This weekend's reporting duties took me to Pride Park, where Derby County hosted Southampton for a top-of-the-table second division match. Sat beneath a black and white photograph of Brian Clough in the manager's office in 1968, his two-year-old son Nigel perched on the desk, I read the program notes of the 45-year-old Nigel, now in charge of Derby himself. "Too much is made of pressure and expectation in football these days," wrote Clough, who bounced into the press room grinning after a high-tempo 1-1 draw. "There is too much focus on issues and characters that don't really matter ... it's about players and fans; one group performing to entertain the other."
His words offered welcome reassurance that the game had not entirely lost the plot after a read-it-and-weep kind of week that started with Liverpool's managing director, Ian Ayre, suggesting changes in the way the Premier League's overseas television income is distributed. At present, the sum of each new deal (the last, in 2010, was worth £1.4 billion/$2.2B) is equally shared among the 20 clubs. Being old-fashioned enough still to think of a league as a sporting competition and not a share index, I started to feel obstreperously cranky the instant Ayre began talking about "recognizing our brand globally," and it only got worse.
"If you're in Kuala Lumpur there isn't anyone subscribing to Astro or ESPN to watch Bolton, or if they are it's a very small number. The large majority are subscribing because they want to watch Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal," said Ayre. "So is it right that the international rights are shared equally between all the clubs? Some people will say: 'Well you've got to all be in it to make it happen.' But isn't it really about where the revenue is coming from, which is the broadcaster, and isn't it really about who people want to watch on that channel? We know it is us." Fortunately, some of the other clubs special enough to tickle Malaysia's fancy were quick to distance themselves from Ayre's comments; Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City all backed collective selling so decisively that Ayre was left looking like a man who had gleefully revealed queens over aces and made for the chips before his opponent laid down a royal flush. Come Friday he tried to reframe his stance, apparently unable to work out where anyone had got the "ridiculous" idea that "[Liverpool] were trying to run off and damage the league."
It is, truly, a conundrum worthy of the world's finest minds, but let's make do with mine for now; it might have been from the bit about copying La Liga, for a start. In Spain, clubs negotiate their own TV deals, which essentially means Barcelona and Real Madrid make a fortune (£118 million/$185M each from domestic rights alone, last season) compared to the rest; even their closest competitors, like Valencia, earned about a third of that. In total, Liverpool made about £55 million ($86M) out of broadcasters last year, while Bolton selfishly helped themselves to just under £43 million ($67M despite being neither use nor ornament in Ayre's utopia. "What we are actually doing is disadvantaging ourselves against other big European clubs," he said. "If Real Madrid or Barcelona or other big European clubs have the opportunity to truly realize their international media value potential, where does that leave Liverpool and Manchester United? We'll just share ours because we'll all be nice to each other?"
In the Premier League -- which broke away from the rest of the Football League to avoid having to cut the first big satellite TV deal in to too many pieces -- being nice has never been too high on the agenda. Only if you consider the fact that the broadcasting deal still rewarded Liverpool handsomely last season -- even when they were polluting the airwaves with a ho-hum showing against City, or a tedious goalless draw with Birmingham -- to be particularly philanthropic can you cast the revenue sharing in the Premier League as some kind of flannel-wearing beardie socialism. The sharing of television revenue is not a charitable endeavor, it's the last, grudging concession to some sense of competition. Quite apart from the fact that "big clubs" require, by definition, other clubs against which to assert their superiority, fantasizing about replicating La Liga at the same time as asking "will the Premier League bubble burst because we are sticking to this equal sharing model?" takes an extremely cockeyed brand of short-termism.
Valencia finished third in La Liga last season, yet were 21 points behind Real; fourth-placed Villarreal were far closer to being relegated (19 points clear) than winning the title (34 points off). Sevilla president Jose Maria del Nido, whose team finished fifth, branded La Liga "the greatest pile of junk in Europe" and called a meeting at which he hoped he might persuade his counterparts of the appeal of the English approach. In the three consecutive years that it has won the Spanish title, Barcelona has won the Champions League twice and staked its claim to be the best team ever. It can be mesmerizing to watch. Still, Barcelona could waltz to the Champions League title for the next 10 years running and it wouldn't be worth the sacrifice of the domestic league. It is already becoming the case that matches involving Barcelona or Real attract less interest than matches involving Barcelona and Real; there will eventually be a limit on how much broadcasters will pay for such an impoverished competition, but it is difficult to forecast when it will be reached and in what state it will find and leave most clubs.
The biggest clubs and some besides have divorced their own sense of well-being (now an almost exclusively financial measure) from the health of the league as if the separation were simple, let alone possible. The Financial Fair Play measures that UEFA has introduced are about 20 years too late to have the desired effect, putting the brakes on spending when earning potential has already become drastically skewed, but their introduction might at least have prompted some analysis of their intent; instead spending was up this summer in most major European leagues. Football clubs frame their commercial avarice as nothing more sinister than Keeping Up With The Joneses yet shun any opportunity to truly level the playing field, preferring instead the relentless chase for more: a sweaty cross-country trail that has seen them turn everything, even their own fans, in to salable assets. Is it simple coincidence that international broadcasting deals are being talked about immediately after theEuropean Court of Justice ruling on foreign decoders, which might, if it stands, decrease the value of deals that currently earn several billion pounds? And now we find that the former Chelsea and Manchester United chief executive, Peter Kenyon, has suggested making all games available either to traditional broadcasters or for online streaming. The broad rejection of his and Ayre's comments is gratifying but the spores are airborne now.
Georgina Turner is a freelance sports writer and co-author of Jumpers for Goalposts: How Football Sold its Soul.