The latest shortlist for the job of replacing Richard Scudamore at the Premier League is believed to be full of TV executives — rather like the old list. This may be hardly surprising given the clubs’ priority of squeezing maximum income from broadcast revenue, but that does not mean it is the best approach.
The last few months have shown just how complicated the job is far beyond securing TV income and that Scudamore is a harder act to follow than anyone, even his staunchest critics, may have appreciated. For all the objections to his £5 million farewell, on top of a hefty salary, is anyone doubting that the former executive chairman proved excellent value for money over almost 20 years? Not with every month that goes by without a successor in place.
Given that Scudamore announced as far back as last June that he would be stepping down, it is an extraordinary mess — and uncharacteristic for an organisation hitherto renowned as ruthlessly slick — that the 20 clubs should be meeting on Thursday with an interim chief executive, an interim chairman and a search that will make the next appointee feel like they are fourth choice, at best.
Amid the botched recruitment, what has become clear — and should have been from the start — is that ringing the tills every three years and announcing the latest multi-billion bonanza for the clubs may not be the biggest part of the job, and certainly not the hardest part, however much it underpins the long-term future of the league and its members.
For the unseen and underestimated challenge, you only had to listen to one outpouring from a mid-ranking club recently explaining scornfully how Manchester City’s hierarchy would happily abandon collective revenue sharing, and be enthusiastic founders of a breakaway European Super League, if only they could convince other members of the big six to go for it.
As The Times reported at the weekend, Susanna Dinnage turned down the job of chief executive after meeting those leading clubs. She is understood to have backed out, to stay at Discovery, after realising just how much she would be tested by the internal politics. Even with her background at Animal Planet, she did not feel equipped to herd 20 cats.
Tim Davie, head of BBC Studios, also rejected the job and it was reported that some clubs had tried to get into his ear even before he had the chance to accept. As The Sunday Times reported two days ago, the former BT chief executive Gavin Patterson decided not to apply despite being thought an obvious choice by some.
Someone will take this high-profile, lucrative role at the head of one of the world’s leading sport’s organisations but it is instructive about trends in the game to think why significant individuals have turned it down.
In a league where there is always someone with an axe to grind — and a readiness to leak to get their way as the very public attempt to derail Scudamore’s £5 million pay-off highlighted — there is a fear that divisions are only to become more apparent.
Scudamore made sure that before he left, the clubs agreed a new revenue share of overseas income — with an adjustment for league position rather than split evenly — but that delicate compromise took months of fraught negotiations even for a highly experienced, respected operator.
Will it be long before there is more agitation over how the cake is divided? There is a fear among smaller clubs that the big six are preparing to ambush Scudamore’s successor, especially given they already tried.
As for a breakaway European Super League, it may seem a long way off but can hardly be dismissed when documents from Football Leaks showed that Arsenal and Manchester United were part of a cabal of seven who discussed it, with Chelsea, Liverpool and City also to be invited in. The big clubs will keep flexing their muscles.
Other issues include a post-Brexit landscape, and whether that poses any threat to a league built on global appeal, as well as potential long-term restrictions to commercial income from gambling companies on which so many clubs rely.
Of course the issue of ensuring that the Premier League remains the richest in the world occupies the thoughts of club owners more than any other. You only have to consider that after a 322 per cent rise in domestic rights over Scudamore’s two decades, there was a first drop, from £5.1 billion to £4.6 billion, for the next three-year deal to kick in from next season. If the bubble has not quite burst, is it leaking?
The arrival of Amazon represents a new player in the market but can a new chief executive drive fresh domestic growth? This is the biggest worry to clubs and explains why the selection committee and Spencer Stuart, the headhunters, have been focusing on television executives such as Tom Betts, ITV’s director of strategy, plus Darren Childs, chief executive of UKTV, and former YouView boss Richard Halton as they reel from the shock of being repeatedly knocked back.
As well as being available to hire, Halton can point out that he established a business that needed seven shareholders — BT, TalkTalk, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Arqiva — to work collaboratively, which is not their usual modus operandi. That ability is surely as crucial as a sharp understanding of the changing landscape of television.
Scudamore’s legacy may be measured in pounds, billions of them poured into attracting and paying foreign players, but the job always was far more complex and difficult. So who is up for the challenge?