This evening’s rearranged match between Manchester United and Liverpool at Old Trafford represents the confluence of a number of the most significant fault lines in the sport. Forget the bitter rivalry on the pitch, the politicking, backstabbing and anger behind the scenes are much more dramatic.
There will be massive security outside the stadium after protesters broke into the ground earlier this month. It is not the fans that United and Liverpool’s owners fear, however. They regard Manchester City as an existential threat to their clubs.
Every move that the Glazers and Fenway Sports Group make is an attempt to counter the growing strength of the new champions. The entire Super League project was driven by a desire to close the financial gap between City and Paris Saint-Germain, the state-owned clubs, and the traditional powers of the game. Football is experiencing a number of civil wars and the battle between the Emirati-backed teams and the rest of the ‘superclubs’ – Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea have a foot in both camps – will define the next era of the game.
The thing that causes anger in the United and Liverpool boardrooms is that evidence suggests that these two teams drive television income in the Premier League. A study published last year by the Centre for Sports Business at the University of Liverpool Management School looked at 790 Premier League matches screened between 2013 and 2019 and found that the appeal of the north-west giants to viewers was massive by comparison with the rest of the top flight.
Using Bournemouth as a reference point, the academics calculated the difference in audience demand when other teams were substituted for the south-coast club. United and Liverpool generated an upswing of 75 per cent for people tuning in. The next most popular side with armchair viewers was Arsenal, with a 43 per cent improvement. City, who won the title three times during the period of the study, produced just 26 per cent more viewers than Bournemouth.
This is the core problem that drove the Super League project. City’s attractiveness to TV audiences is not linked to their ability to spend. It is not just United and Liverpool who are concerned about City and PSG. Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus – who are still holding out in their attempt to create a new competition – also resent what they see as the severing of the relationship between supporter numbers and income.
City were reluctant participants in the Super League and one of the first clubs to drop out. The status quo suits them. The Etihad’s revenue streams are almost inexhaustible, especially as Uefa’s Financial Fair Play regulations are in ruins. They do not have the domestic and global reach of their main rivals but City do not need it.
The same television figures justify another conflict, at least in the minds of the so-called Big Six owners: the breach in the Premier League with the 14 ‘lesser’ clubs. Broadcast cash has changed the fiscal landscape of the game and the teams who draw the biggest audiences do not see why the less popular clubs should get such a large share of the income. During the course of the study, three clubs drew less viewer interest than Bournemouth. Two of them, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Fulham, are in the Premier League this season. The six see the 14 as riding on their financial coat-tails.
Yet what the big clubs misunderstand is that the interest of television audiences goes beyond the “brand effect” of the likes of United and Liverpool. What excited armchair viewers was matches that meant something. For that demand to be maximised, a division needs lesser teams struggling against the drop.
“The Premier League has developed so that there is intense competition at the top and the bottom,” Ian McHale, one of the report’s authors, said. “People talk about the division being three separate leagues but that has worked to the Premier League’s advantage.
“As long as there are four Champions League places, a top six or seven battle for those positions makes it interesting. It does not seem to matter if the teams below this are cut adrift. At the bottom you need at least four sides fighting relegation.”
The greatest flaw in the Super League’s blueprint was the idea that the founding sides would be locked in and guaranteed a place every season. “There’s only been one successful breakaway league,” a senior football executive said. “That was the Premier League. The reason for that was they kept relegation. Teams in the lower divisions didn’t want money. They wanted the opportunity to rise up to the top flight.
“The Super League clubs didn’t learn the lessons of history. They thought they could do what they wanted and everyone else would be happy to be bought off with cash. That’s foolish.”
This fundamental misunderstanding of the game has caused a huge chasm between Super League clubs and supporters. United, in particular, have enraged their fanbase.
The Glazers have taken out more than £1.1 billion from the club in fees, interest payments and other avoidable costs since taking over 16 years ago. Their cavalier attitude towards their most diehard followers provoked the invasion of Old Trafford. The fans involved know that the match against Liverpool is the flagship fixture of the season. It will continue to be a focus for protest.
“There is no possibility of the Glazers selling,” a source close to the situation said. “United generate a lot of money and the owners don’t have to do anything but watch the profits roll in. But supporters are likely to target the sponsors – and the Liverpool game, which attracts global interest.”
The alienation of what the Super League conspirators called “legacy fans” is likely to be a major front in the war for football’s soul. United-Liverpool will be a reoccurring flashpoint.
Even if this evening’s match is an anodyne 0-0 draw, the ramifications of the game go way beyond who gets the points. The themes that will determine the direction of the sport are unfolding in real time. Old Trafford has found itself the epicentre of turmoil.