After a two-decade reign in which he has delivered ever more abundant TV revenues, Richard Scudamore will step down as executive chairman of the Premier League later this season. His successor must navigate a new world of challenges to keep English soccer’s top flight in the ascendancy.
After what seems like an indecently short post-World Cup break, the Premier League swaggered back into action last weekend.
The return of English soccer’s elite competition is forever greeted like the first day back at school: once the strangeness of minor changes dissipates, it’s like we’d never been away. The interlude dissolves and another season slips on to the same continuum.
This year, however, something fundamentally different is about to happen. Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore will step down at some stage in the next few months, once the latest round of international TV rights sales has been concluded. His has been a transformative two-decade spell in charge. When he goes, it will be clear just how different the world outside the league has become.
His successor will have to reorder the league’s priorities. That person will be taking on an international sporting powerhouse. But the in-tray will be bulging, too, from consumer behaviour to the migraines of Brexit.
Few sports industry lines have worn as well as the one about how the Premier League built its success on broadcast rights income. That sales bonanza has been cause and effect of the other great Scudamore achievement: the relative peace between the Premier League’s member clubs. The man himself has described his strategy as one of keeping everyone “equally dissatisfied” but English teams can be happier than most at just how much cash they’ve received.
An equitable distribution model has allowed smaller clubs to invest in commercial and playing staff alike. There are cultural and historical reasons for the Premier League’s global popularity but plenty of funds went into creating the competitive, cosmopolitan extravaganza the world enjoys.
The currents that delivered that financial bounty are ebbing away, and new sources will be sought. Domestic TV revenues will flatten out over the course of the next three-year UK rights deals, albeit with Amazon having been tempted into an experimental entry. Internationally, Scudamore and his colleagues still expect substantial growth from hitherto underexploited territories but there are signs of slowdown everywhere.
The travails of rights agency MP & Silva, a once-thrusting former partner of the Premier League, are one indication of broadcasters’ reticence to invest. Another is the abundance of coverage being picked up outside core markets by the likes of Facebook, which will reportedly screen English soccer’s top flight in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos from 2019.
It has since confirmed deals to show Spain’s LaLiga in India and the Uefa Champions League in Latin America, though those rights holders are said to have adjusted their revenue expectations in favour of protecting reach.
There may be a short-term cost, in other words, to resetting a broadcast strategy for the digital age. The Premier League’s popularity should insulate it against the harshest extremes of the market but keeping its leading names onside now will be as difficult as at any point during Scudamore’s tenure.
This year’s partially successful push by the six top clubs for a bigger share of international rights income may be a sign of further skirmishes to come. Those leading sides are building leverage.
The omnipresent threat of a breakaway European Super League is in its waxing phase. A Saudi-backed consortium may return for a second attempt at revamping the global club soccer competitions. Uefa could offer further sweeteners to keep its tournaments in the commercial ascendancy. When it comes to making money from digital content and data, marquee teams can and will do more to collaborate outside the league structure.
Nailing the approach to digital broadcasting will be critical. The Premier League has been quite conservative in its new media activities but its potential is obvious. While there is no sign yet of the kind of international OTT project launched by the major US leagues, Formula One or, more recently, Serie A, the existence of a ready-made world feed from the IMG-powered Premier League Productions provides a potential bedrock.
39th game overseas round
More broadly, though, the Premier League will need to redefine its constituency. Scudamore backed away from his ‘39th game’ overseas round, but a similar international project may get another airing after La Liga’s 15-year partnership in the US with Relevent Sports. There has been little appetite to date for getting involved with esports but it seems likely the new regime will make a move.
For today’s Premier League clubs, matchday revenues are now the source of a competitive edge rather than an existential necessity. According to a report by the BBC earlier this week, 11 sides would have made a pre-tax profit in 2016/17 without selling a ticket.
Still, it would be foolish for clubs to neglect the home front. Even in the most pragmatic terms, full grounds are at the core of the Premier League brand and central to its appeal as a TV spectacle. Perception matters. The sight of empty stands in Serie A helped feed its cycle of decline a decade or so ago.
More to the point, clubs have a responsibility to those who have founded their identity. Scudamore has shown an instinct to address this in the past couple of years, leading the introduction of a UK£30 cap on ticket prices for away supporters at the start of last season and backing calls for the introduction of safe standing at English grounds. A final decision on the latter will be the responsibility of British lawmakers.
There is further ground to cover. The season began with Arsenal majority owner Stan Kroenke announcing a deal for a 100 per cent buyout of the London club, which would see him mop up fans’ long-held shares in a compulsory purchase. It was one more illustration of the distance that has opened up between supporters and the teams they follow.
The Premier League is unlikely to change its ownership rules anytime soon but it can work to counter the impression of a game slipping away. It has trumpeted its efforts at the community level, where it contributes 3.6 per cent of TV revenues, or around UK£100 million a season, to grassroots projects. A similar amount goes to teams in the English Football League (EFL) in the form of solidarity payments. Building on that outlay would make for a solid next step.
After a remarkable summer in Russia, with the women’s game on the rise and national youth teams flourishing, English soccer is in danger of feeling good about itself again. By committing early to a positive contribution, the next leader can make the Premier League a part of that story, rather than a wealthy counterpoint.
It could all yield renewal before a long title defense.