The Game That’s Eating Itself

20th Feb, 2015

Last week’s news of a new broadcast deal for the English Premier League, with a record £5.1bn offered – for the domestic rights alone – by Sky and BT, has generated a huge amount of comment.

From one perspective it’s a fantastic tribute to the popularity of Premier League and the quality of the product on offer. This having been significantly enhanced by the world-class international management and playing talent attracted by the scale of TV investment (led by Sky) since the establishment of the Premier League by the FA in 1992.

From another, more critical perspective, it is yet further confirmation of the profound disconnect between the Premier League and the grass-roots that sustain and nurture the game in the UK. The effects of the TV deal have immediate and destabilising consequences for the other 72 professional Football League clubs – but the ramifications go much further down the football ladder.

The Independent newspaper this week reported how Local Authority budget cuts have led to Brent Council failing to enter any teams into the London Youth Games. They note the importance of youth representative football to professional scouting networks (even in an age of elite academies) and the lack of support provided by the professional elite/establishment.

At the same time we see West Ham United benefiting from public investment in the London 2012 Olympic Stadium – with the taxpayer currently footing the bill for the cost over-runs related to the conversion of the stadium for football use ahead of West Ham taking up residence in 2016. The precedent for this was of course established with Manchester City benefiting from public investment in the City of Manchester stadium for the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

Thinking of youth development, why has the English FA proven so slow in addressing the technical development of coaches and of young players in recent decades, together with the provision of floodlit all-weather pitches and related infrastructure?

Since the issues were first discussed we have seen Belgium, France and Spain comprehensively revisit their approach – with the latter two picking up World and European titles as a result. Apart from their national successes we can see the impact on today’s English Premier League in the volume of players from these three countries currently playing in the Premier League.

Apart from youth development issues there is also the issue of ticket prices and the treatment of football fans more generally –  in terms of timing and pricing – the new TV deal inevitably means that football will be taking place seven days a week in the near future. Talking of which I was fascinated by Three’s sponsorship of (the 264) Plymouth Argyle fans who travelled to Hartlepool last month.

(And as a former women’s football coach it would be remiss not to mention the slow progress in developing and integrating the women’s game in the UK)

Globally we are finally seeing brands turning their backs on FIFA, with five of the major sponsors pulling out in recent months including Sony, Emirates, Castrol, Continental and Johnson & Johnson.

In the UK is this the time for brands to take a fresh look at where and how their sporting investment is allocated?

With a range of drivers pointing to the positive potential for scalable local community approaches we look forward to more major businesses playing a positive enabling role in supporting grass-roots sporting participation for all. They may be surprised by the value that they unlock for their brands, their employees, partners and suppliers and for the beneficiaries.

In light of this week’s events, we might ask whether you’d prefer to see your brand associated with the positive developments at (non-league) Dulwich Hamlet or with the elite represented by Chelsea FC*. Perhaps Samsung can answer that as they also sponsored Leyton Orient in 2012-2013.

Ironically given the tenor of this post lowly Orient are likely to be the biggest victims of the West Ham stadium coup – not Tottenham as you may have read!

* To be fair to Chelsea they are the only Premier League club to date to commit to paying the Living Wage to all club staff – including outsourced service providers.