Premier League clubs will meet on Thursday for their most detailed discussion yet about how the next couple of months will play out. Now that they’ve all agreed ‘contact-training’ can start, we’re within touching distance of the season getting up and running again.
On the table is a start date, a tentative fixtures schedule, an update on venues, the dreaded prospect of ‘curtailment, what to do if that is forced upon them and then - if there’s time - a conversation about some of the innovations that could be introduced to sex-up games played in empty stadia.
Finances will also be pored over. While huge losses to the Premier League’s clubs have been widely reported during this crisis, what has largely escaped attention is the damage suffered by the league’s broadcast partners - the most senior and long-standing of which is Sky.
Some clubs were genuinely shocked by the £330m rebate domestic and international broadcasters are due even if the season is completed, almost certainly because the clubs themselves have already spent that money. Additionally, they face a sliding scale of rebates beyond that; every week the season stretches beyond mid-July even more cash will have to be handed back. Still, that looks a whole lot better than emptying their pockets of £750m if the season is abandoned without another ball being kicked.
Even a GSCE-level glance at the broadcasters’ business models explains why it is not just the league whose cash-flow has been decimated by Covid-19. No live football on TV has led to the suspension of millions of subscribers’ monthly payments and there is no way of judging how many will return when it all starts again. Broadcasters also rely heavily on advertisers coughing up a premium to market themselves in and around ‘live’ games and associated programming. Finally, a relatively significant chunk of Sky and BT’s revenue depends on lucrative contracts with upwards of 40,000 pubs and clubs across England. The bigger ones are worth tens of thousands of pounds a year, contracts that have now been frozen for two months; three separate income streams which together add up to major, unrecoverable losses.
Of course, any match schedule, when it is finally agreed, will look nothing like it did pre-coronavirus and with games packed into a short space of time to get the season done, the Premier League product is diminished. A succession of back-to-back games without fans is all very well as far as getting the season finished quickly is concerned and maybe a sporting television bonanza of 92 games the viewer can gorge on but for the broadcasters it’s far from ideal.
Football coverage will inevitably be competing with other televised sports too - all returning simultaneously and all trying to grab attention at the same time. Before the crisis there would have been far less on offer to distract viewers. There is also pressure from the government to make many of the games not originally scheduled for broadcast free-to-air, which is yet another compromise being asked of the broadcasters.
So that is why, if and when football does return, you may find players, managers and clubs in general accepting a good deal more intrusion than they did under the old way of doing things. Why? Because the clubs are working on the assumption (or more accurately, hope) that giving the broadcasters more time and more intimate access might just persuade them to settle on a reduced rebate.
Although they may end up disappointed as one source said to me this week: “I don’t know where they got that idea from.”