MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - The Premier League’s 20 clubs meet on Wednesday with the thorny issue of television rights cash distribution up for discussion as the big clubs seek more of the revenue from foreign deals.
The most commercially successful league in the world currently splits its TV revenues from international deals equally among all clubs.
Last season each club received around 39 million pounds ($51.7 million) from overseas television deals.
The plan, leaked to British media, foresees 35 percent of the foreign revenue being split according to league position - so-called merit payments.
A two-thirds majority, 14 clubs, would need to vote for any change and while the smaller ones have opted not to make their opposition public, one official noted that “Turkeys don’t usually vote for Christmas”.
The issue has been simmering for years and former Liverpool CEO Ian Ayre has led calls for clubs to be able to sell their foreign rights on an individual basis which would allow the big ones to cash in more on their global marketability.
That is not on the table on Wednesday but the smaller clubs fear that ending equal payments could lead to greater inequality down the line.
Football finance expert Rob Wilson of Sheffield Hallam University believes the relatively equal distribution of revenue helps make the Premier League the most competitive in Europe.
“All the data we have on European leagues has the Premier League coming out top in terms of competitive balance. It is not an equal distribution system but it is a relatively equal one,” he told Reuters.
“It means the smaller clubs can invest in the transfer market and then can compete against the top six and put a good game on, there is a spectacle there and that is what the broadcasting companies pay for. If I am brutal the top clubs have forgotten about that,” he said.
The British revenue, from deals with Sky Sports and BT Sports, is not entirely distributed on equal basis.
According to the league’s figures, 706 million pounds was split evenly among the clubs last season while the remaining 815 million was handed out in facility fees which take into account the amount of times a team is shown live on television while merit payments reward a club’s final position in the league.
Champions Chelsea received nearly 151 million pounds while bottom club Sunderland pocketed just over 93 million.
While chairmen from the smaller clubs have opted to keep quiet before Wednesday’s meeting, Burnley manager Sean Dyche believes it would be mistake to reduce the finances of smaller clubs such as his.
“Do I think it should be an even split? Yes, just for the reasons of competition. We know it’s an imbalanced competition anyway, if you make it even more imbalanced, and money rules the competitive element of top level football, so if someone is getting even more, and someone gets even less, it’s going to distort it,” he said.
“We all love to see the real super powers of world football going head to head, but I still think English and British fans love to see the smaller clubs and middle clubs over a season. I think to keep it as level as you can is a better way of doing it,” added Dyche, whose team sit sixth in the league and upset Chelsea on the opening day.
“It could get so distorted that it doesn’t stay a really competitive league. The best thing that happened to football for me was Leicester winning the league. It gave it a real shake up,” he added, referring to Leicester’s shock Premier League title triumph in 2016.
Wilson agrees and notes that the conflict seems strange given that only just over a third of the foreign revenues are proposed to be divided by league position.
“I can’t understand what difference they think an extra 10-15 million is going to make? Manchester United have just turned over half a billion, what is an extra 10-20 million going to make a tangible difference to how they perform domestically or in Europe?,” he said.
”It is incredibly greedy and wildly unnecessary when you consider why ultimately the television companies are buying the league. It’s not just because they want to broadcast the ‘Big Six’, it is because they are playing against competitive smaller teams.
While the top clubs certainly take centre stage on international broadcasts of the league, Kyle Martino, commentator and analyst on NBC’s broadcasts in the United States, believes the league’s international appeal is about much more than the top six.
“The big club power is nothing new, it created the Premier League we love today, but it wouldn’t be the Premier League we love today without the underdogs,” he said.
“Leicester is one of the greatest sports stories of all time, so for me the underdogs deserve equal share,” he said.
($1 = 0.7548 pounds)
Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Ed Osmond