In 2018-19, Huddersfield Town earned more TV money for finishing bottom of the Premier League than Bayern earned for winning the Bundesliga or Juventus earned for winning Serie A.
To most observers this might seem a mildly diverting or comical detail. To an arch-capitalist like John Henry or Joel Glazer it is a market anomaly and potential opportunity.
The so-called Project Big Picture, leaked and promptly rejected in the course of last week, represents their vision of how the money the Premier League lavishes on clubs like Huddersfield could be put to better use.
Instead of creating an absurdly over-rewarded tier of clubs in the bottom half of the Premier League, why not allow most of that money to trickle further down the football pyramid? Such redistribution would make the game more sustainable on a national level, while giving moral cover to the top clubs to bend the political and economic rules further in their own favour.
Everybody wins - except for the group of Premier League clubs that was frequently referred to last week as the “bottom 14”. It is a highly misleading title, since these clubs make up the “bottom 14” of the highest-earning league in the sport. They’re positioned near the top of the world football food chain, just not the very top.
Henry and Glazer's plan represented a pincer move against this small, prosperous group of clubs by an alliance of the even smaller group of super-wealthy clubs above them and the masses of penniless dispossessed below. In this project of redistribution, let nobody be in any doubt about whose money had been earmarked to be redistributed.
The Premier League's vaunted competitiveness could easily be mistaken for well-paid mediocrity
The traditional argument to support the current way of doing things – which has led to Premier League also-rans earning TV income on a par with superclubs elsewhere in Europe – is that this egalitarianism is itself the secret of the league's success. In theory, the high incomes of the 14 lead to strength in depth, engendering a unique competitiveness that sets the Premier League "product" apart from its rivals. The rewards accruing to the 14 are therefore an essential component of a virtuous circle.
Does this account still correspond to reality? In the past three seasons the title-winning teams have averaged a historically unprecedented 99 points. Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool have all set or matched all-time records for consecutive wins while on their way to winning recent titles. This vaunted competitiveness could easily be mistaken for well-paid mediocrity.
One man who has done more than most to make the case for the 14 in recent weeks is Steve Parish, part-owner and chairman of Crystal Palace. His column in yesterday's Sunday Times was headlined: 'Why we had to say no to Project Big Picture.'
“We already have an amazing product and in my view we tinker with it at our peril,” Parish wrote, “The founders of the Premier League understood, and devised a constitution that prevented radical, ill-considered change.”
It was amusing to hear the "founders" of the Premier League written about in the reverential tone US constitutional fetishists reserve for Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Even more amusing was Parish's attempt to frame Palace as somehow the defenders of the struggling smaller clubs, rather than prime beneficiaries and entrenched partisans of a system that works well for Palace and 19 other clubs in the Premier League, and badly for 72 others.
“While I represent Crystal Palace around the table I’m acutely aware we are also a proxy for the 72 EFL clubs,” he wrote, “and we have a duty of care to the game in everything we do”.
Duty of care? Only two weeks earlier, beneath the headline ‘No other industry is asking firms to bail out competitors,’ Parish told Sunday Times readers that it was unreasonable to expect Premier League clubs to bail out clubs struggling further down the food chain: “The supermarkets aren’t instructed to help the corner shops,” he wrote.
But if two weeks ago Parish had described the league as a bleak, dog-eat-dog struggle for survival, yesterday he portrayed it as an idealistic community of dreamers. “What keeps us going is the dream of building our clubs through the right investment, acumen and sprinkling of luck to rise to a new level,” he wrote. Examples of clubs that have lived the dream: Chelsea and Manchester City, who “have driven themselves to new heights. Financial investment was important, but they spent wisely, appointed great managers, recruited well and built fantastic youth systems.”
Premier League egalitarianism
This gushing description of how these clubs have “driven themselves” to their current heights jarred with Parish’s reference in the “supermarkets” column to “a very subdued transfer market where only the state-owned or uneconomically run clubs are spending significant sums.”
Yesterday's "M23 Derby" offered a chance to see the fruits of Premier League egalitarianism in action, as two members of the 14, Palace and Brighton, faced off at Selhurst Park. "The combination of jeopardy and glory are essential to what we believe to be sport" Parish had written in the Sunday Times.
If jeopardy and glory are his watchwords he needs to have a word with his manager. The annual Global Sports Salaries Survey carried out by sportingintelligence.com reckons average first-team pay at Crystal Palace to be more than £2.8 million per man (these days it pays better to play for Palace than the multiple Superbowl-winning New England Patriots). Unfortunately, spectacular salaries did not translate into spectacular performance. Roy Hodgson's millionaires could muster only one attempt at goal – on or off target – in the entire 90 minutes, and that came from the penalty spot.
Right now football is frozen in a holding pattern, cranking out the games and groping towards a hoped-for return to normality in the future. Everyone can feel that big change is coming, which is why people are rushing to present their ideas for what the future might look like. Anyone who isn’t thinking ahead is probably getting left behind.
The interesting thing about Project Big Picture was that for the first time, the agitation of the richest clubs for a greater share of the rewards – a perennial theme of the Premier League era – came wrapped in share-the-wealth populism: let’s divert more of the money to the forgotten 72, at the expense of the pampered and flabby 14. Do the 14 have a convincing riposte?