How the Premier League’s reputation fell into the gutter: Project Big Picture plotters exploiting Covid-19 crisis, fans fleeced with £15 PPV games and low-paid staff sacked and furloughed while clubs spend £1bn on transfers… so what next?
- Six months ago, football was doing everything to help as nation locked down
- Chelsea opened hotels to NHS staff while stadiums were converted to hospitals
- But the game’s reputation at the top level has plummeted ever since then
- Premier League clubs spent over £1bn on new signings during summer window
- Yet the league wants to charge locked out fans another £15 to watch on TV
- Now, secret Project Big Picture plans have sent shockwaves through the game
- Promise of £250m bailout for cash-strapped EFL clubs has sinister overtones
So what next for the people’s game, we dared to wonder last week as the elite of English football unveiled its plan to squeeze more pennies from its public at a time of national economic crisis?
Charging £15 to watch those games initially deemed by broadcasters to be the least attractive on offer appeared a fitting final move of a summer of paradoxes when clubs wrung their hands and bemoaned a hazardous future while spending a billion on transfers.
Alas no. Behind the scenes, the plot thickened and the plotters quickened their efforts to turn this crisis into some sort of a permanent advantage for those at the top of the Premier League.
These are strange times for football with even high-profile Premier League matches such as Manchester United vs Tottenham played out behind closed doors amid the pandemic
Scenes like this – a pitchside TV camera being sterilised by a staff member in a hazmat suit at St James’ Park in Newcastle – have become depressingly normal
The financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t stopped clubs spending, with Chelsea’s £89m signing of Kai Havertz part of £1.2bn spent overall by the 20 clubs this summer
They can smell the desperation in the EFL and those at the pinnacle of the football pyramid have the wherewithal to help but nothing comes for free these days and so the survival package comes with sinister undertones.
Chief among which are a change to voting rights to entrench the so-called Big Six at the top of the Premier League and the first shift towards clubs selling their own TV rights, via their club media.
With independent TV rights for clubs comes the potential for a brand new stream of revenue, especially for the big clubs, playing away from home, as clubs in the EFL have discovered by streaming the games through their websites while their grounds have been closed to fans.
Once the voting process is in the grip of the Big Six, with their large and well-cultivated international fan-bases, watch them shuffle a little further down this path with each new broadcasting rights deal.
Premier League champions Liverpool have joined forced with rivals Manchester United to propose Project Big Picture, which strengthens the power of the ‘Big Six’ clubs
Faced with a financial crisis among his clubs, EFL chairman Rick Parry supports the plans
It all feels far removed from the mood when the nation locked down in spring, football ground to a halt and communities came together, hoping that when we all emerged at the other side, it might be in a better, more caring place.
Premier League football clubs played a part. Chelsea opened their hotels to NHS staff and the stadiums at Tottenham and Watford became extensions of the nearby hospitals.
Well-marketed if well-meaning gestures, however, have been eclipsed by gaffes such as the embarrassing instinct of huge clubs such as Liverpool and Spurs to join the furlough scheme before they were cowed into hasty reversals of policy.
Tottenham boss Jose Mourinho helped out with the club’s food bank during lockdown
Even Arsenal’s loveable mascot Gunnersaurus was a victim of cost-cutting measures
Or those such as Arsenal, still Champions League quality when it comes to PR blunders, making redundancies among its lowest-paid staff on the workforce and sacking the dinosaur to trim costs while restocking the playing squad with expensive new recruits and fat contract renewals.
When the rich get richer by forcing the poor into the margins, it is not a good look.
Unfortunately, the attitudes emanating from boardrooms at the top seem to prove the pandemic will prove a catalyst for unpopular changes they would never be able to force through in normal times.
Those clubs whose very existence is under threat will sign up and, even with some unpopular proposals diluted by compromise, the wealthy elite move a little closer to their aim.
Down the leagues, clubs face going to the wall if a bailout isn’t forthcoming soon
The elite Premier League will continue, in luxury with the latest technology, flush with money and televised, but what about the rest of the game?
Surely the irony of calling it the ‘Big Picture’ can’t be lost on them. What is the bigger picture? A national sport driven into two codes?
At the top, the elite tier with its luxury venues and corporate audience where people go to be seen; a sport made for TV, ruled by technology, sports science and detailed analysis; where the football is high-grade, played by the world’s finest and where there is barely any contact allowed. All, with dubbed-on crowd effects if necessary.
And the rest, in the community tier, social and affordable, where the fans keep the clubs alive but at least the games start at a convenient hour such as three o’clock on a Saturday, are free from the complexities of VAR and still possess a physical element.
Football has to keep these threads connected, that is the bigger picture.
Liverpool owner John Henry (left) and Manchester United co-owner Joel Glazer (right) have been the brains behind the attempted sinister power grab disguised as Project Big Picture
Richard Masters is now in charge of a Premier League whose moral reputation is plummeting
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