The slow-moving power grab conducted by some of Europe’s biggest soccer clubs seems to be accelerating.
On Sunday, the Daily Telegraph broke the story of Liverpool and Manchester United pushing for something they have dubbed “Project Big Picture.” The two clubs, both owned by Americans, as are six other Premier League teams, have reportedly been working on a plan for years that would hand more power to the league’s dominant clubs.
Currently, 14 of the league’s 20 teams have to approve changes of any kind, which has created a perpetual friction between the league’s moneyed giants and everybody else, whose interests tend to be very different.
Among other things, according to the New York Times, the plan that is slated to be enacted in 2022 would …
Reduce the Premier League’s size from 20 teams to 18
Scrap the League Cup, a secondary cup competition
Scrap the traditional, season-opening Community Shield between last season’s Premier League and FA Cup winners
End parachute payments to relegated teams to soften the financial impact of dropping into the second-tier Championship
Grant the three lower tiers of English professional soccer a $326 million emergency payment to help weather the coronavirus pandemic
Grant the Football Association, which oversees all professional soccer in the country, a one-time $130 million payment
Permanently support the lower leagues with 25 percent of Premier League revenue
Hand a weightier vote in decision-making to the biggest clubs, including veto-power over potential new club owners
Potentially create a new women’s professional league
Cap ticket prices for visiting fans at $26 and subsidize their travel and enshrine safe standing areas
The plan’s engineers, Liverpool owner John Henry and United co-owner Joel Glazer, apparently didn’t bring in other club owners until recently. And some didn’t know about the plan at all.
Yet the scope of the plan is gargantuan, altering just about every facet of professional soccer in England as we know it. It is also opportunistic, seizing on the money crunch in the lower leagues and at the federation to push through reforms that will ultimately enrich the big clubs further and perhaps ossify their financial advantage.
By reducing the league to 18 teams, four rounds of play would be shaven from the calendar. Cutting the League Cup and Community Shield opens up even more time. Plainly, the big clubs hope to create free time to play more lucrative continental games, with the UEFA Champions League slated to be reconsidered and expanded as well. The other Premier League teams, meantime, would have fewer games and one less competition — the League Cup — to generate income from. The imperiled League Cup has also existed as an opportunity for lower-league teams to burnish their names, reputations and balance sheet.
All of this is in keeping with the mega-clubs’ unrelenting push for a super league, a circuit reserved only for the very biggest of clubs in order to capitalize on their popularity at the exclusion of all others. By trimming the domestic league and enabling more European action — in a revamped competition that will no doubt skew even further to the rich and famous — the Premier League’s top teams facilitate that slow lurch to their end goal.
It was inevitable that the super-clubs should seize more power, systematically wresting it away from the governing bodies and smaller competitors. These clubs are, after all, the drivers of interest and revenue and they have been naked in their attempts to convert that influence into leverage. Their project has been ongoing for decades, dating back more or less to the advent of satellite television in the mid-1990s, when the vast financial potential of the game became evident.
Still, the backlash to the plan’s unintended unveiling was swift.
The English government’s department for sport proclaimed itself “surprised and disappointed” and decried the “backroom deals being cooked up that would create a closed shop at the very top of the game.”
The Premier League itself, the immediate target of this soft coup from the big clubs, said in a statement that “the plan published today could have a damaging impact on the whole game.”
The plan did get the backing of the English Football League, yet another organization which oversees the three professional tiers beneath the Premier League. Perhaps because a quarter of revenues sounds pretty good. Or more likely because the Championship, third-tier League One and fourth-tier League Two understand that they cannot stop this from happening and had better play along and secure the biggest royalty they can in exchange.
All parties agree that some kind of financial reform is necessary. The pandemic has underscored the fragility of the lower leagues, which face existential danger in the absence of matchday revenues for as long as stadiums are empty. Pressure was already building on the Premier League to take care of the lower levels on the pyramid, even though it is a separate entity. The question posed was what responsibility the Premier League really has to the Championship, let alone to League Two. It seemed to amount mostly to solidarity.
Now, a few big clubs seem to be heading off ongoing discussions about what professional soccer ought to look like going forward. Instead, they seek to consolidate their power, while placating fans, the federation and the lower leagues with massive one-time payments, royalties and subsidies.
Looked at from the perspective of the big clubs, they are safeguarding the health of the rest of English soccer with generous payoffs. From the opposite viewpoint, this is a cynical move preying on a vulnerability exacerbated by a once-in-a-century pandemic.
It may not matter who is right. Because it’s unclear that anybody can stop the big clubs from doing what they want.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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