The Premier League at 20: Facing an Uncertain Middle Age- Ben Wells

January 30, 2012

By Ben Wells

Last week, I attended a conference organised by the University of Coventry, hosted by Clive Tyldesley and featuring a strong panel of Patrick Barclay of the Times, The Telegraph’s Jim White, Dave Boyle of Supporters Direct and Dan Johnson of FA Premier League fame.

Once we’d got over the shock of Tyldesley’s dress sense in 1992 the panel spent the next two hours debating the subsequent 20 years of the Premier League’s development, exploring the good, the bad and the ugly sides of what has been rightly hailed as major commercial and marketing success, not to mention a much improved spectator experience, whether in the stands or watching at home on TV.

I remember well the start of the FA Premier League. I was at Bramall Lane on August 15th 1992 to see Brian Deane score the first goal of the FAPL era and the eventual champions Manchester United lose 2-1. The game itself didn’t feel any different to previous seasons but the following day we were to get a taste of Sky Sports’ unrivalled ability to hype its product and we all saw Teddy Sheringham score the first live top-flight goal on what was to become Super Sunday.

Last week’s panel discussion (which was far more balanced than you might think) covered most of the topics possible within the alloted time period but sadly didn’t have much time to look into the future. That is what I’d like to do here.

Much has been made of the incredible increases in revenues into top flight football in the intervening period. Most of this has come from TV, but also from sponsorship, merchandising & licensing, improved yield from matchdays and increasingly from leveraged investment and loans from sugar daddy owners. The upshot has left football stuck on a breathless treadmill, anxiously trying to keep up with the Joneses, working from season to season and within that, week to week.

 It’s true that there has been a massive investment into capital projects in England in the past twenty years and as Financial Fair Play (FFP) looms, we can expect continuing investment into the exempt areas of stadium and training ground infrastructure. But, as I have referenced in previous posts, the vast majority of football’s inflationary pressures can be linked to players’ wages. Barclay last week suggested that as much as £5 per FAPL match ticket is spent on agent fees. Even if it is half that sum, it is an outrageous statistic.

FFP is, in my view, an excellent concept, which will live or die by how seriously clubs in their entirety take it, and how strong UEFA is in enforcing it. There has been no recent deflationary pressure on football and so it continues the only path it knows: to keep pushing prices up, to enable it to attract better/more expensive football players. Football as an industry is not mature enough, not joined-up enough nor sufficiently long-termist to recognise its own structural problems, much less address them. When governments the world over is implementing mass austerity drives to address structural debt issues, football seems to believe it is exempt from the laws of economics.

You might point to the crowds that have remained high during the economic downturn (average attendances are higher, as is the percentage of seats sold) but clubs cannot expect this to remain so forever. Manchester United no longer sell out every game. Each week there are swathes of empty seats at the DW stadium, Ewood Park and elsewhere. The topline statistics fail to mask some worrying underlying issues. Whilst Liverpool, Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs boast huge shirt deals, Blackburn have offered theirs to a charity because they couldn’t find a bid over £400,000 per year. Carlos Tevez could earn that sum in 11 days if the figures are to be believed and if he ever tired of playing golf in Argentina.

Johnson rightly pointed to the FAPL’s revenue distribution model being far more equitable than any equivalent football league but it is the UCL which is skewing the gap between the haves (in the UCL) and have nots (everyone else). Broadly speaking it is those same (UCL) clubs leading the FAPL’s international expansion. Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea are all bigger brands than the FAPL itself and no matter how much we like to talk about the strength of the league, there is little appetite in the Far East and beyond for the rest. If the bigger clubs do actually break with their previously timid approach and establish actual businesses in key growth markets, then the gap will grow even further. As Boyle rightly pointed out, it was the tiny glimmer of hope for smaller clubs back in 1992 that they could actually win something that made up for the following season of disappointment. In 2012, how many clubs can actually claim to have genuine title hopes?

1992 witnessed the start of a beautiful friendship. The symbiosis between Premier League football and BSkyB has been widely commented upon. However, in 2012 Sky has diversified its business model yet football is as reliant as ever on Sky. Despite the best efforts of government both in London and Brussels there has not yet emerged a credible rival to Sky and I wonder what happens when the satellite broadcaster starts to offer lower bids for its packages. We won’t be seeing player agents calling the club CEOs, offering immediately to take a commensurate cut in his client’s wages, that is for certain.

This time last year, the once-mighty Liverpool were saved from possible administration only by the skin of their teeth and some courageous leadership by their interim Chairman Martin Broughton. Portsmouth have been through the mill in the past few years with repeated failed ownerships. The plight of Darlington has been much publicised of late but how long before we lose a top flight club for ever? Too big to fail? Don’t you believe it.

Ben has fifteen years’ experience in the commercial side of sport. Having spent six years at Chelsea FC, where he was Head of Marketing, Ben launched Ishtar Consulting in 2011 with a view to providing specialist sponsorship and marketing support to brands, rightsholders and agencies. Prior to his time at Chelsea Ben spent nearly four years at Redmandarin, the strategic sponsorship consultancy. Follow Ben on Twitter @ben_wells1 or get in touch via This Blog appears regularly at

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