For much of the past week, it’s been impossible to avoid talk of the mad power grab that Liverpool and Manchester United have been embarked upon and that some of the Premier League’s other richest clubs would stand to benefit from: Project Big Picture.
The plan, as it’s been framed by its headlining elements, is one that concentrates power amongst the current top six by limiting voting on Premier League matters to its nine longest-serving members with a two-thirds majority needed to pass changes. And in exchange for that, a £250M bailout to the lower leagues.
In short, it’s being widely viewed as an opportunistic move for England’s top clubs. And while there certainly is an element of that to it, the full reality is, perhaps unsurprisingly, less clear cut. It’s also clear that Project Big Picture, or something very much like it, is necessary for the long-term survival of England’s football pyramid.
For those not keeping up with all the details, that £250M figure is what English Football League chairman Rick Parry has said the lower leagues need to remain solvent through the current coronavirus pandemic—and in the currently proposed plan, it’s a figure that would have to be paid back.
However, it’s also a figure that rather pales in comparison to another in Project Big Picture: 25%. That’s the amount proposed to be diverted to the lower leagues through revenue sharing in future broadcast deals. Moving forward, the EFL—comprising the Championship, League One, and League Two—would see their broadcast rights sold packaged with the Premier League and in return be entitled to 25% of revenues, up from 4% at present.
For the current broadcast cycle, the Premier League is earning £2.3B in revenue per season. A 25% share of that windfall would be worth £575M to EFL clubs. Current EFL broadcasting revenues are less than a quarter of that figure. This, in short, is why the EFL and its clubs are reportedly nearly unanimously behind the proposal.
Moreover, it’s a figure that would guarantee the long-term financial stability of the English football pyramid and arrest a financial decline the lower leagues have been on since the Premier League was formed nearly three decades ago and they were cut loose. It would be, for many clubs, nothing short of financial salvation.
Not surprisingly, the Premier League’s big clubs—the ones largely responsible for that £2.3B in yearly broadcast revenue—want something significant in return. For a club near the top of the table, that 25% could represent a loss of as much as £40M in yearly revenue. It should be no surprise that with such a massive proposed diversion of revenue, clubs like Liverpool and United would want something significant back.
That something is control, not just over the Premier League but over the entire pyramid. Because at its most fundamental level, Project Big Picture isn’t about a bailout or a loan. It’s about the big clubs purchasing an ownership stake in the English football pyramid. It’s clubs like Liverpool and United, as they would argue it at least, investing 25% of future broadcast revenues in the pyramid in exchange for a significant say in how things are run.
There are other elements to the proposal tied to that desire for more control. Like a banker asking to look at your finances before offering you a loan, those big Premier League sides want a hand in the vetting of new ownership. They also want a salary cap in the EFL to help ensure clubs—most of which are currently operated at a loss—stay solvent.
Then there is the proposal to contract the Premier League to 18 teams with the bottom two sides relegated and the 16th place club entering the Championship playoffs, plus ditching the League Cup, both aimed at reducing the fixture congestion most agree is a major issue for top English sides.
All of which seems genuine in its attempt to improve longstanding issues in the English game, and taken as a whole such changes would greatly improve the financial health and long-term prospects of the lower leagues. It would also more firmly tie the big English clubs to the football pyramid, giving them what amounts to an ownership stake in it—and in doing so, greatly reducing the threat of a breakaway European super league.
None of which is to understate the negatives of the proposal or to wave away the fears many have concerning the consolidation of power as insignificant. Yet the unavoidable reality is that any proposed alternatives that amount to simple bailout loans or government assistance won’t save the lower leagues. Not in the long-term.
A bailout of the EFL, be it from the big clubs or the government, keeps the lower leagues just barely alive but it doesn’t solve the financial predicament they have been in for years and that coronavirus has only intensified. It doesn’t change the trajectory of decline they have been on since the Premier League was formed.
Nothing short of a grand restructuring and major, long-term financial injection that would be brought about by unifying the pyramid in some manner brings that long-term stability to the lower leagues. Project Big Picture proposes to do that, but it comes at a cost.
That cost may be negotiated—perhaps expanding the proposed nine voting members to 12, or allowing all Premier League clubs of certain tenure to hold a vote with no cap—and there may also be room to negotiate on elements like the contraction of the Premier League. But for the kind of investment that’s needed to save the lower leagues in the longer term, there will be a cost.
It’s entirely valid to believe, then, that what Liverpool and United are asking for is too much; that there’s no place Project Big Picture could reasonably be negotiated to that would be acceptable; that a continuation of the status quo is preferable. But that’s what the choice is between: Project Big Picture or something very much like it or the status quo.
The alternative to such a grand restructuring—one that would inevitably see England’s top cubs demand greater control over how the game is run in exchange for a major diversion of the revenues they drive—would be a short-term bailout that might allow the EFL to mostly survive the current pandemic while continuing with a system that hasn’t worked for the lower leagues for nearly three decades.