Imagine the slack-jawed look of incredulity you’d get as you tried explaining to a Mancunian railroad worker in 1878 how the club he’d just established with his co-workers to play a few games of football against other local railroad workers, would go on to become a globally recognised brand valued north of £3 billion, with a passionate global fanbase at least 30 times the size of the entire UK population at the time. And how they pay as much as £375k a week in wages to a single player exclusively for the purposes of playing football (and that mostly with his hands) and have an official global mattress and pillow partner based 5,000 miles away in China.
I imagine he’d be pretty amazed, and overwhelmed, and once he’d had a chance to digest it all I sense he may have some conflicting emotions of pride and sorrow. That something so vast and globally significant could grow out of something so modest as a local workers’ club is astonishing, but the fact that it’s now so far removed from what it once was would also likely cause considerable discomfort. One thing he’d certainly notice pretty quickly with the salaried players, the hundreds of support staff and the corporate sponsors is that it’s as far from Newton Heath LYR Football Club now as green and yellow are from red. Our game is all about money now, the antithesis of what it once was. So here are my wandering thoughts on how to do Mr Railroad Worker proud and get the game back to something resembling purity.
What I’ve outlined below may seem fanciful, and indeed it’s a million miles from where we are currently, but I refuse to believe it’s no more than a hopeless dream. If the attempted ESL coup taught us one thing over the last few weeks, it’s that we have power as a collective voice to help drive positive change in the game we love so dearly. We need to use it.
Let’s be clear, I don’t have a problem with money in the game. In fact, I love that there’s so much money in the game. I love that so many people can earn a living by playing their part in the production of sport and I love that players have the opportunity to earn significant wealth from playing the game.
What I dislike is that football is now about money. Money is enmeshed in the fabric of football. It’s part of the DNA. But it doesn’t have to be. It hasn’t always been. It’s only when the businessmen in their baggy suits spied an exploitable opportunity and the governance wasn’t in place to prevent them that it stole in and took over the game. In part this could have been resisted with the appropriate governance regulations in place to prevent clubs becoming ownable assets and money-making vehicles. However, without the necessary safeguards in place football stood no chance against the aggressive onslaught of hyper-capitalism and now finds itself subservient to zeros and commas.
With the introduction of appropriate governance measures we could begin to reconcile some of these ills with the current model and whilst I believe this to be a vitally important matter it’s one that’s being covered far better elsewhere, and therefore I’m not going to go too far down that path here. Instead, I’m going to take aim at a less suspecting aspect of the game — prize money.
Being financially rewarded for success in sport is unquestionably a great thing, but only when that money is awarded to people, not institutions. Rewarding Rafael Nadal with prize money for winning Roland Garros or Hideki Matsuyama for winning The Masters is fantastic because it enriches the player, but that new wealth has no bearing on their future performance ability. Unfortunately, in football (and team sports in general) the convention is to award prize money instead to clubs, creating a situation where clubs then subsequently possess an inflated ability to buy talent, pay higher wages and generally invest greater capital into improving their future performance. Success one year provides an artificial advantage for the following year and the advantage compounds as the cycle self-perpetuates, laying out a catwalk for the successful clubs and offering little more than a broken ladder to everyone else.
So to remedy this situation I’m proposing we do away with merit-based payments and prize money and enter an all-encompassing revenue sharing model.
Going forward every club in the Premier League would receive an equal share of everything, with all income distributed equally across the twenty clubs. Broadcasting rights income, both domestic and overseas, would be split into twenty equal shares, all gate receipts would be pooled and split into twenty equal shares. All income from sponsors and partnerships would be pooled centrally and split into twenty equal shares as would merchandise sales. Ideally this same model would be implemented by the EFL too, but irrespective, a portion of the total pool would be set aside to support the rest of the pyramid.
Prize money from other competitions need also be considered as the league doesn’t exist in a vacuum. To uphold equality of competition in the Premier League some form of agreement should be ratified between the clubs that all income from participation in external competitions (FA Cup, Champions League, Europa League etc) will also be pooled and distributed equally among the twenty member clubs. However, I’d also propose agreeing to a clause that allows a certain percentage of the clubs income from an external competition to be retained by the club as prize money to be distributed among all players and staff members.
This might sound like some form of extreme socialism, but such a structure is necessary if we’re going to achieve equality of competition and create a system where money is no longer the defining factor. It’s also necessary in such drastic, all-encompassing measures because of the environment into which such a system would be introduced. The legacies of half a century of capitalist operation cannot be undone or ignored and therefore the only way to nullify the monetary advantage Manchester United would retain over Burnley through having a larger stadium, a larger fanbase and a global brand is to evenly distribute all income, from every source, among each of the member clubs involved.
In a win for everyone, merchandising would go from being a vehicle through which to monetise supporters into an operation that exists to service fans’ desires to express their identity and affiliation with their team of choice. No longer would you be sold a club-branded hand puppet or toothbrush holder for £68, instead you’d likely end up with just a small catalogue of a handful of items of genuine importance and significance to supporters, for sale at reasonable prices.
In this world success would be determined by player skill, teamwork, tactics, quality coaching and management, psychology, training, scouting, academy production, sports science and data. A competitive edge in these areas would be driven by, and earned through, innovation, knowledge, and good management. With equal incomes no team would carry an inherent advantage in any area, ensuring each club has exactly the same opportunity as every other.
Such changes would also need to be accompanied by the transition of all clubs into public, non-profit institutions that exist as community spaces, rekindling the founding ethos of community representation (only now representing their communities on a global scale). Clubs would be community-owned and the board and controlling powers would be democratically elected by the supporters (and properly vetted through a strengthened ‘fit and proper persons’ test). How we achieve the ambition of rescuing ownership from the incumbent billionaire’s club is a topic for another day, but I’m confident these proposed improvements to the game would make our clubs considerably less attractive assets for the incumbent set of owners. Measures would be implemented to prevent money being taken out of the clubs (to pay dividends etc) and restrictions would exist to prevent money being artificially pumped into the clubs as is the practice in some (most) quarters at present.
There’s one major element that’s important to consider given that the Premier League operates within a European ecosystem of football leagues — would this new model negatively impact the Premier League and its clubs relative to their European cousins? In crude terms, will it hamper clubs’ abilities to acquire talent, and in turn compete in European competition — a sphere where money would still be king? (Unless of course the whole of the European football ecosystem were to adopt the same system — okay now we’re really getting fanciful).
First and foremost, I do not believe such proposals would weaken English football, nor make the Premier League and the rest of the pyramid poorer, monetarily or otherwise. We’ll lose an infusion of petrodollars and hedge fund investments, but I think potential exists to make at least some of that up elsewhere.
Under a community-owned model ticket prices would likely be intentionally depressed bringing them down to a more widely affordable level. So whilst ticketing income would likely experience a downturn you could argue either way with broadcasting income, but I’m firmly behind this creating a higher quality, more exciting, more entertaining league and therefore creating a better overall broadcasting proposition. Likewise, where sponsorships are concerned nothing is materially changing that would drastically alter the overall proposition. The situation of individual clubs may change, but at an aggregated level the league’s proposition as a desirable sponsorship destination should be relatively unaffected at worst, and enhanced at best.
There’s no hiding that the existing big, wealthy clubs would see a reduction in their footballing income as the lower-table clubs experience an increase in income as we go through a recalibration. With less money available for transfers fees and wages you might argue that we’d see a drop-off in quality at the top of the league, which may be true, but would also depend on a multitude of other factors that are extremely difficult to model in such a hypothetical scenario. What does seem inevitable though is that the quality floor would be raised, with the worst teams operating at a higher level than they’re currently able to. In this new world, this is precisely the outcome we’re striving for.
We may even see some rationality begin to be restored to the transfer market and wage structures with transfer fees and wages tapered back to a more sustainable level now the big Premier League clubs now longer have unlimited cash reserves to burn through and artificially inflate the market.
I know we’re too far gone for this to ever become a reality and we live in a world that could never allow such a monstrous thing to happen, but maybe this helps move the needle a fraction, maybe this sparks something inside you that makes you reflect on what you want your club to stand for and say about you and your community. If nothing else, I hope it adds something to the conversation of reform and helps, even if in the smallest way, contribute to the momentum of action that’s badly needed right now.
“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Norman Vincent Peale