Liverpool and Manchester United – England’s two titans, indisputably, but both with US owners – have proposed major reforms to English football. They didn’t bother to tell all of the clubs who play in their division, by the way. They’re calling this ‘Project Big Picture’ (cracking name, lads – what, was ‘Project Blue Sky Thinking’ taken?).
The proposed changes are as follows:
The Premier League will be cut from 20 to 18 clubs.
The Championship, League One and League Two will all retain 24 teams.
The bottom two teams in the Premier League will be relegated automatically with the 16th-placed team joining the Championship play-offs.
The League Cup and Community Shield will be scrapped.
Parachute payments will be scrapped.
A £250m rescue fund will be made immediately available to the EFL.
25% of the Premier League’s annual income will go to the EFL.
£100m will be paid to the FA to make up for lost revenue.
Nine clubs (the big six, plus Southampton, West Ham and Everton) will be given ‘special voting rights’ on certain issues, based on their extended runs in the Premier League.
Don’t be misled. A cursory look at this list might suggest that Liverpool and United have taken an altruistic approach to reforming the game in England. Those two clubs may claim it amounts to a rescue package. EFL chairman Rick Parry loves it (hardly a good sign). There are even some potentially attractive suggestions here, such as sharing the wealth with the EFL (more easily done when you lose two clubs from the top flight) – in theory, great. But what’s really at stake is clear: Project Big Picture (PBP) is a brazen attempt by some of the richest clubs in the world to grab even more power – and one that has suddenly appeared during a pandemic. How convenient. Perversely, the richest clubs may find support from the smaller clubs in Leagues One and Two, many of whom are struggling so much financially that any hand-out has to be welcomed.
Essentially, though, the big six clubs (Liverpool, Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal) would form an oligarchy blessed with ‘special voting rights’. Everything else, such as the £100m hand-out to the FA, is a sop. Sure, Southampton, West Ham and Everton have been invited to the top table, but their presence is pointless if – as is suggested – only six of nine clubs need to agree to carry a vote. Hell, 14 of the 20 Premier League clubs had no idea PBP was in the works! If that fact alone doesn’t make it clear what’s going on, nothing does.
Even the distribution of wealth is skewed towards the richest, most successful clubs. As Martin Samuel explains in his excellent column on PBP (Samuel is great when he’s wound up):
Some of the cut would be calculated over the last three years so if Manchester United or Liverpool had a bad season, it wouldn’t matter as much because other, more successful years would be taken into account.
At the moment central income ratio is capped at 1.7 to 1 between big and small; this might see it reach 4:1. And what’s fairer than a league in which the wealthiest get four times as much basic income as their rivals lower down?
The same with television revenue with clubs permitted to sell eight games on their own platforms. This would greatly harm the broadcast deal, with the loss of exclusivity, and that money could only be recouped if the PPV packages were hugely successful. And who is likelier to benefit there: Manchester United and Liverpool again, or Burnley and West Brom?
What a f**king carve-up. I’m getting the words… ‘European Super League’. Of course the majority of Premier League clubs smell a rat – there is almost no way that PBP will succeed in its current form. What is shocking is that Liverpool and United thought it was reasonable to propose it in the first place. The nerve. On the other hand, though, the football authorities in England have dallied for so long over reform, you can understand when the clubs with the most at stake take matters into their own hands.
PBP is also something to distract from the depressing news that fans are set to be charged £14.95 per Premier League match as part of a new pay-per-view model. A sharp truth: fans are not entirely blameless. We have acquiesced, permitted our transformation into consumers. We create enough demand for sportswear manufacturers to sell at least three different kits each season. Third kits ffs! We play a ‘new’ FIFA each year. We pay more and more each season for tickets. And if we can’t afford to attend matches, we shell out to Sky and BT. If the very least you can do is make some noise on Twitter speaking out against both PBP and the £14.95 price point – do it, use your voice.
For once, the government’s response hits the nail on the head. Responding to PBP, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said:
We are surprised and disappointed that at a time of crisis, when we have urged the top tiers of professional football to come together and finalise a deal to help lower-league clubs, there appear to be backroom deals being cooked up that would create a closed shop at the very top of the game.
Sustainability, integrity and fair competition are absolutely paramount and anything that may undermine them is deeply troubling.
Fans must be at the front of all our minds, and this shows why our fan-led review of football governance will be so critical.
If anyone knows a thing or two about closed shops and self-interest, it’s this government. At least they appear to be on the right team for once.