The future of Premier League football on TV: The blueprint

Date published: Monday 18th February 2019 10:00

Over the last two weeks (parts one and two) I’ve looked at the consequences of the 27-year-old Sky/Premier League financial model. Now we arrive at the third in this trilogy: the future.

Before we even begin to consider what the future might look like, there is one important principle that needs establishing and from which all positive change will flow.

It is this: we’re in charge.

You and me. The punters. Not the Premier League, not Sky, BT, Netflix, Amazon or any other multi-billion dollar business. Without us, they have nothing. Without us, there is not even a game to show. We should never forget that. The greatest trick pulled off by big corporations is to make us feel powerless in the shadow of huge money and marketing. We’re encouraged to shut up, sit back, open up and swallow what they’re feeding us.

But the big dirty secret that they do not want us to fully appreciate, understand or embrace is that we don’t just have the power in this relationship. We ARE the power. Whether it is via our money for subscription fees, or for any other product, clicks or advertising they are selling. But we simply don’t wield this power consciously, because we’re all caught up in what Paul Weller called ‘the dailies and our ever changing moods’, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It is just a plain old fact that if we don’t buy whatever it is that they’re offering, they soon enough stop offering it. This happened on a small scale this year with Eleven Sports, which has already surrendered its rights to Serie A and Eredivisie football after just a few months. Individually we can affect nothing; collectively, we can.

Strip it all back and at the core of all the disgruntlement is money. It has become the lens through which we watch and perceive Premier League football. Central to this are obscenely high wages and transfer fees. Clubs which routinely pay six-figure weekly wages to players will not even pay the Living Wage to their staff. That reflects a horrible, repulsive core value system. The wealth and the greed are appalling and cast a noxious atmosphere across the whole league and beyond.

Defenders of this regime will dishonestly claim our opposition to such vast wealth is mere jealousy, when it absolutely is not. It is, rather, an understanding that we’re all in this life together and that no-one wins unless everyone wins. Having to step over the bereft in order to spend your money is no-one’s idea of paradise. Or it shouldn’t be. And that is why we oppose it. It is not envy of others, but empathy for others which drives how we feel. It’s not a criticism of the players, nor of broadcasters, but of the perverted system.

Money has changed the atmosphere. Instead of celebrating our own side, songs are now far more about directing hate at the opposition. The culture of mocking the opposition for conceding a goal –  over and above celebrating scoring that goal – is a modern creation born out of the negativity that has been manifested by the big money. We’re existentially discontented, we’re angry, we feel something is wrong and that’s why we are losing the ability to be positive. The outright anger directed towards our own team’s players is unprecedented. Any misplaced pass is now a betrayal of our personal investment. Any player not sweating bullets is nicking a living. For many, net spend is an obsession. Ambition and spending are now synonymous. The one who spends most wins. Clubs are said to have ‘bought the title’. And yet despite huge resources still seem unable to compete on more than one front, and so bin the cup games. We have a gimlet eye for weighing up effort versus wages or fee. It haunts and tortures us all the time. When someone plays poorly, the thought they are earning £5,000, £10,000 or £40,000 on that single day alone, just amplifies the anger. It burns an ulcer of indignation in our guts. The Premier League model has made money from the skin, flesh and bones of the football body and it has eaten the heart and soul.

All of this is largely because of the TV deals and the many sponsorships which are inflated in value because of that very TV coverage. So it follows that if we take away the big TV money, we will force a radical realignment of football finances. We will still need to tackle ownership and investment. But that is for another day.

We have to make the broadcast rights worth much, much less. How do we do that? By the tried and trusted method of withdrawing our financial support.

If next to no-one will buy football on TV, it pulls the plug on high value rights sales and a total revolution can then begin in earnest, one that puts the supporters and fans at the centre of everything and not just as a cash cow to milk.

This won’t be hard for us but it may take some time. But it just involves not paying to watch football on any device, no matter if it is the club, or a company showing it. We’re just not paying. No. Never again. Free at the point of use is our new mantra.

While the old system breaks down and expires, we need not be without football fun. We can watch lower league games or our local amateur club. We can stop living our lives in splendid isolation in front of a screen and become part of something more social and civic. It would be healthier for our minds and bodies. It’s all positive. Better yet, we will be hundreds and hundreds of pounds per year better off.

Once we all quit our contracts, the Premier League, which is nothing but a marketing construct anyway, will be left with only one option that will generate some money, and that will be to sell broadcast rights to the BBC and ITV at a price far far below what it has been used to receiving. And the terrestrial broadcasters, knowing they are now the only gig in town, will hold the whip hand to force the cost down in such negotiations.

Now, I’m fully aware that you will be reading this and thinking it is some shade of insane and impossibly idealistic. Maybe I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I know it is hard to imagine and I know why. I know how it sounds and how it looks. It is simply because we have been brainwashed over many years into thinking that how things are is somehow, almost naturally, how they should be.

When writing this, I too feel that cultural dissonance. That is the propaganda, the mind wipe, kicking in. But we must remember that where the existing model has taken us is somewhere we didn’t ask to go, nor like being. There was nothing inevitable about it. It was the will of a tiny elite of people. The current model is a construct designed purely to harvest huge amounts of money and it has worked very well. Not for us, of course. No. We have gained little or nothing from it. If a player is paid a million pounds per month or a thousand pounds per month, they are still the same player with the same skills. We are not more blessed to see them play as a result of their elevated wages. We always enjoyed football before the Premier League and we will still enjoy football once the Premier League is a distant memory.

See, this is another lie subconsciously inculcated into our minds. Less money sloshing around football does not mean less entertainment. The broadcasters have successfully planted the idea that it absolutely does though. That is what the whole ‘best league in the world’ propaganda has always been about. They want us to believe all of this income into clubs derived from us, is giving us upmarket, premium entertainment. But it doesn’t. That’s not how football works. More money does not equal better quality of entertainment. Football is inconsistent at its core. It isn’t like paying for cashmere instead of polyester. The great thing about football is that any and every level can be great fun, it can be tense, thrilling, exciting and dramatic…or not. The amount of money you do or don’t pay doesn’t influence that.

So let’s just sum up what the future could look like once we’ve broken the Premier League..

* Live football is only available on terrestrial TV and is free at the point of delivery.

* Audiences for games on TV are thus much higher on average, delivering bigger numbers for advertisers.

* Increased accessibility leads to revived interest in both the league and the Champions League.

* Wages and transfer fees have to be comprehensively slashed.

* Clubs will no longer be able to buy a team. They will have to coach youth and under-age players into the first team instead. Local kids can realistically dream of playing for their local team.

* Fans will no longer experience football through the prism of high finance.

* The most grotesque financial disparities will be diminished, increasing the possibility of the league being far more competitive and unpredictable, in the manner of the Championship.

* The highest priced tickets, at the very least, will be reduced markedly as wage costs shrivel.

However, that is not to say the club can’t or won’t hypothecate ticket price rises at times in order to fund specific things, say, a new stand or training facility. None of us would mind investing in infrastructure via the ticket price because it will be useful to the club for years, as opposed to puking out money in order to pay a player to wheelbarrow home £200,000 per week.

* Our collective action may fracture and break Premier League as a brand and as a concept. It was set up purely with the intention of accruing wealth through selling broadcast rights. When we deny them that possibility, what is the point in its existence? It is not impossible football will once again become the First, Second, Third and Fourth Division, all overseen by the FA on a non-profit basis for the greater good.

* Once the really big money goes, so will the murky world of nepotism, agents, managers and their relations, who trade players like they are merely quality cuts of meat.

It will only take the UK market – the most valuable by some measure (approx £5.5billion v £ ROW) – to do this and globally everyone will follow because it benefits all. Indeed, we can already see fan protests against the dominance of TV over live football all across the continent, the whiff of revolution is already in the air.

So, this is our moment. Yes it involves making a small sacrifice for perhaps a year or two, if quitting our contracts and saving money can be said to be such, but we stand to regain that which was once ours. Like thousands of others, I’ve ended my Sky contract. Life is not worse.

If we don’t come together to enact change, there is no point in complaining about transfers, wages, money, coverage, game times, ticket prices or anything else. It is within our power to change all of these things, and we will have chosen that en masse.

But it’s important to be realistic about this. This will not create a utopia. There will still be big clubs able to command more resources by virtue of having bigger grounds and greater match-day earnings. Personally I would have the FA outlaw sponsorship of clubs with the largest turnovers in order to reign in their advantage, feeling it is important to do everything we can to make the playing field more level, in order to make the league as unpredictable and competitive as possible. Sponsors now have so much power over the clubs that players get booked for taking off their shirt when they score because it denies sponsors their money shot. That’s how pernicious the cash lust has become. It is denying expressions of joy.

It will also be the case that clubs could still be owned and obscenely funded by anyone from dodgy Russian billionaires, to dodgy theocratic states, to dodgy sportswear retailers. But we can collectively deal with those issues once we have broken the Premier League. We can demand proper imposition of investment restrictions and use our collective power to make those a reality.

In this it will be important that one-eyed tribal fans need to stop defending the indefensible simply because it involves their club, and become agents for change instead. In the new progressive revolution they will likely be a drag anchor on change which we must culturally neuter.

But the bloated beast that has grown so fat on our money will not lie down and die without a whimper. We will be told that without the riches, grounds will fall apart, toilets will be blocked, games not policed, pizza will not be available. Before the Premier League, no-one was any good at football. It is only the money that made it so brilliant all of the time.

This is what we will be told, one way or another. That is what they have conned us all into believing for so long and throughout this whole campaign some fans will hang onto these old certainties and will continue to do the bidding of the rich and powerful.

It will obviously be painted by those afraid of change as some sort of old-fashioned, out-of-touch desire to return to the bad old days. Even as they read this, someone will be preparing to post the Grandpa Simpson shaking fist at clouds meme again. It’s all part of the hypnosis to think this is a middle-aged man’s wet dream; an expression of misplaced nostalgia, or even part of the witless Brexit mindset. Critics will try to paint us with that brush. It is designed to devalue and negate us. But we are not the conservatives here. We are both young and old and everything in between. Those who would seek to perpetuate the model of the last 27 years are the stick-in-the-muds. They are the ones who want to hang onto nurse for fear of something worse. They are the ones who have swallowed the propaganda from on high. Listen to them and you’ll find they are unconsciously regurgitating what they have been told, often using the same words and phrases. All those Grandpa Simpson memes are just doing the work for the establishment.

This absolutely isn’t an exercise in nostalgia, it is a pursuit of a better, more fair, more sustainable, sensible game, that is at ease with itself and isn’t part of some global capitalist hegemony, subsuming us all to its elitist economic will, for the benefit of a mere handful of employees and shareholders.

The Premier League and pay TV football is over, if we want it. We can emancipate ourselves and the game from their oppressive financial chains and fetid moral values. Let’s come together as one and make it happen.

John Nicholson, who will soon need your help in crowdfunding his book ‘Can We Have Our Football Back? – Why and How We Must Break The Premier League’ which discusses these issues in much more detail, with more jokes, dirty stuff and doubtless with reference to Rush lyrics.

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