Premier League CEO Masters on fan behaviour, scheduling, crypto, ‘Premflix’ and more

For those still clinging to youthful dreams, staying up on school nights to watch films they have seen many times before or riding skateboards, 30th birthdays are often occasions when difficult questions get asked.

Haven’t most professional footballers been spotted and signed up by now? Do you need to see Apocalypse Now again, and on a Monday night? Aren’t you a bit old for that?

The Premier League turns 30 on August 15 and, while it is a fully-grown adult in the world of domestic football leagues, it too has questions to answer about what it has done and where it is going.

That was certainly the vibe at its London HQ on Monday, when Premier League chief executive Richard Masters sat down with journalists to discuss the season ahead.

“It does feel a bit like the beginning of a new chapter,” Masters opened. “Hopefully, we’re looking in the rear-view mirror at COVID, and that feels brilliant. Fans came back last season and they’re fully embraced. So, we start this new period in a really good position.

“We’ve got fantastic support around the world, with stronger commercial deals. We’re in growth and that’s important because it keeps the whole thing running. We need to protect everything that is brilliant about the Premier League and change the things that aren’t. We’ll do that from a position of leadership.”

Like the best parties, the conversation hopped from topic to topic, the hour flew by and most (we think) were left wishing it could have gone on a bit longer.

These are the issues highest on Masters’ to-do list — the bad habits the league must kick, the worlds yet to conquer…


Boys will be boys? 

Monday was the morning after the night before in terms of England’s triumph at the Women’s Euros.

In the interest of internet security, we will not reveal the exact password for the guest WiFi at Premier League Towers but it is close to “Alessia Russo” and Masters warmly praised all that England’s players, the Football Association, manager Sarina Wiegman and her staff have achieved over the past month.

But the impeccable behaviour of the fans at the tournament did raise some unfortunate comparisons with what has been going on at men’s football matches of late. Is the Premier League doing all it can to make sure all feel welcome when its games begin again on Friday night?

“There’s no doubt the game still has its issues, but it’s so much safer and more inclusive than it was 30 years ago,” Masters said. “I really hope we do cater for the widest audience – that’s the objective, that’s what we talk to clubs about and the situation is improving year on year.”

With this mind, the Premier League has teamed up with the English Football League, which looks after the next 72 clubs on the ladder, and the Football Association to announce a crackdown on pitch invasions, the use of pyrotechnics at games, and fans’ drug use.

“Never have the three bodies been so quickly aligned on something,” he explained. “Last season, we saw a deterioration in behaviour. It’s still a small minority, but we saw some quite serious incidents — pitch invasions, the prevalence of smoke bombs and marine flares — and we need to push it back.

“We’ll still see incidents, of course, but that, unfortunately, will mean people will be banned and possibly face criminal prosecution. But we think we need to do those things to make sure the situation doesn’t get out of control.”

Despite more pitch invasions and pyro at Premier League grounds during some of last weekend’s warm-up games, Masters rejected the idea that things are already out of control. He did, however, admit the situation must improve.

“We’ve got a shareholders’ meeting at the end of September — we’ll be reviewing it then, “he said. “It’s not going to get stamped out overnight but what you hope to see is an improvement. We’ll keep it under constant review.”

Time management

The conversation about the Women’s Euros also led to a question about the fact the Premier League season after this one is down to start before the end of the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, which is scheduled from July 20 to August 20.

Masters pointed out that these clashes are almost impossible to avoid, particularly when world governing body FIFA and its European equivalent UEFA keep adding new teams and matches to their competitions. “It isn’t domestic competitions or leagues that are adding dates to the diary,” he noted.

Everyone in football is looking for more time: players, coaches, club executives, tournament organisers. In the same way that countries will fight wars over water, football’s rows are going to be about the calendar.

This row was heating up before the pandemic struck, with FIFA desperate to increase its revenues (and therefore its power) by further expanding the men’s World Cup and revamping its Club World Cup. It has managed the former — there will be 48 teams at the 2026 finals in the United States, Canada and Mexico — but COVID-19 got in the way of its attempt to host a 24-team Club World Cup, up from the current seven, in China last summer.

In the meantime, UEFA has successfully launched its Nations League format, reintroduced a third European club competition and gained approval for an expanded Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League from 2024-25 onward.

More, more, more.

Oh, and FIFA spent much of last year talking about holding the World Cup every two years, as opposed to every four.

“FIFA has had one foray into the calendar debate, retreated and will return,” said Masters. “We will be ready to meet them when they arrive.”

As part of the biennial World Cup plan, FIFA suggested reducing the number of international breaks by merging them into two or three longer windows, saying this will reduce the stop-start nature of the autumn calendar and reduce the number of air miles top players are clocking up.

“There may be some merit in that,” Masters said. “But a new international match calendar has to emerge in a short period of time.”

He has less time, however, for UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin’s suggestion that all domestic leagues should be reduced to a maximum of 18 teams, with only one cup competition per country.

“A cookie-cutter approach to league football, presumably to create some calendar space…” mused Masters. “Maybe that calendar space is going to be left alone for player recovery… or maybe not.”

Masters is far too measured to let journalists see his frustrations with the sport’s powers-that-be, but he did make another comment later on that made a similar point.

“We can only do what we can do,” he explained. “But we’re aware that if something negatively impacts on the Premier League, nobody else seems to worry.”


Pyramid politics

There will be executives at EFL clubs who read that last bit and think, “Yes, Richard. We know the feeling!”

Because just as relations between the Premier League and the game’s supranational bodies have been a tad strained of late, so have the Premier League’s links with the organisation it broke away from 30 years ago. Money was the cause of that split and it is the root of all rows ever since.

Roughly speaking, English football’s top flight used to share about a quarter of its commercial and media revenues with the rest of the game but, since 1992, that has fallen to more like 15 per cent, with a big chunk of the “solidarity” money going to a handful of clubs relegated from the Premier League in the form of parachute payments.

The value of these payments, which were intended to cushion the shock of relegation, has risen in line with the Premier League’s media deals, which have grown to such an extent that now only America’s National Football League can beat it for broadcast income.

Even with no growth in the domestic market, the Premier League was able to increase the value of its international rights by 30 per cent for the 2022-25 cycle. That takes the league’s central income from £9.2billion to £10.5billion over three years, and it means the Premier League’s share of the global media market for domestic football leagues grew from 40 per cent to 44 per cent.

This is very impressive, of course, and UK governments have usually just applauded whenever the league announced a new set of deals and thanked it for being such a successful export.

But a combination of bankruptcies further down the pyramid, pandemic-induced panic about more of them, and the “wantaway” antics of the Premier League’s six richest clubs have led to a change in attitude within government.

First, it commissioned former sports minister Tracey Crouch to conduct a fan-led review of the game’s governance and financial distribution, and then it announced it intended to introduce most of her recommendations.

Crouch was careful not to be too prescriptive on the money but she certainly encouraged the EFL to believe at least some of the parachute cash would be reallocated to the “share with everyone” pot and to think that pot would grow back to the pre-1992 percentage.

Almost nine months have passed since her report was published and a lot has happened in politics.

Not so much in football, though. Until now, perhaps.

“The fan-led review sets a series of challenges to all the bodies in football, and we’re trying to implement changes that meet some of the objectives laid out in the review, whether that be stronger governance, greater fan engagement or changes to the financial system,” Masters said.

“We had a meeting with the clubs last week where we discussed a holistic change to the whole system. So, that includes the financial regulatory regime, a reform of parachutes and also how much money would flow down the pyramid from the Premier League. All are under discussion.”

This holistic change has been dubbed a “new deal for football”, which seems apt for a league that is on its way to becoming majority-owned by Americans. But there is clearly some more negotiating to do.

“In regards to parachutes,” warned Masters. “I know they are quite controversial in the EFL but they’ve been around since the creation of the Premier League. They are a significant instrument to make sure promoted clubs can be competitive in the Premier League, and if they face sporting failure they don’t face financial peril.

“Any system has to deliver those things. And it is a system, you can’t just change one instrument.”

He then added it is still possible to get promoted without the help of a parachute payment, as Brentford, Leeds United and Nottingham Forest have recently proved. This will come as a relief to the 19 out of 24 teams in the Championship without that leg-up this season. The lucky five will not grumble, though: they know they are statistically three times more likely to go up than the rest.

But life is a series of compromises and the EFL is unlikely to make too much of a fuss about parachute payments for as long as Premier League sides agree to play in the EFL Cup, which currently has energy drink Carabao as title sponsor.

“Clearly, the biggest impact of (UEFA’s Champions League) reforms is on the EFL Cup, because of the loss of midweeks,” noted Masters, when asked about the EFL’s biggest media-rights money-spinner.

“We need to find a solution to that. If you talk to Premier League clubs, they want the competition to remain, with a Wembley slot (for the final) and a European place. But you’ve got to find a calendar solution.”

If the EFL Cup’s traditional two-legged semi-finals each January are your bag, our advice is to make the most of them while they last.

kelleher-liverpool

Rules, regs and (human) rights

While Crouch was willing to give the Premier League the opportunity to do the right thing in terms of the money without being made to do so, the Tottenham-supporting Conservative MP was less happy to leave the governance of the game in its current wishy-washy state.

She has called for the creation of an independent football regulator to oversee matters such as who is allowed to buy and run English clubs. At the moment, this process is controlled by the respective leagues, with the loosest of oversight from the FA, and the key barrier to entry is the owners’ and directors’ test (OADT).

There are actually two of them — the Premier League and EFL have their own versions — but they are very similar and Crouch wants just one.

“The OADT itself is part of an ongoing review,” said Masters. “Tracey said there should be a single test across the sport and we agree.

“So, we’re doing our own work and we’ll talk to the FA and EFL. We’re trying to strengthen (the test) and make it more transparent. Maybe in September we’ll have a new OADT to talk about with everybody.”

When pressed for possible changes, Masters said the Premier League would like to copy the EFL’s requirement for would-be chief executives to take the test, too, and also suggested the threshold for potential new owners to take the test would fall from buying 30 per cent of the concerned club’s shares to 25 per cent.

Technical stuff, then. But would it actually become harder to fail?

“It’s public knowledge we met Amnesty International and discussed (adding a human-rights element) with them,” he said, referring to nobody in particular. “It was a very helpful and informative discussion, but that’s one of the things we’re yet to agree on.”

There is one potential change that could exclude a certain type of owner.

“The amount of leverage in a buyout is part of the discussion,” he said.

The OADT is not the only corner of the Premier League handbook that could do with some attention, as the pandemic has caused some clubs to sail closer to the league’s profitability and sustainability winds than they or the league would have liked — Everton, for example.

They have so far managed to avoid any sanctions, though, thanks to a combination of the club trying harder to live within their means over the last year and the league giving all clubs some grace because of COVID-19’s various impacts on their budgets.

Everton claim to be particularly afflicted in this regard, which led to Burnley and Leeds threatening to take legal action against the league for not applying its rulebook properly. The league has rejected that accusation, Everton have denied breaching the financial fair play rules and Leeds lost interest when they beat the drop in May’s final round of games.

“The Premier League board is the ultimate body that looks at the implementation of the rules and it is independent of the clubs,” explained Masters, rejecting the idea it has been marking its own homework.

The board has changed a lot in recent months and it’s changing some more in the near future. But it’s independent of the clubs. The executive do the work — do the P&S (profit and sustainability) calculations — but the decision is made by the board.

“If people are concerned, they are very welcome to talk to the Premier League about it. But there’s never been a situation where we have explained to clubs the financial performance of another club. It’s a confidential process.”

Speaking of confidential, the league is involved in another ongoing investigation: the small matter of whether the country’s best team, Manchester City, lied to it about their P&S submissions for several years.

There is an investigation, and it’s still ongoing,” said Masters, saying nothing new.

“It will end, but I can’t go into it,” he added.

Richard Masters, Premier League, China

Out of the frying pan…

As if waiting for the government to reconstitute and decide what it wants to do about an independent regulator for the game is not stressful enough, Masters is also on hold for whoever becomes the next gambling minister, so football can work out where it stands on betting companies being allowed to sponsor the prime real estate on the chests of players’ shirts.

“There’s a political hiatus, so we haven’t taken a vote on it, but we’ve talked to clubs about voluntarily stopping shirt-front sponsorship for gambling companies,” he said.

“We do support the government in its objective to reduce online harms, and that includes the Premier League’s messaging around gambling more generally. But we haven’t got to the end of that yet.

“The clubs will adapt, they always do. If the future means having no gambling sponsors on shirts, we’ll find a way of dealing with that.”

By letting them put crypto companies on their shirts instead?

“The gambling industry was deregulated a number of years ago but a different approach is being taken now,” Masters sighed, because he saw this one coming.

“In the markets you’re talking about, regulation may follow. I don’t see a particular contradiction but everyone is aware of the situation in regards to crypto, NFTs (non-fungible tokens) et cetera, because other leagues and football institutions are getting involved.

We’re aware of the risks and we’ll build them into all of the decisions we make. We’ve had lots of debates with clubs, particularly around digital collectables.”


The future is… soon

Speaking of (newish) technology, our time with Masters, who has run the league for three years now, finished with another old favourite: the Premflix idea. Not that anyone wants to ape Netflix’s business model at the moment, as the streaming giant is showing itself to be a lot less recession-proof than old-fashioned football.

At the end of 2019, the Premier League toyed with the idea of trialling a direct-to-consumer streaming service in a suitably-sized overseas market. The suggested petri dish was going to be Singapore but not enough of the clubs fancied the experiment and they told the league to do another traditional licensing deal with the island’s broadcasters.

Two and a half years, and the worst of a pandemic, later, the league has still not bitten the bullet on binning the middleman and going straight to you, the fan, with a streaming proposition.

On the contrary, it has just done a record number of new deals with traditional broadcasters, cable operators, satellite channels and existing streaming companies. (Good) business as usual.

But there’s a catch.

“We have sold all of our international rights to third parties. In other words, we’ve licensed them as opposed to going direct to the consumer,” admitted Masters.

“However, we do have — and I can’t reveal where in the world — options to do various things. We’ve probably signed more long-term partnerships than usual – six-year agreements instead of three-year agreements – and there are options in some of those agreements to go direct to consumer in the name of the Premier League.”

When asked for more details about who, what, when and where, he laughed and said he regretted talking about it now but “in a very small number of deals, it’s possible for us to do certain things”.

So, if you live on an island where your Premier League provider has agreed a six-year rights deal with Masters’ sales team, well, you have a chance of being offered, at some point before 2028, the chance to pay the league directly for the right to stream games.

Australia, New Zealand, Singapore… we’re looking at you.

And with that, the party was over.

Don’t worry, though, the real action starts when Arsenal rock up at Selhurst Park on Friday to play Crystal Palace.

That’s the beauty of the Premier League, there is not much time for thinking about where things are heading — its beauty and its weakness, perhaps.

(Photos: Getty Images)

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Premier League CEO Masters on fan behaviour, scheduling, crypto, ‘Premflix’ and more

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