I was disappointed but not surprised to read about a labor dispute between English Premier League owners and players. As companies around the world furlough workers, and employees worry about paychecks and unemployment benefits, the Premier League is going through its own labor relations crisis. As New York Times soccer correspondent Rory Smith discusses, players and owners in the English Premier League are at an impasse. Four clubs—Norwich City, Newcastle United, Bournemouth, and Tottenham—have placed most of their nonplaying staff on furlough.
The real problem, Smith notes, is not a lack of money but a lack of mutual trust. As he writes, “The players do not trust that the clubs are not trying to make them shoulder the burden. The clubs do not trust that the players’ agents—and by extension the players—will act honorably, in the common good.” There is also little trust among clubs, as each believes its rivals will use the situation to gain an advantage.
Players have opposed a proposal to accept a 30 percent pay reduction, even as Football Association Chairman Greg Clarke has warned of dire consequences if the two sides cannot agree. Meanwhile, owners insist on pay cuts even while some face criticisms that they are only concerned with profits. As Clarke observed, there is “danger of losing clubs and leagues as finances collapse.”
There are political and policy implications at play that are not necessarily obvious. The player’s union has argued that the 500 million pounds worth of pay cuts would cost the government more than 200 million pounds in tax revenue. Players have also demanded that their money go to causes such as funding for the National Health Service (NHS) and have supported deferring wages as opposed to an outright cut. Somewhat ironically, Health Secretary Matt Hancock waded into the fray by asserting that players should “take a pay cut and play their sport” although he failed to mention that this lost revenue could decrease the amount the government spends on healthcare.
Just as blaming the players seems misguided, it seems overly simplistic to argue that this dispute is just a matter of owners being greedy. There are valid concerns some owners have about the financial implications of not playing matches (although it was pretty gross that Tottenham’s chairman received a three-million-pound bonus the day the club announced its furlough). According to some estimates, Premier League clubs could lose over one billion pounds if the season does not restart and some clubs might see significant revenue shortfalls from television income.
While such disputes are certainty conceivable during a crisis like this one, it is interesting to consider why there are fewer high-profile disagreements right now in other European leagues, or even in American sports leagues. Smith cites “undiluted neoliberal thinking that has permeated soccer: the idea that all are out for themselves” Perhaps this could explain why players in leagues in Spain and Germany have been more willing—as a whole—to sacrifice salaries (in some cases, players have agreed to give up 70 percent of their salaries), but this explanation may be incomplete.
There is also the question of why there have been fewer disputes—at least publicly aired—in American sports leagues. The NBA has held discussions and there is little reason for optimism that the season will return soon, but there does not seem to be the same sense of acrimony between players and executives. Major League Baseball has been considering a proposal to play games in Arizona, which has received mixed reviews from players—some of whom are worried about being away from their families for months at a time. If this plan becomes reality, it will be interesting to see if there are holdouts (and what happens if/when a player tests positive).
There is a similar mentality of individualism in American sports, yet there are few public disputes. It is conceivable that the individualism and “Thatcherism” Smith mentions could be a factor compared to other European leagues and even American sports. As we noted earlier in class, the NFL and NBA are more “socialist” compared to the Premier League as indicated by the presence of a salary cap and the order teams draft. I’m not sure that this is a reason for this discrepancy—or if there is one—but it is not surprising that such employer-employee disputes have extended to the pitch during this unprecedented time.
I am interested to see if this gets resolved and when, as well as future implications on clubs’ finances when play resumes. Hopefully, the two sides can realize their mutual interest in reaching an agreement, where the players take a pay cut and owners use some of the money for health aid.
Shergold Adam. “All you need to know about Premier League players’ pay cut row amid coronavirus pandemic.” Daily Mail, April 6, 2020, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-8191467/Coronavirus-need-know-Premier-League-players-pay-cut-row.html.
Shergold, Adam. “FA ready to step in to solve Premier League stars’ wage row after chairman Greg Clarke warns clubs and leagues could be lost amid financial crisis ‘beyond our wildest imagination.’” Daily Mail, April 8, 2020, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/sportsnews/article-8200133/Football-Association-step-mediate-Premier-League-wage-dispute.html.
Smith, Rory. “It’s a Matter of Trust, and No One Has Any.” The New York Times, April 5, 2020.