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Five Premier League talking points ahead of the new season

Soccer’s most lucrative league returns this week after an off-season dominated by the emergence of new money and powerful influences. So what are the big storylines heading into the 2023/24 campaign?

8 August 2023 Michael Long

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The start of a new Premier League season always arrives amid a cacophony of noise.

Between the usual rumour and rancour around everything from player transfers to absentee owners, soccer’s richest domestic competition invariably dominates back-page column inches and social media feeds. Nowadays, the English game’s top flight is not only a commercial juggernaut and a cultural phenomenon, but an increasingly high-stakes, geopolitically charged battleground that drives the news agenda, not to mention water cooler chat, far beyond its national borders.

From the growing influence of foreign investment to the introduction of new regulations, there has been plenty to keep the media and fans occupied since treble-winners Manchester City claimed their fifth title in six years back in May. With another season set to begin this Friday, SportsPro breaks down the big storylines heading into the 2023/24 campaign.

United sale saga continues amid ownership clampdown

After many months of speculation, the future of English soccer’s most successful club remains up in the air.

Manchester United, champions of England on a record 20 occasions, have been the subject of a protracted bidding war since the club was put on the market last November. Raine Group-moderated talks between interested parties and current owners the Glazer family have yet to yield an outcome, with Qatari banker Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamad Al Thani reportedly entering his final offer in June and Ineos founder Sir Jim Ratcliffe said to remain hopeful of securing the Old Trafford club after tabling a bid of UK£6 billion (US$7.7 billion).

Even after multiple rounds of bidding, the Glazers could yet keep United, or at least retain a minority share, much to the chagrin of swathes of club supporters who are counting down the days until their much-maligned ownership comes to an end. But whatever happens in the red half of Manchester, the terms and conditions under which Premier League teams change hands are now being more closely monitored than ever before, both within and outside the league.

At the Premier League’s annual general meeting in June, clubs voted unanimously to ban fully leveraged buyouts of teams. Had it been in place back in 2005, the ruling would have prevented United’s takeover by the Glazers, who loaded the club with debts of UK£660 million (US$844.3 million) after taking out loans to fund their purchase.

June’s ruling came after clubs voted in March to also bar individuals found to have committed human rights abuses from becoming an owner or director of a Premier League team. That move followed vocal criticism from organisations like Amnesty International over the league’s decision to allow Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) to lead a takeover of Newcastle United in 2021.

It was also seen as a response to the UK government’s plans, revealed in February, to establish an independent regulator for English soccer. Among a suite of proposals, the new authority would have jurisdiction over a tightened Premier League owners’ and directors’ test, so it is little wonder the league is seeking to demonstrate its ability to self-regulate.

British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe remains hopeful of purchasing Manchester United after tabling a bid of UK£6 billion

Clubs cash in as betting sponsorship ban looms

Despite a looming ban on front-of-shirt sponsorship deals with gambling firms – or perhaps because of it – several Premier League clubs have cashed in by signing deals with bookmakers this summer. While Chelsea scrapped their proposed deal with online betting operator Stake due to a backlash from supporters, the likes of Fulham, Aston Villa and newly promoted Burnley have all sold their prime matchday shirt inventory to bookmakers for this season.

Betting firms will continue to be ubiquitous across the league despite the voluntary ban, which comes into effect in 2026 and would still permit gambling brands to appear on other club assets, such as shirt sleeves, training wear and advertising hoardings. Indeed, clubs could look to take advantage by hiking their asking price for that inventory due to increased competition, raising questions over whether this self-imposed ban goes far enough.

Not coincidentally, Premier League clubs have elected to limit betting deals at a time when the UK government is reviewing legislation around gambling advertising across the board, not just in sport. Clearly, all the talk of external regulation has focused the minds of executives throughout the league.

Fulham will be sponsored by betting brand SBOTOP this season, but west London rivals Chelsea remain without a main shirt sponsor after their proposed deal with Stake collapsed following fan protests

Saudi money stoking fears of untoward influence

Another way in which Premier League clubs have been cashing in this off-season is by offloading players to the increasingly spendthrift Saudi Pro League. Several teams, most notably a Chelsea side undergoing a root-and-branch overhaul, have seen players move to the cash-rich Gulf state for significant sums, prompting calls among rival clubs for fair market investigations.

Reports say clubs are concerned that the influx of Saudi Arabian money is distorting the market and being used to skirt financial fair play (FFP) rules, inflate transfer fees or, in the case of Saudi-owned Newcastle, disguise an injection of capital from its ownership group, which now owns four teams in the Saudi Pro League.

Indeed, it is not only player transfers that are coming under the microscope – commercial contracts are also subject to the same scrutiny. New regulations, introduced after the PIF acquired the Magpies two years ago, dictate that all sponsorship deals worth over UK£1 million (US$1.3 million) are checked to see if they are at ‘fair market value’, but some top-flight teams feel the definition of ‘fair’ needs some clarifying.

Inevitably, concerns were raised when Newcastle’s new shirt sponsorship deal with PIF-owned events company Sela was announced in June. That agreement was valued at UK£25 million (US$31.5 million) annually – a dramatic uplift on their previous deal with Fun88 worth UK£6.5 million (US$8 million) a year.

Premier League chief executive Richard Masters has said he “wouldn’t be too concerned at the moment” about Saudi Arabia’s growing influence and insists the new measures for determining fair market value “are doing their job”. But there is no denying the scrutiny over such dealings is only mounting.

PIF-owned Newcastle United’s transfer of Allan Saint-Maximin to PIF-owned Saudi Pro League side Al Ahli has drawn widespread scrutiny, as has the club’s new shirt sponsorship deal with PIF-owned events company Sela

How will the impasse over revenue distribution play out?

The Premier League has never been richer thanks to lucrative broadcast contracts and foreign investment. However, the financial gap between English top-flight sides and those in the lower leagues continues to widen.

The new season begins with executives at the Premier League, the Football Association (FA) and the English Football League (EFL) locked in long-running talks over a new model of revenue distribution. In March, the top flight reportedly offered the EFL UK£125 million (US$160 million) a year in extra funding in a bid to agree a ‘New Deal for Football’, but an agreement has yet to be reached.

Proposals include reforms to the system of parachute payments currently made by the Premier League to relegated clubs, as well as tighter cost controls to limit overspending in the lower leagues. But with no sign of an end to the current impasse, the new independent regulator could yet step in and force a settlement.

Meanwhile, in a potentially significant subplot to these talks, the Premier League has reportedly bid for the FA Cup’s international broadcast rights and could look to bundle those rights with its own to drive up revenue. That move could increase the appeal and value of the FA Cup rights, with the Premier League able to leverage its position by forcing media partners to fork out for more comprehensive packages that include the world’s oldest national soccer competition.

While the added exposure would benefit the FA Cup, which has lost some of its lustre in recent years, the move has been widely viewed as an attempt by the Premier League to assume greater control over the English game. In particular, the league would gain significant influence over fixture scheduling and other areas of governance, further tipping the balance of power in its favour and leaving sides lower down the pyramid at the whim of their wealthier rivals.

The Premier League has reportedly bid for the international rights to the FA Cup in a move viewed as an attempt by the competition to gain greater control over fixture scheduling

Broadcast rights picture coming into view

It has been widely documented that the Premier League’s revenue from overseas rights deals now exceeds income from agreements with domestic broadcasters, which were rolled over in 2021 due to the disruption and uncertainty brought about by pandemic-related restrictions. Though only a year into its ongoing three-year rights cycle, the league is preparing to go out to market with its next round of broadcast packages in the coming months, possibly as soon as October.

With the sales process set to get underway, there remains much speculation surrounding the league’s strategy as it looks to drive up revenue amid mooted interest from tech giants and streaming platforms. Reports suggest the number of televised fixtures in the UK could rise from 200 to 270 a season in the next rights cycle, which begins in 2025, and that the Premier League will not push for the Saturday 3pm broadcast blackout to be abolished. Instead, the top flight could increase the number of matches scheduled on Friday and Monday nights, while also making every fixture played on Sundays eligible for live coverage.

Such a move could see the league’s overall revenue from domestic TV deals rise again, but the average fee per game would likely drop as considerably more matches are carved out for broadcast.

Incumbent pay-TV broadcasters Sky Sports and BT Sport (now rebranded as TNT Sports) are the frontrunners to land the premium packages, while Amazon and DAZN are reportedly in the mix for streaming rights, but the Premier League’s options look to have narrowed after Apple ruled itself out of any bidding race and Viaplay announced plans to leave the UK market as quickly as it arrived.

Still, with its unmatched global appeal and more than US$4 billion in annual broadcast revenue, the Premier League’s status as the world’s richest soccer competition is set to go unchallenged for some time yet.

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