Man Utd, Liverpool & Man City: Why 'big six' greed is bad for English football

REUTERS/Andrew Boyers

When Leicester City completed the incredible feat of winning the Premier League back in 2016, few expected a repeat.

The Foxes, bottom of the table for much of the previous season, shocked the world by hauling themselves to the peak of English football, and did so in the face of opponents in possession of far vaster resources.

Few expected a repeat, but some did at least see a glimmer of hope in the triumph of Claudio Ranieri’s men.

Their victory was one which hinted that perhaps the monopolisation at the top of the English game that had taken place over the past 25 years or so might not be irreparable, and that clubs lower down the pecking order might be able to uproot the established order if they get the mix just right.

Never again

That established order moved quickly to lessen their risk. In the season that followed, the ‘big six’ of Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs spent a total of £779m on player transfers, more than the other fourteen clubs in the division combined.

They splurged just under £1.3bn in wages in a single year, again blowing the rest of the league out of the water.

REUTERS/Andrew Boyers

The results were inevitable. Chelsea cantered to the title, trailed by the other five big spenders.

One season on it was Manchester City’s turn to gallop to the top of the table, setting a new points record along the way and the top six remained unchanged in their makeup.

Leicester’s victory had inspired, but not in the way they might have expected; it simply spurred the richest clubs into consolidating their advantages over the rest.

A bridge too far

The events of Thursday morning did not so much consolidate those advantages as it did extend them.

In, perhaps, the best example of 'turkeys voting for Christmas' that football on these shores has ever seen, the ‘big six’ finally achieved the backing they needed from eight other clubs to further widen the financial gap between themselves and the rest.

That widening takes the form rejigging of how the Premier League’s overseas television rights are shared amongst the division’s 20 clubs.

Since the league’s inception in 1992, such rights have been shared equally. The big six have long since believed this to be unfair, arguing that the overseas rights back in the early 1990s were miniscule in comparison to the £3.3bn currently set to flow in from abroad for the three seasons from 2019 onwards.

Their argument is that since it is they who attract the most overseas viewers, and thus the bulk of overseas revenue, it is they who should enjoy greater financial rewards.

Thursday saw them granted their wish, albeit in a compromised manner. Back in the autumn, the big six wished for 35% of the overseas revenue to be awarded on merit, i.e. according to league position.

Instead, the deal reached on Thursday ensures that the £3.3bn of guaranteed revenues will still be shared equally throughout the division; only if the Premier League can achieve an increase on that level will it be distributed on merit.

Moreover, the Premier League’s outgoing chairman Richard Scudamore confirmed the differential between the division’s highest-earning and lowest-earning clubs will be set at a maximum of 1.8:1 (currently 1.6:1), with any increase above that again being shared out equally.

And while that may seem as though it constitutes something of a win for those clubs that find themselves perennially fighting relegation, in reality it is simply another step on an increasingly slippy slope. 

The Premier League itself was born from five clubs -take away Manchester City and Chelsea from the current crop and add in Everton- wishing to make a break with the more equitable Football League, and, in the quarter century since, it has been the same small cabal of sides benefit enormously from the riches that have poured into the game.

Monopoly awaits

The new model of distribution for overseas revenue may not see an immediate prince and pauper situation arise, but it will certainly not improve a league that is already in danger of turning off many because of its relative predictability.

As this piece argued back in October, professional sport requires ‘competitive balance’ and competitive opponents in order to produce ‘excitement and jeopardy’.

That is what has made the Premier League so eminently watchable over the past three decades; despite the continuing dominance of the biggest clubs, English football enjoys far more competition that many other such divisions on the continent.

And therein lies the proof that this latest move from the big six lies not in creating a meritocracy, but rather a monopoly, one manufactured by greed.

REUTERS/Juan Medina

The clubs concerned will doubtless point abroad to contend that they require greater heft to compete with foreign heavyweights that do not share revenues quite so equally with their own compatriots.

Yet, none of those clubs have access to a pot quite so deep as the one in England. Additionally, it is quite telling that in Spain, where Real Madrid and Barcelona have long gathered up sizeable chunks of television money, moves were made in recent years to make the cash distribution more equitable, not less.

Those clubs at the top of the table already benefit from huge advantages in terms of their money-making abilities by virtue of enormous commercial revenue streams and, particularly in the case of London clubs, the ability to ramp up prices in a way many other clubs cannot.

Their supremacy is clear enough as it is and this latest move begs a simple question: how much money do these clubs want?

REUTERS/Toby Melville

The argument that they are more deserving of it than others holds little water, given that these clubs are the beneficiaries of circumstance rather than examples of especially well-ran clubs that deserve reward for their methods.

All six have utilised huge resources to get to where they are today, either over a prolonged period or more recently via the arrival of a billionaire owner.

Such fortune is damaging enough to the spirit of competition without now seeking to eradicate one of the few measures currently in place to try and hinder monopoly.

So does disaster

That this decision came in the same week as the announcement of Aston Villa’s financial woes is coincidental, but should not be viewed as such. Villa’s troubles have arisen in the Championship, but they come as a direct result of the Premier League’s largesse.

In seeking to return to the top tier, the former European champions have been operating so recklessly that they have required incoming funding from their chairman to the tune of around £4m a month.

Even whilst in the top tier, the Villains fought in vain to keep up, racking up combined losses in the last decade of a staggering £334m. Now, having missed out on promotion by the narrowest of margins, their very existence is under threat.

REUTERS/Carl Recine

Make no mistake, they will not be the only ones to suffer a similar fate. Almost all clubs in the Championship suffer losses each year in their attempts to hit the big time.

While those in the Premier League are now largely profitable due to bumper television deals, history dictates that much of that money will find its way into the pockets of players and agents. As a result, relegation is no longer a mere blip but instead a fully fledged crisis.

Not that that matters to the big six. They act safe in the knowledge that the gravy train will keep on rolling. Indeed, it will roll ever faster as a result of Thursday’s vote. That is good for them, but bad for competition.

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