Is the Phoenix League a genuine breakaway threat to the Premier League?

So, the Phoenix League. If we are to believe what the Daily Mail says, and who wouldn’t, “revolution” is afoot. Some-time soon, possibly next season, more likely in 2004 when the current TV deal expires, 14 clubs will leave the Football Lea­gue to form a second tier of the Prem­ier League, where they will be joined by two clubs demoted from the top level, together with Celtic and Rangers. 

Top secret talks have apparently been going on for a while. Simply deciding which mythical creature to use as a codeword – unicorn? sasquatch? gorgon? – must have necessitated several clandestine meetings between the interested parties, of which there appear to be a lot. According to the Mail’s front page exclusive on Saturday November 24, six “rebel” clubs would serve notice of intention to quit the Football League on December 11. The same paper has since claimed that another eight First Division clubs are to join the “scramble to climb aboard”.

There would, it seems, be one promotion place set aside each season for the champions of what will surely come to be known as The Rump (just think of the logo possibilities). Confusingly, however, it would appear that places may also be set aside for lower division clubs with nice big stadiums, such as Stoke and Huddersfield.

Rangers and Celtic are to be invited in primarily because their presence will tickle the fancy of television executives who believe, according to the Mail, that “audiences are already tiring of a diet of the same top teams on the screen”. Similar concerns are voiced by Peter Scudamore, chief executive of the Premier League: “We might have to do something like the Phoenix idea to keep the game varied and interesting to broadcasters when the next negotiations take place.” As opposed to keeping it “interesting” for, say, the people who pay to watch it every week.

This issue goes to press before the meeting of Nationwide League chairmen on November 29. However, it seems pretty clear what the principles are. Clubs that have recently been in the Premier League, or who have spent a fortune trying unsuccessfully to get there, want to narrow the gap between their income and that of those still clinging by their fingertips to the edge of the cliff that leads to thePromised Land. (Think of Rupert Lowe hanging on, mouth open to ingest an avalanche of gold coins, but with Dav­id Sheepshanks stamping on his fingers.)

Clubs of all different sizes who have embarked on foolish spending sprees funded by television are in a blind panic about the likelihood of revenues falling when the current contract expires. But those who see themselves as too good for the First Division but maybe not quite good enough to be sure of staying in the Premier are most at risk of suffering unpleasant financial downturns.

So they hope to create some new “product”, spice it up with added ingredients (Rangers and Celtic) and cut away the ragged masses below them. Prepare the way by spreading the word that all of this is “inevitable” and it will surely happen. (“A Premier League Two is inevitable and Watford will be part of it,” says the friendly Hertfordshire club’s chief executive, Tim Shaw. “It’s almost inevitable,” agrees his counterpart at Nottingham Forest, Mark Arthur. Write those names down.)

The only problem is that it is far from obvious where the money is coming from to bail out clubs who in many cases have got themselves into an almighty mess. Not from the Premiership, presumably, whose whole premise is to keep themselves separate, both for marketing reasons and to create a more or less permanent financial advantage. Not from the lower divisions either. Incorporating their cut of the Nationwide TV deal, even the present over-valued one, is not going to pay for many John Hartsons. There is no logic similar to that of the original Premier League plans that suggests this scheme, however formulated, must work.

Maybe we’ve missed something blindingly obvious that the business brains of Geoffrey Richmond, Bryan Richardson et al have cottoned on to while their clubs plunge into debt. But it seems unlikely.

From WSC 179 January 2002. What was happening this month

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