The Premier League is such a cultural behemoth at this point that it can be easy to take it for granted: those inside it take for granted its massive economic cushions and sport-bending power, and those outside it know the vacuum it creates. In English football, it is the Premier League that has the power—it is brilliant and twisted and spiteful and greedy—and everyone else has to deal with it.
So, considering its impact, it’s quite a shock that nobody had ever really written a book about how this all came to be. In steps The Club, a book on the formation of the league written by Wall Street Journal stalwarts Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg, to illuminate the darkest corners of the world’s most popular league.
Packed with insight into the characters that make the game tick and the billionaire caricatures that keep throwing money at it, it’s really good—fun and depressing and interesting in all the right places. So we caught up with co-author Joshua Robinson to talk about it.
MUNDIAL: Is it quite daunting taking on writing about a subject that’s as well known the Premier League?
JOSHUA ROBINSON: That was definitely a challenge for Jon Clegg and me. We’ve covered World Cups together, and he was my editor for a while [at the Wall Street Journal]. So we talk about the Premier League constantly and the idea for the book sort of came about because, between us, we had a combined decade of covering the league and we thought this book doesn’t really exist... So when the 25th anniversary came around, and we were talking about issues surrounding the creation of the league and how it became where it is today. It was the Leicester season really crystallised a lot of this in our mind because 1) how was the Leicester City possible and 2) why doesn’t this happen more? Things like that. So we started talking about it and figured, alright, we’re going to explain how we got here in the Premier League. We set a rule for ourselves: we weren’t going to tell a story without being able to add some value to it. The most important thing for us was to figure out for us was what the narrative arc was going to be for this story.
There are a million ways to tell the story of the Premier League. You could do the craziest moments, the football, tactics, certain clubs... Pulling all of that together into one business narrative gave us the structure that was going to allow us to dig in and out of the stories we wanted to tell. Like I said, we weren’t going to tell the story that people know unless we could add value. For instance, the story of Cristiano Ronaldo leaving Man United, we thought it was quite important in the overall narrative of the Premier League. Really Cristiano was the last time that you could say the best player in the world played in the Premier League, without argument. His exit from United was a turning point, and to tell that story we spoke to a bunch of people that were at the meeting in Lisbon when Fergie asked him to stay one more year. Carlos Queiroz gave us tons of stuff. Same with the initial breakaway in 1991 and 1992: that story has been told a lot, but we wanted to make sure we went back to talk to all those people and get the definitive version.
It’s quite a knotty subject, the early days of the league. How did you go into the prospect of untangling that knot and talking to extremely rich people who could be, you know, a little ‘shady’ in their business practice?
Absolutely. I’ve never dealt with so many millionaires and billionaires in my life. And of course, these are people with egos, understandably, and the telling of the stories is often a case of listening, asking the right questions, and fact checking meticulously, going back and forth between them saying ‘well, that’s not how this person remembers it...’ and having to sort through it all to get to some form of the truth of it all.
Was that something you were a bit concerned about when speaking to the people behind these clubs? The myth-making and image-polishing aspect?
We know today that the Premier League is one of the most incredible platforms in the world for whatever brand it might be—whether it’s a video game console or an airline or a Gulf petrostate. So I don’t think there are any secrets about what people want to do when they put their names on the Premier League product because there are many other ways to make money that are less public, more effective, and less random as well. There is an element of wanting to use the Premier League to broadcast whatever it is you want to broadcast. And I think we didn’t have to look very far to understand that that was what a lot of people were doing, especially Man City. In fairness to the club, they were very open with us in a lot of respects. They gave us some pretty great access to their front office. One thing that really struck me was Ferran Soriano [Chief Executive Officer of Man City]: he’s very frank about how ambitious the club is and doesn’t necessarily see why a club as huge as Man City has a responsibility to ‘drag the smaller clubs with them.’
That’s been a huge criticism of the Premier League, the fact that it left ‘smaller’ teams by the wayside further down the leagues and the trickle-down of the giant Premier League economy hasn’t really benefited them. Did that concern you at all in the researching and writing of the book?
Yes and no. It depends how you look at it. You can say that today there is a Premier League moving at two different speeds. The big 6 and the other 14. The Big 6 are playing on planetary scale and the other 14, any of whom could be relegated in any given season, all know that and are really just playing to stay in the league year after year to keep the business ticking over. That is one criticism, but at the same time, even if you are the 17th club and you just scraped through to stay another year, you’re still making more money than PSG made winning Ligue 1 last year. So just by virtue of being in the Premier League, you are automatically one of the richest clubs in the world, which is a great thing for those 20 who happen to be in the Premier League, in that club, from one season to the next. But also as we all know, the risk of getting used to that kind of income and losing it can be completely destructive for a club.
There was a point you made in the prologue, where you mention the rise of the Premier League in the same breath as the dotcom bubble. Do you really think in the foreseeable that the Premier League could see some sort of bursting bubble effect?
Well, what we’re really seeing now—and really it’s for the first time in the Premier League’s history—is the existential tension between the top clubs and the rest. The Big 6 who are looking at the business model of the Premier League and really it was domestic TV rights driving the income. We are at a point now where, for the first time, in the last cycle the price of those rights began to go backwards. With that, the realisation has been that the real potential for growth is international TV rights. People in China, Nigeria, US, and Norway aren’t tuning in to watch Fulham v Huddersfield, really. They’re tuning in huge numbers to watch Liverpool, Man City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs, and United. And those clubs think, in that case, why are they splitting all that international TV money equally? All that came to a head last season when, for the first time, they altered the revenue distribution formula. Without getting too technical, like we say in the book, altering that recipe for the first time opens the floodgates to many more changes that we don’t know what they could be. It’s a bit like taking a chisel to the Ten Commandments; you can’t put that back. And so they’ve altered the formula that bought the Premier League temporary peace for a few years, with Big 6 having changed it and grab a slightly larger piece of that already huge pie. We all know it’s only a few years before they look again.
What we get is a situation where the Big Six are always asking for more money, and the other 14 have the voting block within the Premier League: you need fourteen to pass any measure, and they feel like they have less of a say than before. Then you have the threat of a Super League, another breakaway league, and this is a critical moment for the Premier League. Really, it’s how they handle the next few years that will determine whether this enterprise can stay in business in its current form.
We often take for granted the way the media represents football in this country and you’d be forgiven for thinking that there are only six clubs in this England. Do you think that it’s a book that could be read by people who are fans of teams outside the Premier League and maybe take some positives away from it? You know, besides ‘we were right: the system really is rigged’.
Absolutely. I don’t think it’s a doom and gloom picture at all. I think we tried to show in the book that, in many ways, the Premier League has been an incredible force for good for English football. There are obviously issues about watering down the authenticity of the game and its community roots. But at the same, time it’s important to remember that at the time the Premier League was formed, English football was at its lowest ebb, in a really dark period. You were taking a life in your hands going to games; stadiums were unsafe, there were too many stadium disasters in England—one disaster is already too many but you know they came with alarming regularity—it was an unwelcoming place to go. Something that gets overlooked is that you were not paid very much attention as a fan by the clubs. No one was investing in the stadium or the match day experience, and the standard of football was not great either if we’re being honest. You know, the Premier League has kind of boosted supporters in England with many influxes; talent from abroad, the ability to watch more football than ever before on TV and live in better stadiums. Obviously there has been a hefty price to pay, tickets are more expensive than ever, and that’s a real sticking point because if the clubs wanted, they could completely subsidise it. You look at the fraction of revenue that match day income is today and it pales in comparison to what they are making from TV.
Why do you think that clubs are so reticent to make those subsidies?
There are two things. One is simple: Premier League clubs will never willingly give up a source of revenue. The other is dicey territory: the clubs realise early on in the Premier League era that by making the experience a little less tribal and by increasing the price of tickets, they could control some of the crowd problems that they experienced in the 80’s. At its heart, the PL is a league borne out of the 1980s, so that was a major consideration at the time.
Being a working-class sport, it definitely rubs a lot of fans the wrong way that it feels like a middle-class pastime to go and watch live football.
From the club’s perspective, they are caught playing to two audiences now, and that’s how they have to make their decisions these days. And every change they make, every new approach they take, is always the question of “Who are we servicing?” Is it the 50,000 who come to the stadium every week or the potential audience of billions who are watching on TV, most of whom will never come to a game? So that’s the tension in every Premier League boardroom at the moment as they make decisions about where we are going to invest. Are we going to invest in community activities for our original customers or are we going to continue the land grab in places like China and the United States?
Obviously you’ve been covering the league for a long time, and like everyone else in this country, we’ve all become so familiar with so many parts of it. Has your opinion changed of the league at all in writing this book?
It’s an interesting question. There are certain impressions that I had that were challenged. I thought that the Premier League was an entirely English product from mentality, objectives, everything. It was only in researching the book how heavily inspired it was by the NFL. That was very surprising to me. Because of that, and because so many of those early directors—like David Dein [at Arsenal], Irving Scholar [at Spurs], and Martin Edwards [at Man United]—saw the NFL and thought “We’re not actually in the football business, we are in the entertainment business, we need to be like this”. And so running that subsequently altered my perspective because so many decisions were made with that in mind, really set the tone for the Premier League.
Another opinion that changed was that it’s very easy to dismiss the Glazers out of hand as a force for evil in the Premier League. I remember the protest when they first bought into Man United. There were death threats, and, all of a sudden, a generation of football fans what a “leveraged buyout” was. We saw all this debt and thought, “They are going to ruin the club and go for bankruptcy”. And it turns out, that Manchester United has actually been one of the better run teams in the Premier League for a decade. The Glazer’s didn’t cut and run as many people expected them to, they didn’t let the club crumble under the weight of the debt, they paid off a lot of the PIK loans [a high-risk ‘payment in kind’ loan] and aside from a few questionable personnel decisions—like Ed Woodward, David Moyes, José Mourinho—the business itself has been run quite soundly and that’s not a given in the Premier League. Many people have tried and lost their shirts running premier league clubs; it’s not an automatic ticket to billions of pounds.