Robin Sainty: The pies are gone, it’s famine time - so turn the game back to the fans
One of my favourite books about what football means to us is “We Ate All the Pies” by John Nicholson.
It’s a wonderfully heart-warming analysis of the whole ritual of watching football and the way in which it defines us as fans, but the follow up to it, published late last year, was darker, angrier and has suddenly become incredibly relevant.
It’s called “Can we have our football back?” but it’s the subtitle “How the Premier League is ruining football and what we can do about it...” that tells you exactly where the author is coming from. The book takes no prisoners. It skewers the elite league’s naked greed and obsession with money and the consequent lack of real competition and concludes that a product that sees half a dozen teams battling for European competition while the rest concentrate on avoiding relegation because the financial consequences are so dire, really doesn’t constitute “The Best League in the World”, despite that slogan being drummed into us by 28 years of relentless marketing.
A couple of months ago it would have been easy to dismiss Nicholson’s dream of a revolution in the game as utopian, but suddenly we are at a stage where it may actually be possible.
In the last fortnight, Nicholson has written a series of incendiary articles for the Football 365 website which call for the game be returned to those who really care about it, as opposed to those who see it as a money-making process.
In his own words: “The virus has shown us that without the people there is no game. There is no product to sell. There is no money. Without a crowd, games have no meaning. It has surely never been clearer that the most important part of the football equation is not the money, not the TV, not the players nor agents or managers, but The People. Without us they have a worthless, meaningless pursuit that no one will pay to watch on TV. And no TV means no Big Money. To put it bluntly, their wealth is a castle built on the sands of our presence. Without us, that castle is washed away.”
As a result of the pandemic the process whereby Sky and BT were able to annually push up the cost of watching football has been interrupted and replaced by the former having to provide its sport channels for free in the hope that we will be happy to stump up again once live sport returns.
However, with a recession almost inevitable as a result of the global economy limping along during the crisis the likelihood is that satellite subscriptions will fall significantly as people concentrate on paying for necessities rather than luxuries, and fewer subscriptions means less money to throw at the bloated money pit that is the Premier League.
It’s hugely ironic that the Premier League would never have existed without Sky and has feasted on its largesse for nearly three decades, but now its clubs could be forced out of business because the broadcaster wants to claw a huge sum back if the season isn’t completed. Sky has the power to resolve the situation at a stroke by writing off the debt, but don’t hold your breath on that one, and if the clawback is applied then, as Nicholson points out, the clubs would be unable to cope: “Premier League clubs have huge amounts of money coming in but going out almost as quickly. Instead of building their business on solid rock, they have been built on the hot air of money lust. Fine as long as the money flows in, but now cash reserves are running out fast.”
Anyone doubting the veracity of his analysis need only look at the alarm bells being sounded by both Burnley and Bournemouth this week. Any business owner will tell you that the key to success isn’t profitability, it’s being able to control cashflow, but when everything is being spent almost before it arrives any interruption to the flow of money gets very serious very quickly.
With ex-Palace owner Simon Jordan estimating that at least 75p of each pound of a Premier League club’s income goes to pay players, agents and executives it’s hardly surprising that cash reserves, which are what you need for the lean times (and they don’t get much leaner than this!), are never built up.
In effect, the pandemic is simply accelerating the effects of rampant wage and transfer fee inflation over many years, but it was always inevitable that the balloon had to burst at some point.
Nicholson sees this as the opportunity to move towards a more sustainable approach, but that will require a change in mindset from both clubs and fans: “The craving for big signings obviously has to stop. That is a symptom of the Premier League’s culture of financial dysfunction which has turned the game into the cash equivalent of an arms race.
“Those days are over. The days of humongous wages for executives and players have to stop. The fatal addiction to broadcast rights fees must be cured. Look where all these things have taken us.”
The next sale of TV rights is in 2022 and Nicholson wants to see the state buy the broadcasting rights so that football can return to a free-to-air basis, ticket prices, transfer fees and players’ wages capped and clubs required to become self-sustaining (an area where City would be ahead of the game).
Most importantly, he wants to see an end to the richest clubs stockpiling talent simply because they can, which would in turn lead to a more competitive and therefore more interesting league which, in his view, should once again become part of the Football League, instead of an exclusive playground for the mega rich.
Is he a lunatic or a visionary? Personally I think he talks a huge amount of sense.