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Football And The Future Of Collective Bargaining

It is essential that there should be organization of labor. This is an era of organization. Capital organizes and therefore labor must organize – Theodore Roosevelt

  The power of the Premier League derives from many different areas. The fanatical loyalty of the British fan to his/her club. The unparalleled history of the English game. The excellent marketing skills of some of its clubs. But if there is one reason that the Premier League has gained the status that it has over the past two decades it would be the incredible amount of money poured into football from television.

  The money from Sky has created many problems but it has also catapulted the English league to the forefront of the game. Despite, or perhaps because of the dominance of the duopoly in Spain the rest of the league is not so strong. Italy is still recovering from Calciopoli and the exodus of talent. Germany is on the rise but has a long way to go to catch the Premier League. There is no doubt that in terms of overall power the Premier League is the biggest in the world by a good margin.

  The Premier League was created with the aim of having to share less with the lower leagues but was founded on a basis of collective bargaining. For all the problems that dog Premier League clubs, promotion to the Promised Land brings the kind of windfall that Spanish clubs for example can only dream of. The entire league benefits through collective bargaining, although some more than others and it would be churlish to ignore the damage this causes the lower league clubs. Nevertheless the combination of collective bargaining and a huge influx of TV money has done a huge amount to raise the profile and prestige of English football since 1992.

  The previous two articles on “Receive, Pass, Offer” looked at the problems in enforcing the Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations and the entrenchment of inequality they may cause. But there is a new factor that, in conjunction with the FFP, will also have tremendous bearing on the future of the game. In terms of making profit from football the internet is the Wild, Wild West.

  Inevitably people want to watch their team and will circumvent the law to do so. The Spanish FA has already shifted matches so that every game can be shown live on TV. The current system of matches kicking-off at 3pm to avoid TV coverage will last long. But even if this change is brought in, the issue of illegal streaming will continue.

  For all the attempts of the music and film industry, it seems impossible to prevent the illegal downloading of shows or music. In the time it took to shut down Napster thousands of similar programs sprang up. Finally the industry accepted a level of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” and allowed software like Spotify to prosper. Nowadays going on a club forum during a match day and you can guarantee to find people asking for streams to watch their team. Websites like Iraq Goals or First Row which offered illegal streams of games have been shut down but others instantly emerge to fill the void.

  Eventually, whether it likes it or not, the industry will probably have to accept some form of legal streaming. Already in America, ESPN 3 offers free streaming of any event they have the rights to if you are a cable customer. The growth of legal streaming is almost inevitable. However this growth has a number of permutations which could have drastic consequences.

  Until now the collective bargaining power of the Premier Leagues has ensured that, while the bigger clubs might sacrifice some income, the overall deal is vastly bigger than any other league in the world. When buying Sky Sports or ESPN the customer gets whatever games are on TV and if their team isn’t on then it’s just tough. But with the explosion of internet streaming we may well see people signing up for club packages. An e-season-ticket deal where all the games of one specific club are available for a fixed price.

  With the incoming FFP regulations restricting owners from bankrolling clubs, teams like Chelsea whose attendance figures and income cannot cover an Abramovich-sized hole in their finances, the idea of offering e-season-tickets to significantly boost income will be very attractive. The plain fact of the matter is that many more people will sign up to watch Manchester United or Chelsea games than Fulham or Stoke. Given the problems that the FFP regulations will pose, specifically to Chelsea and Manchester City who cannot currently survive without owner support but also to the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United the prospect of breaking away from the collective bargaining agreements in order to gain more customers directly will be appealing.

  Much of this article is based on speculation but there is enough pressure on clubs with high levels of debt if the FFP regulations come into effect to cause them a great deal of worry. The collective bargaining agreement which was the foundation of the Premier League has been a major reason for its explosive growth. The big clubs won’t withdraw from the bargain when it comes to television but the chance to make money more directly via the internet could, if it happens, fuel a vast increase in the wealth gap between the elite clubs and the rest. Using hypothetical numbers if Manchester United were to bring in 30 times as many subscribers and charge more than the rest of the clubs in the league, the effect on the financial state of the Premier League would be monumental. The impact of the internet, coupled with the Financial Fair Play regulations may potentially cement the elitism of a select few clubs like never before. 

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