Five Biggest Challenges Facing Premier League’s New Chief Executive
Power of the Big Six
When the Premier League was formed in 1992, football clubs were, by and large, owned by local businessmen. Peter Swales, then the chairman of Manchester City, made his money in the Manchester hi-fi trade. These days City are owned by the ruling family of Abu Dhabi and their interests extend beyond – as was often argued of Swales – maintaining a sinecure within the Football Association.
Today, clubs in the Premier League serve global ambitions, especially at the top. Five of the “Big Six” – City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea – have foreign owners and the sixth, Tottenham, are owned by a Briton but belong to a company registered in the Bahamas. Keeping these clubs happy and pulling in the same direction will be Pemsel’s biggest task.
The key to it all will be money. Last year, the Big Six managed to negotiate a bigger share of the revenue generated by overseas television rights. That, for a moment, put a stop to simmering speculation about a breakaway league. But an appetite for getting what the biggest clubs see as their fair share of the Premier League’s spoils is not about to go away.
TV deals/overseas growth
Under the leadership of Richard Scudamore, who served first as chief executive then executive chairman for 20 years, the Premier League was something of a media miracle. In 1992 the 20 clubs between them made £15m from broadcasting revenue. By the 2018‑19 season that figure had risen to just under £3bn. In the UK, through a long-term partnership with Sky, and abroad, through a series of country-specific deals, Scudamore revolutionized the relationship between sport and broadcasting, turning football into a brand of entertainment.
The concern facing Pemsel, however, is that the good times might well be coming to an end. The most recent domestic TV deal, struck last year and running from this season until 2022, generated £0.5bn less than in the previous cycle. Overseas revenues meanwhile rose 35% overall, but much of that growth can be explained by the collapse of the pound against the dollar and there were alarming numbers from Asia where rights in countries such as Japan and South Korea fell in value by as much as 50%.
Some of this can be explained by the Premier League losing its first mover advantage; every major sport from the NBA to cricket is looking to maximize international audiences. But there is also a deeper systemic change, as audiences move from traditional broadcasters to online platforms. Digital piracy is already a huge problem for the Premier League, and there is concern that no future relationship with any digital player, be it Facebook, Netflix or Amazon, will ever match up to that forged with Sky. Amazon purchased one package of UK rights in the current deal and will show 20 matches this season. The figure they paid for those rights was undisclosed.
Of the 220 players starting last weekend’s Premier League fixtures only 73 were eligible to play for England. This 33% figure is actually an improvement on the numbers quoted last year by the England manager, Gareth Southgate, when only 54, or 25%, made the cut on a matchday in December. Every stakeholder in the game – Premier League clubs included – agrees they want more English players in the top flight. Squaring that desire with a need for constant competitiveness has proven difficult.
Under Scudamore the Premier League was always resistant to limiting the number of foreign imports, claiming rightly that they had been intrinsic to the growth of the game. Ironically Brexit may provide a solution, with tighter immigration rules for EU players likely. That said, there is concern that football clubs are ill-prepared for an exit from the EU, another potential headache for Pemsel.
The FA and the EFL
In public at least, relationships between the three biggest bodies in English football are in a healthy state. The FA’s Martin Glenn and EFL’s Shaun Harvey accepted the Premier League as the dominant partner and sought to work with, rather than fight against, it. But Pemsel is not the only new chief executive in town. Mark Bullingham took over from Glenn at the FA last month while the EFL is searching for a replacement for Harvey. The nature of relations between the three will be a subject of great interest to onlookers.
Scudamore’s reign was not only characterized by great financial success but also by laissez-faire tendencies. The amount of “solidarity” money shared with EFL clubs is only a small fraction of the Premier League’s great revenues, while the fallout from any on-field controversies (off-field too) were left to the FA to clear up. In recent months, meanwhile, the Premier League has been seen to be behind the curve in modernizing the game. Both the FA and EFL have taken steps to fix the astonishing lack of diversity in coaching roles, with the EFL implementing a version of the Rooney rule that would require at least one BAME candidate to be interviewed for every job. The Premier League has so far remained entirely silent on the matter, a response not atypical of the Scudamore years more generally.
Football has a gambling problem and the Premier League is up to its neck in bookmaker money. Half of the teams wear a bookmaker’s or casino’s logo on their shirt and all but three have some kind of financial association with a gambling firm. Once again, the Premier League has been hands‑off when it comes to how clubs make their money but there are signs this approach might prove ill-advised. There are thought to be nearly half a million people in the UK with a gambling problem and another 1.5 million at risk of developing one, and academic studies suggest the “gamblification” of football is contributing to the problem. With politicians and even some gambling companies calling for advertising limits in and around the game, pressure for change is likely to continue to grow.