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Players or Payers: Who Will Win the Fight for Footballing Rights — A View from the UK

February 13, 2020

Last weekend, we experienced a sporting first: The Premier League had its inaugural ‘winter break’.  The interlude gives each club a minimum of 13-days’ rest between top-flight matches – allowing players a dose of increasingly rare R&R. It is also structured in a way that ensures just as many games will be televised over the fortnight as there would be on a normal week. From a commercial and content perspective at least, normal service resumes, and so everyone wins, right?

Not quite – the extended break has led the Premier League’s calendar to clash with the UK’s Football Association (FA) and, more specifically, a round of replays for its ever-questioned, but highly revered, FA Cup. The calendar clash resulted in Liverpool’s effervescent manager Jurgen Klopp, who had been led to believe he and his players would get a full fortnight off, to send a youth team with an average age of just 19 to play against lower-league Shrewsbury last Wednesday – and not even attend the match himself.

Klopp’s absence prompted plenty of headlines, most of them negative. But beyond the immediate resentment shown by the media, his decision has catalysed much wider public debate on, and scrutiny of, what has been a longstanding issue of contention in modern football: player protection (of which many clubs, national teams and – least surprisingly of all – managers and current players are major advocates) versus the quenchless appetite of fans, broadcasters and international governing bodies alike, for a relentless supply of elite football.

We all know football pays. And to gain the rights to reap some of the sport’s financial rewards, broadcasters part with vast sums of money. They will, therefore, do their utmost to ensure there are as many games played at exposure-topping times as possible – and rationally so. This demand, the broadcasters argue, is all driven by the fans. And in wanting to broadcast so many games, not least over the hallowed (dreaded) period over Christmas and the New Year, they are – or so they would have you believe – providing a public service.

However, this year’s ‘festive season’ in particular exemplified why a break has been long demanded by managers and players; each team played four games in just 12 days. While it is indisputably brilliant for vested interests in the media and fans alike, such a busy schedule resulted in no fewer than 74 injuries.

If the Premier League & FA had heeded Klopp, Pep Guardiola (Manchester City’s manager) and Jose Mourinho’s (Tottenham Hotspur’s head coach) almost weekly appeals, and ring-fenced a winter break that I was sacrosanct in its care for the players, the majority of these injuries would have been prevented. But would bottom lines therefore be dented?

As is so often the case, there is a serious commercial argument to be made for a supposedly purposeful move, as well as an ethical one – even with fallow weeks! In the modern-day, fans’ loyalties increasingly lie with players, rather than clubs. Consequently, should a star player leave to another team or, more pertinent here, pick up a long-term injury, clubs could lose out on a season-defining amount or revenue, creating a compelling financial as well as ethical case for a break.

Factoring this rising influence of player power on the game, the fact that the most impassioned protests for the time off came from managers of the so-called ‘big six’, of which Klopp is one, is therefore no surprise. After all, it is they who have of a large number of players who have garnered a ‘cult’ following from fans. They also play the most games: they tend to go the furthest in knockout tournaments and have the major commitment of European football to contend with. Last season, Liverpool played an astonishing 53 competitive matches. Contrast that with bottom of the league Huddersfield, who played a relatively meagre 40 – and the root of complaints from Klopp et al. becomes plain for all to see.

However, if one scratches below Klopp’s no-shows or Guardiola and Mourinho’s press conference complaints, could it be that, conversely, elite clubs are the beneficiaries of the modern, jampacked game? And that those losing out are, in fact, the country’s lesser clubs?

Whereas Liverpool’s Premier League matches were televised 29 times in 2018/19 (earning them £33.5m), just eight of Huddersfield’s games graced our screens (perhaps mercifully so given some of the football they played!) – remunerating them with a ‘meagre’ £12.3m. Then factor in Liverpool’s Champions League win, and all the royalties it will have brought, and the elite clubs’ busy schedules start to look like more of a blessing than a curse. High-achieving clubs with Champions League football are given the financial means to develop and rotate their squads sufficiently, which makes phenomenon like Liverpool’s current unbeaten run, one of the longest in English footballing history, possible. Instead, it is the smaller clubs with oft-depleted squads and fewer resources, constantly playing catch up.

Even though Klopp’s decision to watch Liverpool’s teenagers beat Shrewsbury from the comfort of his own home was, by all intents and purposes, a political stunt, behind it lay a serious statement about the changes he wants to see made to professional football. Counterintuitively, he – and his ‘superclub’ contemporaries – should be careful what they wish for given how the status quo treats them. Instead, it is the Premier League and broadcasters’ whose previous reluctance to embrace the break, may transpire to be misplaced. In resting and protecting the increasingly important players – the League’s ‘means of production’, – fans will see them more consistently, be happier with the product they’re consuming and, consequently, keep the commercial beast that is football, churning along nicely.