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Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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Legal Battles, Infighting Threaten Premier League’s Economic Recovery

  • Manchester City’s ongoing issues with Premier League rules are just part of a larger unease in English pro soccer.
  • Refereeing, ownership problems, and rising economic imbalance are also at issue.
Manchester City FC corner flag in the Etihad Stadium
Manchester City FC

The Premier League, by many accounts, should be enjoying its offseason, preparing for the next campaign, and working on ways to expand a post-pandemic economic recovery. Instead, the most dominant league in the world’s most popular sport is ensconced in infighting—in turn threatening that market-leading position. 

Manchester City, winners of the last four and six of the last seven EPL titles, are in the midst of two separate but interrelated issues that could upend the current league framework. The club is appearing before an arbitration tribunal this week, part of a larger effort to challenge existing EPL sponsorship rules. Those provisions—designed in part to discourage improper inflating of the value of clubs’ commercial agreements—are aimed at promoting competitive and economic fairness. 

But Man City has described that as a “tyranny of the majority” holding back its business and, as a result, is directly attacking the Founders Agreement of 1991 that serves as the EPL’s charter document.

The club, meanwhile, will also face this fall 115 charges of financial impropriety and failing to cooperate in a subsequent investigation. Some of the alleged breaches involved sponsorship deals tied to Man City’s owners in Abu Dhabi, and should the club successfully argue its case this month, it will be much harder for the league to win its offensive in the fall.

Some of this is slightly similar to challenges made in the 1990s by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to the NFL’s economic model, a situation resulting in dueling lawsuits that ultimately were settled. But the Cowboys—even at their height in the era of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin—never achieved the level of on-field dominance that Man City has, and much more money is now at stake in the EPL matter. 

More Problems

There are even more signs of stress within the top level of English pro soccer. Among them:

  • Everton is again searching for a new owner after the collapse of a proposed deal with U.S.-based investor 777 Partners, and had two points deductions this past season for breaches of financial rules. 
  • Nottingham Forest openly questioned the integrity of referees in a late-season loss, prompting an investigation from the U.K.’s Football Association. 
  • The Wolverhampton Wanderers failed to garner any support for its bid to scrap video assistant referee (VAR) technology, but unease remains over the much-debated system.
  • Economic imbalance also continues to be heavy as the 2023–24 player payroll for Man City of $278.5 million was more than nine times the $30.3 million outlay for Luton Town. By comparison, the Mets’ payroll of $308.6 million that leads MLB is less than five times Oakland’s $63 million.

Speaking recently with official club media, Man City chairman Khaldoon Al-Mubarak acknowledged an unease with the rush to judgment regarding his club in some circles.

“Of course, it’s frustrating,” he said. “I think the referencing is always frustrating, having it being talked about the way it’s being talked about.”

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