Premier League state of play: Player welfare and broadcast refunds issues surrounding Project Restart

Published on: May 15, 2020
Author: Daniel Hubert
Project Restart may involve free-to-air broadcast of Premier League games

Project Restart initially aimed to bring Premier League football back on 12 June, but the intended kick-off date is on the verge of being pushed back by a week.

That is demonstrative of the hurdles the Premier League has yet to clear as it battles with issues of health and safety, sporting integrity and diminishing revenues.

The first major casualty of the plan was the declaration that all 92 remaining fixtures should take place at neutral grounds.

Howeever, bottom six – Norwich City, Aston Villa, Bournemouth, Watford, West Ham United and Brighton and Hove Albion – were against that idea from the start.

Villa, Watford and Brighton all went public with their opposition. In a meeting last Monday, Newcastle United also raised concerns, forcing the Premier League to revisit the proposal.

The league will now seek to persuade the British government that it will be safe to stage the remaining games at teams’ home grounds.

“I think everybody would prefer to play home and away if at all possible,” said Premier League chief executive Richard Masters. “And I think it’s clear to see that some clubs feel more strongly about that than others.

“We’ve been talking to the authorities about the conditions in which we could get the Premier League back up and running and taking all that advice on board, but it is an ongoing dialogue.

“I think some of our clubs would argue that, in relation to policing their own fans, they have a good relationship with them and they’re in a better position to control that. This has to be a decision that’s come to mutually.”

Project Restart hinges on player welfare

There is also still work to be done on the medical protocols governing the return to both training and competitive action.

A group of Premier League doctors expressed misgivings about the initial set of rules, and there is expected to be further amendments after the government has reviewed the document.

There is no guarantee that Boris Johnson’s administration will give the protocols the green light, however.

Shadow Sports Minister, Alison McGovern, believes the procedures should be released for the public to view and critique, and any serious opposition to the Premier League’s plan could see Project Restart scuppered.

“People want football back,” McGovern said. “But we need to have confidence that we’re doing it in a way that supports the health of athletes and supports broader public-health objectives.”

The “health of athletes” is a key point. Danny Rose and Raheem Sterling are the latest players to raise doubts over the return of the Premier League, joining the likes of Conor Hourihane, Glenn Murray and Sergio Aguero.

The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) is continuing to discuss the proposals with its members, many of whom are understandably nervous about the health implications of Project Restart.

Several players made their feelings known in a meeting earlier this week that brought together the captains of all 20 clubs.

According to The Guardian, the get-together featured “robust exchanges and diverging views”, but the Premier League was satisfied that it was a useful exercise.

Broadcast refunds cause for concern

Premier League clubs also have unanswered questions, chief among them the issue of what will happen if one of their players tests positive.

The entire squad of Dynamo Dresden, a second-tier German side, have been forced to go into quarantine for two weeks after two of their number returned positive tests.

Even though German football is pressing on, a similar situation in the Premier League could prove fatal to its hopes of resumption – particularly after a third Brighton player tested positive last Sunday.

One area of progress concerns players’ contracts – namely those that are due to expire on 30 June.

Premier League clubs have unanimously agreed to extend deals until the completion of the campaign, although that must be done before 23 June to guarantee continuing player eligibility.

There is another thing that Premier League clubs are almost certainly united on – although it is not something positive.

Top flight sides have learned that they stand to collectively lose up to £350,000,000 in broadcast revenues, even if the season does get back under way.

That will cause consternation in every Premier League boardroom, although broadcasters are adamant that they are justified in seeking recompense because the terms of their contracts – primarily the dates of matches – have not been fulfilled.

There is also another form of pressure related to broadcasts. It will be possible for the Premier League to return only if public opinion is behind the idea.

Free-to-air football no problem

After all, First Secretary of State Dominic Raab backed the proposal purely because the season’s resumption would “lift the spirits of the nation”.

As a result, the government has told the Premier League that several games must be shown on free-to-air TV.

That would not necessarily take matches away from Sky Sports and BT Sport, but it is still less than ideal for companies that have grown used to near-exclusive broadcast rights.

“The government is opening the door for competitive football to return safely in June,” said Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

“This should include widening access for fans to view live coverage and ensure finances from the game’s resumption support the wider football family.”

Time is running out for the Premier League to get the necessary authorisation from its various stakeholders.

A vote on Project Restart is expected on Monday, with UEFA’s 25 May deadline for individual leagues to decide the fate of their respective seasons looming large.

If agreement proves elusive, there is a distinct possibility that the 2019-20 campaign will be curtailed, something that was spoken of in last Monday’s meeting.

“It was discussed for the first time but the contents of that discussion have to remain confidential,” Masters said.

“What I can say is that all of the talk was about finishing the season. No conclusions were reached on any other models. Those are future conversations we may need to have.”