The Big Picture… even the Beautiful Game is at risk

By Robin Tozer

While the front pages have been dominated by arguments about lockdowns, the back pages have been focused on the Big Picture. Project Big Picture to be more precise. Project Big Picture was a proposal by put forward by the US owners of Premier League giants, Liverpool and Manchester United. Ostensibly positioned as a bailout of the English Football League (EFL) by the Premier League, it caused a furore. Last night, the Premier League announced the proposal was dead in the water as clubs rebelled. The row it caused is going to leave a scar.

Project Big Picture on the face of it seemed a genuine attempt by the wealthiest clubs to help the poorest. While the financial power of the Premier League has helped to insulate the top tier from the pandemic to some extent, the three EFL divisions below the Premier League have been badly impacted.   With far less TV money, gate receipts are critical for the smaller EFL clubs. Simple equation, no fans means no money.

The power of the Premier League is built on money from broadcasters at home and abroad. Premier League clubs can each expect the best part of £100 million per season from TV money alone. That is roughly the value of the whole EFL TV deal which is shared unevenly among the 72 clubs. Covid has had a disastrous effect on the finances of EFL clubs which in many cases weren’t too healthy to start with. Many EFL clubs have gambled huge sums on trying to get promotion and have the debts to prove it.

Project Big Picture was sold as a rescue package. The proposal was for a £250 million rescue fund for the EFL and 25% of future TV revenues which would have been transformative for EFL finances.  Desperate owners of EFL clubs were keen to sign up, but fans of all clubs and the media exploded in uproar. The problem was the conditions.  The Project Big Picture proposals included the Premier League to be cut from 20 to 18 clubs, with the Championship, League One and League Two each retaining 24 teams. The bottom two teams in the Premier League would be relegated automatically with the 16th-placed team joining the Championship play-offs. The League Cup and Community Shield to be abolished.

The most controversial element was that nine clubs – including Manchester United and Liverpool – would be given ‘special voting rights’ on specific issues, based on their extended runs in the Premier League. This was seen as handing power to the biggest clubs, creating a protected status for them and  making it harder for other clubs to challenge them. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden described ‘Project Big Picture’ as ‘Project Power Grab’.

Whatever the reality, English football has worked on the basis that all clubs are treated equally. A club languishing at the bottom of the second division can rise to the top of the Premier League. It has happened. Power resting with a few big clubs who decide the rules for everyone goes against the ethos of the game.  So part of the anger was about fans protecting what is considered to be the special culture and history of English Football. The game was professionalised and codified here.  Clubs are deeply embedded into their communities. The fact that the Project Big Picture proposers – the owners of Liverpool and Manchester United – are from the US is relevant.  The Liverpool owners also own the Boston Red Sox baseball team, and the Manchester United owners control the Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL team.

While admired for their spectacle and commercial success, US sports have always been viewed with a degree of suspicion in the UK. In US sports, leagues are a closed shop so no relegation. Unlike football, there is no pyramid linking all levels of the game.  In the US, fans and players talk about franchises and organisations. Teams can be moved around the country. One of baseball’s most iconic teams the Brooklyn Dodgers, which employed the first black major league player Jackie Robinson, was moved from New York to LA in the late 1950s. The owner got a better deal. Fans were left high and dry.

These threats don’t work in England. Liverpool can only play in Liverpool. It was reported that some Premier League clubs threatened to create a new league if they didn’t get what they want. In the background, there is always talk of a European Super League to include all the major clubs from the continent leaving the domestic leagues behind.

While the Premier League has committed to provide support to the EFL, the whole drama has left a bit of a sour taste in the mouth. When everyone is meant to be pulling together, it looked like some big clubs tried to capitalise on the plight of their smaller brethren to change the rules.

Football has had a mixed pandemic. On the one hand, some clubs and individuals have been praised for their actions, such as Marcus Rashford, in helping their communities.  Other clubs with players earning hundreds of thousands of pounds per week have made lower-paid staff redundant. One of the country’s biggest clubs Arsenal even got rid of its mascot Gunnersaurus. Recently, it was announced games on TV will be available at £14.95 a go – a big sum for a cash-strapped fan. English football will come through this. Not unscathed – some clubs might not survive – but some normality will return.  However for many, the owners of Liverpool and Manchester United will be viewed with nothing but suspicion from now on as people who just don’t get it. 

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