'The game has been transformed': Premier League CEO reflects on 30 year anniversary

Credit: PA/ITV News

When the Premier League launched 30 years ago to the soundtrack of Simple Minds’ Alive and Kicking and with the Sky Sports tagline "A whole new ball game" few predicted the behemoth it would become.

It felt like the old first division was just being given a fresh lick of paint with some new branding and a slightly self-conscious launch video.

In the team photo with the club captains there wasn’t a coloured pair of boots in sight.

“It’s been a hell of a journey,” the league’s latest CEO Richard Masters tells me.

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He’s not wrong. The best paid player in 1992 earned £10 thousand per week; last season it’s estimated the top earner was getting north of £400 thousand.

Sky paid £304 million for the UK television rights at the start of the Premier League; the latest deal shared by Sky, BT and Amazon Prime is worth £4.5 billion. Yes, billion. And that does not include the overseas rights which for the first time have topped the domestic figure.

“The game has been transformed in the past 30 seasons,” says Masters.

“The game has its problems, but we get full stadia, it’s much safer and more inclusive now and England doesn’t lag behind its European counterparts.”

He claims that while the league is now routinely attracting the world’s top talent, the riches it generates has also helped the national team.

“The academy system, which the Premier League has invested so heavily in over the last 10 years, is now generating a really fantastic group of young, technically gifted players that just weren't around 30 years ago when the Premier League started.”

So, where does Masters’ vigilance need to be focussed now? There’s the ever-present threat of a breakaway European Super League of course and then there are the fortunes that sovereign funds or supremely wealthy individuals are willing to part with for a piece of the action.

Russian oligarch Roman Abramovic was forced to sell Chelsea, but elsewhere the Saudis have only just got their feet under the table at Newcastle United; whereas Abu-Dhabi owned Manchester City have dominated the league since the change in ownership there at the beginning of the last decade.

Cries of "sports-washing" - the use of sport to improve tarnished reputations - are never far away.

Masters tells ITV News the 30 years have been "a hell of a journey"

The size of parachute payments to relegated Premier League clubs has always been contentious on anti-competitive grounds and that looks like being sorted soon, so the distribution is more equitable. 

Masters also believes he must be wary of those that run the game outside the UK; as they try to expand their control.

“At European level we've seen financial reform, financial regulation, and reform with competitions.

"We've seen FIFA want to get involved in changing the global competition structure and a global calendar.

"So, we need to make sure that at all times, domestic competitions aren’t forgotten about and the voice of the leagues, and the cup competitions is heard and are preserved because that's what I think is the lifeblood of football, certainly in this country.”

We’re talking as the excitement following England’s women’s stunning Euros win is still simmering.

Is there anything the Premier League can learn from what we’ve seen over the past month?

“The atmosphere in the grounds is probably the thing that stands out to me. It is possible to really enjoy a football match without that tension.

"Obviously, we want a raucous atmosphere in the Premier League, it’s always been that way and long may that continue, but I think there are things that we can learn from the women’s game and the success of it.”

A young Arsenal fan in the stands before the Barclays FA Women's Super League match at the Emirates Stadium. Credit: PA

Masters says there are talks ongoing with the FA about taking over the Women’s Super League (WSL) from them but so soon after the Euros success was not the time to make any details public.

He rejects claims that Premier League clubs are only half-heartedly behind the women’s game and that, as they don’t play every game in the club’s main stadium, the perception is it is a second-rate product.

“We saw 87,000 people turn up to the Women's Euro final on Sunday, it doesn't necessarily translate that that will happen every week in the WSL.

"What's better, a packed 15-thousand-seater stadium that has been invested in by the club or a half full Old Trafford? I don't know what the answer to that question is, but I think is one that needs to be wrestled with.”

Before long then it sounds like we might see a new Premier League evolve; and perhaps in 30 years we’ll be reflecting on its success and exponential growth.

It’s unlikely though we’ll be reminiscing about a cheesy launch video; with the Lionesses that just wouldn’t happen.

Gala anyone?