For Manchester United and Liverpool the failure of their plans to restructure English soccer couldn’t have gone much better.
On Wednesday, the 20 Premier League clubs ”unanimously rejected” proposals which reportedly handed smaller clubs a greater portion of English soccer’s riches in exchange for Manchester United and Liverpool (amongst others) getting more power.
But guess what? That didn’t matter.
The people they wanted on board, liked it, a lot.
Amongst the 72 English Football League teams there was “overwhelming support” for the plans from Lancashire to Kent, Yorkshire to London.
Beyond the smaller clubs a lot of other people really, really like some of the ideas. Especially journalists, the likes of Rory Smith at The New York Times
Manchester United and Liverpool’s plans to reorganize English soccer, giving themselves more control in the process, are generous to the less wealthy.
There’s an immediate guarantee of £250 million ($317 million) for lower league clubs, as well as more cash for women’s teams and grassroots initiatives.
But the American owners of Manchester United and Liverpool are hardly saviors of the traditions of the English game.
They might be the famous neighbors of clubs in dire financial straits like Wigan Athletic or Bolton Wanderers. But their troubles aren’t registering on the Americans’ radars.
The two giants barely lifted a finger when another local club Bury went out of business in a pre-coronavirus world.
Manchester United and Liverpool’s sudden bout of generosity is driven by self-interest and uses an age-old strategy: divide and conquer.
FC Hollywood vs community clubs
Manchester United, Liverpool and indeed the rest of the Premier League’s big six Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur have a problem: they can’t force the other club’s in the league to do what they want.
The democratic structure of England’s top division is one vote per club, so big decisions need to get a majority vote.
As the gap between rich and poor clubs has increased, the differences between the big six and the rest have become more pronounced.
The founding chief executive of the Scottish Premier Football League and owner of consultant Albachiara, Roger Mitchell, describes it in business terms as two products bundled together that don’t match; the big six ‘Hollywood clubs’ with 14 community teams.
“There is the product for a certain audience of Hollywood clubs, [they are] global, probably much more leaning towards younger audiences that are more celebrity-driven.
“Then there’s a product that’s around tradition, it’s around community, it’s around the glory of beating your rival.”
The problem for the Hollywood clubs is that they can’t get the rule changes they want to be approved because they don’t have enough votes.
Whether it’s trying to split the money based on league position or seeking five substitutions rather than three, the 14 other teams keep getting in the way.
Project Big Picture would rip that up and give more voting rights to the big six.
Turkey’s don’t vote for Christmas, so this dynamic has little chance of changing while the current system exists.
However, by offering a tasty deal to the 72 clubs outside the Premier League Manchester United and Liverpool have bought themselves a majority.
The rub is these clubs don’t get to vote on the issue itself, it’s just pressure they can apply to those with the power.
By the story leaking, conveniently on an international weekend when there is no top-flight soccer to discuss, that process has started.
Ahead of this weekend’s matches all the owners and managers of the smaller clubs have had their say.
We can only speculate on exactly how chief soccer writer at the Telegraph Sam Wallace got his hands on ‘Project Big Picture’ last week, but the level of detail suggests the source wasn’t someone with an ax to grind.
But this is just the start.
Why pressure will grow for Manchester United and Liverpool’s plans
The coronavirus pandemic is unlikely to recede enough to enable fans to return soccer games in England this season.
That will be a hammer blow for the revenue at lower-division teams whose business models are more reliant on income from spectators.
There has already been a clamor for government bailouts and a more even redistribution of top-level television revenue.
But none of the suggestions are as clear and immediate as Liverpool and Manchester United’s masterplan.
The worse the situation gets for these clubs the more support Project Big Picture will win.
Who needs to convince 14 well-financed Premier League teams when you have 70-odd desperate clubs across the country on your side?
When some of them start being liquidated the noise the others generate will grow louder.
“There’s no altruism in [soccer] from anybody, everybody will speak to their own book and their own agenda,” says Mitchell.
“It’s totally cynical. It’s totally opportunistic.”
Mitchell knows a thing or two about the way these things work having run Scottish soccer for four years and devising the concept of combining smaller competitions across Europe into an ‘Atlantic League.’
He’s very clear on one point though, Manchester United and Liverpool are not concerned about the smaller clubs.
“They don’t care about them,” he continues, “they’re using their difficulties for a power-play. And they’ve packaged up an offer that on the surface is significantly less attractive than the headlines suggest.
“The £250 million ($317 million) is an advance really is a loan on future media rights.
“They’re basically saying; ‘look we will sell your product with ours, that probably means we’ll get some bundling and positive effects on the value. That means you’ll make some more money. Oh, and by the way, we’ll give you an advance of that money.”
Whether those it’s being offered to care about that right now is another matter.
Their desperation is the reason this won’t be the last we hear of Manchester United and Liverpool’s Project Big Picture.