Once a sport for the working class, English football is now a multi-billion industry with a mass of wealth at the top of the game: but what does all this new money at the top mean for the clubs at the bottom?
“When I was younger, if Crystal Palace were away we would go and see Tooting and Mitcham play, or Sutton United,” broadcaster Kevin Day tells me, “but now the entire focus of most fans and the media is the Premier League”.
When he’s not being neutral on Match of the Day 2, Kevin is a diehard Crystal Palace fan – he even held his wedding reception at Selhurst Park. However, he feels that the footballing landscape in his hometown of London has changed dramatically since his childhood.
“In north-east London, for example, Leyton Orient can’t begin to afford the sort of publicity that Spurs and West Ham get,” Kevin explains, “so it’s almost impossible for them to attract a new generation of younger fans”.
To find out more I spoke to Kieran Maguire, author of The Price of Football, he hosts a podcast of the same name which explores the impact of money on the game. And with recent transfer figures reaching as high as £192 million, football is as money-orientated as it has ever been. However, whilst the teams at the top of the world’s biggest sport are able to splash hundreds of millions yearly, what about those teams at the bottom who are struggling to even pay rent for their stadium?
The recent pandemic has been a blessing for some and a horrid curse for others. With clubs such as Chelsea managing to somehow turn a profit of over £36 million in the pandemic, other clubs were not as lucky as the footballing world lost Bury, Wigan and Rhyl, who all entered administration due to the devastating financial losses they took throughout the pandemic. This leads football fans to ponder: does the insane amount of money that surrounds the top of the game benefit the teams at the bottom?
I spoke to a lifelong Notts County fan, David, a season ticket holder for 56 consecutive years before the pandemic hit. “The money that has recently arrived in the English game is ridiculous”, he complained “and it’s only ever going to end up ruining the non-league clubs in England”. This is backed up by my own research: I discovered 78% of fans I asked think that money is ruining football and a further 89% think not enough is being done by top clubs to help support non league teams. Over recent years the “Big 6” in England have been freely splashing their cash for a wide range of players, with Chelsea recently spending over £257 million in the space of just 2 months. To a team like Chelsea that amount of money is nothing, but in comparison to League 2, £257,000,000 could buy the whole of League 3 and a half times over!
So are Premier League clubs hoarding money rather than supporting those below them? Actually, as Kieran Maguire explains, the answer might surprise you.
He tells me that although their is “somewhat” of a trickle-down effect from the money at the top of the game, it is not the big team’s responsibility to be supporting those at the bottom and in a “ideal world, clubs will be self-financing” but there are “many benefits” for smaller clubs and drawing the bigger teams in cup ties could provide some “essential funding” for those who need it. Kevin agrees – “The Premier League does in fact help the lower leagues even though technically they have no obligation to help non-league football” he tells me “There are clubs like mine (Crystal Palace) who build good relationships with local non-league teams because they think it’s the right thing to do, for example, offering to play friendlies against clubs who need money, but it’s easier to argue that PL money has affected non-league clubs in a negative way”.
Recently the Premier League united with the EFL to start a £250 million fund which is split between 72 clubs in those lower divisions. Whilst for some this was seen as a token of kindness from the Premier League, many saw this as a shallow act as in the elite footballing world £250 million would simply not be enough to keep many of the non-league clubs in England afloat. “I am not sure the teams at the top of the table should have to support those at the bottom.” Kieran tells me. Many fans were also curious, where would this £250 million even be spent? £50 million of it would be sent to help out the teams in League One and Two but even that would not be enough to save teams such as Wigan and Bury as they both entered administration in early 2020.
Although the so-called “Big Six” have been making hundreds of millions a year, in recent weeks we saw greed like never before as the top clubs in the world came together and announced the proposal of the European Super League. This led to the biggest expression of fan outrage the sport had ever seen. After hours of protesting and millions of tweets, football fans all around the country made their voices heard as the greed of the Big Six owners was put on display. Both fans and players came together to express their disgust, with one man being the major vocal point for the whole of the footballing world.
Ex-Man Utd player and now Sky Sports commentator Gary Neville spoke harshly of a Super League and condemned the owners of the clubs for joining at a time where some clubs are unable to pay their own players “In the midst of a pandemic and an economic crisis, with football clubs at National League level nearly going bust, furloughing players, with clubs on the edge in Leagues One and Two, these lot are having Zoom calls about breaking away and basically creating more greed? Joke”.
Kevin agrees: “Football is about emotion, it’s about family, it’s about identity; and the pyramid is about recognizing that each club, big or small, is massively important to its fans and its community”
Fans came out in the masses to support Neville’s comments as finally someone in power was standing up for the little clubs, something which we had rarely seen before. However, for many football fanatics, the proposed Super League was the definitive proof that the once dubbed “beautiful game” had been hijacked by money. Eventually, the decision to start the Super League would be at very minimum postponed, although the damage had already been done. For a lot of non-league clubs the Super League would be the end of them: they no longer had that end goal of being a Premier League team and competing against the best of the best; and that is where the problem lies.
The previously mentioned collapse of Wigan drew outrage from non-league fans as this opened their eyes up to the harsh reality of football as those fans know just how easily it could’ve been their club that would have entered administration due to their financial situation. “Football is not like any other business though,” Kevin Day told me. “It is absolutely shameful that for the want of around £30,000, small change for any top club, clubs are going out of business”. Fans in the millions called on those big clubs to help the footballing pyramid during the financially devastating pandemic. The Premier League earned an incredible £636 million from TV rights during the 2019/20 season, and the fact that not a penny of that was donated to those teams in trouble caused a massive uproar from fans. “The sheer naked greed of the power grab by the greedy six has opened many fans’ eyes” Kevin explains.
So, with the Premier League earning close to a billion pounds in revenue from the 2019/20 season, why is it that there are teams in England that are unable to even pay their own players? Although those teams who make the big bucks are not obliged to be helping those teams at the bottom, it does feel like it should be in the best interest of those teams to keep the footballing pyramid on its feet. So what can they do to help?
The obvious answer is to just give those struggling teams money. However, this may not be the best solution as the Covid-19 pandemic has shook up grassroots football in England and made it almost impossible for up and coming footballers to be able to get access to things such as trials and a consistent training schedule. So for those teams at the top to help those at the bottom requires putting in a plan to help grassroots football. Some good news is that the FA has recently launched a multi-million pound project to help grassroots football as they have committed over £20 million to those who need it.
“There is an increase in concentration to what is happening at the elite level and that has led to a total ignorance of what is happening in the lower leagues” Kieran points out. He tells me that the government believes that because of the insane amount of money at the top of the game this has led to local government providing “little support” to grassroots football with a lack of funding for things such as local football pitches and facilities.
With the return of fans expected soon, it appears that the financially-draining pandemic is coming to an end and those clubs who have been struggling for months now will finally be getting some financial relief. However, this pandemic showed to the whole of the footballing world that the so called “Big Six” in England care for only themselves, and their reputation will now be forever damaged by how little they did to support the smaller clubs in England.