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Soccer

Rejection of Project Big Picture puts spotlight on reform in Premier League and English soccer

Liverpool won the Premier League title in 2020.
Liverpool won the Premier League title in 2020.LAURENCE GRIFFITHS/AFP via Getty Images

The Premier League and English soccer were apparently not ready for Project Big Picture. Some believed the controversial proposal would have modernized the country’s soccer system, as well as providing much-needed financial relief during the coronavirus crisis. Others thought it would have sown the seeds for the game’s destruction.

In any case, the program, voted down this week, appears to have accelerated consideration for reform, and the Premier League said a “strategic plan for the future structures and financing of English football, consulting with all stakeholders” is to be initiated. Once the dust clears, the “Big Six” clubs (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham) might yet get what they want, which is greater control over voting rights and, eventually, a chance to participate in a European Super League.

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The project’s downfall owes much to a lack of transparency.

According to England’s The Daily Mail, Project Big Picture originated from a meeting in Boston called by Fenway Sports Group’s John Henry, who owns Liverpool (and the Boston Globe). News of the plan was revealed in The Telegraph earlier this week, and that is when it started facing resistance. Most Premier League clubs believed they should have been consulted and, when a video meeting was held Wednesday, they expressed displeasure.

For the proposal to be approved, 14 Premier League clubs would have had to vote in favor. With most of the room expressing hostility, the “Big Six became a Big Two,” according to the Daily Mail. Soon, Liverpool FC and Manchester United decided to give up in favor of Premier League solidarity, and the vote against Project Big Picture was unanimous.

Among the key points of Project Big Picture:

▪ Reducing the Premier League from 20 to 18 clubs;

▪ Designating special status for the “Big Six” clubs, plus three “long-serving clubs”;

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▪ Ending the Carabao (League) Cup and Community Shield;

▪ Later start to Premier League season, allowing for more preseason friendlies, plus a summer Premier League tournament;

▪ Bottom two Premier League teams automatically relegated (instead of three), a third entered in a playoff tournament with the League Championship’s Nos. 3-5 teams;

▪ A limit of 15 players on loan per club domestically;

▪ A “fan charter” capping away game ticket prices at $26;

▪ Payoffs of 250 million pounds ($323 million) to the English Football League, 100 million pounds ($129.5 million) to The Football Association, plus 25 percent of all Premier League and Football League revenues to EFL clubs;

▪ Allow clubs to negotiate separate media rights deals for eight games per season;

▪ A women’s professional league separate from Premier League or FA jurisdiction.

To understand the workings of soccer in England, it is best to lay aside notions of the franchise sports system used for major professional sports leagues in the United States.

In England, sport is based on an open leagues setup in which there are few barriers to entry and movement relies on promotion/relegation.

The creed of open leagues is that the smallest club can challenge the biggest club simply by progressing through the ranks. Taken literally, that might be an outdated and romantic idea. But it does allow for giant-killing and, sometimes, full-on upsets at the highest levels, such as Leicester City winning the Premier League, Italy’s Serie A’s Atalanta advancing, and Spain’s Atletico Madrid eliminating Liverpool in the Champions League.

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Joel Glazer (right) owns Manchester United in the English Premier League as well as the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which is run by general manager Jason Licht (left).
Joel Glazer (right) owns Manchester United in the English Premier League as well as the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which is run by general manager Jason Licht (left).Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Some believe the system provides a reflection of the very soul of British sport. It allows — in fact, encourages — community, as well as competition, at all levels. As a business proposition, it works by maximizing participation. Nearly anyone can have an emotional, as well as financial, stake in the sport. When Manchester United supporters became disgruntled with the Glazer family takeover in 2005, they started their own club — FC United of Manchester, which has advanced as high as the fifth tier National League and is the largest fan-owned club in the country.

Lower divisions might not generate global television revenue (the Premier League’s television contract is worth 8.5 billion pounds — $11 billion — and runs from 2019 to 2022). But smaller clubs provide talent development and fan interest.

As the League Championship’s Millwall FC chairman John Berylson, a Wellesley resident, noted: “Our fans are more passionate than at a Premier League game.”

The numbers indicate interest in the game. Since the founding of the England Football League in 1888, it has grown to 140 soccer leagues (7,000 teams), including 116 professional clubs in the top five flights. London alone is home to 17 professional soccer teams.

They are all part of the Football Pyramid, the foundation for the game in England (and most countries). That is where skeptics felt most threatened by a proposal from the “Big Six.” After all, five of those clubs are controlled by foreign interests.

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Critics have been more than skeptical about the intentions of the project originators.

The Football Supporters Association called it “a sugar-coated cyanide pill.” In a statement, the FSA noted: “As six clubs can set the rules, who could stop them ending relegation from the Premier League and creating a franchise system like they have in US sports? No one. Who could stop them from rewriting the rules in a few years so that the top six keep all the media money? No one. Who could stop them cutting funding entirely to the EFL or grassroots football? No one.”

One columnist called it “Project What’s-in-it-for-me?” and “Project Big Swag Bag,” labeling the move “an attempted coup and it failed.”

By the end of Wednesday’s meeting, peace apparently reigned.

Briefly, anyway. A 50 million pound ($64.7 million) grant was approved for League One and League Two, but it was rejected because it did not include League Championship clubs. That offer was considerably lower than PBP’s proposed 250 million pounds ($323 million). Both offers were lower than one that was rejected — 375 million pounds ($485 million) from TPG Capital, whose founding partner is Celtics minority owner David Bonderman.

Yet, these are small sums compared to what could be generated if other European countries' elite clubs agree to join a breakaway movement. A Super League does not appear to be inevitable, though, since the European Champions League figures to expand further in 2024.

“I can see both sides,” said Steve Gans, a partner at Boston-based Prince Lobel, who has advised Premier League officials. “The concept of being committed to funding the lower divisions is a concept to be considered and studied. But, overall, the Premier League is the greatest sports league in the world and it’s a sure thing. You tinker with it in a such a major way at your peril.”

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In England, few appear willing to consider both sides, though most would agree to steps guaranteeing a more sustainable model for soccer. But it is difficult to argue that a league with a 132-year history doesn’t already have that.