Project Big Picture – a sugar-coated cyanide pill

We were all taken by surprise last weekend by the Daily Telegraph's publication of a leaked document titled "Project Big Picture" which proposed major changes to how the game is funded and regulated. The driving forces behind the project are Liverpool and Manchester United owners John W Henry and Joel Glazer and it appears that most Premier League clubs were unaware of what was going on. EFL Chairman Rick Parry, however, was closely involved in the planning and is an enthusiastic advocate of the changes.

It didn't take long for the proposals to become dead in the water. To come to fruition they would have needed support from a majority of Premier League clubs and, as the proposals would limit the powers of those clubs and pose a threat to their continued Premier League existence, it wasn't surprising that they were voted down unanimously.

However, this doesn't mean that they should be ignored or shrugged off. They may well return in a slightly watered down version in the near future.

The main proposals were:

  • £250 million immediately to the EFL to compensate its clubs for lost matchday revenue, deducted from future television revenue earnings and financed by a loan taken out by the Premier League
  • Special status for the nine longest serving Premier League clubs – and the vote of only six of those “long-term shareholders” required to make major changes, including amending rules and regulations, agreeing contracts, removal of the chief executive, and a wide-ranging veto including on club ownership
  • Premier League to go to 18 clubs from 20. Two sides automatically relegated from the Premier League every season and the top two Championship teams promoted. The 16th place Premier League club in a play-off tournament with the Championship’s third, fourth and fifth placed teams.
  • £100 million one-off gift to the FA to cover its coronavirus losses, the non-league game, the women’s game, the grassroots
  • 8.5 per cent of annual net Premier League revenue to go on operating costs and “good causes” including the FA
  • From the remainder, 25 per cent of all combined Premier League and Football League broadcast revenues to go to the EFL clubs. Provision for 8 matches to be sold by clubs individually (outside of pooled agreement) internationally - thus reducing the pooled pot.
  • Six per cent of Premier League gross revenues to pay for stadium improvements across the top four divisions, calculated at £100 per seat and backdated ten years.
  • New rules for the distribution of Premier League television income, overseas and domestic, including proposals that base one portion on performance over three years in the league - a significant disadvantage for newly promoted clubs.
  • The abolition of the League Cup and the Community Shield
  • 24 clubs each in the Championship, League One and League Two reducing the professional game overall from 92 clubs to 90
  • A women's professional league independent of the Premier League or the FA
  • Financial fair play regulations in line with Uefa, and full access for Premier League executive to club accounts
  • A fan charter including capping of away tickets at £20, away travel subsidised, a focus on a return to safe standing, a minimum away allocation of eight per cent capacity
  • Later Premier League start in August to give greater scope for pre-season friendlies, and requirement for all clubs to compete once every five years in a summer Premier League tournament
  • Huge changes to loan system allowing clubs to have 15 players out on loan domestically at any one time and up to four at a single club in England

The Football Supporters Association issued a statement on Tuesday branding the proposals a "sugar-coated cyanide pill"

The proposals were also immediately the object of criticism from the government, the Premier League, the FA, supporters of "the big six clubs" among many, many others.

The only support came from clubs in the EFL. Burton Albion owner Jed Moxey claimed that support was virtually unanimous although this claim was quickly rubbished by Accrington owner Andy Holt. Nevertheless, it can't be denied that many EFL clubs could see benefits to themselves in what was on offer. An immediate share of £250m is very attractive in these straightened times. A 25% share of future broadcast income sounds nice. For those EFL clubs which don't harbour Premier League ambitions the rejigging of financing to produce apparently stable, increased revenue together with the imposition of a salary cap could mean greater financial security without a reduction in competitiveness.

But these benefits don't come free of charge. When we examine the strings attached they begin to look more like barbed wire.

The power grab - the ability of just six of the long term shareholder clubs to change the rules will inevitable lead to an even less competitive Premier League than we see now. Those heavyweights will be able to sell some of their own overseas television rights and thus decentralise broadcast revenues. They will be allowed to veto new owners and thus extinguish potential competition before it can materialise. They will be able to renege on their financial commitments a few years down the line and push through rule changes such as an end to relegation. Leicester winning the Premier League or Wigan the FA Cup will be confined to history.

For Charlton, particularly in the light of the ambitious optimism expressed by our new owner, the proposals represent a kick in the teeth. The same might be said for a lot of Championship clubs and probably also clubs like Sunderland, Ipswich and maybe Portsmouth. The drawbridge to the top level of English football would simply be ratcheted up a few more degrees by the reduction to eighteen clubs, the limiting of automatic promotion to two clubs and the unlevel financial playing field that newly promoted clubs would face.

CAST obviously welcomes the idea of the "Fan Charter" - which includes capping of away ticket prices, subsidised travel and a commitment to safe standing. We have been campaigning for these for years but not at any price, and certainly not at the price of the concentration of money and power in even fewer hands at the top.

CAST, along with supporters' trusts and fan groups the length and breadth of the country are very ready to consider changes to football’s structure but we agree with the FSA that  the place for that is the Government’s proposed fan-led review. The review has to include all interested parties – fans, clubs, leagues, players, match officials, the FA, and so on.

As the FSA statement (above) so forcibly concludes: "It is not acceptable for billionaire club owners to hatch a plan in secret and then try and use the fallout from a global pandemic to buy compliance from financially crippled clubs."

The Daily Telegraph was very dismissive of Project Big Picture and in particular the implied threat of the "big six" breaking away from The Premier League.

"The majority of EFL owners may well back Project Big Picture but they are reacting like a loved one would respond to a ransom note. They all want something they love to survive and any price seems worth paying. Spare them that Hobson's choice and cut the Big Six adrift instead if we must."