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Project Big Picture: A sugar-coated cyanide pill

Football is in crisis, many clubs desperately need financial support to help them survive, and the game’s wealth has to be shared more fairly – but the ‘Project Big Picture’ plans are not the answer and they would be an absolute disaster for our game.

The insatiable greed of a small handful of billionaire owners cannot be allowed to determine the structure of football in this country. 

Their desire to stitch things up behind closed doors, without even speaking to their fellow clubs, let alone fans, makes crystal clear the urgent need for the Government’s promised fan-led review of football governance.

We are not defending the status quo but ‘Project Big Picture’ is not the answer.

Supporters are open to new ideas to improve football’s governance but we don’t remember any fans making the argument that what football really needs, is for more money and power to be handed to the billionaire owners of our biggest clubs. That trend is already built into the system, and we need to stop it, not accelerate it further.

Within the proposals there are individual ideas which many fans would back – but in this form it is impossible to disentangle them from outcomes which would be a disaster for the game. 

Premier League impact

The Premier League would be reduced in size from 20 teams to 18 and more money would be directed towards the most successful teams, who in turn would hoover up even more of the best players, reducing competition throughout the entire league. 

League rules would be controlled by as few as six clubs who would gobble up a bigger share of the pie than they already do while abolishing the League Cup and Community Shield. 

The ruling clubs would be Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Southampton, Tottenham Hotspur, and West Ham, as determined by their length of service in the Premier League. Media reports suggest the plans are being driven by the owners at Liverpool and Manchester United. 

A vote by two-thirds of those clubs would dictate the rules for the rest, meaning half of the top-flight’s clubs would compete in a league which they had no say in running.

The named clubs would also control the “distribution rights of the sponsorship, commercial and broadcasting rights sold” and would be allowed to “alter in a material way the nature of the competition” which opens the door again to Game 39 or even madder schemes.

As six clubs can set the rules, who could stop them ending relegation from the Premier League and creating a franchise system like they have in US sports? No one. Who could stop them from rewriting the rules in a few years so that the top six keep all the media money? No one. Who could stop them cutting funding entirely to the EFL or grassroots football? No one. 

Supporters cannot let the greed of a few billionaire owners destroy our league system.

And what about the EFL?

For EFL clubs the impact could be even more drastic. While Project Big Picture dangles an alleged £250m “rescue fund” in front of clubs to cover lost revenues during the 2019-20 season they might actually be a sugar coated cyanide pill.

Apparently “money will be advanced to the EFL from increased future revenues”. Is there a guarantee that the money will even materialise? The entire package is based on projected revenues which are, in turn, based on the current media deal. Where is the guarantee that will happen? 

Under the proposals top-flight clubs retain eight games per season which they can sell directly via their own platforms, rather than broadcasting in the traditional manner. Would broadcasters pay more money for fewer games? It seems unlikely. Especially if the clubs chose to keep the rights for the games which are deemed most attractive to a global audience.

EFL clubs would also lose all League Cup revenue as that competition will be nuked, which in turn will see their own media revenues collapse, as broadcasters will not pay nearly as much for EFL rights, if the League Cup is no longer part of the package. Although maybe that wouldn’t matter as “the EFL irrevocably grants its broadcast rights to the EPL”!

Since six billionaire club owners can change the rules of the game at any time they like, and would control almost all of the revenue, there is no guarantee that they won’t pull up the drawbridge and cut funding entirely to the EFL, as it signed its own death warrant. 

The billionaire owners have created a set of rules they can change at any time. It’s a one way street and there is no way back for domestic football once that power is handed over.

The FSA

We wouldn’t reject all the ideas – a £20 away cap on top-flight tickets and subsidised travel, guaranteed away allocations, and safe standing areas are all things we back – but the reality is that the overall package is not acceptable to supporters. 

A rescue package for EFL and National League clubs is needed alongside better distribution of football’s wealth across the game to close the gap between the Premier League and the rest of the pyramid.

As an organisation we’re more than happy to consider changes to football’s structure but the place for that is the Government’s proposed fan-led review and it has to include all interested parties – fans, clubs, leagues, players, match officials, the FA, and so on. 

It is not acceptable for billionaire club owners to hatch a plan in secret and then try and use the fallout from a global pandemic to buy compliance from financially crippled clubs.

We will be making that case in the strongest possible terms to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and all the football authorities, including the FA Council which meets on Thursday.

The Premier League and Government have to step up and deliver an alternative financial package urgently for the EFL and National League. It should cover lost gate receipts and matchday income. And urgently means details in hours, not days or weeks. Days or weeks means clubs going bust. Days or weeks means EFL clubs being tempted by the sugar-coated cyanide pill offered up by billionaire owners who do not understand or care about our football culture. 

It’s now or never.

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