Premier League Reform Plan Seeks to Reshape English Soccer

Premier League Reform Plan Seeks to Reshape English Soccer

October 11, 2020

Taken together, the proposals amount to the biggest changes in English soccer in more than a quarter of a century. An 18-team Premier League. Hundreds of millions of dollars in extra payments from Premier League clubs to their poorer rivals. And an end of direct payment to clubs relegated from the top division.

The reform plan — the brainchild of the American owners of England’s two biggest and most-successful clubs, Manchester United and Liverpool — would remake the structure that governs English soccer’s four professional leagues, and replace it with what those behind the idea have pitched as a more sustainable model.

The biggest change would see the Premier League shrink to 18 teams from its current 20, perhaps as soon as 2022, and transfer critical decision-making power in the league from the consensus-driven model that has been at its core for three decades to one in which a handful of the richest teams get a bigger say.

The details were first reported by The Daily Telegraph and confirmed to The New York Times on Sunday morning by two people familiar with the discussions. The people declined to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the talks, and because they are continuing.

Officials at the Premier League, Liverpool and Manchester United did not respond for comment. But Rick Parry, the chairman of the English Football League, the organization that represents the 72 clubs below the Premier League, who had been involved in the talks, gave his backing in The Telegraph article.

While senior officials from Liverpool and Manchester United had discussed ideas in secret for several years before putting together a tentative proposal, other leading clubs and the Premier League were only brought into the talks more recently. Some executive and administrators only learned about them late last week.

The Premier League reacted with frustration on Sunday, saying in a statement that the talks should have been carried out in a more open and inclusive manner, even as it said it supported “a wide-ranging discussion on the future of the game, including its competition structures, calendar and overall financing.”

Still, it said, “in the Premier League’s view, a number of the individual proposals in the plan published today could have a damaging impact on the whole game and we are disappointed to see that Rick Parry, Chair of the EFL, has given his on-the-record support.”

John W. Henry, the billionaire owner of Liverpool, and his Manchester United counterpart Joel Glazer are hoping to seize on the chaos wrought on professional soccer in England by the coronavirus, which has already caused millions of dollars on losses for the top teams and threatened the financial viability of some smaller ones, to crystallize their ideas and push through the changes they seek.

The current plan promises 250 million pounds ($326 million) in emergency funding from the Premier League to the three professional divisions immediately below it, and a pledge that those leagues would receive 25 percent of the total income of the Premier League from the first season under the new framework, which the reform plan’s backers hope would be as early as the 2022-23 season.

The Premier League currently requires the consent of 14 of its 20 clubs to approve decisions large and small, a setup that has strained the bond between the biggest teams and the rest. Under the reform proposal, a group of as many as nine of the longest serving members of the Premier League would have greater say over how it is run, including the right to veto new owners from buying control of clubs in the league.

To sweeten the deal, the plan also promises to share money with another key stakeholder: England’s Football Association. To secure its approval, or at least fend off its opposition, the F.A., which governs the sport in England, would receive a one-time payment of 100 million pounds ($130 million) to help mitigate the damage inflicted on its finances by the coronavirus pandemic.

That Liverpool and Manchester United are at the heart of the reform movement immediately led to criticism on social media, with fans and commentators suggesting the two clubs are looking to further entrench their interests and positions atop global soccer.

The push to reduce the league to 18 teams mirrors the views of Andrea Agnelli, the president of the Italian champion Juventus and the leader of the influential European Club Association, a lobby group for top division teams. Agnelli has said that he favors reducing the size of domestic leagues in order to create space for more meaningful games between Europe’s elite teams, but he also has been one of the biggest proponents of shifting power in European soccer to the clubs that dominate it.

One of the drivers behind the Premier League proposal, beyond increasing the power of the wealthiest teams, is to reduce cases of risk-taking by clubs in the second-tier Championship as they try to win promotion to the Premier League. Access can bring huge rewards, in the form of television and sponsorship revenues and even so-called parachute payments — worth tens of millions of dollars for years — if they are relegated back to the Championship.

The problem, English soccer has found, is eager teams have at times piled up huge losses in the hope of building a squad capable of reaching the Premier League or competing with rivals who have, reaped that windfall, and then returned.

Under the reform proposal, parachute payments would be scrapped, and the annual riches provided by the Premier League would be shared more equitably with the teams in the second tier. Clubs in the next two divisions would benefit as well, with about 25 percent of the total shared by the Premier League reserved for them.

The proposal also calls for the abolition of the League Cup, a cup competition reserved for professional teams that has long-lost its luster among elite clubs, and the Community Shield, the traditional curtain-raiser to the league season, which matches the previous campaign’s Premier League champion against the F.A. Cup holder.

It also discusses financing for a women’s professional league independent of the Premier League and the Football Association. And perhaps fearful of a fan backlash, those behind the proposals have added elements aimed at winning the support of match-going spectators, including a cap of $26 on ticket prices for visiting fans, a commitment to introducing safe standing areas in stadiums and subsidized travel for supporters who attend away matches.

The changes outlined in the reform plan in England come at a moment of wider discussion in global soccer about the future of the game, with representatives at FIFA, the game’s global governing body, and UEFA, its counterpart in Europe, plotting their own road maps for the future. Some of the top English teams have already expressed interest in playing in a larger, restructured, larger Champions League, the elite European club tournament that will be reformed for the 2024 season.

Parry, the E.F.L. chairman, suggested change was inevitable, and that he would support the proposal because the clubs he represents would benefit from it.

“What do we do?” he said, according to The Telegraph. “Leave it exactly as it is and allow the smaller clubs to wither? Or do we do something about it? And you can’t do something about it without something changing.”

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