How do you cope with vile abuse from crowds, lousy refs, racism, the risk of match fixing …and still sell Premier League rights
Richard Scudamore pauses, mid-thought. 'Look,' he says. 'I don't want to come across like the captain of the Titanic. You know, trying to see the positives in the iceberg.'
In the circumstances, it is an unusual analogy. As the chief executive of the Premier League, Scudamore is actually in command of an ocean-going success story.
The Queen's Award for International Trade, given in 2010, recognises the remarkable global appeal of English club football, beamed to a home audience of 3.9billion, with another 777million watching in bars.
Class act: Richard Scudamore oversees a Premier League followed by billions on TV around the world
Across 221 countries, 70 per cent of football fans follow the English game, with 64 per cent of fans in China supporting a Premier League team and half of the soccer watchers in America.
The next television deal, currently under construction, is tipped to be the largest yet. Scudamore does not get asked about that, though. He gets asked about racism, abusive supporters, lousy referees, foreign owners, the lack of competition. He is quizzed on the Rooney Rule, the suspension of Luis Suarez and whether playing the World Cup in Qatar in 2022 will cause a global fissure between the top clubs and FIFA.
Assume responsibility for a monster as humungous as English football and a lot of mucking out will need to be done. Fortunately, Scudamore is a man with a breezy manner, a nose peg and a big shovel.
Race row: Suarez was handed an eight-match ban for abusing Evra
His disposition, he claims, is optimistic. That morning, he had picked up his newspaper to read Chris Eaton, FIFA's head of security, confidently announcing that corruption affects every level of the game, and not even the top echelon of English football is immune.
So, Richard: exactly how much Premier League football is fixed 'None of it,' insists the man on the bridge of the Titanic, scanning the horizon for icebergs and seeing only clear blue water.
So let's talk about racism, then, because everybody else has. England captain John Terry has a trial pending, each day seemingly brings a fresh instance of abuse aimed at black players or pundits via the social networks, Suarez is banned for eight matches and Liverpool's PR machine has won about as many friends as Michele Bachmann's campaign in Iowa.
Their criticism of the Football Association's motives in pursuing Suarez over his treatment of Patrice Evra became almost as controversial as the initial offence.Let's start on Merseyside.
In the dock: Terry has a trial pending after being accused of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand
'Well, you must have faith in the process,' says Scudamore, choosing his words carefully.
'You must have faith in the people who are given the task of investigating these matters. We have had situations here at the Premier League where we've asked an independent commission to opine, and my view is that if they've come up with the answer, that is the end of it.
'I cannot advocate a sanitised, perfectly civilised afternoon, a tea party where we kick a ball around'
'Liverpool seem to be moving on now and it is right that they do. I can see why people get aggrieved, though, or why angst lingers because Liverpool have been at the leading edge on race for many years. They have possibly the most diverse fan base of any club and have been global ambassadors in English football since the 1980s. To be fair, they still pick up awards for the work they do in this area, so I understand they feel upset at the juxtaposition of it happening to them when they had done so much.
'But I am also very encouraged by what Kenny Dalglish has said in the last few days and the fact they haven't appealed over Suarez, because it is important we go forward.'
Under the microscope: Torres is taunted by Man United fans
You might have to read between the lines on that one. Scudamore is more explicit on the pressure to replicate the Rooney Rule, at work in many American sports, which would make it compulsory to interview a black candidate for every major coaching and management job.
The Premier League met the supporters of the regulation last year, but Scudamore was absent and there was a reason for that. He feels affirmative action is in no way the solution to this crisis.
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'We have to be careful that we don't fall into the easy trap of just rolling out somebody else's ideas,' he explains.
'Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers NFL franchise came up with those rules, but they won't really address the problems in our game. The only way we can get more black coaches is bottom up. You cannot start straight from the top because there are just 20 jobs and they require experience and proven achievement and you cannot impose on the clubs in this way. So we need to begin from the grass roots, opening the channels there so that the black players that want to coach feel they are not ignored by the system, or that getting the correct qualifications is worthless. Then, when you have those people with experience, with success, the changes at the top will happen naturally, because no chairman is going to reject the best man for the job just because he is black.
'I think we take race issues very seriously in football. If we didn't, the Suarez incident would not have seemed so extraordinary. I have huge confidence in the commitment of the clubs. We have plain-clothes stewards who, if we receive a complaint one week, will sit in the ground in that spot and observe the following week. There is a whole network in operation here. We are not complacent.
'What I do recognise, however, is when an issue becomes part of a news agenda it can grow very quickly. Norwich City had a player who was racially abused on Twitter in the summer. He was a new signing and a fan told him to go back to somewhere or other, used a certain word, and the club banned him for life. Season ticket holder. Gone like that. Club on board, police on board, everyone in agreement. Now that barely got a paragraph in a national newspaper. Yet if it happened this week, in the present climate, it would receive headlines everywhere. So, has football done a lot of which it could be proud Yes, it has. Has football done everything possible No, we can never allow ourselves to think that. We can't rest. Everybody can do more.'
Yet what of the atmosphere inside grounds: the abuse, the chants, the unchecked antagonism Is Scudamore not worried that English football is close to another boiling point and that it is only a matter of time before another day of reckoning, reminiscent of Eric Cantona's confrontation with a fan at Selhurst Park in 1995
Confrontation: Ferdinand and Terry clashed earlier this season
'It is quite perverse,' Scudamore admits. 'We have created safe environments, welcoming, liberal environments where, frankly, people are allowed to behave badly. You can, quite safely in a big crowd, get angry and say things about the opposition players, manager and fans, secure in the knowledge that there are a whole lot of security people stopping the away fans from fighting you, plus CCTV, stewards, police, all-seat stadiums so we can identify individuals precisely. You can say nasty things, you can be tribal and act in a way that you wouldn't in the street. And we've created that.
'There are still things sung at football grounds that need to be eradicated'
'So the virtues of our games also increase the risks. But I cannot sit here as the administrator of the Premier League and advocate a sanitised, quiet, perfectly civilised afternoon, a tea party where we kick a ball around. What do we want If we had running tracks around the pitches as they do in parts of Europe it would take some of the tension out of it, and people love that tension. It is a fine line.
'A lot of the Premier League's strengths, the speed of the game, the tribalism, the passion, are all caught up. If people were not irrationally involved it would not be the great league that it is. Yet what is good about it can also be bad. We don't cage fans, we have pitches close to the crowds without fencing because people like intimacy, but it does create issues. 'Without going back to cages, we cannot legislate against the extreme – someone coming on, or a player losing his cool and confronting a supporter directly. Yet we have a society that contains some pretty unacceptable elements, too. You can walk the streets or pull up at a set of traffic lights and a person will wind down his window and say the most appalling things. /01/12/article-2085901-0ED7B07E00000578-224_306x423.jpg” width=”306″ height=”423″ alt=”Change of direction: Scudamore's stance on Platini's fair-play rules have softened ” class=”blkBorder” />
Change of direction: Scudamore's stance on Platini's fair-play rules have softened
'There are still things sung at football grounds that need to be eradicated, usually when people are in a large group. You wouldn't stand in the street and shout some of that stuff to a fit young man with 10 physically athletic mates surrounding him. But, have I personally heard anything that I thought completely crossed the line No. I have heard vitriol, I have heard abuse that I find pretty intolerable. Yet I also don't think anyone becomes a club director or a referee without expecting a bit of that.'
Scudamore has learned to be philosophical because his 20 employers, the Premier League club owners, do not want a sheriff but a steady commercial hand and facilitator. He is most outspoken when taking a laissez-faire approach to the foreign ownership and debt issues that greatly vex the Premier League's critics: politicians and UEFA president Michel Platini, mostly.
His stance on Platini's misguided financial fair-play rules have softened only through a battle lost and the willingness of English clubs to work within the boundaries.
Platini, however, appears to wish every club were owned by a season ticket holder from the local corner shop – apart from the wonderful Qataris now at the helm of Paris Saint-Germain, of course – which is where Scudamore draws the line.
'I'm proud of the foreign owners we have,' he says. 'I know that doesn't always play well but, without exception, every foreign owner has bought into the Premier League for what it is, not what they think it should be. If there are new ideas, we'll discuss them, but nobody has looked to undermine our core values. We've learned from having American sports business people around the table, people from Asia telling us how it works over there, because it adds to what we do. But promotion and relegation are not negotiable. If we ever abandon that principle it will be the trigger for me to go and do something else.
'I envy America their equality but theirs is an incestuous, contained, domestic world. They have pulled off a trick of putting on a lot of meaningless sport, with nothing to play for, no promotion and relegation, yet still having people watch. The World Series isn't really. It's America and one team from Canada. I wouldn't swap our global appeal.
'If one club won our league 10 years in a row maybe I would feel differently, but I don't think it would be possible to get what they have, where any team can supposedly take the prize, without restructuring the league as a closed shop. We'd have to de-risk it for the clubs at the bottom and that would weaken the top, and then what would happen in Europe We get criticised if we haven't got at least one team in the final four of the Champions League, so how could we undermine our best teams to make the smallest stronger It wouldn't be worth it.
'On financial fair play, let's begin by saying that breaking even isn't a bad thing. My issue has always been why should an owner, who can legitimately afford to put a financial injection into a club, be prevented from doing that The clubs, however, have reconciled with this and embraced it and at least we have a central distribution system, without which the smaller ones would be absolutely stuffed.
'I hear the concerns of people like you over financial fair play, I share some of them, but we are not talking a huge difference in revenues at the very top. Those clubs just behind Manchester United, like Arsenal, will still be able to put out good teams and compete. There are so many sophisticated clubs up there, with great stadiums, fantastic commercial set-ups, so the difference between income of 250million and 300m isn't much. There just isn't the talent out there for it to make a divide. The law of diminishing returns applies in the higher echelons. If we get 5m more per club for TV rights next year, that won't make much difference to Manchester United, but 5m to a club with a budget of 50m is 10 per cent of their income. They can do a lot with that.
'I think we are much more able to cope with the changes now. When I first joined the Premier League, Manchester United had won it three times and everybody thought no club would win it again. Now there are six in the frame. So it's not just about spending the most money. If it was, Chelsea would always be champions.'
I mention the 30m Tony Fernandes is said to be investing in Queens Park Rangers. Soon, that will not be allowed. The days when a new owner could buy a club like, say, Everton and have a crack at the big time will be gone. And with it, the dream of every fan mired in mid-table mediocrity.
'Look, some clubs have always had more money than the others,' Scudamore counsels.
'You can have a one-off splurge in the transfer market under the new rules, but increased wages long-term will be the problem. Some sustainable losses are allowed, on a reducing basis, but some clubs will have to find new ways of generating income or cut their cloth.
'Clubs are going to have to get smarter and cleverer; you won't be able to solve a problem by throwing money at it, but at least everybody will be in the same boat. The biggest issue is to ensure it will be applied consistently across Europe, because if not it becomes grossly unfair.
'The main change is that you can no longer fund a loss-making operation without making sure the building blocks are in place. It will start with the stadium. How do you build a new ground without affecting the quality of the team Going back to, for instance, a great business like Everton, that will be the high-wire act. It's why I'm glad I'm doing my job and not running a football club.
'So I understand the problems, but what heartens me is that we have the best natural revenue in the European game as defined by the financial fair-play criteria. 'I can't argue against Barcelona and Real Madrid being two of the best 10 teams in the world, but I can argue against their league being the strongest, because they've got two teams in that 10 and we've got more. So we won't lose players to the Spanish league. The odd drip, drip, maybe – Cristiano Ronaldo or Cesc Fabregas – but not a mass exodus. English football will be fine. I told you, I'm an optimist.'
He most surely is. Not a bad captain, mind.