Yesterday, the epic that was Charlton 4 Sunderland 4 was twenty-one years old. Today, the two clubs meet again in a play-off final at Wembley, only this time for the final promotion spot in League One rather than for a place in the Premier League. How things have changed for these two since then. But we know that a lot can change in 21 years – and in football a lot can alter in far less time than that. In the second part of our three-part blog on the future of the leagues outside the Premier League, we look at why change is so important for all the clubs concerned.
How can clubs be expected to keep up with the rate of change needed in the modern world?
That world is seeing an unprecedented increase in the speed of progress in areas such as technology, and this has a huge impact on the way that fans and clubs engage with each other. But trends can shift in the blink of an eye – or in the time it takes Facebook to go from number one in the rankings to the bottom of the pile.
Without the answers at hand, it’s impossible to stay ahead but that doesn’t mean it’s pointless trying to at least keep up.
It just requires a different outlook for clubs. If, as the Independent’s article says, social media is the enemy that concentrates the minds of supporters on the big-6, then why can’t it also be a friend that gives smaller clubs unlimited and no-cost access to millions of fans they could never have reached in the past?
And football seems to be coping elsewhere, despite the media and casual fans obsession with the few clubs at the top of the rich-list.
If English football below the Premier League is in a terminal condition then you’d think a similar pattern would be emerging elsewhere. But it’s actually growing in most parts of the world. A new league has opened in the US; a step below the MLS and Canada’s professional league has just kicked-off too. There is growth in India and China to name just two and it’s possibly only some of the established European leagues that need to check falling attendances but that just means they have to change too. In addition to all this, women’s football is the fastest growing sport in the planet and there is a huge cross-over with the men’s game. Arguably, the potential audience for enjoying football has never been bigger. Not even arguably.
So, is this foreboding outlook just a future problem for England? Is our professional club pyramid too big to be sustainable in the long term? Well it’s done pretty well for over a hundred-and-twenty years and it’s always found a way to survive and thrive, in spite of the naysayers and the doom and gloom of commentators who use the growing gap in resources as their barometer of football’s long-term health.
Yes, of course the Premier League’s wealth skews the balance. Since 1992, the juggernaut has hoovered up most of the cash from broadcasting deals, but the deals kept getting bigger so MORE money came into the game; benefitting clubs at all levels. They can’t have it both ways – no one is forcing them to spend too much of it. They choose to do that.
The top six in England are trying to keep abreast or ahead of the other big European teams. But whereas many of those (such as Bayern, Juventus and PSG) have a monopoly on their domestic league, in England we have half a dozen contenders; all goading each other into spending higher amounts and thus maintaining the status quo.
It makes it almost impossible to break into. When a team like Leicester do just that, it not only gives everyone else a glimpse of the unlikely dream, but also makes the top clubs spend even more to ensure it never happens again.
So, there is an option for the rest to accept this and have an official PL2; basically, everyone from seventh place downwards. A league within a league – with no trophy except a Europa League place – and the odd chance of a cup win (or humiliation in the final if you’re unlucky).
This is obviously more exciting than it sounds. Except it’s not really about prestige, it’s back to the money. That’s what makes clubs risk their survival to get there and others to do anything they can to stay once they get there. It’s why clubs like Brighton fire their most successful manager ever for being a ‘significant risk to their status’.
Its why teams spend over the odds and take the risks. For every Wolves, there are others who don’t make it and spend years in recovery, if they ever do. The debt doesn’t go away even if the Premier League dream does.
So, in that respect, no – that future isn’t sustainable.
But change effects everyone. Those massive TV rights deals are forecast to fall next time around. The changes in the way we fans consume football are warning signs that the gravy train cannot continue to speed along as it has indefinitely. I’ve long felt that football – if it cannot stop continually following the money – will eventually destroy itself from the inside.
For the elite, that’s a long way down the track. For other clubs who’ve spent beyond their means, financial meltdown is a real and immediate concern. Even with all of the cash swilling around, the majority goes to players, agents and out of the game and even the country.
Every club outside the top six is therefore a relegation or benefactor’s change of heart from a slide that could end in oblivion with no club at all.
But that’s what the scaremongering always tells us will happen (but it rarely does).