They have even been able to poach the best (or most celebrated) UK players when they felt they might have made it to the top – witness Gareth Bale and David Beckham, respectively.
Yet despite this, all is not well in the EPL camp, it would seem. The recent decline in its UK media rights value after a period of hyper-inflation, and stalling international rights growth, has made the clubs – especially the ‘Big 6’ (Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham) – restless. They are concerned that lower EPL media income growth and a Uefa club competition revenue share-out scheme that now rewards the top clubs in Germany, Italy, Spain and France as highly as themselves, might reduce their ability to compete for the best players and grow their global brands.
The Big 6 are, therefore, likely to move quite quickly to push any new CEO for a greater share of media revenues. Constant rumours of breakaway European super leagues, a Fifa plan for a new enhanced world club competition and a potential exodus of top foreign stars to the Continent or growth football nations such as China and USA are all likely to add to tension between the new CEO and the largest clubs. And, if the new CEO appeases the largest clubs, a possible rebellion by the smaller clubs might ensue that could severely limit the new CEO’s power to manoeuvre.
In addition to Big 6 disquiet, the new CEO will also be facing attempts by the FA, a rival it thought it had vanquished many years ago, but which is newly emboldened by a half-decent senior English national team and global successes in under 21 football, to limit the number of foreign players on the back of Brexit.
No wonder the press has been full of stories of those saying they are not interested in the new CEO job, and perhaps no wonder Discovery’s Susanna Dinnage – the initial choice – decided that heading up a channel partly dedicated to the world’s most endangered species was better than becoming one herself.
A new CEO might well be able to turn current events to their advantage if they understand that the answer is to ‘become the change they want to see’
But a new CEO might well be able to turn current events to their advantage if they understand that the answer is to ‘become the change they want to see’.
The EPL can not only remain the world’s top national football league but actually increase the gap with rivals if it can persuade the Big 6 to stop flirting with the other big clubs in Europe on super league plans (these clubs are the Big 6’s real long-time rivals, whose main aim is to weaken the EPL and the leading club brands within it). It also needs to persuade the Big 6 to stop devoting too much time and energy with Uefa on redesigned European formats or with Fifa on global tournaments– and instead hatch a plan with the other 14 clubs in the EPL, and the rest of English football – to take the EPL to the next level.
First and foremost, the leading EPL clubs could be given the resources to attract ‘the best’ players in the world, and any new share-out formula for UK and global media revenues could be tied to that purpose – perhaps a bonus fee based on the number of top 20 global players in the team (as judged by Fifa and Uefa, not the EPL). An additional idea would be to back those clubs to purchase the social media rights of those top players – it’s top players that drive social media traffic and those global platforms’ valuation of any association with a top league and its leading clubs.
Attracting the best players in the world at the peak of their careers, rather than before they make it to the top, or when they are ending their careers, could more than compensate for an FA-backed push to have more home-grown players – if they get the balance right both the leading club brands and English national team football could benefit.
Secondly, the 39th match idea, in an overseas country, should be resurrected and implemented, and it should include every club, playing a competitive EPL match in the major cities of China, USA, Africa and the Middle East. (Richard Scudamore tried to push the idea of an extra fixture per club played overseas through in 2007 – it’s something the NFL, the NBA and even the MLB are focused on).
The EPL needs a new deal with the rest of English football, likely to involve the Championship becoming an EPL Division 2
Thirdly, the EPL needs a new deal with the rest of English football, likely to involve the Championship becoming an EPL Division 2, with a more centrally organised system of loan-outs of younger home-grown EPL players to these clubs (and not the crazy Greg Dyke plan to fill the EPL 2 with the second teams of EPL brands, which underestimated the value of football in England to our proud towns and cities outside the major conurbations).
This in turn could also persuade the FA to limit its more strident demands on restricting foreign player numbers in the EPL. The rest of the Football League and grass roots football could also be given some of the extra value that would now flow to a rejuvenated EPL that is once again way ahead of other European football leagues to help the game at all levels.
So the new CEO of the EPL needs to take Gandhi’s words to heart, and persuade the rest of English (and Welsh) football, that together they can make the EPL the world’s super league, just as the NBA is the world’s basketball super league; and to stop relying on others – such as Uefa, Fifa and other top clubs across Europe – to change the game to England’s advantage. They have absolutely no intention of doing so.
It’s time for the EPL to become the change it wants to see.