The good news for Premier League fans is that there really only are two obstacles standing in the way of a return from the pause because of the coronavirus pandemic. One of them may well be out of their hands, and yes, it’s partly their fault at this stage. The other is nothing that can’t be resolved with common sense, serious negotiation and goodwill, though the way the sport is set up in England makes it more difficult.
Let’s deal with the one the Premier League can’t really control: establishing a medical protocol for training and matches that both satisfies government regulations in terms of safety, and satisfies those players and coaches who have legitimate concerns.
I touched upon this on Monday, so I won’t dwell on it, but the fact that they’re only dealing with this now in a public arena is both staggering and counterproductive. (The latest plans: On Thursday, the UK government meets again to discuss easing the lockdown, the day after which Premier League doctors and medics will hold talks. Prime minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce new measures on Sunday, with key Premier League stakeholders to reconvene on Monday.)
Unlike other leagues, most notably Germany and Spain — where league CEOs Christian Seifert and Javier Tebas have spoken out extensively and in detail — the Premier League have flown under the radar, avoiding public statements. Instead, the league and clubs (most notably certain clubs) continued to disseminate rumours and fragments of information about how they would deal with matters medically. Some of it may have been true, some of it may have been false, some of it may have been once true but now out-of-date.
Officially, we got nothing, and while the strategy may have been that it’s best not to put a plan out there so that it doesn’t get attacked, especially since it will necessarily change over time as medical and scientific opinion changes, all it did was stoke further fears and uncertainty. Not just among players, but among club doctors who wrote to the league and government officials with a list of concerns and unanswered questions.
One question stood out: “As doctors, how can we ‘approve’ guidelines that still carry risk of death?”
The obvious answer is that there’s risk of death in most things you do; it’s really a question of mitigating and assessing that risk. If this had been part of the conversation from day one, then maybe the landscape and public opinion — and possibly the government’s response — would be different. Instead, footballers are waking up to headlines about how the very people who are supposed to keep them safe, their own club doctors, worry about approving protocols that “carry risk of death?”
Ultimately, it’s going to be the government’s call, so the Premier League can abdicate responsibility there. But given how governments are sensitive to public opinion (read: voters), then the Premier League certainly haven’t helped their chances of getting a green light to return to action.
The other hurdle comes courtesy of law enforcement, who decreed that games must be played in neutral venues, in part because of fears that supporters will congregate outside the grounds. My colleague Mark Ogden agrees with this; me, less so, but it’s really a moot point: the cops’ word is final.
This has had the knock-on effect of clubs near the bottom of the table, understandably, pointing out that this undermines the integrity of the league as some will have had more games than others, and they are threatening to vote against a return as a result. It takes 14 votes out of 20 to approve a return, so if they can get seven on their side, there will be no more Premier League football this season.
Those clubs would reportedly be happy to play again in neutral venues if relegation were scrapped. But that, of course, would mean no promotion and the English Football League (EFL), which comprises the three tiers below the Premier League, is, understandably concerned about this.
“The lawyers are going to get wealthy if that happens,” EFL chairman Rick Parry told government officials. “There would be varying degrees of outrage from a number of clubs in our Championship, it would breach the tripartite agreement between us, the Premier League and the Football Association … the safe answer is that it would get very messy.”
That “tripartite agreement” to which he’s referring is the deal that was struck when the Premier League broke away from the Football League with the Football Association’s blessing. It guarantees a number of things, one of them the “three up, three down” concept. So this is where you can go Chicken Little and throw in the towel. This is where you’d basically see three outcomes, all of them bad.
1. The PL sticks to its current plan, enough clubs vote against a restart and everything shuts down, leaving a long, hot summer of legal battles to determine what happens next.
2. The PL scraps relegation, football returns, the EFL and its clubs take legal action — possibly broadcasters, who would be stuck with a glut of meaningless games, too — leaving a long, hot summer of legal battles to determine what happens next.
3. The PL and EFL try to reach some sort of clunky compromise where they agree to scrap relegation but still promote, say, the top two teams from the Championship, meaning next season will feature 22 clubs. Except at that point, Premier League clubs vote against it because they don’t want to split the PL revenue pie into 22 slices rather than 20, and they don’t want an extra four fixtures clogging up the calendar. (My colleague Dale Johnson goes into detail in this thread here.)
So are we screwed? Thankfully not, because ultimately, the Premier League is made up of 20 separate businesses. They may work together under a common set of rules to market their product, but they are 20 separate entities with their own bottom lines, and “bottom line” means one thing: money.
The great thing about money is that it’s fungible. Which doesn’t mean it’s “fun” (yes, it can be that too) but means it can be readily exchanged either for goods and services or, in this case, compensation. And that means you can reach an agreement.
Ian Darke doesn’t see a way the Premier League plays shortened games in an effort to complete the season.
Scrap relegation and you save yourself around £150 million in parachute payments — the cash paid to relegated clubs to soften the blow of going down. Leeds and West Bromwich Albion are seven and six points clear in the automatic promotion slots respectively. Split that £150m between them and, considering that most Premier League clubs earn between £100m-150m from TV money depending on league finish and appearances, you’re basically guaranteeing them most of what they would have earned in the Premier League. It’s true that they’d be making less from sponsorship and gate receipts with another season in the Championship, but then their wage bill and costs would be lower, too.
If that’s not enough to make the EFL and their lawsuit go away? Make every Premier League club kick a little bit more money into a compensation pot, say an average of 2%, perhaps tiered so the bottom clubs contribute a little bit more, since they’re benefitting most. That would raise you another £40m, and that’s before you get into the fact that the opposite may be true. Maybe Norwich would be OK with going down — possibly because they’ve spent wisely and their player contracts all have relegation clauses, where wages get cut if they’re no longer in the top flight — provided they get the parachute payments and, perhaps, a little contribution from the promoted club’s TV money next year: say, 10%, which would be £10m or, in the case of Leeds, likely more.
You can squabble over the figures, but it’s pretty evident that there’s a deal to be worked out. One that is preferable to simply not playing, and one that doesn’t tie us up in endless legal battles. All it takes is common sense and an ability to negotiate. Surely those are qualities they can find, given the alternatives?