Last week, The Telegraph revealed that Manchester United, Liverpool, and the Football League (EFL) had been working on a series of proposals to reform the pyramid and governance structures of the English game.

Dubbed ‘Project Big Picture’, these proposals were tied to a rescue fund of £350,000,000 intended to compensate the EFL and Football Association for income lost during the 2019/20 and 2020/21 seasons. They included:

  • A reduction in the size of the Premier league from 20 to 18 clubs.
  • The elimination of parachute payments for clubs relegated from the Premier League to the Championship.
  • The abolition of the EFL Cup and Community Shield.
  • An increase in the EFL’s share of the Premier League’s broadcast revenue.
  • A reform of voting rights to privilege nine ‘Long-Term Shareholders’, two-thirds (six clubs) of which would be able to change or veto changes to the league’s rules and regulations, including those pertaining to the distribution of funds from sponsorship, commercial, and broadcasting rights.

Facing further financial difficulties if the pandemic continues to keep fans away from stadia, a majority of EFL clubs backed the plans, with the body’s chairman, Rick Parry, arguing that the short-term benefits offset any long-term drawbacks.

Opposition to Project Big Picture

This view was not, however, shared by the rest of the football world. Most stakeholders immediately saw Project Big Picture for what it is: a form of institutional blackmail, using the current public health crisis as cover for a power grab that will calcify the financial and competitive dominance of the so-called ‘Big Six’, commonly understood to mean Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, and Manchester City.

Fans’ groups representing these clubs were quick to rebuff the plans, going so far as to publish a joint statement setting out the reasons for their opposition. The Football Supporters’ Association (FSA), meanwhile, described the plot as a “sugar-coated cyanide pill”, pointing out that it could leave EFL clubs poorer in the long-run and open the door to games being played abroad or “even madder schemes.” The British government sided with fans, telling reporters that Project Big Picture was a “backroom deal” that would “create a closed shop at the very top of the game”.

For these reasons, and no doubt others to which the public are not privy, the Premier League voted to reject the project on 14th October.

Future Challenges Across the Continent

Football Supporters Europe (FSE) agrees with the FSA’s analysis of last week’s events and supports the organisation’s ‘Sustain the Game’ campaign, which calls for independent oversight, a fairer distribution of resources, and a focus on sustainability. We also agree that any bailout package for the lower leagues should come before serious discussions around governance. After all, problems related to ownership, expenditure, and inequality have not been created by Covid-19; it has merely exacerbated them.

The same is true in many other European countries, as well as at the level of UEFA club competitions. We are therefore mindful that similar reform proposals may arise in the coming months—and considering yesterday’s news of a potential ‘European Premier League’, they already have. It goes without saying that such proposals should be judged on whether they improve the situation for the many, not the few. And just as significant—if not more—they should not be presented fully formed as a fait accompli.

The Future of Football is Nothing Without Fans

This is not, in any way, an argument for the status-quo. Football is in urgent need of transformation. We simply believe that its future is too important to be decided by a handful of billionaires. As FSE and several national supporters’ organisations have repeatedly stressed, any conversations regarding reform must involve fans’ representatives and other key stakeholders.

Thankfully, there are already examples of this happening, particularly in Germany, where a coalition of fans’ organisations has developed a compelling concept for restructuring the professional game under the banner Zukunft Profifussball. Encouragingly, delegates from these organisations have been invited to join policy working groups set up by the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (DFB) and Deutsche Fußball Liga (DFL). Every country is different, of course, and the German mediations may yet fall short. But the principle of structured dialogue from which the approach is derived has universal relevance, both in terms of building consensus and producing effective outcomes.

It is the latter which ought to concern the titans of world football. The present has aptly demonstrated that the game cannot survive without fans; the future is no different.

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