The Premier League offices in London’s West End are located mostly underground. This fact alone does not make them exceptional in the world of football administration – Fifa’s lair in Zurich features five subterranean levels, including a sinister conference room ripped straight out of Dr Strangelove. But the Premier League isn’t going for the futuristic bunker vibe. Nothing about it exudes Bond-villain hideout or military robotics lab. What makes the place remarkable is its modesty. Premier League HQ feels more like the offices of a mid-sized legal practice.
Blending into a row of elegant Georgian buildings with white fronts and black railings, the exterior of the Premier League offices at 30 Gloucester Place is marked only by a small silver plaque. Where it publishes its address, the Premier League points out that access is “by appointment only”. The few people who ever stop to take pictures are the tabloid photographers working the pavement whenever the Premier League managers gather for their league-wide meetings – think photos of middle-aged men in ill-fitting suits emerging from black cabs.
When the league moved into the space in 2005, domestic TV rights had just cleared the billion-pound mark for the second successive cycle. Ratings were through the roof. Yet for the most popular league on the planet, the offices have none of the ostentation or scale of, for instance, the NFL’s, perched high above the corner of 51st Street and Park Avenue in New York, or the NBA’s, which are in a skyscraper two avenues over. In part, that’s because the Premier League has roughly 10 times fewer employees than the NFL or NBA, with a head count hovering around 110.
Visitors to the home of the world’s most popular league are led downstairs to a small waiting area where the sofas are pointed at the Premier League trophy and a tea station. The atmosphere is one of quiet, businesslike efficiency. Until his resignation this winter, the chief executive, Richard Scudamore, kept a spartan office here, as do the aides who make sure that contracts are up to date, partners are kept happy, and the league’s extensive charity operations tick over smoothly. Scudamore, the Premier League’s highest-paid executive, earned a basic salary in the low seven figures – news of the £5m “golden handshake” he received on his way out caused a brief furore in December. But compare that to the $34m that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell earned in 2016, or the roughly $20m the NBA is believed to pay commissioner Adam Silver, and you wonder why the Premier League – for all of the cash flooding into its clubs – makes its brass look so unassuming.
The reason is that the Premier League is a much smaller sporting government than any of its US counterparts. It is first and foremost a media-rights-selling organisation that happens to provide 20 clubs with a platform, referees and a ball. The organisation has six league-wide sponsors – no more – in obvious categories such as official timekeeper and official snack, and a ball contract with Nike that has quietly hummed along since 2000. The NFL, by contrast, had 32 league-wide sponsors in 2015, including an official soup.
The most profitable sporting organisation to come out of England isn’t in the business of peddling merchandise either. It won’t sell you a baseball cap or scarf – it leaves that entirely to the clubs. The Premier League’s website does not even have an shop. That’s why the whole operation can be happily contained in a single office that almost nobody knows is there. But ever since 2005, that humble residence at Gloucester Place has served as mission control for the Premier League’s quest for global domination.
By the time Scudamore was introduced chief executive in 1999, he could tell the Premier League was already on its way to becoming a domestic juggernaut. Sky had renegotiated its contract for UK TV rights a couple of years earlier, agreeing to pay £670m over four years, more than doubling the value of its previous deal. When Scudamore looked at the international revenues, though, he saw a world of untapped potential. The league’s overseas broadcast rights had sold for just £98m in 1997, a figure Scudamore regarded not merely as disappointing but borderline disrespectful. In his mind, the Premier League was the most exciting football competition on the planet. It was time it got paid like it.
His first order of business was overhauling the way the league sold itself abroad. Until then, it had auctioned off its overseas rights package en bloc for a fixed fee, with the winning bidder then free to unpackage those rights and resell them in different countries and territories as they saw fit. He wanted to cut out the middleman and negotiate with broadcasters himself. Scudamore was a man who liked to be in the room. He immediately told the club owners that they stood a better chance of finally raking in what they were worth by breaking up the overseas rights into separate territorial packages and dealing face-to-face with the TV companies. Convinced by his commercial background, the owners signed off on Scudamore’s proposal to become their ambassador to the world.
The scheme paid off immediately. In 2004, the league’s international rights sold for £325m, an increase of 83% over the £178m it charged in the previous cycle. In 2007, the total jumped to £625m, while in 2010 the Premier League’s overseas rights fees fetched £1.4bn, eclipsing the billion-pound mark for the first time. In just nine years, Scudamore had driven a staggering 687% increase in overseas broadcast revenue.
Figures like those would have been inconceivable to the men who founded the Premier League in 1992. They had so underestimated the global appetite that, in the early years of their enterprise, they were the ones paying foreign broadcasters to carry their games, not the other way around. The clamour for rights packages from every corner of the planet now convinced them otherwise.
As Scudamore gradually shaped his role into that of a globetrotting executive, making visits to key markets including India, Thailand, Singapore and the Middle East during each new season, he realised that the Premier League product was equipped with a host of built-in advantages. These factors, so obvious in retrospect, meant that fans around the world were predisposed to the Premier League even before they realised it. Best of all, those advantages were a total coincidence. The league had nothing to do with their existence.
The first – and most forehead-slappingly simple – is that this whole show takes place in English. While Italy’s Serie A and Germany’s Bundesliga must first help viewers make sense of names like Sampdoria and Borussia Mönchengladbach, one-quarter of the world’s population can tune in to a Premier League and immediately understand what’s happening – even if it means occasionally wading into the absurdly tedious “soccer v football” debate. (For the record, soccer, like football, is an originally British term short for “association football”.) Beyond the language, the league also benefits from its location. As countless London firms have discovered, the fact that the British business day overlaps with both Asian and American daytime hours gave the league a leg up on rival sports organisations, including the NFL and the NBA.
A Premier League match that kicks off in the early afternoon can be consumed both as primetime Saturday-night entertainment in Singapore and over a bowl of Cheerios on a Saturday morning in Brooklyn. On top of all of this, it was obvious to Scudamore that overseas viewers had a sort of natural Anglophilia – and were gravitating to the heritage and culture of English football, its authenticity. In short, they craved the Britishness of it all. “Being British is the essence of what we are,” Scudamore told the Times in 2013. “It’s a bit like being the Queen or the BBC.”
By the end of his first decade as chief executive, Scudamore had parlayed that headstart into tenfold increase in the value of the league’s international TV rights. Now he had to add some creativity of his own. To keep global rights fees rising, it was no longer enough simply to cut out the middleman and deal with international broadcasters directly. He needed to sell them on the idea that the Premier League rights they had just paid through the nose for were indispensable to their business model. And to do that, Scudamore developed two clear strategies.
The first relied on Scudamore’s own talents as a salesman – or, to be more specific, what one Premier League owner described as his talent for “creating tension” at the negotiating table, never letting buyers get too comfortable. If that gives the impression of Scudamore as a sales shark sniffing out weaknesses and exploiting them to push his product, the reality could not be more different. In fact, Scudamore created the most fiendish auction process in world sports by running the league’s sales department with the sort of folksy, homespun charm of a village post office.
He purposely kept his sales team to roughly a half-dozen employees so that broadcasters felt a personal connection when they rang Gloucester Place. And the mantra they lived by was less “always be closing” and more “always be courteous”. Scudamore’s unshakeable sense of decorum taught him that politeness was the key to preserving customer relationships. At the end of every season, he personally emailed thank-you notes to the league’s 80 international broadcasters and sent special goodbye messages to those whose contracts with the league had expired. Scudamore also began to accompany the prime minister on trade missions, taking the Premier League trophy with him. “Everyone who sees the trophy will say, ‘Wow’, he explained. “Heads of state, prime ministers – they all want a photo with the trophy. It’s what we like to call soft power.”
For two decades, Richard Scudamore’s professional life had been more or less smooth sailing. He promised the 20 owners of the Premier League that he would sell their game around the world, and for 20 years, that’s what he did. But after all of that peaceful coexistence between the clubs, during which English football’s biggest institutions had made money hand over fist, built towering new stadiums, attracted huge global fan bases and transformed themselves into billion-dollar businesses, the Premier League gravy train came to an unexpected standstill in 2018, just as Britain’s trains are wont to do.
For the first time in a quarter of a century, it became apparent that England’s top flight – once a model of collective harmony and mutual benefit – was racked by division of its own; the Premier League had split into a morass of feuding factions that were each blaming somebody else for threatening to blow the whole thing up. The big six clubs wanted a larger slice of the pie. The other 14 felt left behind. And the original, 1992 formula for redistributing income – the very thing that underpinned the league’s wild growth – was being challenged.
The simmering tensions were mostly kept behind closed doors, in club boardrooms, in executive boxes and in the conference rooms of swanky hotels. Outwardly, it appeared that the Premier League was a picture of strength. The league was resurgent on the European stage, qualifying a record five clubs for the Champions League’s last 16, while negotiations over the latest sale of domestic TV rights meant the clubs were in line for another windfall.
But amid this outbreak of unseen hostility, there was one surprise. It turned out that the biggest agitator was the one club that seemingly had the least to worry about. Not content with laying waste to English football on the pitch, Manchester City and its Catalan-Emirati leadership were pushing to overturn the league’s way of doing business.
In official league meetings and private discussions with other clubs, City railed against the league’s revenue-sharing model and repeatedly challenged the age-old Founder Members Agreement – a document handwritten in 1991 by Rick Parry, the first Premiership chief executive, that held the status of Premier League scripture. The reality is that when it was written up, no one paid much attention to the overseas income. In fact, the league was losing money on international broadcasts back then as it was paying foreign networks to carry its games. “Nobody envisaged that it would be as big as it is, so sharing those rights equally was a concession they thought wouldn’t matter,” Parry said.
The way Manchester City saw it, the Founder Members Agreement was more like a relic that belonged in a glass case with acid-wash jeans, the Sega Mega Drive and other treasured artifacts of the 1990s. The league’s antique formula and its quaint, old-fashioned ideas about competitive balance had allowed the Premier League to become the richest purveyor of the world’s favourite sport. But for a club like Manchester City – whose modern history dated back to only 2008, when it was bought by the Emirati billionaire Sheikh Mansour – that was all in the distant past.
In truth, no one should have been shocked to learn that City gave little thought to the overall strength of the league. The club’s chief executive, Ferran Soriano, had telegraphed exactly those sentiments a decade earlier in his book about running Barcelona. Midway through a meditation on the differences between professional sport in the US and football in Europe, Soriano laid out his thoughts about the concept of competitive balance.
“A well-known American sports manager once said to me, ‘I don’t understand why you don’t see that what you should be doing is boosting teams like Sevilla FC and Villarreal FC to make the Spanish league more exciting and maximise income,’” Soriano wrote. “While I was listening to him, I found it very difficult to think about maximising [the overall league’s] income … because all I wanted and cared for was for FC Barcelona to win all the matches and always win.”
If anything, Soriano’s conviction was even stronger now. The Premier League’s top clubs – like his – needed a greater share of the wealth if they were ever to hope of luring the world’s best players back to England.
That much had been made clear to Soriano during the previous summer’s transfer window. It wasn’t that City lacked the funds to compete at the top end of the transfer market, of course. No team in world football spent more in 2017 than the £221.5m of Sheikh Mansour’s fortune that Soriano plunked down on five new recruits for Pep Guardiola’s squad. They weren’t the only big spenders in the Premier League either. In sum, English clubs splurged more than £1.4bn in transfer fees. That was all well and good. The issue for Soriano was that the summer’s headline moves for the best players and the biggest fees had not involved Manchester City. Nor had they involved Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool or any other English club for that matter. The juiciest transfer of the summer belonged to a different superpower in a different league controlled by a different Gulf state. Paris Saint-Germain, backed by Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, blew a world-record €222m on the fleet- footed, flamboyantly coiffed Brazilian Neymar from Barcelona.
If that wasn’t bad enough, just a few weeks later, the French teenager widely tipped to be the game’s next global superstar, an 18-year-old forward named Kylian Mbappé, had moved from Monaco for the second-highest transfer fee on record. He had signed for PSG, too.
For Soriano, this was a galling development. It was one thing if English clubs had to defer to Real Madrid or Barcelona when it came to signing the game’s most prized players. The two Spanish superclubs had their domestic championships on lockdown, as did Bayern Munich. Players who signed there knew they could spend most of the season beating up on the weaklings that made up the rest of the league, allowing them to conserve energy for the occasional big game, the later rounds of the Champions League, and the serious business of lifting a big trophy above their heads.
By contrast, English football was a grind. So Soriano couldn’t blame the likes of Messi and Ronaldo if they chose to spend their careers somewhere more comfortable. But there are only so many world-class players to go around. If Paris Saint-Germain were getting in on the act now, too, that was a problem. And in football, there’s only one surefire way to solve a problem. Soriano knew that if he threw enough money at them, the world’s best players could be persuaded to move to Manchester. Premier League clubs were making more than enough cash for him to do so; he just needed to ensure a greater share of it flowed into Manchester City’s coffers at the expense of clubs at the wrong end of the table. It made perfect sense to him. If English football wanted to attract the world’s best players, then who could argue?
When Manchester City reached the midpoint of the 2017/18 campaign with an insurmountable lead at the top of the table, it seemed that the rest of the season might turn into one long victory lap. But if that suggested a Premier League season devoid of suspense, the reality was far different. There was still intrigue, tension and drama out there. You just had to know where to look. For example, in the dining rooms of hip Manhattan restaurants. On a warm night in the middle of October 2017, an incongruous group of diners sat down to eat among the dark wood tables and black leather banquettes at Locanda Verde, a high-end Italian eatery in Tribeca.
The group of old white guys with not much hair between them didn’t turn many heads amid the usual gaggle of well-tanned, well-Botoxed VIPs. But if anyone with a keen knowledge of English football executives had passed their table on the way to the toilet, they would have recognised that this party represented the most unlikely gathering of enemies since the heads of New York’s mafia families held their regular meetings in red-sauce joints to keep the peace. Around the table that night were Joel and Avram Glazer, the owners of Manchester Utd, along with the club’s chief executive, Ed Woodward; Liverpool’s principal owner John W Henry; and Ivan Gazidis, then the chief executive of Arsenal.
That these clubs had ended up brushing off more than a century of mutual loathing to sit down to dinner together was due to an emerging crisis that concerned all of them. Over the previous 12 months, the Premier League’s “big six” had jointly reached the conclusion that the exorbitant sums the league were now raking in from the sale of overseas TV rights – currently worth £3.3bn – should no longer be distributed equally among the league’s 20 teams as they had been since the Premier League was first founded 25 years earlier.
The way the big six saw it, some clubs deserved a larger share – specifically, them. After all, they were the ones responsible for the league’s explosive global popularity, weren’t they? They were the ones criss-crossing the planet every summer to raise the profile of English football, the ones who boasted of absurd global followings in the hundreds of millions, driving international viewership from Trondheim to Tierra del Fuego. It was only right that they should be compensated accordingly. Nobody in the US or Asia was wrenching themselves out of bed early or staying up late to watch bloody Bournemouth. Unfortunately for the big six, Bournemouth disagreed. So did the likes of Huddersfield, Brighton, Watford and the rest of the league’s smaller clubs. Which is why the executives around the table were slurping their pasta slightly more sombrely than the chef intended.
John Henry, seated to the right of Joel Glazer, had come down from Boston to talk things through. Woodward and Gazidis, sitting opposite them, had been called to New York to add their input. But the group around the table knew that any hope of finding the 14 votes they would need to rip up the existing revenue-sharing agreement and draft a new one was all but doomed.
The Premier League clubs were due to meet seven days later to discuss the matter, with a proposal on the table to ringfence 35% of future international broadcast money and divide it between clubs according to their final position in the league. But the ugly conclusion to the last meeting on the subject a few weeks earlier was a stark indication of how entrenched the divisions were. Richard Scudamore had worked around the clock to secure the necessary 14 votes on behalf of the big six. But outside of their little clique, only Leicester, Everton and West Ham seemed inclined to endorse the new formula. Newcastle were on the fence, but by no means a sure thing.
Beyond that, the smaller clubs were united in opposition – and their resistance appeared to be a little stiffer than what the big six were used to steamrolling every Saturday afternoon. Within minutes of the topic being broached at the meeting earlier that month, it became obvious to the big six that they didn’t have a path to the 14-vote threshold. At least half of the league’s 20 clubs were not going to budge. The consensus was so strong that Scudamore didn’t even bother asking the clubs to go through the motions of a vote. There was no point. Instead, they had agreed to revisit the issue and try again three weeks later.
But now, with seven days to go, the diners at Locanda Verde had to admit there had been no meaningful change. After years of attending Premier League meetings, Woodward and Gazidis had everyone’s voting tendencies memorised as if they were political pollsters. But when Woodward and Gazidis tallied up the two camps, even if every swing vote broke their way, they couldn’t make it work. The league was still gridlocked.
Which left Henry, the Glazers and the rest of the big six owners backed into a corner. The Premier League’s revenue-sharing model, the two-thirds majority required for rule changes – these had been core tenets of the league ever since Rick Parry wrote them down on a sheet of Ernst & Young notepaper 25 years before. They were the same tenets that had allowed English football to reach its position as the world’s pre-eminent league. But now, in downtown Manhattan, those pillars began to look as if they would have to come down. If the league’s top clubs couldn’t secure a more reasonable revenue split through peaceful means, what option did they have left? Nobody at the table uttered the words “European Super League”, but then, they didn’t need to.
‘They threaten it all the time: ‘We’re going to break away,’” said one Premier League owner. “Sometimes they vaguely hint at it, sometimes they outwardly threaten it. But every time they want more money, it’s ‘Well, we’ll just go and play the big European teams.’” The spectre of a breakaway by the big six had been invoked so often during the previous decade that the Premier League now operated in a constant state of high alert, leaving even the most sober observers on edge. Which is how the Times ended up publishing a juicy front-page exclusive in March 2013 outlining secret plans for a Qatar-based “Dream Football League”, a new tournament to be played every two years and featuring 24 of Europe’s elite clubs, including Manchester United and a handful of other top Premier League teams. The DFL had the potential to “change the face of world football”, the Times story noted. Doubtless that would have been true but for one minor detail: the whole thing was a hoax dreamed up by a blogger on a satirical French website.
The episode was embarrassing for Britain’s paper of record, but it got one thing right: the desire from forces inside the game to blow up the existing structures and reorganise around the most powerful clubs. In 2018, Fifa president Gianni Infantino was motivated to cook up a proposal for an expanded Club World Cup by an international consortium dangling more than $20bn. At the same time, Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli was trying to convince his fellow superclubs to back a larger Champions League that would play on the weekends and shunt domestic league play into midweek.
The big six were not shy about expressing their interest. So Scudamore responded the only way he could. Two weeks after the end of the season, he gathered the clubs again at the league’s annual general meeting in Yorkshire. Scudamore had begun to think of the year-long international rights debate as a boil that needed lancing. This time, nothing was off the table.
The solution they agreed on distributed roughly one-third of all future international rights fees according to each club’s finishing position, meaning that the big six were almost certainly guaranteed a raise. To assuage the other 14 teams, they agreed that the ratio between the highest earner and the lowest earner’s payments would never exceed 1.8 to 1, a minor increase on the previous ratio of 1.6 to 1. The smaller clubs could tell themselves that the Premier League was still far more equitable than La Liga or Serie A. But as far as thebig six were concerned, they were finally on their way to righting a great injustice. In the interests of peace, the 20 clubs voted for it 18-2, and left Harrogate feeling relieved. But few gave much thought to the precedent they had just set. For the first time in 26 years, they had ratified a change to the Founder Members Agreement, the document that had governed the Premier League since its creation and provided the framework for its remarkable growth. It was as if they had taken a chisel to the Ten Commandments.
Scudamore didn’t think the league would need to revisit the issue any time soon, but he wasn’t about to stick around to find out. Within hours of the Premier League’s announcement about the new revenue-sharing model, it followed up with a notice that Scudamore would step down by the end of the year.
His battle to quell the big six was behind him. His UK television rights were sold – he had even brought Amazon into the fold by selling them the live streaming rights to a small package of games. And his international television rights were heading for another jackpot haul. It was time to punch out before the whole edifice started to wobble. “The stronger the Premier League is, the more successful the Premier League is, the more international rights go and generate, the more the TV deals go up, the less incentive there is for any of our clubs to go ‘Well, I’m going to leave the Premier League’,” Scudamore said. “The biggest antidote to chaos is a strong Premier League, for our clubs in England. And that’s the bottom line of it.”
But he knew all too well that those outside forces would keep chipping away at the Premier League’s raison d’être, that those 20 businesses had less and less in common with one another, and that they might soon wonder why they were in business together at all. Whether those outside forces were investors from the Gulf trying to reshape the game, or even Fifa and Uefa redesigning the formats of club football hardly mattered. It was now clear that the most serious existential threat to the Premier League, itself formed by a breakaway in 1992, was, improbably, another breakaway.
This is an edited extract from The Club: How the Premier League Became the Richest, Most Disruptive Business in Sport, by Jonathan Clegg & Joshua Robinson, published by Hodder & Stoughton and available at guardianbookshop.co.uk
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