When the English Premier League announced last week that it will be sharing about a fifth of its new $7.1 billion domestic TV deals with the little people, chief executive Richard Scudamore blew his own trumpet like he was in the brass section of the London Symphony Orchestra.
“This is unprecedented in world sport. You can’t find me another sport that is committed to this level of sharing,” Scudamore told reporters, according to the Guardian. “It’s sharing in the success of English football. And this, in my view, is the right thing to do.”
No, it’s impossible to find another sport that so generously and equitably distributes wealth from haves to haves-less to haves-not… except for English soccer in the pre-Premier League era, that is.
Before the EPL, and before live televised matches, each of the 92 clubs in the Football League received an equal share of broadcast revenue. Torquay got the same handout as Tottenham. Then, in the mid-Eighties, with television becoming more influential, the system changed so top-division clubs got 50%, second-tier teams 25%, and the bottom two divisions collected 12.5% each.
Until 1983, road teams even got 20% of the proceeds from attendances at league matches. So if you were a small team playing away to Arsenal, this was a nice bonus. There was another revenue-sharing agreement that saw a small percentage of the gate money go into a pool that was redistributed evenly among the 92 Football League clubs.
In fact, things were so equal that the top clubs became pissed, agitating for a bigger slice of the (steak-and-kidney) pie and ultimately breaking away to form the EPL.
In other words, the EPL was born with inequality in its heart and pound coins pumping through its veins because big clubs felt English soccer was too socialist and wanted to set their capitalist instincts free. Big clubs wanted to make more money by cutting down on the handouts to those less fortunate than themselves. It’s pretty much sports as imagined by the Republican Party.
No more food stamps for Rochdale. If they want a better life they should work harder and be smarter, and then rewards will come naturally. Even though we’ve created a system so unequal that it’s all but impossible for small-town teams to reach the top of the pyramid, unless they are controlled by a benefactor who is already ridiculously rich.
This mentality helps explain why, even as they pay top players in excess of $250,000 a week, only one EPL club – Chelsea – has so far committed to paying its workers the “living wage,” which in London is about $13.50 an hour. The other English clubs to do this: League Two’s Luton Town and FC United of Manchester of the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League.
The current EPL rights deals, including overseas income, are worth in excess of $2 billion per season. About 15% of that goes to lower-league clubs, but most of it in the form of “parachute payments” to teams just relegated from the EPL, a sort of compensation sum to help them cope with the vast financial gulf between the top two divisions. The parachute in itself creates a big disparity between recipients and the rest of the teams in the Championship, causing an inequality ripple effect. Other Championship sides get $3.4 million each: pretty much the average wage of an EPL player. Clubs in the bottom two divisions receive less than $500,000 each per year.
Since the Premier League’s inception in 1992, the rate of broadcast income distributed to the lower leagues has effectively sunk from 50% to less than 7%. The likes of Tottenham now earn over 200 times more than the likes of Torquay from TV money. Scudamore’s not exactly the Robin Hood of English soccer.
(Whatever happened to Nottingham Forest, anyway? Oh yeah, used to be European champions and regularly one of the better teams in the old first division, but their limited resources saw them slip out of the EPL in 1999 and struggle thereafter.)
But percentages don’t always tell the whole truth. The EPL’s growth has prompted an explosion in the value of TV rights compared to the olden days, so while the proportions shared are lower, the amounts are vastly greater. The Football League clubs have their own, separate deal with Sky Sports. And it’s possible to make the argument, as Scudamore would, that the success of the EPL has a trickle-down effect, making English soccer at all levels more attractive. It’s the claim MLS likes to make when talking about the popularity of foreign leagues in the U.S.: a rising tide lifts all boats.
Scudamore’s claim that sharing is “the right thing to do” underlines that the sense still lingers that soccer is not a normal business, that it’s impelled by moral, ethical and communal considerations as well as rapacious capitalism. Or at least, that it’s important for PR purposes to give the impression that it is, to head off brand-tarnishing fan criticism and possibly even pressure from the government to be more generous.
Yet though it doles out “solidarity” payments, does the EPL really owe the rest of English soccer anything? Today, it and the lower leagues have scant common ground and limited interactions. Investing in the grassroots to improve the quality of home-grown talent? The Premier League has flourished in spite of the England national team’s decline. Its teams hardly ever sign lower league players, or employ managers from the lower rungs of the ladder. For the top clubs, outside of the occasional meeting in cup competitions, small teams may as well not exist.
Manchester United now have much more in common with Real Madrid than Oldham, a third-tier side twelve miles from Old Trafford. They’re a privately-owned company listed on Wall Street whose main obligation is to provide good returns to their shareholders, not to build a couple of turf fields in Manchester so the local underprivileged kids can have a scrimmage whatever the weather.
So the EPL’s newfound generosity – whatever form it ultimately takes, and presumably much of the headline sum will be eaten by those problematic parachute payments – is essentially not an investment, but charity. And if we’re going to paint the EPL as a self-interested multinational corporate behemoth whose primary interest is in making its members richer, then maybe we should also judge its corporate social responsibility approach by those standards. We should compare it to Exxon Mobil, not Exeter City FC.
According to a Slate article from 2013, while U.S. corporate donations have increased hugely over the past 30 years, “giving as a percentage of profits – the best measure of relative generosity – has fallen far down,” to about 0.8% of pretax profits in 2012.
By this measure, even if the EPL gives, let’s say, 10% of its income away, it’s still a generous philanthropist. And we’re not talking about 10% of its pretax profits, because most clubs are so irresponsible with their windfalls that most of the time they don’t make money.
Setting its hype aside, the league’s offering may not be much when viewed as a proportion of the overall amount of cash swilling around the sport and the kinds of sums lavished on player transfers and wages at the elite level. It is certainly a far more modest percentage than it used to be. Without knowing the extent of the EPL’s future income from overseas broadcast deals, and other revenue streams, it’s hard to say whether the touted figure of one billion pounds will be an improvement on the current proportion of revenue distribution.
But it could be worse, much worse. Carry on with the trumpet, Rich.