The Covid-19 pandemic has decimated a raft of industries from airlines to restaurants. The beautiful game has not been immune. Across Europe, football clubs are facing steep falls in ticket, merchandise and sponsorship revenue as matches are played in empty stadiums and lockdowns scramble schedules.
Nowhere is this more true than in France, where the top division, Ligue 1, has been stuck in a slow-motion crisis since October when its broadcast partner Mediapro simply stopped paying instalments on its €780m annual TV rights deal. The heavily indebted Spanish company sought court protection from creditors and begged the league for a price cut.
Although Mediapro blamed coronavirus, its problems largely stemmed from its inability to persuade enough people to sign up to its newly created Téléfoot channel. After much acrimony, Mediapro wrangled a deal with the league to return the 2020-2024 TV rights altogether and pay only a fraction of what it owed: €100m, according to L’Equipe newspaper, although it missed payments worth about €325m. The debacle has left a huge hole in the finances of French clubs and prompted much soul searching on how things went so wrong.
The answer is simple: greed. French clubs chose the unproven Mediapro in 2018 because it far outbid far other candidates, including the longtime football broadcaster pay-TV provider Canal Plus. The clubs bet that Mediapro would bring a historic windfall to the French league by increasing its TV rights valuation closer to that of the UK and Spain and helping it better compete in Europe. Instead, Mediapro plunged French football into a historical crisis.
The league is now scrambling to find a new broadcaster ahead of January 31, the date until which Mediapro has agreed to keep screening the matches. Canal Plus, owned by Vivendi, is the most likely choice — but it is in a strong position to dictate terms since there are no other bidders.
The consequences of Mediapro’s exit are already being felt across French football. While big clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain — which has a deep-pocketed owner in Qatar Sports Investments — can weather the storm, smaller ones face tough decisions.
Bordeaux announced plans on Saturday to fire 10 per cent of its staff, and its owner King Street Capital — a US investment company — reportedly wants to sell the club. The president of the Breton club Rennes warned of a coming reckoning and said it would post a €40m loss in 2020.
Clubs with high debts, such as Lille, are in a particularly vulnerable position. Owner Gérard Lopez sold Lille to an investment fund after coming under pressure in December from debt holders, the US hedge fund Elliott Management and JPMorgan.
Resetting club finances must start with trimming their biggest expense — players’ salaries. The league and a union representing French players are scheduled to meet this week to discuss potential pay cuts. Some clubs will also probably try to raise more funds by selling players.
French football should not let this crisis go to waste. The smallest of the big five leagues in Europe by revenues, the French league has become unbalanced and uncompetitive, with few teams able to keep up with Qatari-owned PSG. The club has won the title in seven out of the past 10 years. No wonder people are not rushing to sign up for expensive TV package deals.
Football experts have floated several ways to breathe new life into the French league, such as splitting up the TV money more equitably between clubs or imposing a salary cap.
England’s Premier League is Europe’s most egalitarian in how it splits up TV money, according to François Godard of Enders Analysis. Before Covid-19, the top UK clubs earned 1.3 times the domestic TV revenues of the median club. The gap is 2.5 in France and Germany and 3.1 in Spain.
Another idea would be for the French league to create a separate company to commercialise its TV rights, something that Italy did last year in a bid to relaunch Serie A. More drama could be injected into the league if a second big club was created in Paris to be a cross-city rival to PSG.
Vincent Labrune, who recently took over as the head of France’s professional football league, has signalled an openness to change, calling for “redesigns of the formats of competitions” and perhaps reducing the number of teams. Without such boldness, the French league risks falling into a spiral of decline.