If politics wins the prize for being the biggest parody of itself – the now former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab confessed last week that he hadn’t realised how important the Dover-Calais crossing was to UK trade – then football comes in a close second. The working man’s game is anything but, and against the backdrop of the most moneyed period in the division’s history, the Premier League is poised to score a truly spectacular PR own goal.
Chief executive Richard Scudamore is due to step down at the end of 2018, and while a whip-round is a common gesture for someone leaving an organisation, the idea floated by Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck for the 20 member clubs to gift him £250,000 each as a “farewell present” totalling £5m is in more than a little bad taste. Who carries that sort of change, anyway? Are his leaving drinks on the moon?
As fans struggle to pay for their season tickets, Premier League clubs can, depressingly, afford an indifference to the turnstiles should they so wish, thanks to the multi-billion-pound broadcasting deals already agreed with Sky, BT and Amazon. The £8.4bn-worth of TV packages struck between 2016 and 2019 are all but confirmed to continue to 2022.
A mere quarter of a million pounds, then, could plausibly be found down the back of any top-flight sofa. Some individual Premier League players are paid more than that in a week. Scudamore himself reportedly earns a £2.5m annual salary with bonuses.
But the amount of money involved in Buck’s proposal is not as important as the principle. It is hard to see a case as to why a millionaire should be paid more when many grassroots football organisations and sport-related charities in England remain chronically underfunded. A quarter of a million pounds to any one of those causes could be transformative.
Admittedly, Scudamore has achieved plenty of good things during his nearly two decades as chief executive. Money can create as well as corrupt; and the Premier League, thanks to its TV riches, is a globally recognised phenomenon. With only a few notable exceptions – Lionel Messi and Zinedine Zidane stick out – it has been able to attract the best players at some stage of their careers. The money has also helped to redesign clubs’ stadiums, making them safer as all-seaters, while cracking down on the hooligan culture that plagued English football fandom during the 1970s and 80s.
He has overseen some failures too. Fixtures are often rearranged at short notice to accommodate broadcasting schedules. Ironically, as Saturday 3pm kick-offs are switched to Monday nights, it could be argued that the man who made the Premier League the most-watched league in the world has also helped to make it harder to attend games.
Premier League club ownership is subject to very little regulation – as Mike Ashley’s exploitative advertising relationship with Newcastle United shows – and the league does not, as it could and perhaps should, mandate how TV money is spent, say, on improving facilities or supporter experience.
Scudamore, of course, is not single-handedly to blame for money’s malignant influence on modern football. But should he be offered, and accept, a £5m farewell gift, it will do little to invalidate the growing perception that football is no longer about fans. Bruce Buck’s idea is at best a terrible one. It is at worst a kick in the teeth of every top-flight fan in the country.