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Ask club owners, not players, to save staff from furloughs

Owners can prevent unnecessary staff conflict as the pandemic brings financial hardship

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Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal Photo by Catherine Ivill/AMA/Corbis via Getty Images

It was not a matter of if, but how, football would be impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and the answers came quickly. In addition to an almost complete stoppage in play, clubs’ financial standing were suddenly in question. Requests from clubs to players to take pay cuts and news of furloughs came as governments launched relief programs. None of it was surprising on its face considering the varying resources clubs around the world have. Then Premier League clubs followed suit.

Revenue streams may have dried up, but the Premier League is in many ways the richest conglomerate of clubs — the average player earns more than £3 million ($3.7 million) a year, and the clubs share more than £2 billion ($2.47 billion) in television money. It comes as a surprise that Premier League clubs would rely on the United Kingdom’s relief scheme, and asking the clubs to essentially explain themselves is a natural reaction. That explanation is not owed by players, but by club owners.

Players are the most visible and clearest representation of a club’s reputation, from both a branding and financial perspective. That clarity extends to players’ own reputations — the clubs offer them specific branding and financial statuses, but it also offers a blanket image for many players, but especially those in the Premier League: that of a most privileged person. All of it is not just easily accessible public information, but seemingly evident from the players’ appearances.

It is why Derby County’s Wayne Rooney says players are “easy targets” — their privilege is both emblematic of a club’s wealth and their own separate wealth. As high wage earners not only in the lens of football but amongst the general public, they are in a perfect position to aid in whatever way they are able, though this is based on the idea that wealthy people should help cover gaps in places governments cannot (or will not). A number of players have already made charitable contributions and more may come, but there remains a question about what they are doing to “look after your own,” as former Tottenham midfielder Jamie O’Hara describes it.

Perhaps players should show solidarity with their colleagues, though that is for those furloughed employees to decide. Regardless, conversations about player wages have frequently been the type to pit one type of employee against the other and acted as if it was the only choice clubs could take because the Professional Footballers’ Association will not allow clubs to take the decision themselves on cutting player wages. That conflict can be avoided entirely if owners just choose to get involved.

Though players might be the most visibly wealthy members of any club and might even be the ones bringing money to the club, they in the end are not the ones controlling it. The money at any given club is divvied up by the ownership, and the Premier League’s group of owners usually have a lot to work with — 14 of the 20 Premier League clubs have ownership groups with an estimated net worth above £1 billion (16 have an estimated net worth above $1 billion). It is a group of people one would expect may be able to avoid the government scheme, and this is especially true for Tottenham Hotspur owner Joe Lewis.

Between Lewis’s estimated net worth of £3.81 billion ($4.7 billion) and Spurs’ increasing profits that continue to see it rise above other Premier League clubs, he is seemingly in an ideal situation to prevent a conflict of employees. Yet, he has not stepped in — chairman Daniel Levy and the club’s directors will take a 20% wage cut, but word about what Lewis has done to aid his employees is nowhere to be found. That begs the question: What is Lewis’s plan as people he is responsible to come upon hard times?

As the always quiet owner of Tottenham has remained that since last week’s news of furloughs was announced, there could be a number of items occupying the billionaire. Lewis could be looking at Spurs’ other costs specifically as revenue streams, like the television money Premier League clubs rely on, dry up. As a club that has intentionally operated without owner handouts, Lewis would still be expected to offer more financial support.

If matters are particularly dire for either Tottenham or Lewis personally, it would be worrying for a club whose reputation has been one of strong finances and for Lewis himself, who has attempted to save money for decades by becoming a tax exile in the Bahamas. Considering the amount of money expected to be at Lewis’s disposal, it appears more likely that Tottenham is just seeking government aid when it is not in need of it, an unfortunate risk any government takes with a relief package.

Liverpool was another club doing the same until reversing a decision to furlough some non-playing staff. Liverpool owner Fenway Sports Group is estimated to be worth £5.35 billion ($6.6 billion) and like Lewis was assumed to have the ability to cover the costs the club was cutting, and proved as much with the reversal. Lewis and Tottenham, though, have not earned a direct comparison to FSG and Liverpool. Before changing course, Liverpool committed to paying the 20% the government would not so staff would receive full pay, the smallest measure every other Premier League club has committed to. Tottenham still have not, even with supporters encouraging the club to pay staff.

At the very least, there are two takeaways from this series of decisions — or lack thereof — from Lewis and other Premier League owners. The more hopeful one is that holding clubs, and other parties with power and influence, accountable is a small individual act that can result in impactful change if it is part of collective action. Loud pushback not just from supporters, but from former players, saw Liverpool reverse its decision and as mentioned, Spurs supporters are attempting the same.

The dour conclusion is that those efforts may not result in the desired outcome. Despite public pressure, Tottenham have so far shown no signs of changing its plan and if that remains the case, it is not the fault of the many who have pleaded with the club to treat its staff better. It also is not the fault of the players or the chairman, who may bear some responsibility but clearly not all of it. It is Lewis who must respond, or answer for the fact that he has not, and it is on Lewis if nothing changes. If he does not, it demonstrates a failure not only to his responsibilities but to the football community the sport’s higher ups have claimed to support during a pandemic.