Which Came First: the Premier League or the Money for the Premier League?

I’m really just throwing this out there to see if anyone has better info or a better memory than me. Please comment with your thoughts.

The other day I was pondering on the formation of the Premier League and trying to work out which came first: the extra money or the decision to split from the Football League to get extra money.

Which was the cause and which was the effect? I’m not sure there’s an easy or clear answer. I think the simple view is: “Big clubs wanted more money; TV offered them more money; they set up the PL to get and keep more money.”

I’ve read what I can find on the net, and combined it with my hazy memories of 20-something years ago. In the late 1980s it seems ITV were the leading football broadcaster in the UK, at least in terms of money to spend. But, unlike the BBC, they had to worry about how many people actually watched, because they had advertisers to keep happy. This was at the time when it was just starting to be acceptable to put live league matches on TV in their entirety. The Football League had always been wary of this, thinking that it would affect attendances, which had been in gradual decline for 20 years anyway, due largely to hooliganism. It wasn’t that long ago that BBC radio couldn’t even say which match they were doing second half commentary on until the Saturday 3pm games had all kicked off, for fear that fans would think, “Oh they’ve got our game on – I’d rather stay home and listen to half of it on the radio than actually go.” Strange times.

Until the 1970s there was nothing but the FA Cup Final and England internationals as live TV matches. Then we had the big European matches and more cup games. By 1989 of course we had the famous night at Anfield on 26 May shown live, but that was still very much the exception.

A live football match on TV before the Premier League

A live football match on TV before the Premier League

So ITV’s plan was to make more from advertisers by featuring the big clubs more on TV. They wanted the freedom to show lots more Man Utd games than, say, West Ham. But to do that they needed a new TV deal, and to get a new TV deal that was to their advantage they needed a new league. So ITV encouraged a breakaway.

Of course the much-discussed football reason for starting a breakaway league was to help the England team by having our top players play fewer games a season. With 22 clubs in the top division and two domestic cup competitions, English clubs could easily play eight to ten more matches a season than German, Italian or Spanish teams.

FIFA were keen on this too, pushing the international football agenda as hard as possible, and trying to insist that the top leagues had no more than 18 teams. They were told where to go on that one, though. Nevertheless, the debate about ‘too much football’ and a slimmed-down top division had rumbled on for years, so in an effort to head off a breakaway the Football League actually decided in the mid-1980s to reduce the number of teams in the top division from 22 to 20. They did this in two stages, so for a single year in 1987-88 there were 21 teams – the only year in English League history the top division has contained an odd number of teams. (That year Chelsea also became the first club relegated from Division 1 by losing a play-off. A ‘first’ I’m sure they’re proud of in their history.)

Division 1 stayed at 20 teams until 1991, when despite the professed desire to help the England team, the number jumped back to 22. This, it appears, was for financial reasons: four more games meant four more paydays for the clubs, at a time when gate receipts were still the largest part of every club’s income. In the meantime, ITV had started their nudging towards a breakaway, and so it came to pass that in 1992 the 22 clubs of the old First Division resigned from the Football League and formed the Premier League under the authority of the Football Association.      

As I said, ITV wanted the freedom to show the big teams in big matches. That didn’t work out for them, because Sky butted in when the Premier League started in 1992, making a joint deal with the BBC for live matches and highlights, leaving ITV with just the rest of the Football League to broadcast. And there were still 22 top division teams to show on TV, but Sky didn’t mind that – they were of the opinion that showing more football would increase interest in it rather than reduce it. They appear to have been right. The number of teams was reduced to the present level of 20 again in 1995.

So who benefitted from the Premier League and everything around it? Not ITV, whose coverage of football remains at lower league standard 20 years later. Not the England team either, though in the midst of a couple of seasons of reduced numbers, England did reach the World Cup semi-finals at Italia ’90, their best performance since 1966. (I’d say that was entirely coincidental.) The extra money being pumped in has of course led to a much larger percentage of foreigners in the Premier League than in any other league I know of. I don’t think this necessarily hinders England as it has undoubtedly raised the standard, but it is often cited as a problem for the national team.

Did the clubs benefit? Well they got more money, but that just means they spend more money. Very few make profits. Owners? Some, like the Glazers, are benefitting, but most owners put money in rather than take it out (in Arsenal’s case, neither, though shareholders have of course profited).

I think the two big beneficiaries are Sky, who took a risk and built their mega-company on football, and of course the players and their agents and all the other hangers-on. When the Premier League started the average wage was £1,755 a week; now it’s over £35,000.

TV fans get a good deal, but the group that hasn’t benefitted (despite what David Dein said here – he’s such a liar) is the stadium-going fans, who pay higher prices than ever, both in actual pounds and in real terms and percentage of average income. There’s no reward for dedication.  

Twitter: @AngryOfN5


5 thoughts on “Which Came First: the Premier League or the Money for the Premier League?

  1. An interesting, informative, and imaginative blog. Get in!! Now this is the sort of blog I remember it to be when I occasionally came across it. Love it.

    The Premier League still doesn’t allow Saturday 3PM kickoffs to be televised live in the UK. Correct? That’s just insane. If they are that concerned about attendances falling maybe they could look at how the NFL does it in the US. Their matches are not allowed to be broadcast on local networks until a certain percentage of available tickets have been sold (Something like 70% I think) Or at least that is what I read somewhere.

    I for one find it hard to complain about the TV, and the foreign exposure. That is how I got to watch the game (and Arsenal) But they certainly should have some better regulations in place for how to use that money, and also, how to restrict the power TV has over everything on the administrative side.

    • The Saturday 3pm rule is to protect the attendances at lower league games. Far more chance of half the potential crowd at Burnley or Mansfield staying home to watch Man Utd v Liverpool than it having an effect on Arsenal v Spurs.

      • Aah. I see. That does make it more complicated. There have been similar issues in Asia, allegedly, where people don’t turn up to watch local matches because they’d rather watch the PL on tv. It isn’t easy to resolve, although some leagues did switch to having matches on the fridays, or saturday and sunday mornings. Not sure how well that worked out. My guess is, not very.

        The truth is that it wasn’t just the tv that caused low attendances. Not many people want to watch poor quality football anyway. I wonder if that is the same in England, and tv is just a convenient scapegoat. Those that want to go, will still go I think. These days you can always TVO a game and watch it later, and those that want to watch it live can always find a stream.

  2. Thinking back to that time, it was really a mess. If I had to put any answer, it would be that the potential for money, and the need for money came before the Premier League.

    The starting point for me would be 1983, when ITV got their act together and bought rights to broadcast matches over the whole network simultaneously. That gave ITV the possibility of making money from football selling national advert time.

    The ’88 renewal is where everything moved on. If I remember the BBC and ITV basically acted as a cartel, putting in a single bid for their rights, which left the league with a pretty crappy negotiating position. That was the first time SKY (well Murdoch) tried to crash the party, by outbidding the deal, but only for the first division rights.

    Not quite sure how the whole thing went down, but the BBC/ITV outbid Sky (not sure if ITV went back alone though). ITV did try to get a breakaway set up )like 10 clubs?), but it failed, possibly because I think the league agreed to change the split of cash so the first division got the lion’s share. ITV started showing more and more big teams to claw their cash back.

    I think that put the idea into the big clubs minds the potential revenue that they could get if you had competing bidders for the rights, and that they (the first division clubs) were pulling most of that cash in (from what I can tell, the deal in ’83 was £5 mil, in ’88 over £40 mil). The breakaway would give them power in the ’92 renewals,

    I cannot be sure, but I’d guess the deciding factor for a lot of clubs was the need factor. I cannot remember exactly when for sure, and the only source I have found says about ’90-’91, but the clubs knew what was coming in the Taylor report, and just how much cash they were going to need to upgrade and convert to all-seater grounds.

    That said, I’m not sure anyone thought that SKY was willing to bid over £300 mil. Bleeding cash and desperate, they bet on football saving their whole business. (I guess it helped that one of the big clubs’ chairman was heavily invested in making their hardware and had an interest in SKY getting the deal).

    As to the benefits? Got to have agree completely, SKY and the players (though to an extent that was more about Bosman than the cash), and the rest of the clubs the big losers, along with many of the fans.

  3. By the way, the 3pm ban came into place Long before TV could be a major issue (early 60’s) almost as a preemptive thing, with no evidence to back it up.

    Interestingly, a few years back when the stuff about pubs using non-UK decoders went to the European supreme court, part of the decision was about this. They decided that the FA/League etc had a perfect right to impose the ban, but none of the other big 5 leagues had one. Additionally, the Germans had studied the effects, and 3pm live games had no impact on attendances of other matches.

    What that means….

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