Comment: Can Project Big Picture Bring Focus To Football’s Financial Failings?

“All 20 Premier League clubs today unanimously agreed that “Project Big Picture” will not be endorsed or pursued by the Premier League, or The FA,” read the statement released by the Premier League following the conclusion of its meeting of member clubs on Wednesday.


The plan to transform the game was devised by Liverpool and Manchester United’s American owners and the EFL’s Chairman, Rick Parry, and sought to restructure the way the game is controlled and funded. Fundamentally it looked to change the way money flowed between the Premier League and the EFL aiming to reduce the chasm between England’s elite and the Championship which has seen clubs in the second league spending on average 105% of their turnover in an attempt to reach the Premier League.


The unsustainable nature of life in the second tier of English football has been brought to the fore with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent closure of all stadia which now sees football being played behind closed doors. Further down the pyramid this strife is even more pronounced where matchday revenues, which account for the majority of a club’s revenue, have all but dried up.


Under Project Big Picture, EFL clubs would have received a £250m cash injection and the promise of 25% of future television broadcasting revenues attained by the Premier League. The plan was widely appealing to those club’s in the EFL that were in desperate need of a short-term cash injection. However, the plans included the ceding of power to the Premier League’s current top six clubs– Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur with an additional three more long-serving Premier League clubs on a rotating basis, whilst reducing the number of clubs in the league to 18 from the current 20.


Project Big Picture’s ultimate failure, for all the good intentions, would rest upon these elements – the Premier League current operates a ‘One Club – One Vote’ system with major decisions requiring at least 2/3 (14) of the vote to carry through, so getting 14 clubs to cede their power to the top six seemed fanciful from the off.


Its ultimate failure was the way in which it took the Premier League by surprise, with Richard Masters openly critical of the plans whilst a spokesman for the Prime Minister said “it is exactly this type of back room dealing that undermines trust in football’s governance.”  


But if anything it has shaken up the conversation, and despite the Premier League’s dismissal of the Project, moves have been made to ease some of the financial pressure facing clubs in the EFL’s League One & Two with the promise of grants and interest-free loans totalling a further £50m on top of the £27.2m solidarity payments already advanced to them. This however, falls someway short of what is needed and clubs in the Championship anxiously await news of what financial help may come their way.


So what now for football’s need to restructure, and what will those plans look like? The Premier League have conferred to “work together as a 20-club collective on a strategic plan for the future structures and financing of English football, consulting with all stakeholders to ensure a vibrant, competitive and sustainable football pyramid.”


Football’s vast financial inequalities have been growing for many years. UEFA’s attempts at tackling the growing problem of overspending in European football saw the introduction of Financial Fair Play regulations in 2011 which sought to limit excess spending. Similar restrictions were then implemented by the Premier League and EFL to curb excess spending at a national level.


However, these restrictions have only exacerbated the financial disparities in football. In their latest Benchmarking report, UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin, said: “As financial performance has improved, clubs’ financial position has become significantly healthier, with net assets increasing from less than €2bn to more than €9bn in the space of a decade, a testament to the success of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations, the stable European football ecosystem and sustained and sensible investment.”


But he also stressed the growing threats posed by “globalisation-fuelled revenue polarisation, of a fragmenting media landscape and of cases of overdependence on transfer activity revenue.” 


All three of these threats are playing on across English football and not least with the clubs that play in UEFA’s premier club competitions – namely the Champions League from which Liverpool earned around £100m from their winning season in 2019.


Covid-19 has laid bare the financial frailties in football and shown just how polarized revenue is between the leagues. Whilst the immediate benefits of the plans are appealing for the EFL, more thought needs to be given to the 20 clubs in the Premier League about how such change is applied.


Handing power to the current top six would be dangerous for the competitive balance of the game which is, in addition to the financial polarization, become ever more detached on the pitch. There are now leagues within leagues and breaking into the top is become more difficult than ever given the financial strength of these clubs.


The ills Financial Fair Play sought to cure have ultimately preserved the status-quo. You could argue that Chelsea and Manchester City sit at the top table by default, benefitting from the huge investment of their owners before the FFP was enforced.


Fixing the structural problems at the top of the game should now be the number one priority. Can there be a reconnection of the Premier League and EFL whereby revenues are evenly distributed and a fairer, more equitable competition is formed that cuts out the need for clubs to spend recklessly in pursuit of promotion?


Football needs to take a long hard look at itself and decide what is best for everyone, not just the select few. The game thrives on the unpredictability of competition on the pitch, it’s unscripted drama that unfolds over the course of the season is what has allowed it to endure for well over 100 years. Money has blurred that vision and the game’s leaders need to find a way to clear the line of sight so it can continue to enthral and thrive in the post-covid world of sport.


Words: Aaron Gourley, Editor at fcbusiness magazine

Image: PA Images