Suggestions for a Better Big Picture

Suggestions for a Better Big Picture

October 16, 2020

The idea was radical, of course. The sort of thought that ran contrary to conventional wisdom, that challenged a whole set of accepted beliefs, that contained within it the potential to change the face — and the nature — of soccer, perhaps forever. But it was honestly held and sincerely believed: a chance to address a flaw, maybe even to improve this thing we all love.

Yes, Arsène Wenger had been thinking about throw-ins again. It has been a cause of his for some time: At one point, though the story is uncorroborated, he apparently wrote a letter to the Football Association suggesting they be outlawed. He has softened since then. Now, he told the BBC, he simply wants them to be replaced with kick-ins. It would, he said, make the game “quicker and more spectacular.”

That, judging from some of the reaction to his suggestion, is not a widely-held view. The Daily Mail called his idea “crazy,” though more in the sense of “far-fetched” than “5G causes coronavirus.” The Mirror said it hinted at Wenger’s “blind spot.” On Twitter, a rather less august publication accused Wenger of “losing the plot.”

This is how soccer — in this sense meaning the morass of fans and observers and commentators, each of whom regards themselves and themselves alone as the unique and unimpeachable keepers of the flame — deals with the concept of change: by rejecting it outright, by fulminating against not just whatever practical flaws might be inherent in a new idea but seeks to expose moral ones, too. It does not so much engage with a suggestion as tremble at the temerity that one has been made.

As has previously been noted, soccer seems to be regarded less as a game codified into a sport by a self-selecting group of Victorian public schoolboys and tinkered with, almost endlessly, over the following 150 years and instead as some sort of gift bestowed on humanity, gleaming and perfect and divine, one that must not be changed for fear of offending the almighty. This is especially true of England, which exerts a guardianship over a game it believes it invented and, deep down, never really wanted to share.

All of which brings us to the other idea that emerged this week. Contrary to the way it has been presented, Project Big Picture was not a set of concrete proposals made by Liverpool and Manchester United to alter the balance of power in English soccer.

It might have been, eventually, of course, but it had not quite reached that stage. The documents obtained by the Daily Telegraph (and this is not for a moment to call into question the journalism behind the article that broke the story) were, instead, a set of thoughts generated and contemplated and compiled by John W. Henry, Liverpool’s principal owner, and Joel Glazer, Manchester United’s principal power broker, over the course of three years.

The ideas had been through 17 or 18 rewrites, by all accounts; nobody has yet suggested the latest version was the final draft, ready to be presented to the Premier League for a vote. Instead, the plan leaked while still a work-in-progress, before anyone involved was ready to present it to the world. That, though, was lost in the rush to fury.

It was, by common consent, a “naked power grab” by English soccer’s moneyed elite. It imperiled the future of the country’s beloved but struggling soccer pyramid. It was cynical and opportunistic, and the people behind it were “plotters,” absorbed by their own rampant self-interest.

They were “bribing” the English Football League, which is facing a financial catastrophe in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, in order to bolster their own power. Their “defeat” in a Premier League meeting on Thursday was a victory for all that was just and right and fair, inasmuch as English soccer’s current rapacious capitalism is just and right and fair.

Some of those allegations are hard to rebut, even if we forget that the whole thing was leaked before it was actually proposed.

Project Big Picture was not an exercise in altruism; that self-interest soaked some of its thinking is beyond doubt. Its thinking seemed to be, at best, a sort of noblesse oblige, a quid pro quo in which the Football League would be sustained in exchange for the right of the Premier League’s dominant powers to shape soccer in England to their liking.

It did, to some extent, promise to bridge the yawning gap between the top tier and the rest, but at the cost of driving a canyon between the top six and everyone else. It was that last point, in the end, that made it so unpalatable, that ensured the draft would never have a 19th edition.

That has been presented as a great victory for collectivism. It does not seem to have merited mention that the teams who shouted it down were also acting out of self-interest: The parts of the plan they objected to were the ones that cost them money, that threatened their place on a train so laden with gravy that 20 of the 30 richest soccer clubs on the planet are from the Premier League.

Make no mistake: If Project Big Picture had made provision for those 14 teams to make more money, the debate would, at least, have lasted a little longer.

The fact that the vast majority of teams in the E.F.L. were in favor, too, seems to have been glossed over a little. They were simply grasping onto a passing lifeboat, the theory goes; they didn’t have time to check if it was flying the Jolly Roger.

That notion is, no doubt, to some extent true, though it is worth noting, again, that it is the fault of the Premier League as a whole — not just the top six — that the power structure of the top division is of no interest at all to teams struggling to stay afloat in League Two. That is testament to almost three decades of decisions made by the Premier League as a whole — not just the current owners of Liverpool or Manchester United — to enrich itself at the cost of the broader pyramid.

And it has been dismissed as irrelevant that at least Henry and Glazer and their colleagues have been talking about this and thinking about this and have, at least, come up with an idea. It was certainly not a perfect idea — it may not even have been a good idea — but it was most certainly an idea, and that is more than anyone else has managed.

A Crisis in Plain Sight

English soccer’s pyramid has been functionally crumbling for years, perhaps decades. The vast majority of teams in the second tier exist on a knife-edge, a consequence of the riches on offer in the Premier League and the incentive to gamble for a slice of them. In Leagues One and Two, most clubs hope for little more than survival. Existence is a fragile, febrile thing.

The fabled concept of mobility from the bottom to the top is now, just that: a fable. Swansea and Bournemouth and, most of all, Leicester City are held up as proof that the minnows can indeed have their day, but nobody seems to remember that these stories are so special precisely because they are so rare.

More recently, of course, the pandemic has placed all three divisions in jeopardy. Clubs have been warning about imminent financial collapse for months, pleading with both the Premier League and the government for help. So far, that has amounted to an advance of cash from the Premier League: advance in the sense that money today means less money tomorrow.

This is a serious situation. Darragh MacAnthony, the Peterborough United chairman, predicts there will be a raft of teams unable to pay their players’ salaries at the end of November, that bankruptcy will follow, that clubs will be lost. It is all well and good to talk about what happens tomorrow, he said this week, but the leagues needed a bailout yesterday.

And yet it appears that it is only the leaking of Project Big Picture — the emergence of a scheme that would strip power from the Premier League and hand it to a cartel of clubs — that has made anyone think that it might be a good time to do something.

Sure enough, at the very same meeting where the proposals that were not actually proposals were rejected, the Premier League committed to providing a mixture of emergency loans and grants to stave off the collapse of Leagues One and Two. On Friday, the E.F.L. rejected that proposal as too little, too late. Still, never mind: The Premier League’s clubs have also committed to a strategic review. Those two words, in conjunction, do not denote urgency.

An alternative proposal, led by a variety of veteran executives but also for some reason involving Gary Neville, was published on Thursday. It contained ideas of no little merit — including independent regulation and an equivalent to the commissioner figure prevalent in U.S. sports — but it seemed, at first glance, to be more a call for a review than a call to arms. English soccer loves nothing more than a review, except perhaps completely ignoring the findings of one.

The chairman of the Football Association, Greg Clarke, meanwhile, has been accused of considering an idea that would see the Premier League expanded to include a second division, with its biggest clubs allowed to introduce so-called B teams further down the pyramid, of conspiring with the authors of Project Big Picture. He, like many others, is now preoccupied with infighting and politicking: This, too, is familiar ground.

That all of these parties are suddenly having big ideas now is a quite remarkable coincidence. But then that has always been soccer’s attitude to change. It is always easier to do nothing.

There are always too many — and this includes the sainted “other 14” of the Premier League who have been hailed this week as the game’s saviors roughly five months after several of them flirted with the idea of abandoning the season entirely, costing their fellow clubs hundreds of millions of dollars, simply so they did not get relegated — happy to turn a blind eye to the need for change because the status quo works for them.

And there are too few who have the credibility to suggest change without immediately being shouted down and accused of self-interest. The leagues do not trust the clubs. The clubs do not trust the leagues. The clubs do not trust each other. Judging by the imbroglio over this month’s announcement that certain games would be aired on pay-per-view, the league and its own broadcasters do not trust each other. English soccer is rich in many things, but good faith is not one of them.

You Say You Want Specifics? Here You Go

All of these interests make suggesting change inordinately difficult. Daniel Finkelstein, writing in The Times of London this week, pointed out the impossibility of obtaining political consensus for measures to combat the pandemic, too. “It is important,” Finkelstein wrote, “to keep it really simple and simultaneously to accommodate everyone’s unique individual circumstances.”

The same applies to the much more trivial task of trying to find solutions that satisfy every single one of soccer’s stakeholders. Criticism, Finkelstein wrote, is easy. Offering something constructive takes effort. But seeing as soccer is, at last, in the market for new ideas, perhaps now is the time to join the chorus.

Let’s start with the good ideas from Project Big Picture. A massive bailout fund for the E.F.L., to be borrowed against the Premier League’s future television income: good. Abandoning parachute payments in favor of a larger annual contribution from the Premier League: also good.

A fund specifically reserved for stadium development, inspired by the N.F.L.: definitely good. Capping ticket prices for traveling fans and a commitment to exploring safe standing areas in stadiums: both a yes. And why not throw in subsidized public transportation to those games, too?

Reducing the size of the Premier League in order to allow for expanded European competitions: logical, at least. You may not like it, but a larger Champions League is coming, because that is what the market — you and me and everyone else — seems to be demanding. Changing the rules of promotion and relegation so that two clubs are promoted automatically, and the team finishing 16th enters a playoff for the last spot: it works in Germany, so let’s borrow that, too.

Then there are the elements that might be altered. Instead of abolishing the Community Shield, why not take the top four finishers in the Premier League and the winners of the two domestic cups and play a preseason tournament abroad, as Italy has tried? That way, you don’t need to worry about allowing clubs to sell games through their own digital channels: They can just keep the money from the competition.

Rather than abolish the League Cup, tell teams playing in Europe that season that they do not need to enter it.

As for the voting rights, the source of so much consternation: As unpopular as the idea of the Big Six’s being granted complete control was, it had some merit. It makes sense that those teams that comprise the bedrock of the Premier League should have a greater say over long-term decisions than those who come and go.

But instead of granting control to nine “permanent” members, why not construct a board comprising all of those clubs who have won Premier League titles and are currently in the league, plus those who have never been relegated from the division (five of the Big Six, plus Tottenham and Everton, with Blackburn Rovers installed in the event of promotion), and bolster them with three or four rotating temporary members, to be renewed every two years. Give the Football Association a veto, and the Football League a seat at the table, too.

That board would vote on issues — like television contracts and the chief executive’s position — that have consequences lasting more than a single season. For more short-term matters, the current voting structure of one team, one vote, with a majority of 14 needed to pass a motion, would apply.

And then there are the areas where Project Big Picture did not go far enough. Cut the Championship to 20 teams, since players in that league need protection from a bloated playing schedule, too. Institute a salary cap and stringent financial fair play rules, but permit promoted teams a draft of players available for loan.

Regionalize Leagues One and Two, with northern and southern divisions. (It worked in the 1930s — my granddad played in them — so why wouldn’t it work now?) Then hold playoffs between the two for promotion. It reduces travel costs, increases the number of appetizing local derbies, and it’s better for the climate crisis.

And, heresy of heresies, permit teams in those competitions to sign strategic partnerships with Premier League clubs in which the richer partner invests in the smaller one’s facilities, provides it with coaches and young players on loan, and make all of that exempt from financial rules.

The Premier League clubs would get what they want — a more complete education for their players — and the playing field in the lower leagues would be evened out: Teams like Sunderland and Portsmouth would not need such a partnership, but it might help safeguard the future of Rochdale or Yeovil or Leyton Orient. The deals would be canceled if they worked so well as to take the smaller club all the way to the Premier League.

Or we could do what soccer always does: instinctively recoil from any suggestion of change, assume that the way things are is the way they have to be, cocoon ourselves from the reality that the current model is not working, and has not been for some time. Then, when clubs start to fail, we can all scratch our heads and ask where it all went wrong. Nobody is prepared to have a conversation about throw-ins. Instituting actual change is a pipe dream.

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