By Howard Hockin | 12 October 2020
Howard bemoans the appalling intentions of Project Big Picture.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article asking what had happened to the “beautiful game”, by which I naturally meant football. I would now like to apologise for what I wrote, as I got it completely wrong. I argued that law changes, particularly those relating to penalty decisions and the use of VAR, were destroying the sport I love. Now I realise that was merely a distraction. Because true destruction will come off the pitch, not on it, as has become patently clear over the past few days.

The following diatribe can be traced back to the end of last week. The day after Manchester City once won the Premier League (I forget which one), I was invited on to the Irish journalist Ken Early’s Second Captains Podcast. Naturally I was buoyant, euphoric almost, despite a seismic hangover. Within minutes I was having to defend the human rights record of my club’s owner(s). I wasn’t expecting this. Ah well, his show, and he’s not looking at things from the same angle as me that day. After all, there are a gaggle of Irish journalists whose high moral bar calls them to have special disdain for Manchester City football club, compared to (some) English journalists. I mentioned during our chat how well-run the club was, and Ken suggested that was it not easier to run a club well when you have near-unlimited wealth? It was a fair point, and one I have returned to when my club does things that seem to contradict the image of intelligent, savvy businessmen at the helm of the steadiest of ships. Things like putting my season ticket up by £10, an irritation with little gain. Which brings us to last week, and the collective decision to charge £14.95 to watch live games not already covered by the likes of Sky or BT Sport. Apart from the fact that most fans will clearly not pay that, and resort to illegal streams instead, such a decision hints at the possibility that wealth does not bring with it a savviness or innate understanding of your market. Because for me the stand-out stupidity in pricing at that level is that I can guarantee it loses clubs money. I can say with confidence that if priced at £5 (sorry, £4.99), many of us would pay to watch our team. Hey, I may even pay for the odd big game not involving my team. And so they would sell way more than three times the tickets they will sell at £14.95. It would be in their financial interest to lower prices. But then that would require an ounce of common sense.

But even that announcement was merely an appetiser for what was to come. Because it now has become apparent that two mortal enemies have laid down their guns, marched into No Man’s Land, and spent years drawing up a plan – Project Big Picture. You’ve always got to have a sassy name for these plans. A plan they can now accelerate with a global pandemic conveniently offering them the perfect time to strike. This is brazen opportunism, striking while the iron is hot. By dangling the juiciest of honey-glazed carrots in front of a financially-strapped, ailing EFL and its 72 clubs, the lure is obvious. Salvation, with few short-term strings attached.

And to be honest, if you’re the chairman of a struggling EFL club, why wouldn’t you accept such an offer? It offers salvation and could perhaps prevent the winding down of clubs that have existed since Victorian times. What’s not to like? The petty squabbles, protectionism and power struggles of Premier League teams are of no concern to you. You’ll never see your team in that league, and right now survival is the only consideration. But if you do have aspirations to reach the top, the proposals present quite the dilemma. Some Championship clubs will object to the loss of parachute payments, and salary caps will not please all.

Let’s not pretend for one minute this plan is a force for good though. Of course the plan has to have positive aspects to it. It would not get off the ground (and hopefully won’t anyway) without enticing clubs in. It is staggeringly transparent, but also quite clever. It offers a lot, but at little cost to those offering inducements. Its positive aspects include the drip down of money in greater amounts to lower league clubs, financial support for club renovations, funds for the FA, ridding the EFL of the imbalance caused by parachute payments. £250m in immediate relief, and £100m to the FA that includes assistance for the women’s game and grassroots football. 25% of Premier League revenues trickles down instead of 8%. Away tickets will be capped at £20, should we ever be allowed back into grounds. As ever though, home supporters are not permitted such generosity.

There are aspects that are harder to judge. A reduction to 18 teams in the Premier League could be seen as a positive, reducing the brutal schedule that successful teams in England must adhere to. However, in Europe’s big leagues, only the Bundesliga currently has 18 teams in its top division. And then you read between the lines, and with the proposed axing of the Carabao Cup and the Community Shield, you begin to suspect the real motives for such moves. By removing these games, you open up dates in the calendar that can be utilised for other games instead. Much more lucrative games. After all, what possible reason could there be for the removal of the glorified friendly that is the Community Shield unless there were plans to plug that gap with a money-spinning game or two? And it’s easy to knock two extra teams out of the Premier League when you know those teams will not be you, as Liverpool and United can say with great confidence. Though then again, Ole is at the wheel.

So let’s call it for what it is – a power grab, dressed up as something else, perhaps sheep’s clothing. Premier League clubs are not compelled to help out lower league teams, and this is not what they are doing out of pure benevolence. I suggested recently on a podcast that Ferran Sorriano’s idea for B teams would come with a caveat. That its introduction would come with inducements, a bribe almost, to persuade the EFL and its members that it was worth their while. Perhaps he saw opportunities as clubs went to the wall, gaps in the league structure he and others would be all too willing to fill. And so that is what is happening with this latest big idea. Liverpool and United are not offering this plan because they feel obliged to help those less fortunate than themselves. They are offering a bribe to get what they have wanted for a while. They are offering it because it benefits them, now and in the long-term. It consolidates power and shuts out competition. It is pure politics, little different to the Conservatives changing boundary lines. Because as you may know by now, there is one section of the plan that stands out above all others, that is quite chilling in its implications, in what it could mean for the English game. The nine “long-term stakeholders” would effectively run the league. They can veto prospective new owners (I wonder why they would do that, eh?), legislate on broadcasting revenue and even competition rules. They will insist on a closer alignment to UEFA’s FFP rules (again, the reasoning as to what Liverpool and United are trying to prevent should be obvious) and more. Owners not surprisingly see their clubs as businesses, yet think it perfectly acceptable to have power over how other businesses are run. Such changes would require a two-thirds majority, so anything that the “Big Six” agree no means the remaining three teams are irrelevant anyway. They become powerless on issues the other six agree on. I mean, why nine teams anyway? Why not eight, or ten? Why choose on time-served? It’s almost as if rules have been made up to benefit those that made them up. It’s nonsense, a fabricated figure that conveniently allows the biggest teams to get changes through without unanimous agreement. A plan that quite simply intends to concentrate the power and decision-making in the hands of a few clubs, shutting else everyone else for good. Killing competition, the unpredictability of sport, the level playing field. But then, maybe all these things were lost years ago anyway, until the pandemic arrived.

This is not the first time that “historic” clubs have tried this. Such clubs have been trying in recent years to alter the UEFA coefficients to favour historically successful clubs, not those doing well right now. Some have even suggested automatic qualification to the Champions League for such teams. The ultimate goal is that the status quo is protected, and that on-field success does not hinder their perceived right to compete at the highest level. It shows utter disdain for the ethos of sport, and its purpose. Integrity is clearly not that important all the time. This is all Financial Fair play was and is. By ignoring debt, it was pulling up the draw bridge to keep out any cocky upstarts, or new money. And the ultimate goal is not just the protection of the status quo, but a European Super League. And that is when I call it a day. And few in power will care, because this is about the “product” and the “brand” and sponsorship deals, not the support and footfall of “traditional” fans like me. We won’t be missed in this brave, shit new world. Oh, and for the record, all clubs are historic, should it need making clear. Many glory-hunting meme-factory box-room residents struggle to distinguish between history and success. Notts County have a longer history than Manchester United. They just haven’t won as many trophies. Manchester United have no greater right to run the game because they used to be good.

There should be little surprise that Rick Parry’s grubby mitts are all over this. Fancy him pushing a scheme that benefits his beloved Liverpool over other teams for the long-term. A man who was key in the set-up of the Premier League, who is supposed to work tirelessly for the interests of the little guys, not his old masters. This is simply history repeating itself. What’s more, as the government and the Premier League continue to discuss a bailout package for EFL clubs, harshly criticising Parry’s plans, it should be made clear that Parry will have known about Project Big Picture for a long time. And as he clearly supports it, how many alternative solutions has he batted away in the meantime? He has appeared less than lukewarm to Premier League assistance in the past, and perhaps now the reasons have become clear.

For United and Liverpool, the benefits should be blindingly obvious. United have won nothing in three years and have not even finished above City in the league for seven years. This cannot be allowed to continue. Even after the Glazers have leeched their millions out of the club each year, they are a cash cow. But that cash has proved repeatedly impotent in returning them to the top of the tree. They are not the big dog anymore, merely the playground bully who eventually received a bloody nose and retreated to the shadows. They still talk the talk from those shadows, but few pay much attention. This is the time to protect what they had, what they still have, before it is lost for good. Liverpool are doing much better right now of course, but they are not awash with cash. After all, lest we forget, they tried to furlough staff just a few months ago, and even tried to patent the use of the word Liverpool for commercial reasons. Fenway Sports are in talks for a merger and a stock listing. Now would be a good time to consolidate power from a position of strength. These plans keep them in control, but also leads to the possibility of a greater share of broadcasting revenues that they no doubt feel they are entitled to.

This is not some anti-Liverpool/United diatribe. City’s chiefs may not have come up with this idea, but I am not expecting much opposition to it. And if they had, my opinion would not alter one iota. Like other owners, power, money and profit is the name of the game for Sheikh Mansour. He is no philanthropist. Do we think he will come out publicly to oppose such plans? They favour City, so I doubt it. And as he had no input in their creation, criticism is largely avoided by quietly accepting the terms. It’s a win/win for the remaining four clubs of the Big Six. It should not surprise you that this was all concocted by American owners, whose domestic sports are run somewhat differently to football in the UK. But remember, it’s those nasty “Arab” owners you need to keep your eyes on. There is an opportunity for City here though. Having been the bad guys for over a decade, even when other clubs and their players crossed multiple lines, should the plan be perceived as doomed, City should come out and oppose it. The logic should be obvious, and for a club obsessed with positive PR, it is an empty goal. Perhaps in the meantime we will hear nothing from them as we all wait to see how this plays out. In a fair world, they would oppose it anyway, having fought the cartel for many years, to align with then when it suits stinks. But I see no reason why any of the other clubs would vote for such a plan that leaves them on the outside for good, and 14 votes are needed for it to pass.

But ultimately, does it all matter? Eventually none of us will have jobs anyway. Robots will see to our every needs. We will exist on powdered food paid for by furloughed wages, as we watch football in empty stadia, noise pumped in, pictures beamed directly to our retinas. To watch all games will require 17 separate subscriptions. After the new Covid virus of 2025, crowds are abandoned forever. The beaten masses lack the energy nor funds to protest. And now that the Premier League brand does not require full stadiums, there is no turning back. They have us where they want us. Clubs release a new kit every week. City’s latest release commemorates the club’s Joan Gamper trophy triumph over Barcelona in 2009. It is at this moment that the 13 American chairmen of Premier League clubs announce a new directive – Project Super League, sponsored by Gazprom and Trumanns For Steel. This was the bigger picture that John Henry and the Glazers had in mind when they first sat down together, seven years previous. The project has fully come to fruition. A few billionaires will be even richer, the same two or three teams will compete for titles for decades and decades but most importantly, the money will continue to pile in.

Now don’t get me wrong, I for one welcome our new robot overlords. But European Super Leagues, a TV product and a protection of the rich and powerful? I’ll watch something else, thanks. But while it may not feel like it now, the pandemic will pass, one day. The current situation cannot be used to change football forever, for the benefit of a few. And yet sometimes, it somehow feels inevitable.
But hey, we had a good run, didn’t we? Good times, and good memories. It could never last.
Anyone for tennis?