The Premier League’s PR troubles could have been easily avoided

By Sam Blainey February 16, 2015 10:30 am

It was probably not the reaction that Richard Scudamore, the Chief Executive of the Premier League, expected. His organisation had just clinched a record-breaking deal worth over £5bn to show live football on TV for three years. Yet instead of the anticipated garlands and bouquets he faced difficult questions and truculent cynicism.

Scudamore himself professed surprise at the size of the TV deal, yet surely he knew that broadcasters would bid big money for the Premier League. There was competition for the rights, and televised sport has become increasingly valuable in recent years: you did not need to be a genius to anticipate that it might be payday for Premier League clubs.

So why was the Premier League’s communications strategy so lousy? Questioned about the sloshing of TV money into the game when ticket prices, for example, are at all-time high, Mr Scudamore had no answer. He seemed surprised that people should expect an even richer Premier League to make ever better commitments to what is vaguely termed “corporate social responsibility”. Pointing out that the Premier League spends over £50m a year on grassroots projects didn’t seem to cut much ice: it doesn’t sound like a very big amount next to £5bn.

Worse, there did not appear to have been any thought as to how the politicians would react. Labour’s shadow sports minister Clive Efford said it would be “nothing short of criminal” if more money didn’t find its way to the lower leagues, and the Conservative sports minister Helen Grant said there must be “increased benefits to clubs lower down the football pyramid” as well as fans.

The Premier League may be guessing – perhaps correctly – that this is all hot air in the few months before an election. Nobody is going to change their vote based on what political parties might do for football fans. On the flipside of that, though, nobody is going to mourn the League should a future Government turn their sights to them – an easy, very rich, not particularly likable target. If Mr Scudamore wants a potential vision of the future, he needs only to look at the banks.

It wouldn’t have taken much effort to head this off. A meeting or two with senior politicians in the week before the TV deal announcement to brief them, a commitment to at least set up a review into a particularly contentious issue – ticket prices perhaps – and most people will have been a bit more content.

If arrogance and a tin-ear characterise the Premier League, then the football clubs that play within the competition are not much better. My club, Arsenal, are currently locked in a slow-burning PR disaster thanks to their refusal to pay the living wage to their contractors. Hiding behind the impossibly awful formulation that “Our employee remuneration packages exceed the requirement” of the living wage campaign, Arsenal have stubbornly refused to yield to pressure.

Unfortunately for them, the club are based in Islington, home of the well-connected liberal with a social conscience. Arsenal therefore got a kicking in a recent Independent on Sunday article (to follow up an equally angry front-page in the Evening Standard the day of the Premier League TV announcement), in which they were portrayed as greedy, heartless and hopeless: they managed to “lose” letters on the subject delivered to them by a local campaigner (and part time Anglican priest down the road).

It’s difficult to overstate the damage this does to Arsenal. Not only does it overshadow all their other work (their Arsenal in the Community scheme is now over 25 years old) but they have become a lightning rod for the unfairness of modern life – how better to illustrate this than the divide between what Alexis Sanchez earns, for example, and what a cleaner at the Emirates Stadium receives. The club also charge the highest-ticket prices in the UK, yet somehow can’t find the cash to pay their hourly contractors a bit more an hour. It’s a sorry state of affairs.

What is worse is that Arsenal will eventually give in, grudgingly and under pressure from local and national politicians. An easy PR win if they’d done it six months ago has morphed into an issue that could do long-term damage to their image.

Football does not exist in a vacuum, however much its executives may want it to. The Premier League is the English Premier League, playing in a country where great disparities between the rich and the poor are a burning electoral issue. Responding to the criticism around the Premier League’s TV deal, Mr Scudamore huffed that the league and its clubs were not charities and if people want the living wage to be paid then “that’s entirely for the politicians to do.” Thanks to his actions, Mr Scudamore may find that his words are more prescient than he thinks.

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