Politics & Governance, Soccer, Europe

At Large | The Premier League is back but where does it go from here?

World soccer's most-watched league has returned but in its months as a broadcast-only product, clubs will be thinking carefully about how to close the gap to supporters.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large | The Premier League is back but where does it go from here?

So the Premier League is back, only this time it really does feel like it’s been away.

Last night the world’s most-watched domestic soccer competition, perhaps the most global national league of them, returned to action at Villa Park and the Etihad Stadium. The table moved for the first time since 9th March as Aston Villa played out a contentious goalless draw with Sheffield United before outgoing champions Manchester City made easy work of Arsenal. 100 days after its suspension served notice of how bad the Covid-19 crisis would become, its resumption in a six-week sprint to the finish serves as an emblem of our adjusted reality.

It is worth reflecting for a moment on how we got here. Chief executive Richard Masters has only been in the job on a permanent basis since mid-December, a Premier League veteran who stepped up from an interim position when a series of eye-catching external hires imploded. The expectation was that he might act as a safe pair of hands, someone who could carry its interests from the long and lucrative Richard Scudamore era to a place where more radical thinking might be needed. 

Right. But it is likely for the best that Masters, with his knowledge of the league’s inner workings, was on hand for such an unlikely challenge. Even outside the context of the British government’s disjointed response to the coronavirus pandemic, it is a success in itself that the English game is back at all. 

Project Restart looked at times to be faltering through a storm of competing interests, with member clubs showing very different levels of enthusiasm for completing the season. Players had to be reassured of their safety at a time when measures to ensure it looked distinctly hypothetical. There was a very real chance that the coalition would not hold, but it has.

Of course, minds were concentrated by the threat of a cataclysmic financial collapse – one that might have held ramifications for British sport far beyond the Premier League. The worst extremes of that, for now at least, appear to have been avoided. 

Ahead of kick-off Sky Sports confirmed the agreement of a UK£170 million rebate to cover three months with no live events, with further restructuring giving both parties a chance to navigate the choppy waters ahead. There may be as much given back again to other TV companies internationally but for now, clubs have a good deal more certainty for the year to come. 

Again, familiarity has been an asset. As its primary broadcaster since breakaway opening day in 1992/93, Sky is effectively a founding partner of the Premier League. There is mutual benefit to an amicable solution for BT Sport and Amazon, too. There are hard economic realities to countenance. For some supporters, though, those aspects of the discussion only deepen the discomfiting sense that the league is a vehicle for media content, and little more.

That view is understandable, if reductive. Nothing this big can exist in one form alone. Away from Project Restart, the biggest off-field story in the Premier League has been the tortuous progress of Newcastle United’s UK£300 million sale to Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF). It is a deal whose fate, whatever the abundant ethical concerns that surround it, may hinge on how much Saudi officials really knew about the theft of broadcast feeds from Qatar-based Premier League broadcaster BeIN Sports.

Premier League clubs, however, have shown since March that their concerns extend beyond the bottom line. There are many stories to be told about teams stepping up in difficult times, lending a hand to charitable operations and offering their facilities to the National Health Service (NHS). Leading players, who began the shutdown period receiving cheap shots from their government about pay cuts, have revealed an activist streak. A captains’ group convened for restart talks has arranged a fund for healthcare workers and pushed to support Black Lives Matter protests. Manchester United and England striker Marcus Rashford, 22, has raised huge sums for children’s charities and convinced the government to extend a school meal vouchers programme through the summer holidays, putting UK£120 million on the plates of hungry young people.

That social value must endure through months where English soccer exists only on television. It is to the credit of everyone involved that all 90 games left will be accessible to British audiences for the rest of the season, 33 of them for free, including four on the publicly funded BBC. For all that, the very fact that action must continue without fans present will change the role of supporters completely. 

Producers will make every effort to compensate for the lack of atmosphere. Adaptive crowd noise has been ported from video games, while clubs can also set musical cues for goals and substitutions. The evidence so far from Spain and Germany is that these tricks can be pretty effective. Yet as much as it is a broadcaster’s prerogative to protect the quality of their product, rights holders need to tread carefully around such innovations – especially as their use will not necessarily end once grounds have fully reopened. 

Premier League stands will mostly be cloaked in flags but consider for a moment the virtual crowds on offer during La Liga and Coppa Italia broadcasts. On the one hand, they are a neat visual route out of an awkward spot. On the other, they could be read as a step towards diminishing the importance of match-going fans not just to the spectacle, but the occasion. Fans concerned they might as well be extras in a TV production would think even less of being a special effect. Some observers have compared the virtual crowds to those in early 2000s video games – which were basic because the crowds were the last thing worth using limited operating memory to create.

All of this means that clubs will be working just as hard to make use of technologies that can bring fans together, rather than just simulating them. Some in the Premier League will be taking advantage of video walls that beam images of fans into their empty stadiums. And the most intriguing moment to watch will probably not come during a game itself.

At some point very soon – most likely, in fact, before this column is filed again – Liverpool will be crowned champions of England for the 19th time, and the first time in the Premier League era. It is an event 30 years in the making but instead of a sold-out Anfield, thronged streets and packed pubs, it will be celebrated at social distance. The club are sure to be making plans for virtual events that unite groups from around the world. If those are effective, they might point the way to a wealth of new opportunities when normality descends again.

Masters has already said that as he sees it, the Premier League will not really return until its fans do. Still, soccer is well on its way back. On Wednesday, Uefa confirmed plans for condensed finales to its Champions League and Europa League competitions. Uefa Euro 2020 qualifying play-offs have also been rescheduled for the autumn, with the tournament itself due to take place in its original host cities, albeit a year later than planned. Barring any further catastrophe – and we know well enough by now how unwise it is to rule those out – the calendar is already taking shape.

The future of the game is in sight. The part everyone plays in it is not so clear just yet.