Premflix will spell the end of the Premier League…

Date published: Monday 10th February 2020 9:28

The Premier League’s new chief executive Richard Masters (whatever you do, don’t call him Dick) who has climbed into the big chair once occupied by Richard Scudamore, this week confirmed that at some point in the relatively near future – as predicted by commentator John Roder in my book Can We Have Our Football Back? – and by Simon Jordan, they would offer a ‘Premflix’ option for overseas viewers to stream a game directly from the Premier League, rather than from a broadcaster. This is the start of the end for the Premier League as we have known it. Let’s hope so.

The Premier League only exists as an entity to be a collective bargainer for the 20 clubs. Its traditional job is to raise money and distribute it evenly between the clubs, with some weighting to account for the number of times the club is on TV and for finishing position. Becoming, in effect, a broadcaster, is something else altogether. How will they remunerate the clubs for the streams? Presumably in the same way they do now with the broadcast rights fees. Yet they must know that this isn’t sustainable in this new world.

The biggest, most popular clubs – Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester City – have long wanted the lion’s share of media rights income, feeling that interest in the league centres almost wholly on them, that they made it big, important and global and therefore it’s not fair that the likes of Bournemouth gets such a huge cut when so few watch their games. Those clubs would prefer to take this opportunity to simply stream their games directly to the public, harvest all the profits themselves and not have to share them with Burnley et al via the Premier League. This has been behind all the European Super Leagues discussions that have happened between top clubs in Europe over recent years.

The Premier League’s ‘Premflix’ idea is uncorking the streaming direct-to-viewer bottle and it is obvious there is absolutely no virtue in those big clubs allowing the Premier League itself to be a hub for streaming their games, when it is something that they are perfectly able to do for themselves.

They simply do not need the Premier League’s collective bargaining any more, if indeed they ever did. However, if the big six refuse to let their games be streamed by the Premier League and want to control their own broadcast rights, that disqualifies them from the league. It is not allowed under the league’s current rules. But they also know that a Premier League without their six clubs is a much poorer league financially and broadcast rights – if they still exist at that point – without them, would be seriously devalued. Hurrah for that. Maybe a terrestrial broadcaster could afford to buy them and garner themselves a huge audience.

In turn, the Premier League knows that to have any heft or import, it needs those six clubs. It’s not a big player otherwise.

It’s worth noting that while Masters likes to talk about a ‘two-tier’ model with some countries watching games shown by existing TV broadcasters and others streamed directly by the Premier League, it is obviously unsustainable as an idea. He’s deluding himself if he thinks that’s going to work. You can’t tell one section of your market that they can’t have what the rest of the world has because Sky or BT don’t like it, without pissing off a lot of that market. Illegal streaming will simply crush them if they don’t make it a global option. I can’t believe this isn’t already obvious to him. The ‘have your cake and eat it’ option isn’t within his gift.

Besides, the cultural zeitgeist is all about curating your own TV choices, not being dictated to by broadcasters. So much so that the idea of Sky and BT as subscription-based broadcasters with a fixed ‘what game is on today?’ schedule of programmes to sell us, just seems conceptually really out of date and not fit for purpose anymore. They will soon have to change to a streaming model too and again, this will only help make the big six’s case that they are where the money is once the ‘I just watch whatever is on’ crowd have dropped out of the ratings. When you can watch any game, audiences for small, not very good teams playing other smaller, not very good teams are already modest, but will get even more tiny and not just by a few thousand.

Streaming is a terrible idea for less-supported clubs because it will reveal all too nakedly how uninterested the world is in their games when not against the big six. Do they really want that? Of course they don’t. They stand to lose and lose big.

The Premier League also knows that most if not all of the other 14 will not make big Premflix sales. They already know how unpopular so many games are on TV. They know that Sky broadcast 128 games and 112 got under two million watching for three minutes consecutively. Imagine how low those numbers would be if you could watch any other game instead of the only game they’re showing?

But the league is stuck between a rock and a hard place. It has to change with the times but in doing so they should already know they will undermine themselves. The league can’t let the big six do their own thing and keep the integrity of the league intact. Yet negotiating broadcast rights without them would mean massively shrunken incomes for the other 14, as broadcasters would pay a lot less without the big six attraction.

The Premier League loves to pretend the league is massively popular (it isn’t, it’s just the most popular, which isn’t the same thing), but most teams in it are not very popular globally. In this brave new world, if you have to live or die by your own popularity with streamers in Hong Kong or Mumbai, God help the likes of Brighton.

Another important consideration is it also removes predictable income. As it is, clubs know they’ll get at least £100 million in income back in August. But if they rely on streaming sales, they can’t possibly know what money is going to come in until they happen, and neither can the Premier League. If you play bad football, people will turn off and go away and you’ll get no money from them. That changes everything too. It makes planning hard.

Even if it was possible to keep the league together in its current format, the consequence of this financial impoverishment would only be to make the poorer 14 even more unable to compete with an even richer big six. A non-competitive league is of no interest and with this also being the case across Europe’s other big leagues, the door to a European Super League will be wide open for the continent’s most popularly viewed teams to form. This is what those clubs have always wanted really. Premflix just helps it happen more quickly.

That is where this is all heading. Why wouldn’t it? Those clubs see huge riches streaming their games with Europe’s biggest clubs directly to the public. That this may well be a greedy, blinkered delusion is for another piece, but it is certainly the future they want to see.

The Premier League is cutting its own throat by flirting with the streaming model, but if it doesn’t, they know the old broadcaster model is creaking at the seams, is too expensive, doesn’t appeal to the vast majority of the potential football audience, is attracting less money in the UK in rights and will eventually do likewise abroad.

It will only be a matter of time before the reasons for the Premier League’s very existence have evaporated and the whole concept will have to be redrawn to account for a far less monied league without the biggest sides.

However, this prospect will be warmly welcomed by many of us who want a less financially bloated league, want a league where unpredictability is the norm, where progress from lower leagues to the top of the first division is possible. A league where football is not solely all about money, all the time. Where everything isn’t commodified.

It’s a common human trait for those who have grown fat and rich on the status quo to think the good times will go on forever.

They never do.

And worse, they never listen to the warnings that they never do.

There’s no way out of this for Masters. He either offers the Premflix option which will destabilise the league profoundly, or he sticks with the old, failing subscription broadcast idea which has never been very popular and is a one-way ticket to yesterday.

They will get run over by the future, or be left behind by it. Tomorrow will not be like today. And the sooner the horrible greedy shallow money trench concept that the Premier League has been for over 27 years, is consigned to the dustbin of history along with its ceaseless wealth-obsessed culture the better. Then perhaps most football can once again be returned to the bosom of the people and not put into the pockets of a monied elite who have stolen so much that was once ours.

John Nicholson

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