By any measure, the Premier League has been a triumphant success. Over 20-odd years it has grown from nothing to an international sports behemoth with annual revenues in the billions. Its games are watched in households from Boston to Beijing.
And yet there is something rotten in the state of football. For while the Premiership flourishes, the grass roots that nurture it are dying back.
It’s not easy to get financial information about the Premiership, but there can be little doubt that it is awash with money. In 2013/14 the combined revenues of Premier League clubs passed the £3 billion mark for the first time, over £1 billion more than their nearest European rival, the Bundesliga in Germany.
And the league is getting richer still. Last February it announced a live TV rights deal worth an extraordinary £5.1 billion. Add in an expected £3-4 billion for overseas rights, and that’s a total of £8-9 billion in expected revenues over the next three years.
But here’s a thing. According to the Save Grassroots Football campaign England has just 639 of the best all-weather artificial grass pitches, compared to 3,735 in Germany. That’s 3,096 fewer pitches where talented youngsters can gain the skills that might one day see them representing their country – and the enthusiasm for football needed to pay eye-watering Premiership ticket prices.
Pundits talk sagely about the “football pyramid”, meaning the thousands of teams that spread out in the various national, regional and local leagues below the Premiership. But in financial terms the pyramid is upside down, with billions of pounds of revenue teetering on a base that is increasingly insecure and liable to topple over. No wonder our national team has struggled to match Germany recently in international competitions.
What makes it worse is that the Premier League has repeatedly pledged to spend five per cent of its broadcast revenues on grassroots football. The true number is probably barely half of this—some would say lower still—and even that includes “solidarity” and “parachute” payments designed to share revenue among the very top leagues and cushion the often financially ruinous effects of relegation. Meanwhile Premiership funding has actually been cut to the Football Foundation, the charity which funds local club development.
The Premier League has attempted to counter criticism through its latest announcement of £1 billion over three years. But this includes a commitment by clubs to pay the living wage to full-time staff; highly commendable, but nothing to do with the grass roots game.
The facts are clear. The Premiership needs to honour its 5% pledge to the grass roots, and in a fully transparent and accountable way. If it does not, the Government should look hard at a new football levy on the Premiership and its members to raise the required sums. Our national game deserves no less.
[An edited version of this article appeared in The Times on 25 June 2015]