Football enjoyed a rare moment of unity last week, as the decision to award departing Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore with a staggered – and staggering – £5m payoff was universally condemned. In a way, it’s the perfect exit for Scudamore: under his watch English football has mutated into something unfeeling and insatiably avaricious, so for him to leave with that crescendo of naked greed is entirely fitting.
Shortly after the story first broke, the smaller clubs were expected to resist. Originally, Scudamore was to be paid in equal amounts by all twenty sides. That’s no longer the case. Because of the initial resistance, the Premier League decided to pay Scudamore from a centralised fund, meaning that no vote took place and that, in effect, the clubs will forego future revenue rather than spending from their existing budgets.
Supporters are well-versed on the excuses used to explain why their interests are so often overlooked and yet, here, at a moment’s notice, those same organisations have been able to contort their supposedly rigid, long-term plans. Within minutes of the Premier League announcing that they would adopt VAR in time for the 2019-20 season, Burnley had snuck out a statement endorsing the payments.
It was shocking, because the more provincial clubs are often presented as the natural ally of the fan. Without the support of an oligarch or an oil state, they are assumed to remain relatively in touch with their communities and to be more sensitive to their local mood. Apparently not in this case, given the terse, two-fingered tone of their statement and the promise of no further comment.
This, remember, followed not only days of condemnation from fans, journalists, and supporter groups, but a food bank appeal from the club themselves. All of the Premier League teams are complicit of course, but it was difficult not to feel particularly let down in that case. Perhaps Burnley felt ill at ease with the proposal; maybe they inwardly believed that the funds could have been better directed elsewhere. Perhaps. But there was no indication of any internal struggle.
Tottenham’s Daniel Levy was anything but conflicted:
“Richard has made an outstanding contribution to English football. The Premier League is the most supported league the world and he has unique knowledge and experience, which is going to be an ongoing benefit to the Premier League over the next three years.”
Levy was repeating what was clearly a party line. Similar sentiments were repeated within all of the various club statements.
“It was vital that a comprehensive set of non-compete clauses were extended, to ensure the best possible protection for the future of the Premier League. It was (also) agreed that it is crucial for the League’s ongoing success that Richard’s unique knowledge and experience remain available in an advisory capacity.”
Knowledge and experience. Knowledge and experience. Is this actually a tactical economic decision, or just a case of Bruce Buck’s original ‘gift’ proposal being spun into something more palatable?
Either way, the reflexive response is to query the appointment of Susanna Dinnage. If Scudamore’s presence is so essential and life without him is potentially so bleak, what set of skills has she been recruited to provide? It’s certainly not unusual to build a no-compete clause into a CEO’s exit, neither is it rare for a period of uncertainty to follow the departure of a long-serving leader, but the framing of this justification is bizarre. In fact, one has to feel for Dinnage: she has just become the most powerful woman in British sport, but her predecessor is being given a background role and – effectively – a pay rise. She comes from television, her time at Discovery implies a great deal of experience in negotiating broadcasting rights packages, and, not incidentally, she was an unanimous appointment, approved by all 20 Premier League clubs.
So what behind-the-scenes role is Scudamore having to fill? The arguments presented in those press releases just don’t add up. What is he actually being paid to do?
That’s a pertinent question, because the Premier League’s commercial performance isn’t necessarily the endorsement of him that it seems. He was appointed in November 1999 and, of course, the headline detail from the 19 years which followed is that, under his watch, the broadcasting rights have risen from £1.2b from the start of the 2001-02 season to £5.136bn under the current agreement. A success by anybody’s measure. What’s telling, however, is that for the ten years following his arrival, the broadcasting value rose by a far more modest amount: from £1.2bn in 2001 to £1.7bn for the period between 2010 and 2013. The acceleration which makes the league’s growth look so impressive has really only occurred in the last five years. The contract almost doubled in worth (to £3.018bn) between 2013 and 2016 and jumped a further £2bn to its current level three years later.
Scudamore is evidently an extremely capable negotiator and it can absolutely be said that he has pressured broadcasters – most notably Sky – into parting with as much money as possible. To that extent, the clubs do owe him a debt of gratitude. However, whether that illustrates his “unique knowledge and experience” is a different matter, because the biggest jumps in revenue occurred many years after Roman Abramovich had purchased control of Chelsea and, of course, after the Abu Dhabi Group had bought Manchester City and altered the landscape of British football.
Essentially, the league’s growth can be charted against these great swathes of external investment and the new rivalries they created. Currently, any one of six clubs could feasibly win the Premier League in any given year.
At the top of the league also now exists a broad spread of world-class players and an unrivalled cast of superstar coaches. In Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino, Jose Mourinho and Maurizio Sarri, the Premier League can claim ownership of virtually all the game’s high priests. It is that rich blend, combined with the clubs’ globe-trotting tours, which influences the broadcasting contract. Competence remains a factor, of course, but Scudamore has still been heading to the table every few years with a royal flush. It’s a hand which has also only got stronger. New broadcasters have entered the market, technology companies are increasingly aware of sport’s capacity to create engagement, and those market forces have inarguably worked to the Premier League’s advantage.
Scudamore has certainly capitalised – that can’t (and shouldn’t) be denied. However, the Premier League’s claimed reliance on his vision is worrying because, in spite of its wealth and reach, English football has never been innovative under his direction. The teams have got stronger and the clubs have become more powerful, but the competition itself could never be described as being at the vanguard of sporting evolution.
It is a trend follower, not a trend setter. That’s evident in small scale issues, such as VAR, but also in its macro policy, through its failure to properly harness and monetise the value of digital streaming.
Beyond that issue lies a nest of other assets which also remain chronically underdeveloped: its archiving (in the NFL Films sense) is non-existent, its digital presence across social media is tepid, and – compared with the American equivalents – its website remains bizarrely parochial.
Ultimately, has it made the absolute most of its market position by using its resources to redefine how sport is watched, enjoyed and consumed? Realistically, no – and given the resources available that would have been achievable. Yes, Scudamore has overseen a period of tremendous growth, but he hasn’t necessarily instructed it.
Of more concern, though, is his organisation’s inability – or unwillingness – to have any discernible impact on the native British culture. In 2013, to a House Of Lords committee, Scudamore insisted that the Premier League was “quintessentially English” and that its foreign investors had and were continuing to buy in to something pre-defined. That has proven to be categorically false. The league has offered minimal protection to clubs, allowing their traditions and cultures to be erased and bastardised in whatever way investors choose. All the while, match-going supporters have been treated with unending disrespect by preposterous match-scheduling and inflated ticket-prices.
Some tether to the country might still have been maintained if the original pledge to donate 5% of revenue to grassroots causes was kept. It was a simple enough premise and a PR open-goal achievable for a relative pittance. Of course, even that was too much and it was inevitably watered down by clever misdirection and, while often forgotten, it’s an episode which continues to characterise the league’s as-little-as-we-can-get-away-with operating procedure.
What a strange thing it was to renege on, too. For the sake of a few extra million, Scudamore was willing to worm away from his stated aim and suffer needless reputational damage in the process. When there were astroturfs to build, school playing fields to protect, and scholarship funds to create, pound coins were heaved around like manhole covers by the Premier League. Now, of course, notes are raining from the sky.
And why? Maybe Scudamore does have a set of entirely unique skills, but it remains hard to say for sure what they actually are. Susanna Dinnage will inherit an organisation which has antagonised and disenfranchised the public, done as little to benefit its environment as it could, and allowed several of its cornerstone clubs to fall into peril. In every area other than the superficial, it also remains startlingly primitive. What value really is there beyond the clubs, the players, and the game itself?
She has a broad and largely blank canvas to work from, making the decision to keep her predecessor snouting away in the background even harder to explain.
Seb Stafford-Bloor – follow him on Twitter
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