Radical proposals, led by the owners of Liverpool and Manchester United, to transform the structure of English football have been criticised by the UK government as “backroom deals being cooked up that would create a closed shop at the very top of the game”.
Within hours of The Telegraph revealing on Sunday that detailed plans had been drawn up to reduce the size of the Premier League from 20 teams to 18, to abandon the League Cup and Community Shield and alter the governance of club football so that the so-called Big Six of Liverpool, United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal enhance their power to influence how income is shared and even veto ownership changes at competing clubs, there was widespread condemnation.
The government’s Ministry of Culture, Media and Sport issued a statement citing “the backroom deals” and a Football Supporters Association spokesman said: “Once again, it appears that big decisions are being stitched up by billionaire club owners who treat football as their personal fiefdom.”
Opponents of the proposals, set out in working documents under the title Project Big Picture, are however agreed there is an urgent need to reform English football, and strengthen the broad pyramid that links the three divisions of the English Football League, EFL, to the financially successful Premier League.
The proposals do directly address some fears that the EFL is being left behind, and have support from EFL chairman Rick Parry, who described them as “a new beginning which will revitalise the football pyramid at all levels”.
He welcomed the proposal that the Premier League, which earns more than any other domestic league from the sale of broadcast rights across the world, provides immediate rescue funds – £250m ($325m) – for EFL clubs put under huge financial pressure by the coronavirus crisis. Operation Big Picture also makes a commitment to distribute a net 25 per cent of future media income from the Premier League to the EFL.
There would, naturally, be a longer-term price for the EFL in terms of the upward-mobility of its clubs.
The Premier League would reduce in size by two clubs, 20 to 18, and although three EFL clubs per season could still be promoted, a play-off system is envisaged for one of the three annual promotion/relegation spots. Then, the Premier League's 16th-placed finisher will play against the teams finishing third, fourth and fifth in the 24-team Championship.
Leagues One and Two, the third and fourth tiers of the English game, would have 24 teams, meaning two clubs of the 92 currently in the Premier League and EFL structure would drop out.
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The chief concerns from within the current Premier League are that the Big Six are paving the way for involvement in a future European Super League, reducing their domestic fixture list to accommodate more games against major clubs from Germany, Spain and Italy.
There is alarm, too, at what one chief executive described as a power-grab by the six heavyweights of the Premier League.
That includes a proposed voting structure in which the current one-club, one-vote system would be replaced by a decision-making process that gave privileged voting power to the Big Six. And greater influence to another three of the remaining 12 clubs in the Premier League because of how long they had been in the division: Everton, Southampton and West Ham United would, currently, enjoy that special status.
The implications are clear: with a smaller number of clubs able to shape commercial decisions, the elite members could claim a greater share of income.
Opponents of Project Big Picture calculate some Premier League clubs could end up with four times as much money from broadcast rights per season as others. Under the current system, television income is divided on the basis that half of it is shared equally, and the other half distributed according to the success of clubs during a season. The top team’s income from broadcast revenues will not normally be more than 80 per cent higher than that of the bottom team.
That mechanism is often cited as a key to the Premier League’s global appeal: that it is competitive, top to bottom, that Aston Villa can beat Liverpool, as happened last weekend; or that Leicester City can win the title as they did in 2016.
A proposed veto by the Big Six over potential takeovers of clubs also looks like protectionism to sceptics of Project Big Picture. Leicester’s upstart title-win was made possible by investment from the King Power group, who took effective ownership in 2010.
The proposals are unlikely to be accepted wholesale. Changes to the Premier League’s governance must be approved by 14 of the 20 member clubs. The Football Association, which oversees all levels of the sport, also has a vote on major decisions. It is understood that Project Big Picture, as it stands, has little support from at least 10 Premier League clubs, or within the FA.