These are unprecedented times for everyone, and English football has never been under a greater threat. Despite the Covid pandemic threatening to derail summer spending, we have still seen over £1bn spent on transfers throughout the premier league. Yet, what the virus has highlighted most clearly is the perilous financial situation clubs away from the top tier are facing.
The gulf in finances between the Premier League and lower down the pyramid has grown exponentially in the last 30 years but has come into even greater focus in 2020. The business models of many clubs were already seen as risky. Many spent above their means in the hope of reaching the promised lands of the Prem. Championship clubs spent 107% of their revenue on wages. This model is unsustainable even when stadiums are full every week, but with the strain caused by Covid, we are going to see many clubs go under.
Away from the Championship, the picture is bleaker still. The lower the leagues are, the higher percentage of revenue that gate receipts make up and they live hand to mouth. The ban on fans attending games until at least March has now left many of them on the brink. The odd club may be able to cash in on a home-grown talent, such as Birmingham selling Jude Bellingham for over £20m. The majority though, are going to need outside support to survive. We have already seen Macclesfield be liquidated and many are soon to follow.
Many people don’t see this as too much of an issue due to the eye-watering wages of the Premier League. However, this isn’t applicable to everybody. The average wage in League 2 is £40k a year. The majority of these players will be under 30, trying to support a family and on short term contracts. One bad injury has the potential leave them destitute and few will have other qualifications to fall back on.
However, it isn’t just about the players. Clubs are cultural institutions. Many of the lower league teams were formed in the 1890s and have over a century of history and traditions associated with them. They are also prominent in the community. 44% of 11-15 year olds in the UK play football regularly. Many are attached to the youth teams of these clubs. If they are allowed to disintegrate, there’s going to be hundreds of thousands of children missing out on the physical, mental and social benefits of playing football regularly.
The Premier League doesn’t care about lower down the pyramid. They are happy to poach the best players for cheap prices but for the rest of the time they will neglect the greater interests. An oft cited excuse is trickle down economics. The riches generated by the Premier League will filter its way down the pyramid. However, the gulf simply gets wider and wider as wealth is concentrated by an elite group. Burnley manager Sean Dyche recently came out and said you wouldn’t expect successful restaurants to bail out the failing ones. This summed up the attitude of many at the top to the EFL’s call for a bailout.
With this impasse, it is time for the government to get involved. To their credit, the £10m loan to the National League has allowed their season to get underway.
The infrastructure to allow the clubs to survive needs to be put in place. It wouldn’t take too much technical wizardry to allow clubs to stream their games to their season ticket holders. This has been tried in the Championship but has been plagued by technical problems. It wouldn’t take much of a concerted effort to fix this and apply it to all clubs.
At the start of the pandemic, Matt Hancock singled out footballers to take a pay cut in a lazy attempt to create a scapegoat. However, players like Marcus Rashford, Jordan Henderson and Ben Mee have been exemplary in areas which have highlighted government failures.
We are now at a critical point. It would be an easy PR victory to save football’s ecosystem. The £250m asked for isn’t much compared to the £600m loans given to luxury fashion brand Chanel, pharmaceutical giant Bayer and oil firm Baker Hughes. It is hard to imagine anything more culturally significant to the UK than football. The arts industry has already been left devastated without any support, the same cannot be allowed to happen to the people’s game.