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Jamie Gardner | Project Big Picture is nothing more than a thinly veiled power grab

Press Association’s chief sports reporter questions the timing and the motives behind Liverpool and Manchester United’s US-inspired plan to remodel English soccer.

14 October 2020 Jamie Gardner

Comedians say timing is everything, but there is nothing remotely funny about two of England's most prestigious clubs choosing now to seek a greater say in the running of the Premier League.

Liverpool and Manchester United would argue that the timing was not of their choosing, with details of Project Big Picture (PBP) plans leaked on 11th October ahead of a meeting scheduled for later the same day but which never happened.

But making coronavirus rescue packages to the English Football League (EFL) and the Football Association (FA) part of the project added a time factor to the discussions which feels deeply unwelcome.

EFL bosses I have spoken to have welcomed some elements of PBP – notably the fairer revenue distribution model – but accept the changes to Premier League voting rights to favour the so-called 'big six', in the words of Forest Green Rovers chairman Dale Vince, “stands out as a bit of a power grab”.

Others have openly questioned the permanence of the promised 25 per cent share of broadcast revenue.

‘What’s to stop them changing the distribution methodology in future, to say ten per cent?’ Tranmere co-owner Nicola Palios wrote on Twitter. ‘We must not be blinded by the short term offer of a cash lifeline. It’s like someone offering you a million pounds but shooting you soon after.’

Privately, those behind PBP accept there are no guarantees that the fairer revenue share – the most attractive and altruistic element of the plan – will remain at that level. Without such guarantees, it is difficult to escape the sense that the hardships caused by the pandemic are being exploited by the country's wealthiest clubs.

Darren Bailey, the former director of football governance and regulation at the FA, and now a consultant at Charles Russell Speechlys, points out the American flavour to the PBP plans – no great surprise given the ownership of the two clubs leading the charge.

“One of the most interesting dimensions is the discernible shift in trying to use this as a way of driving a slightly more Americanised model,” he told me.

“The 18 teams, removing three automatic relegation places, this notion that teams who have been in the league the longest getting a special status, it starts to look a little bit like a closed league which tends to play into the American model of entertainment and profit rather than the European model.

“Another element of that is the proposed control over new owners, which is very Americanised in allowing those already in the room to determine who can come in.

“You’re now seeing a new Americanised approach, and the cost for that regulatory autonomy is higher levels of redistribution. The question becomes whether it’s possible to lock in such a model in perpetuity or whether you ultimately end up with a short-term collective bargaining agreement for eight to 10 years.”

There is a time and a place for deeper discussion on revenue distribution in the game – but this does not feel like it. And coupling it with desperately-needed rescue packages smacks of opportunism.

Conversations I’ve had suggest Newcastle's failed Saudi takeover could yet turn out to be key in safeguarding the English football pyramid.

England’s top flight will have witnessed with some concern events in Germany in recent weeks, where BeIN Sports chose not to renew its Bundesliga deal because of concerns over the level of piracy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

The Premier League's hopes of renewing its own deal with BeIN for the 2022 to 2025 cycle would have been seriously weakened – if not wrecked altogether – had the Saudi takeover proceeded.

As it is, my understanding is that the English league can be confident of succeeding where the Bundesliga failed when the negotiations begin. The Premier League remains the most watched league in the world, its teams and stars have a strong global presence, notably Liverpool and Mohamed Salah in the MENA region.

Equally as importantly, its visibly strong stance on anti-piracy goes in its favour and is understood to have impressed BeIN, unlike Serie A, whose decision to stage matches in Saudi Arabia drew public criticism from the Qatar-based media company.

The oil-rich state's public investment fund had stood ready to take an 80 per cent stake in the Toon, but walked away after it felt no progress was being made. The Premier League had concerns over the extent to which the fund was connected to the Saudi state, which a World Trade Organisation (WTO) report, published in June, found had facilitated sports piracy.

Intellectual property theft is one of the key battlegrounds for the Premier League and other rights holders and it has a team internally set up to combat it. The PA news agency learned in July that a group of Saudi businessmen offered to cut in on BeIN's deal as an attempt to smooth the passage of the takeover, claiming it had no legal validity in the kingdom anyway.

It is understood the offer was rejected out of hand.

As the UK government looks to the Premier League, rightly or wrongly, to be the saviour of an English pyramid starved of income from match-going supporters due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is more vital than ever that broadcasting income remains as stable as it can be.

One more rich club would not have made the league itself any richer – and while Newcastle fans and even their owner Mike Ashley may still be angry at the league's handling of the takeover, for the league's long-term health it looks like the best outcome.

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