It’s no revelation that football has become a money-oriented machine since the Premier League’s inception back in 1992. This priority shift has seeped through from the top to the very bottom of the pool, helping create a wider gap between the elite and grassroots teams. This divide is only expected to further increase, particularly following news that dropped on Friday 22 September.
Reports surfaced surrounding Ed Woodward, vice-chairman of Manchester United, who predicted that Facebook and Amazon could well be in contention to acquire the Premier League TV rights when the deal is renegotiated later this year. Woodward said: “Absolutely I think they will enter the mix and we would welcome their interest”.
As well as this supposed interest in the Premier League TV rights, interest has been sparked for a similar negotiation with European competitions for the distribution of these matches including the Champions League and Europa League.
This follows several happenings over the last couple of months where Facebook submitted a £445m failed bid for digital rights to the Indian Premier League. Despite this rejection, they did, however, successfully broker a 22-match deal with the Major League Soccer for live streaming acquisition of the 2017 regular season campaign.
Amazon have also entered the fray after paying £37m to live stream the 10 Thursday night NFL games this season. Digital coverage is becoming increasingly popular and this also follows recent news that the Football League have granted major broadcast partner Sky along with all participating clubs the permission to live stream any midweek match.
Woodward, in turn, acknowledged the growing importance of establishing a digital engagement with fans which certainly alludes to the direction that the sport is heading towards. The rise of Premier League TV income from 1992-1997 to 2016-2019 has seen revenue increase exponentially from £191m to a whopping £5.136bn, serving as further proof to the catastrophic shift that’s been endured.
It’s also expected that Sky will have to pay a premium of 45 per cent on the £4.2bn they paid last time around – which equates to a further £1.8bn – in order to fend off competition. So, what does this mean for grassroots football?
The severe lack of investment and support from football’s elite to grassroots football is plain to see. This change will butcher grassroots further along with affecting Premier League clubs and the sport as a whole. For many, it depends where you rank to determine whether this inflation is a positive or negative, but it’s almost completely unanimous that grassroots will suffer drastically whatever your allegiance.
This summer has seen the two most expensive transfer signings in history completed. Neymar and Ousmane Dembele moved to new clubs for fees of £194m and £92.6m respectively. Manchester United were also revealed to have surpassed their £250m wage barrier, showing salaries had risen from £232m to £265m in the annual year.
But while many fear spending will grow to unimaginable levels, Ed Woodward firmly believes this to be untrue. In fact, he stated that there is a willingness amongst clubs, as well as the authorities of the game, to enforce Financial Fair Play regulations in a bid to avoid this seemingly inevitable consequence. The current leniency towards these rules is unfairly disadvantaging teams while extenuating and ultimately rewarding others for the governing body’s negligence and the clubs’ ignorance. This abuse of power is likely to continue whether ideals are supposedly on the verge of implementation or not.
With these increases, there has been a consistent neglect from the Premier League to backing grassroots football. The inclusivity and the accessibility of grassroots has always been its appeal but without the money behind the campaigns, it’s bordering on impossible for clubs to stay afloat. This is in addition to the already staggering number of clubs that have either downsized or folded over recent years at this level.
Following on from this, even the Premier League is feeling the heat in certain capacities. A restructuring was imposed by Huddersfield Town on their academy system which has seen them move from a category 2 to a category 4 in the Elite Player Performance Plan. Only the U18 and U23s teams remain outside of the senior squad with the rest being dissolved, effective immediately.
Already, Manchester United are raiding some of the top talent being dispersed out into the abyss, courtesy of their Premier League companions. And worse yet, this shameful act is being sold as a helpless attempt to forge the club as a stand-out option for the finest youngsters in the country. When in reality, the club have scaled back their investment in relation to youth development and have pitifully disguised this act as best as they possibly could. What’s more frightening is the inadvertent precedent that Huddersfield have set in motion for the sport.
The rapid decline of grassroots is in direct correlation with the inflation of today’s market. Local governments’ expenditure has been cut dramatically which has forced them to secure funding through selling pitches to private administrators who are only looking to exploit this demand for their own personal gain. For the ones who don’t succumb to this pressure, it has somehow resulted in the same pitches previously used becoming more expensive to hire and the conditions of these pitches getting progressively worse.
Back in 2012, it was believed or at least pitched to the public that the Olympic Park would reinvigorate life back into the sport and more notably, at developmental levels. However, 5 years on, this could not be further from the case. Without reform and major investment from the pantheon of football, it’s unlikely that the rot will stop anytime soon, if ever.
Although, a petition to impose a 5% levy on the Premier League’s broadcasting rights back into grassroots football has recently been launched. The government has been called on by campaign creator Kenny Saunders of Save Grassroots Football to introduce the tax percentage and reinvest the resulting money into grassroots from the £8.3bn combined revenue and international deal that the Premier League currently upholds.
As of writing this, the petition has received 3,024 signatures since its activation on September 13. In order for the government to be legally obligated to respond, the figure would need to reach 10,000. A further 90,000 would then be required for the petition to be considered for debate in Parliament. The campaign is active for six months and will conclude on 13 March 2018.
It’s difficult to place where football and grassroots football might be at that stage but it’s fairly reasonable to conclude that should the media giants get their hands on the Premier League for astronomical fees, the direction and dynamic of the game will irreversibly change.