As the world’s richest soccer competition returns, SportsPro presents its annual Premier League commercial preview, bringing you all the major off-field developments ahead of the new season.

Just seven weeks after the curtain came down on the most disrupted season in the Premier League era, English soccer’s elite are ready to do it all over again.

Champions Liverpool romped to their first domestic title in 30 years last time out, with Jürgen Klopp’s all-conquering side capping a remarkably dominant campaign to secure the Premier League trophy in June with seven games to spare. Joining them and their rivals in the top flight this year are the newly promoted trio of Leeds United, West Bromwich Albion and Fulham, each of whom can expect an uphill battle for survival within world soccer’s richest, and arguably most competitive, league.

In reality, though, every club in the competition will be grappling with newfound financial challenges this year. Even the likes of Abu Dhabi-oiled Manchester City and oligarch-bankrolled Chelsea will be forced to reckon with the prospect of spectator-free venues for the foreseeable future, not to mention the possibility of further disruption to come as the coronavirus pandemic continues to carve an unpredictable path.

What it all means for the Premier League’s bottom line remains to be seen. Few could have predicted the job that awaited Richard Masters when he was appointed as the league’s permanent chief executive in December. A calendar year that began with a ‘ground-breaking’ Scandinavian TV rights deal with NENT Group and comparatively benign talk surrounding a new league-owned OTT service has since descended into the gravest financial threat to sport in living memory, making Masters’ task of growing the Premier League revenue pie all the more difficult.

Facing crippling losses – Masters initially pegged them at north of UK£1 billion – and the overnight damming of matchday revenue streams, it was little wonder clubs quickly set about finding a route back to the field when the Premier League suspended all activities in March. Getting games back on TV was of paramount importance, of course, and after an initial period of wrangling over pay cuts and wage deferrals Project Restart, the league’s meticulous return-to-play plan, succeeded in delivering a necessarily cautious resumption behind closed doors in mid-June.

But even with the action on the field providing some welcome relief, other matters were taking centre stage. Throughout the summer, Newcastle United’s protracted takeover saga dominated the discussion during weeks traditionally reserved for far-flung exhibition tours and player transfer speculation. As temperatures across the UK soared, so the furore surrounding Saudi Arabia’s attempts to muscle in on English soccer’s ownership clique grew ever more heated and acrimonious.

In the end, widespread public condemnation and vocal opposition from the likes of Amnesty International and BeIN Sports proved pivotal. By late July, the proposed UK£300 million takeover deal had collapsed – but not before fresh concerns had been raised over the Premier League’s owners’ and directors’ test and the rising influence of state money within soccer more generally.

Aside from dealing with the imbroglio of the Newcastle affair, the Premier League has also spent this most unusual of summers tending to its most important revenue source: broadcast rights. At a meeting in May, league bosses informed clubs they would be forced to concede at least UK£330 million in rebates to broadcasters, even if the season was completed, due to the three-month stoppage in play. In June, a UK£170 million rebate was agreed with domestic powerhouse Sky Sports, which itself had been compelled to halt subscription fees in the absence of live sport. For clubs, the only silver lining was that that payment would be deferred until the 2021/22 season.

Further afield, things have been rather less harmonious. Notably in China, a messy legal dispute awaits after the Premier League terminated its UK£523 million rights deal with streaming platform PP Sports two years early. The Suning-owned service reportedly defaulted on a UK£160 million (US$209 million) instalment for the 2019/20 season, leaving the league with little choice but to cancel its biggest overseas rights contract.

Back on home soil, Project Restart saw all remaining Premier League matches of last season televised live in the UK, with many shown free-to-air for the first time, including the most-watched fixture in the competition’s history. During the coming campaign, an additional 20 fixtures will be broadcast live in the UK, split between incumbent partners Sky Sports, BT Sport and Amazon Prime Video, who are collectively paying UK£5 billion (US$6.56 billion) over the course of the current three-year rights cycle.

That rise in the number of televised matches means 220 will be shown in the UK this season, but 160 will be unavailable to watch domestically. Mounting pressure from politicians and fan groups could yet change that, with many calling on the Premier League and its partners to provide alternative ways of watching non-televised matches until normal business, or some semblance of it, eventually resumes. For September, at least, all 28 fixtures will be shown live in the UK.

Looking ahead, the return of fans to stadiums could be facilitated by increased testing, reduced seating capacities, and a raft of other measures designed to protect public health and safety, such as digital health passports. But the Premier League’s chief concern will be delivering its revered product – week in, week out – in whatever form it takes. 

For a competition in which broadcast income accounts for about 60 per cent of club turnover, keeping matches on fans’ screens will remain the number one priority. After all, without a broadcast product to fall back on the commercial fallout of Covid-19 will be far more severe than anyone could have predicted.

Article by Sports Pro