I like the idea of a 5 league 100 team structure at the top of England’s football pyramid. So full marks to the bods at the FA for putting the idea forward and starting the debate. It’s not a panacea for the challenges the game faces, but it does tick some important boxes – player (and spectator) fatigue, a more rational structure, more flexibility in the footballing calendar.
But it is clear that the debate is necessary and not straight-forward. Let’s take two specifics.
First, for all the positives, listed above, playing fewer games in a season is highly problematic for many clubs – well, most clubs actually. For my own beloved Brentford, currently resting at 29th in the pyramid (i.e. – top half of the current second tier) the loss of income that four fewer home games would lead to is highly significant, as the supporters have already made clear. – based on 2014/15 ticket income, removing those games makes for a loss to the club of £540,602.
There is of course a way round this – English football is hugely lucrative. The latest contract for Premier League TV rights is worth around £5.1bn over three years. Parachute payments are common place – so why not extend this culture of compensation to off-set the risk to clubs whose cash flow and profit-and-loss accounts are much more vulnerable than the premier league giants? As the much-respected @Besotted said, the sums involved are not, in footballing terms, so great – £12k off the weekly wage bill in this case.
A second issue is the possible rededication of Saturday afternoons as the time for football matches to take place , made possible by a sparser schedule of games. I recognise the appeal of this return to more straight-forward and less distracted times (although midweek floodlit matches also have strong support). But I fear such hopes are forlorn.
This is because part of the rationale for such huge sums being associated with football is its marketability. And that marketability requires a different approach to scheduling, increasingly with live football being shown on TV every day of the week, with kick-off times to maximise the audience (and advertising revenues for everyone but the BBC). Indeed, you could argue that football as whole is so leveraged that maximising financial returns is the only valid criterion – that seems to be the justification (for example) for Wembley Stadium’s marketing approach – the money spent of redeveloping the site has to be repaid.
And if there is more space in the domestic calendar, is that just to facilitate a European Super League which will do nothing to deliver a stronger national team or any of those prospective benefits for the clubs involved.
Crucially, for those hoping for the rededication of Saturdays, I suspect the price of a compensatory payment by broadcasters will be even more flexibility in scheduling.
Always assuming the FA’s motives were good, it’s a question of the best of ideas being subject to the law of unintended consequences!