There is a revolt brewing in the second tier of English football.
Rather than being met with acclamation, the announcement on Monday that the EFL, which represents the three divisions below the Premier League, had signed a new record £595m, five-year broadcast deal with Sky Sports was greeted by anger from within.
As an important stream of income and a key way of increasing exposure for football clubs, the negotiation of broadcast rights affects every one of the 72 EFL clubs. But it’s specifically those at the top of the tree who are unhappy.
Seven Championship clubs, understood to be Aston Villa, Leeds United, Derby County, Stoke City, Nottingham Forest, Preston North End and West Bromwich Albion, held crisis talks at Villa Park on Tuesday to discuss their options.
A statement that followed made clear their consternation. They said 19 of the 24 Championship clubs had written to the EFL to oppose the deal but were ignored, with the board pressing ahead having made “material changes” which “gave more games and rights for less money” to Sky.
The clubs added they were “gravely concerned” by the deal and had a “calm determination” to “ensure the matter is not left here”. Legal action is believed to have been among the options discussed.
Sky has bought rights to show 138 league matches per season as well as every play-off game and selected ties from the Carabao Cup and Checkatrade Trophy from the start of the 2019-20 season to May 2024. The £595m value is a 35 per cent increase on the previous contract.
EFL interim chair Debbie Jevans conceded the negotiations had been “challenging” but that “the comments and frustrations voiced by a number of clubs” were considered. Meanwhile, EFL chief executive Shaun Harvey said the market had been tested through external advisors, with the “financial security” of clubs “an absolute priority”.
The rebel group of Championship clubs clearly feel their frustrations were not considered. But while teams are perhaps understandably annoyed at the way in which the deal was done, with the difference between the “stand-still agreement” signed in September 2017 and the “long-form deal” of this week clear, they have other gripes.
Those gripes come down to the EFL’s difficulties in balancing the interests of those regularly bouncing between the Premier League and the Championship and its other clubs, according to Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford Business School.
“The deal glosses over all manner of issues, challenges and problems,” he tells City A.M. “In financial terms, it signals how far the EFL has fallen behind the Premier League: the agreed figure is similar in value to the kinds of deals the Premier League was signing more than 20 years ago.
“In one sense, this perhaps shows how commercially weak the EFL product has now become. At the same time, it could be that individual clubs within the EFL are now more commercially and financially driven than the league itself. As such, the EFL is in an invidious position, having to reconcile the demands of Premier League perennials while addressing the precarious day-to-day existences of clubs lower down the pyramid.”
Bigger slice of pie
In short, clubs like Aston Villa and Leeds feel they deserve a bigger slice of the pie. But could the EFL really have got more?
“The deal looks light compared to that of the Premier League, but it’s difficult to see who is likely to trump it with a much higher bid,” football finance expert Kieran Maguire tells City A.M.
He says Championship matches attract between 80,000 and 400,000 viewers, a “reasonable but unspectacular” number, which clearly hasn’t fostered rivals to Sky.
Sky’s increased deal will see Championship clubs’ base fee rise from £2.3m per season to £2.95m – still less than the £4.3m clubs get from the Premier League in so-called solidarity payments.
Maguire points out that the bigger clubs could make more from selling their rights individually, but the huge gap to the Premier League – and the major issue – would remain. The deal is, he says, a further indication of the power of the Premier League behemoth, rather than the floundering EFL.
In his opinion there are bigger worries than the headline figure, with the length of the deal and the potential impact on match-day attendances also to consider due to an on-demand service which will make nearly all midweek matches available to Sky viewers. “Five years is a long time in the rapidly developing world of tech and broadcasting – Premier League deals are traditionally three years,” Maguire adds.
These are fractious times in football and the disagreement between the EFL and the majority of Championship clubs mirrors goings-on at a higher level. Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani, who also runs broadcaster Eleven Sports, has been outspoken on the issue, even echoing Europe’s heavyweight clubs in threatening to form a breakaway league.
Last month he bemoaned the “huge gap” between revenues in the first and second tier which made it “really not sustainable to stay in the Championship”, urging the model to be reconsidered.
Chadwick agrees with Radrizzani, but believes a breakaway is still some way from reality, despite the increasingly polarisation evident in the Premier League making itself present in the Championship.
“Just as Manchester United and Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham are dominating, so the likes of Middlesbrough, Leeds, Aston Villa and West Brom are ascending to a similar position in the Championship,” he says. “Such clubs are inevitably concerned about their competitive and financial positions, yet they seem to be stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
Maguire has little sympathy for Radrizzani’s objections, pointing out he could have gazumped Sky for the rights via Eleven Sports if he believed they were undervalued.
“The Championship is a loss-making division because club owners choose to pay wage levels that are unsustainable. No one forces them to do so,” he says. “If they want to reduce losses then all they have to do is resist wage demands or insert relegation clauses into contracts when in the Premier League should the club subsequently drop a division.”
The Championship table may depict a highly competitive division, but the broadcasting rights row indicates that away from the pitch some want to be more equal than others.