The Premier League approaches television rights negotiations as a collective, seeking the best price for all the leauge's clubs and then sharing the resulting revenue, for the most part, equally. And late on Tuesday, it became clear that Liverpool managing director Ian Ayre intended to lead a fight to destroy that system.
Currently, there are bonuses to be had based on finishing position, while some of the money is set aside for parachute payments that go out to demoted clubs at the end of the season in an attempt to ease their fall into the less lucrative leagues below. But on the whole, the same money will be handed out to Blackburn and Newcastle and Swansea this season as is handed out to Chelsea and Arsenal and Manchester United. The argument in favour of such an approach is, of course, that this helps to maintain a competitive balance in the league. That without it there would be a real risk of England's top flight becoming rather like Spain's, where Barcelona and Madrid are free to reap the rewards of their individually negotiated television deals while all the have-nots get left out in the cold. Still, some of the more commercially attractive clubs, most of whom have earned that status over countless decades, have at times felt justifiably incensed at being made to share money they see as being the primary earners of.
What is absolutely certain is that, with the greatest of respect to our colleagues in the Premier League, but if you're a Bolton fan in Bolton, then you subscribe to Sky because you want to watch Bolton. Everyone gets that. Likewise, if you're a Liverpool fan from Liverpool, you subscribe. But if you're in Kuala Lumpur there isn't anyone subscribing to Astro or ESPN to watch Bolton, or if they are it's a very small number. Whereas the large majority are subscribing because they want to watch Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, or Arsenal.
The counter argument in favour of parity, with a desire to avoid becoming a one or two team league, does resonate. Sport, after all, is about competition, and a league completely devoid of such would seem destined to become stale. Yet the Premier League has been arguably less competitive in recent seasons than La Liga, with Manchester United almost guaranteed to be title favourites each and every year while Chelsea and now Manchester City lurk below them, looking to spring an "upset" funded by their oil billionaire sugar daddies.
The reality is that it's no longer reasonable to expect even clubs like Liverpool or Arsenal to be serious title challenges, while the days when clubs like Blackburn or Newcastle could legitimately hope to take a run at the title are long, long gone. For all the talk of Spain being a wasteland after the top two, it would hardly be less of a surprise for Valencia to take the Premiera crown this season than it would be for Arsenal to win the Premier League.
Clearly, the current system is broken, and for all the talk of England being home to the best, most competitive top league in the world, there isn't much in the final standings year after year to back up that talk. There really hasn't been for most of the past decade. And things hardly seem to be getting better, with Manchester United untouchable at the top of the heap while the only two sides that can come close to matching them do so by flaunting UEFA's financial fair play rules even as they are finally being put into place.
Is it right that the international rights are shared equally between all the clubs? Some people will say: 'Well you've got to all be in it to make it happen.' But isn't it really about where the revenue is coming from, which is the broadcaster, and isn't it really about who people want to watch on that channel? We know it is us. And others. At some point we definitely feel there has to be some rebalance on that, because what we are actually doing is disadvantaging ourselves against other big European clubs.
And that final point is where things begin to get tricky: Other big European clubs. After all, any club that aspires to the top of English football must also aspire to reach the top in European competition. Now, that almost inevitably means going up against continental powers that have access to much larger sums of money due to their ability to negotiate international television rights separately from their league partners.
As enjoyable as it may be from a Liverpool perspective to see Manchester United picked apart by Barcelona, there's no escaping that were Liverpool in the same position they would almost certainly now be similarly overwhelmed. And it's unescapable that, however much Barcelona owes their success to their La Masia academy, they also owe it to their massive financial clout—and that that clout owes a great deal to their individually negotiated television rights, something no English club currently has access to.
It's hard to avoid the reality that, as broken as the current system is, allowing clubs to negotiate their own rights would only make things worse domestically in the long run. Yet it's just as hard to avoid that in the current European reality, it may have already become next to impossible for English clubs to compete with the richest continental sides at the highest level, and that as things stand this situation is one that will only get worse.
If Real Madrid or Barcelona or other big European clubs have the opportunity to truly realise their international media value potential, where does that leave Liverpool and Manchester United? We'll just share ours because we'll all be nice to each other? The whole phenomenon of the Premier League could be threatened. If they just get bigger and bigger and they generate more and more, then all the players will start drifting that way and will the Premier League bubble burst because we are sticking to this equal-sharing model? It's a real debate that has to happen.
It will be easy for many to simply point to Liverpool in the coming days and accuse them of greed, and there may even be some truth to that. But the situation isn't nearly so straight forward once one considers the reality beyond the Premier League—or even when one honestly reflects on the reality of a domestic league that is far less competitive than its champions would like people to believe.
In any case, Ian Ayre's push will amount to nothing: It would require 14 teams to agree in order to pass such a radical change, and this change would only benefit between three and five clubs—even Manchester City and Chelsea might benefit very little, if at all, from it. The club, of course, knows this, and so one is left to consider what their true motivation must be for floating an idea that seems certain to fail while potentially angering half the league.
There is of course the most pedestrian option: Perhaps they are seeking simply to be given a larger cut of revenue and have stepped up their bluster with the full intent of settling for something much less revolutionary in the end. More interesting, though, is the idea that Liverpool might intend this as a kind of warning shot for the FA and UEFA. In recent years, there has been a constant background discussion over the possibility of a 16 to 20 team European super league splitting off from the oversight of Europe's football associations. To date, there have always been legitimate reasons for the idea never going very far, from a loss of traditional rivalries to the logistics of travel and the likely toll on attendance, as, once the novelty wore off, first traveling support and then perhaps even home support would seem destined to plummet. Yet any time the region's biggest clubs find themselves at odds with UEFA and their local FAs, it's an idea that inevitably bubbles to the surface, a constant threat in case life in the current system becomes unbearable, financially or otherwise.
With Liverpool's new owners making a big deal of the need for financial fair play to be strictly enforced even while Manchester City and Chelsea appear to be flaunting it as the system begins its implementation, and with big clubs on the continent left to function in systems that give them inherent advantages over their English counterparts, it could be that this is Liverpool's turn to level their own "or else" threat: Enforce financial fair play as it was intended or we will do everything we can to make life miserable for you—for the English FA in the short term, and maybe even for UEFA down the line by way of a European super league as a likely inevitable end should England's top clubs find themselves wholly separated from their domestic competitors.
Or perhaps, of course, Liverpool is being entirely honest and it's nothing but a grab for the ability to negotiate their own television rights. No matter the case, the coming showdown over this major financial issue seems certain to lead to some interesting times for the club—and perhaps even all of European football—going forward.