EPL's new TV deal has some fearing for future of game

Alam Khan - Reporter 07:25 16/02/2015
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  • Winner or loser? Sky Sports' new English Premier League deal could see subscribers pay more to enjoy domestic action.

    Obscene, crazy, eye-watering and staggering. The plethora of verdicts and opinions have been many on the announcement of the Premier League domestic television rights deal for the 2016-19 seasons.

    At £5.136 billion (Dh29bn) – a 70.2 per cent increase on the current agreement of £3.018bn (Dh17.06bn) – the sums were simply stunning.

    Sky has paid £4.176bn (£23.6bn) for five of the seven packages on offer – 126 of 168 available live games at a cost of £11.07m (Dh62.5m) per game – while rival BT Sport bought the remaining two for £960m (Dh5.42bn).

    It may have been a blind auction, but Sky went in with its eyes very much open to secure its objectives. With BT having snatched the Champions League rights from next season until 2018, it could not afford to lose its prized product.

    Richard Keys, who fronted the pay-TV broadcaster’s football coverage when the Premier League was launched in 1992 and is now at Qatar-owned BeIN Sports, believes Sky overpaid.

    “I’m staggered by the amounts of money being paid for this deal,” he said. “BT would appear to have got more value for money. It looks as though Sky panicked. Most experts reckon it has overpaid by some £300m (Dh1.69bn). Subscribers can expect some hefty increases in their monthly fees. And, of course, subscribers are fans who ultimately end up paying for everything.”

    Sky has said it will soak up the costs in other areas, but such a major investment appears a massive gamble in a climate where football fans are struggling financially to afford subscriptions as well as tickets for live games.

    “Sky really did break the bank to land what it has,” says Ben Rumsby, sports news correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.

    “It can afford this, just. For Sky, if this is so important as a business it trumps everything else, then what it has spent can be justified.

    “But when you look at the fact it faced no serious opposition this time and could have got it for a helluva lot cheaper than they did, then yes it is an obscene amount of money and they have overpaid. But that’s the beauty and deviousness of the Premier League auction. It makes fools out of everyone except the Premier League and its clubs.”

    Chris Kamara, though, believes this was a statement of intent from Sky. The former footballer, a regular on the sports channel since 1999, said: “Sky Sports, as long as the Premier League has been around, has had the rights. So to lose it would be catastrophic.

    “It was never a thought it would lose out, but when there is competition and BT coming in and buying the Champions League then you have got to worry. This has sent out a message that Sky is serious.”

    The deal has emphasised just how much the Premier League has become a valuable commodity.

    Sky Sports will be showing 126 of the 168 live English Premier League matches.

    With overseas TV rights also expected to top £8bn (Dh45.2bn) later this year, the EPL is the richest domestic league in football, and the second richest in the world behind the NFL.

    Chief executive Richard Scudamore says “competitive and compelling football” has helped attract more viewers and made the league a British institution in the same vein as the Royal Family.

    But where clubs will benefit from the riches – the 2016/17 champions could get more than £150m (Dh847m) and the bottom club £99m (Dh559.6m) – and, inevitably, help them meet the requirements of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, Scudamore has endured criticism over how the deal could damage English football in the long-term.

    The biggest concern is about clubs spending the windfall too lavishly, and wastefully, in desperate attempts to stay, or get into the top flight, and higher wages for players while low-paid stadium staff are not even being paid the living wage.

    Vociferous calls have been made too for more of the cash distributed to support grassroots football and reduce ticket prices.

    Scudamore said it was not “set up for charitable purposes”, and former UK Government Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe says the onus is on the Football Association to ensure the league and clubs act. “That’s part of the problem, the power the Premier League holds over the FA,” he said. “And the FA, as the governing body, is not strong enough to be policing what the Premier League does – and that needs to change.

    “I’m not a critic of the Premier League, it’s a good product. But the money needs to be negotiated in a better way so it can get down to the grassroots, to junior football, to help the development of grounds and development of coaching.

    Pressure, he adds, could also come from Sky, BT and the PFA, “to make sure it’s very clear and very structured that this money will go down to the grassroots of the game”.

    That was something Sutcliffe, along with former Culture Minister Andy Burnham, tried to drive through Government legislation.

    Beneficiaries should essentially also include the fans as Malcolm Clarke, chairman of the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF), said: “Without us there wouldn’t be a television product to generate all this income. In the past we have been the one group to miss out on this. We almost feel like extras on a film set but they get paid. Perhaps now they have enough money to pay us to go matches!

    “The Premier League keeps saying we fill the ground, and there’s some truth in that, but there’s strong evidence the numbers include less from low income and middle incomes and are getting older. It’s almost becoming a middle-class activity which is not good for the game.”

    The FSF has around 500,000 members, individuals or through affiliated supporters’ clubs, and Clarke says they also advocate more money being filtered down to the grassroots, and from the EPL to the Football League and Confer-ence clubs, but not on inflated transfer fees or wages.

    “We would all like to see the best players at our clubs but if you talk to most fans now, they will say but that’s got to be balanced,” he adds.

    “We don’t want to see the best players at any price, with the rest of the game being destroyed, the football pyramid – from the Premier League to the lower leagues – being weakened and fans still not getting any benefit through ticket prices.

    The English Premier League is the biggest football league in the world.

    “Until we can get the FA to be a much firmer governing body, all we can do is keep shining the light of publicity on this. The truth is every time there’s a new deal, we’ve thought the bubble might burst. But far from bursting it gets even bigger.

    “I think there could be a back-lash given the sheer scale of this. If the Premier League is not seen to do significantly more, then people will simply say ‘sod this’. It’s about us putting enough pressure on owners to make changes. Hopefully the more enlightened leaders will listen and try to influence the rest.” Rumsby believes this could be “a footballing utopia” in England if the money is used properly.

    “Everybody could be a winner. But history tells us that greed tends to win out.”

    Compromise is clearly key if history is to be changed, but Kamara also thinks this deal could be surpassed.

    “When there’s competition and you have to stay one step ahead of the opposition, then yes,” he adds.

    “I don’t think anyone could have envisaged what has happened since 1992. When it changed from the old First Division to the Premier League, the old-school were saying it will never work, it will never take off. But within one season every-one’s opinions had changed.

    “Football is getting bigger and better. We have got a great product, some of the best footballers in the world – and that comes at a price.”