The Premier League is currently facing down the biggest challenge since its inception. Covid-19 has shuttered the game. It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Football is a high contact sport on and off the pitch. In fact, it was Mikel Arteta who drew the dangers of the virus into sharp focus when he contracted it from the top boy at Olympiacos. Since that moment, games have been cancelled, clubs have shut down, everything has crashed.
The big question that everyone has been asking for a month has focused on how we finish the season. Clubs are determined to close out the league for the TV cash, but the further out we push that date, the closer it starts to encroach on next season. Some are starting to suggest that it might be best to cancel this season and work towards a normal start next season.
The assumption that sport can resume normality any time soon reads ambitious, even naive.
Firstly, we’re going to have to get past the testing issue. In the UK specifically, testing has been inadequate. That’s not a political statement, it’s just a fact. Globally, there’s a lack of materials to deliver the tests we need to the people on the frontlines. We also don’t have the necessary tools in place to track and trace. These are all things that can be solved, but the idea that we’re ready to implement these processes into sport by early August is fanciful.
Think of the amount of people that need to be involved to get to a single game going. Coaches, fitness trainers, the medics, admin staff, drivers, players. Then think about how many people need to work in close proximity to get a stadium up and running. Now add in camera crews and journalists. How about the medics you’d have to take off the frontlines?
Now understand that every single one of those needs to be tested multiple times to make sure they’re clean. They all need to clear that 14 days quarantine.
Now where do you put these players? All in the same hotel? You need just one incident and you have a cruise ship like incident. At multiple hotels? You need just one cleaner to have picked up something from their second job to cause an outbreak.
It’s a beast of an operation if safety is top of mind. A nightmare to justify the means to get there. Where are you sourcing tests? Politically, how can you settle that score with the public? Sport really is bottom of the pile of serious things we need to rev up right now. Hard to see how that changes in the next 6 months.
However for the sake of our sanity, let’s take a sanguine outlook, imagine that we create a perfect moment in time and we solve the logistics, politics, and science. At the very best, football is performed to empty stadiums. That sounds great right? Games. Real games. At least it’s something. However, there are still issues here. The biggest one is financial. Arsenal book £96m from gate receipts, that’s about 25% of our total revenue. That’s high, but on average, the top 20 clubs in Europe would stand to take an average hit of 16% of their revenue if we played games behind closed doors. For the Premier League, it’s a fraction lower at 14%.
Still, these are desperate times. Protecting the TV golden goose is the most important thing and that is 57% of the revenue for football clubs. It’s our biggest client. The lower down the table you go, the more important it is. For Bournemouth, TV is a staggering 88% of their lifeblood.
This is where things might start to get a little creative. In times of crisis, we adapt at breakneck speed to new realities that may have taken years for society to adopt. As a culture, we’re currently experiencing one of the most aggressive disruptions to working patterns since WWII. Work from home is now the new normal. We have invited our workplace to monitor our every move and we’re barely paying attention. We might be handing over our bio data to handy apps created by tech giants that have repeatedly exploited our privacy for advertising dollars.
… but that’s not what I want to talk about. I’m a football blogger, I’m here to talk about the new season ticket we’re all going to want and the how clubs make up the bulk of that £681m in lost match day revenue. I think it’s going to be another case of speeding up the inevitable.
Currently, in the UK, clubs are not allowed to sell 3pm games. In fact, only 220 live games are sold each season. 52 to BT. 128 to Sky Sports. 20 for Amazon. There are 380 games in a Premier League season. 42% of games go unsold. The reason for this is largely geared around IRL fan preservation. There’s a big fear that if you sell the games on TV, no one will show up on a Saturday. I’m not sure about this, it greatly underestimates the joy of going to games, but it is what it is.
The most consequential of the deals is the Amazon one. It’s only worth a small amount of money, but for me, it was a proof of concept for Jeff Bezos before he goes big. Amazon streamed games over Christmas. You could pick the one you wanted, you could have commentary or the fans. It came as part of your Amazon Prime deal. That is the future. The tech behemouth is all about making things easier and more cost-effective for consumers. If he can add Premier League football to the Prime bundle, he’s just massively ramped up Amazon’s access to shoppers and created a lever to ensure loyalty to the service.
Question is: Will this longterm ambition be brought forward at a more rapid pace?
Clubs cannot afford to lose 14% of their revenue. It’s not even up for debate. They have to plug that gap. I think we are about to see the terrain for football TV change very rapidly.
In the US, baseball teams are now able to sell their streaming rights. I think that’s where football has to go. It would have taken years to land on that position pre-corona, now I think it’s absolutely essential for the survival of the game. If you literally can’t sell IRL season tickets because fans can’t go to the ground, there has to be a way of tapping that unspent revenue. There might be a massive fight about it, but clubs have to be able to pay their bills, if the current TV contracts they have in place don’t allow for that, I suspect the clubs will unite and go against them.
The big question is whether the league uses this as the opportunity to do it themselves, or they broker a deal with Sky, BT, Amazon or one of the FAANG companies no doubt circling.
I would buy a season ticket for the games on top of my normal subs. I would prefer it if I could buy on a game by game basis, but I think plenty of fans would take whatever they could get. Digital season tickets were always the future, now there’s no choice, it has to become a reality. It’s not a matter of if the clubs move, they have to. Hopefully, in the new world, the fans get a better deal, letting them see all the games would be a huge jump, I just hope it’s priced fairly.
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