In ‘The Club’ two Wall Street Journal writers Jonathan Clegg and Joshua Robinson provide a telling insight into the excesses of the Premier League (PL) and how it has become a global business with little concern for local communities.
This is the story of how the PL broke away from the Football League in 1992 and how it has now become the playground of billionaires with designs on global domination.
Clegg and Robinson expertly guide us through the transformation from a sport in decline, lifting ideas from the American NFL and extracting huge sums of money for broadcasting rights, to become the richest and most absurd league in the world.
Chief Executive Richard Scudamore is identified as crucial to the growth of the PL overseeing a 687% increase in overseas broadcast revenue in just nine years.
Scudamore had recognised that the PL could be exported to countries such as India, Thailand, Singapore and the Middle East, he realised the product was equipped with a host of built-in advantages: the English language, Location – the British business day overlaps with both Asian and American day time hours, overseas viewers had a sort of Anglophilia – in short they craved the Englishness of it all.
Accomplished storytellers Clegg and Robinson trace the meteoric rise of the PL with considerable wit. For example when Manchester City signed the Brazilian Robinho:
“A Brazilian winger is a bit like a Maserati. Not many people know how to use one properly but damn if they don’t look good.’
From 2004 onwards, the three super clubs Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United shared every domestic title for eight years and salaries climbed so fast that players from around the world grew desperate for English contracts.
They didn’t even need Arsenal, or United or Chelsea to be interested, any move to the PL would do.
The TV rights to the PL were £4.4 billion in February 2018 but despite the success of the PL’s sharing model, it turned out the biggest agitator for change was the club now dominating English football.
Manchester City and its Catalan – Emirati leadership were pushing to overturn the league’s way of doing business. City railed against the league’s revenue-sharing model and repeatedly challenged the founder members agreement.
City and the other members of the Big Six threatened a European Super League breakaway and the other members of the PL had to agree to a new profit sharing agreement, which would inevitably benefit the bigger more successful clubs.
It was the last major deal that Scudamore did before he would step down, knowing that it would be much harder next time when the Big Six came back for an even bigger share or they just broke away.
Clegg and Robinson observed that the reasons for owning a PL football club are not always just about on-the-pitch success and making money. Garry Cook the Manchester City CEO in a presentation to potential buyers noted that:
“Whoever was stumping up the cash wasn’t just buying membership of the most watched league in the world. They were buying a slice of global legitimacy, a PR campaign that played fifty games a year to an audience of millions. You couldn’t put a price on that. For today’s image conscious billionaire, a PL football team was a must-have accessory.”
Sheikh Mansour’s takeover of City was indeed an attempt to legitimize the Abu Dhabi regime, which is steeped in controversy because of the disgraceful human-rights record.
The list of sins that Amnesty International identified included restrictions on freedom of the press, its limitations on women’s rights, its ban on homosexuality, its habit of ‘disappearing’ political dissidents, its use of torture, and show trials, and its continuing reliance on the exploitative Kafala contracts for migrant workers who make up 90% of the Abu Dhabi’s workforce.
However, despite occasional and limited interventions by the football authorities it is hard not to conclude that moral and ethical issues are swept aside when it comes down to the PL.
The players, owners, the agents, broadcasters, and the sponsors have made astronomical sums of money from the PL. The only people perhaps left behind are the local fans who are being priced out by increases in ticket prices.
In their conclusion Clegg and Robinson point out that ironically the relentless search for more and more revenue could ultimately be the PL’s downfall. The insatiable greed of the Big Six is likely to lead to these clubs breaking away as in 1992, to create a European Super League.
The Club: How the Premier League Became the Richest, Most Disruptive Business in Sport by Jonathan Clegg and Joshua Robinson. Published by John Murray, Price £16.99.
This review first appeared in the April/May 2019 edition of Late Tackle magazine.