It’s the richest league in the world. The play-off final to get there is called the richest game in the world. It kicks off on Saturday with Cardiff City, Hull City Tigers and Crystal Palace joining the Premier League.
Each have come into the league and incurred expenses ranging from player transfers to ground improvements. Premier League riches, with a cool £120 million up for grabs even for the team finishing bottom, have not come for these clubs without a price.
Speaking to Footy Matters in 2012, Crystal Palace co-chairman Steve Parish said the Championship has an “arms race” style battle for promotion. The competitive second tier of English football has increasingly become a division where clubs flex financial muscle and foreign owners buy clubs with the aim of having a slice of the Premier League pie.
In recent years, a range of Championship clubs have been spending previously unheard of amounts at this level in order to get promoted. West Ham, Southampton and QPR are recent examples of achieving that goal through spending. However, Norwich and Swansea demonstrate an alternative model and Leicester City show that spending at that level does not always equate success.
Each of this season’s new Premier League clubs have paid their own price however, a price which goes beyond money and touches on an identity, community and morality.
Vincent Tan joined Cardiff in 2010 and came with a clear aim, to finally get the then Bluebirds over the line and into the Premier League. Three years later the target was hit, Malky Mackay’s team won the league title and they have since three times broken the club’s transfer record by signing Andreas Cornelius, Steven Caulker and most recently, Gary Medel.
While all appears rosy in the garden, it is perhaps a bit too rosy. Roses are red, but Cardiff used to be blue. The Bluebirds are now the Dragons, playing in red; the identity of the club abandoned by the owners as the change in colours was accompanied with the affectionate name for the club being dropped too. Essentially re-branded, the Cardiff City that gained promotion to the Premier League was a very different beast to the one which had risen through the leagues.
Promotion gained, identity lost. Tan et al are not alone in this. As recently as Sunday, it was declared by Assem Allam, owner of the club formally known as Hull City AFC, that the word ‘City’ is “boring” and it would be dropped from the name, as well as AFC. The club will be known globally as Hull Tigers (albeit City retained as part of the name locally).
While Cardiff’s re-brand occurred before promotion, it appears the desire to create a global brand and cash in on the opportunities the Premier League affords has meant Hull have followed a week before the season kicks off. Thankfully for Crystal Palace fans, speaking to Footy Matters, Co-chairman Stephen Browett has confirmed this is not an approach the Eagles will take “It [the Premier League] puts us in the spotlight around the world but we don’t need to change our “brand” as we already have a very cool name!”
Since promotion, Crystal Palace have also looked to maximise their own exposure. Manager Ian Holloway has been backed in the transfer market, with Peterborough’s Dwight Gayle joining for a club-record fee. Five other players have been signed and Holloway confident another half a dozen will follow.
Despite the promise of TV money and parachute payments should the worst happen this season, the Selhurst Park club have looked to other areas to gain income with stadium naming rights among the discussions. Palace are said to be on the brink of agreeing a deal with betting website 12Bet which was at first rumoured to be naming rights for Selhurst Park. CPFC2010, the club’s owners, have since distanced themselves from this “We are still hoping to do a deal on stadium sponsorship but NOT stadium naming rights” said Browett.
What has emerged this summer, with the onset of the highest value TV deal, is that promoted clubs need to consider brand exposure as much as any footballing success.
The price of promotion may come in terms of shift in identity. It may also alienate some long-terms supporters who are either uneasy with a new moral standard in football or priced out. However, for promoted clubs wanting to stay in the Premier League and for the majority of their fans who want their clubs to avoid the drop while signing an array of new stars, the price could be seen as a small, unavoidable one.
Much is made of the increased revenues and the expectation is that there is funding ready for managers to spend on players. The reality is that as well as an increased wage bill, which Browett conservatively estimates will “double”, the promoted clubs have to get their stadium and facilities up to Premier League standards.
“We’ve spent more than £1 million on the new TV gantry, cabling, new studios in the stadium and we’re spending money on improving facilities for fans” with the latter point including refurbished catering facilities, executive boxes and seats.
For owners like life-long season ticket holder Browett, reality hit soon after promotion was won “When it had sunk in we had a lot of planning to do including upgrades to the stadium and the playing staff”. He remained keen to point out that despite a “modest” ticket price increase, most of the 15,000 season ticket holders purchased at adult prices starting at £360, and under-10s getting free season tickets.
The Palace co-chairman, who admits he “thinks like a fan first”, may have rapidly come to speed with the commercial realities of life in the Premier League and while the Premier League machine may result in a distance created between a club and its fans, being a supporter himself means they remain at the forefront of his thoughts. Browett, who is also Chairman and owner of Farr Vintners, one of the world’s leading wholesale fine wine dealers, spends a significant amount of time on a fans’ forum answering all manner of questions from toilet refurbishments, to ground changes and ticketing issues.
His efforts demonstrate an understanding of the need to balance looking after a club’s core supporter base with maximising opportunities which are afforded to top flight clubs. Only time will tell whether the price Cardiff, Hull and Palace have paid for promotion was worthwhile. Once the league kick-off this weekend, these clubs will have a chance to make a real name for themselves where it matters; on the football pitch.