Issue The gradient becomes steeper

As told by Jason Mckeown

On The 2010/2011 Season

Mark Lawn’s first-ever Football League meeting saw the Joint-Chairman loudly question why the Football League TV deal left his club so disadvantaged. He was told it was because of a rule which had been implemented by a then-Bradford City chairman.

The split of TV revenue is weighed heavily in favour of clubs in the Championship, and it’s a thinking which has been replicated in other important money matters. The Premier League’s solidarity payments subsequently introduced that summer – loose change from the billions England’s top flight generates and keeps for themselves, after voting to break away from the Football League in 1991 – saw each Championship club receive £830,000 per season. Meanwhile League One and Two clubs – arguably most in need of any hardship fund going – received £103,000 and £69,000 per season respectively.

A welcome gift, but one which will did little to bridge the gap between rich and poor.

And this heavily-biased split of the leagues was the work of Geoffrey Richmond, who two years after making a speech on the Valley Parade pitch that his Premiership-bound Bantams would “never forget their lower league friends” marked City’s return to the Football League in 2001 by ensuring clubs in England’s second tier received the greater benefits of any pots of money coming all three divisions’ way. Who cared about clubs in England’s bottom tier then?

Lawn, faced with this unexpected further revelation of Richmond’s legacy at the Football League meeting in 2007, didn’t have a leg to stand on.

Fast forward to the present day, and the landscape will begin to further shift from this season. A “take it or leave it” revised solidarity payments offer from the Premier League last April was initially rejected by clubs in League One and Two; but faced with no choice, they ultimately had to accept. The £20m a year donation by the elite has tripled to £60m from this season (cuts to community funding will pay for the Premier League’s generosity), but the disparities in who is entitled to how much have remained, further increasing the gaps.

So from this season, the majority of Championship clubs will each receive £2.2m per year from the Premier League. For League One clubs, the payment has increased to £335,000 and for League Two clubs £220,000. In addition, relegated Premier League clubs will now receive £48m worth of parachute payments over four seasons – £16m in each of the first two years.

A near quarter of a million guaranteed revenue for City is certainly not something to be sniffed at; but whereas the Bantams were previously receiving £761,000 less per year than their Championship counterparts, the gap will now be over £2m every season. And that’s before we consider the present three-year TV deal, collectively worth £264m.

Let’s remember where City want to ultimately aspire to return to – last July, the vision unfurled by Lawn was for City to reach the Championship in five years time. It could prove increasingly difficult to scale those heights – and much more challenging to stay there.

With so many Football League clubs struggling to stay in business, any help that the Premier League is willing to provide has to be grudgingly accepted. But there are genuine long-term concerns about what this new deal will do to the competitive nature of the Football League. In the Championship, clubs relegated from the Premier League will have such a huge advantage in terms of the money they have, compared to their rivals, that bouncing back within a couple of seasons should be much more of a regular occurrence than it currently is. And for clubs climbing into the Championship from Leagues One and Two, the inequality of solidarity payments will make it more difficult to catch up as time goes by.

The gulf between Premier League and Championship has been huge for years, and a similar type of chasm could be about to emerge between tiers two and three.

Which makes the need for City to start climbing the leagues all the more urgent. That £2.2m per year Championship clubs will start receiving is hardly going to be used to make ticket prices more affordable or to increase presence in the community; it will likely be extra money for the transfer budget and extra money for the wage bill. And with each passing season of getting £2.2m richer, the size of the wage bills will get larger and more difficult for newly-promoted clubs to compete with.

So while getting into the Championship can still be considered a realistic objective for all the 48 teams in England’s bottom two tiers, with the difference in solidarity payments between Leagues One and Two relatively low, competing against teams with increasingly larger resources will become increasingly difficult. It’s hard to imagine many more instances of a Wigan, Stoke or Fulham rising through the divisions like we’ve seen over the last decade. And the sport will be less magical for losing that.

But while we can curse Richmond yet again for instigating a situation that penalises our club, the reasoning of why he did it is one difficult to avoid talking hypocritically about. I bet not many of the 24 Championship clubs supported their lesser peers in initially rejecting the Premier League’s offer last April – despite the very real possibility that they one day could be relegated and suffer the consequences. And I bet that if they were on the Championship side of the fence, few League One and Two Chairman would have been principled enough to reject the offer either.

It’s all about looking after your own interests, and believing the changes you vote for will only aid your cause – rather than later tripping you up. Least we forget, then top-flight members Oldham and Sheffield United voted for the breakaway of the Premier League.

And if City can fulfill the vision of making it back to the Championship, would we care too much about the plight of present-day rivals? If there’s a big pot of money that we’re entitled to take a greater share of, would we vote to give more of it to others?

Which is perhaps the greatest irony. Over the last two decades, Premier League and Championship clubs have voted to make changes which boost their individual prospects and increase their own chances of enjoying success – at the expense of others. That natural competitive nature to maximise every advantage and be damned with morals and ethics may in fact be leading to our national game become less and less competitive.

The door is beginning to close. City need to get their foot in.