How will new Premier League chief executive Richard Masters reshape football?

The 53-year-old Aston Villa fan discussed racism, regulation, and refereeing decisions at a recent media briefing.

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Richard Masters was formally appointed as the Premier League’s new chief executive last December, succeeding Richard Scudamore after a prolonged and frustrating recruitment process. The 53-year-old Aston Villa fan joined the Premier League under Scudamore in 2006 as director of sales and marketing. He had previously been the Football League’s commercial director and marketing manager of the England and Wales Cricket Board.

Masters was the Premier League’s managing director from July 2015 before taking on the top job on an interim basis when Scudamore retired in November 2018. That move was made permanent after the Premier League failed to appoint four other candidates, including two who accepted the role but never started work.

In December 2018, Susanna Dinnage, the global president of Animal Planet, part of the Discovery group of channels, accepted the job but later withdrew in what was thought to have simply been a change of heart. The following month, Tim Davie, the chief executive of the BBC’s commercial division, rejected the Premier League’s approach outright.

Another candidate, Dave Howe, a BBC veteran of 15 years turned NBC Universal grandee, and the son of former England international footballer Don Howe, was reportedly close to being appointed last May. But, according to the New York Times, the offer was rescinded after he failed to impress during a private meeting with representatives of Manchester United and Liverpool.

Executives from both clubs – which are two of the Premier League’s most high-profile – deny this, claiming they were not aware they had a say in the declining of a candidate. As yet there has not been an explanation as to why these clubs were given the opportunity to meet prospective candidates, but addressing the division’s imbalances – that is to say the power and influence of the so-called “Big Six” versus the “Other 14” – represents one of the major items in Masters’s in-tray.  

In November last year, David Pemsel, the former chief executive of the Guardian, accepted the position but stepped down before he had even started following allegations in the Sun over inappropriate text messages sent to a female colleague.

Masters, however, who attended the independent Solihull School and read economics and geography at University College London, does not carry himself like a man who was the fifth choice for the job. At his first media briefing since becoming permanent chief executive, he talked to journalists at the Premier League’s head office in Paddington last week, with a confidence that emanated from having been in post for over a year. 

Masters, who was for many years, by his own admission, a “fairly average goalkeeper”, still dabbles in five-a-side and coaches both of his young sons’ football teams. He spoke at length about football’s role in promoting “social good”, and emphasised that “tackling the discrimination that has blighted our game” would be one of his top priorities.

While the Premier League does not face the same charge sheet as some other football competitions in Europe, such as Italy’s Serie A, the Home Office has confirmed the number of racist incidents taking place at football matches was up 50 per cent last season, compared to the year before. Masters said he wanted to use football’s popularity to give “amplification” to positive social causes, including anti-discrimination campaigns, and raise awareness around mental health. “Football should be something that fosters social inclusion, not division.”

Though firm on the fight against racism, Masters was less robust on the subject of gambling. He highlighted that the Premier League itself had “never had a betting relationship”, and that it was member clubs who made decisions about these and any related sponsorship deals.

The new chief executive said he took the regulatory role of the league seriously, but did not believe in intervention for its own sake. Masters noted that sport and gambling have a “long association” and acknowledged that half of the 20 Premier League clubs have a bookmaker as their main shirt sponsor. But he maintained that the league was “not sniffy” or “judgmental” about the gambling industry, and would trust its member clubs to act responsibly.

Masters said the Premier League would be “welcome participants” in any government discussion around future gambling regulation, but did not see the need for blanket bans. “I think this area does need stronger governance, particularly to protect the vulnerable. I don’t think the answer coming out at the end of it should be that football clubs shouldn’t have shirts sponsored by gambling companies… We will certainly cooperate with any review.”

Masters appeared to outline a similarly non-interventionist approach in the case of club ownership. Pressed on whether sustained protests and controversies at teams such as Manchester United and Newcastle United, both of which have highly unpopular owners (the Glazer family and Mike Ashley respectively), were damaging the Premier League brand, he said it wasn’t the league’s place to “get involved”.

Masters admitted that in the instance of Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward’s Cheshire home being vandalised by angry supporters, that a “line had been crossed”. But he pointed out that there are “formal avenues” for protests, and saw them as part of the “nature of football”. He added: “You have to earn your points and earn your stripes. I know it’s frustrating. Every group of supporters has their own issues to take up, and I don’t think it [the running of individual clubs] is something for the Premier League to intervene in.”

Responding to recent reports in the Wall Street Journal that Newcastle United was in line to be taken over by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Masters adopted a strict stance of “no comment”. He refused to be drawn on “hypotheticals”, but expressed faith in the thoroughness of the owners and directors test that the Premier League has in place to dismiss unsuitable buyers. Masters would not give details on the “supremely confidential” process that the league undertook when assessing bids for member clubs, but claimed that it involved “an enormous amount of due diligence”, as well as “extensive background checks”. Given the well-publicised human rights scandals attached to Saudi Arabia, however, one might question how extensive those checks really need to be.

Masters, meanwhile, confirmed that VAR – the video assistant referee technology introduced this season – is “here to stay” but accepted there was room for improvement. VAR has come under fire from the press, players, coaches and fans this term, both for its disruptions to match flow and for its to-the-inch analysis of tight offside calls.

Several potentially important goals at both ends of the Premier League table have been ruled out, and a recent YouGov poll found that 67 per cent of supporters believed VAR’s arrival had made football less fun. Masters said: “I think offsides is one [area that could be tweaked] and whether you want offsides that are precise to the armpit or the heel, or whether you want to build in a bit of tolerance.”

Richard Masters has now been with the Premier League for 14 years and knows its intricacies. While he was not the first choice for the role of chief executive, he is seen as a reliable manager and a sturdy boardroom presence. Masters is now charged with overseeing the evolution of the Premier League product, negotiating the next generation of broadcast deals, and meeting his own ambition to promote football in the community. But he must do all of this while simultaneously keeping the Big Six and the Other 14 happy. Whether he is up to the task, only time will tell.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman