LONDON — The sticking point in talks about reopening the Premier League, the richest league in global soccer, is not about how it would affect the best and wealthiest clubs, but about the way it would affect the worst ones.
While leagues in Germany, Italy and Spain take halting steps toward restarting, the return of the Premier League is being held up by an alliance of teams at the bottom of the standings. They appear set on using the league’s own bylaws as a cudgel in negotiations over a return to action as they try to spare themselves the risk of demotion to the second tier — and potential financial ruin.
Weekly talks to get the game moving again — almost two months after it was shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic — routinely end in frustration, even as public officials assert their support for the return of sports.
Britain’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said on Tuesday that the return of Premier League soccer would “lift the spirits of the nation.”
“I know that the government has had constructive meetings with sports bodies to plan for athletes to resume training when it’s safe to do so,” he said.
The lack of consensus is even more striking when set against the efforts of other top leagues to play again. The leagues in Spain and Italy, where the virus so far has been at least as damaging as in Britain, and the league in Germany, where the government on Wednesday approved a return to action in the second half of May, appear to have united around a strategy.
As in those countries, the top flight in England has developed a protocol for the season to restart in a biologically safe environment, in which players would be subjected to regular testing and could be sequestered together before the first games are played.
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But amid continued opposition, a plan to resume the Premier League season has not been voted on: Under the league’s constitution, 14 of the 20 teams must approve the plan, and without assurances of the necessary margin, there is nothing to be done but continue to talk.
There have been hours and hours of calls, largely going around in circles. Teams like Aston Villa and West Ham, and others at risk of relegation to the second tier, have hemmed and hawed about whether the integrity of the competition would be undermined if it was not completed in conditions similar to the three-quarters of the season already played. Those games, before the pandemic, took place at packed stadiums, which are unlikely to be seen again until next year.
The league’s struggle to reach a consensus highlights the absence of its longtime executive chairman Richard Scudamore, a towering figure known, until his retirement in 2018, for his ability to force through changes in a league often troubled by divisions between its wealthiest clubs, like Manchester United and Liverpool, and the rest.
His replacement, Richard Masters, a longtime league employee who was confirmed in the role only a few months ago, has yet to stamp his own authority on the organization.
The failure to reach a consensus has stoked fear among some executives that time to complete the season will evaporate before there is an agreement. Officials believe the current season — including Champions League games — needs to be completed by early September at the latest, or it will imperil the one to come. Under that timetable, players need to start practice next month.
On Monday night, Paul Barber, the chief executive of Brighton & Hove Albion, which at 15th place sits just two points above the last relegation place, acknowledged his club’s attitude in the talks was borne of “self-interest.”
Brighton opposes a proposal to play the remainder of the season at neutral venues, to avoid clusters of fans gathering outside stadiums.
“Neutral venues just simply changes the nature of the competition and what we would consider to be unfair and not the right way to go,” Barber told BBC Radio. “My job is to represent Brighton & Hove Albion, and our interests are staying in the Premier League.”
While the bottom six teams have formed an alliance, their ultimate aims differ. Those occupying the last three places want relegation to be waived for one season, or the season to be declared void. Those just above them would prefer that the standings be frozen if soccer cannot be played again this season.
The suggestion of no relegation, with the league expanded to 23 teams to include three promoted from the second tier, was largely rejected Tuesday when Rick Parry, the chairman of the three professional leagues below the Premier League, addressed a panel of lawmakers.
“We expect three championship clubs to be promoted — the Premier League are aware of our position on that. The Premier League expects three clubs to be relegated,” Parry said, adding that other options would lead to messy legal consequences.
Playing next season with 23 teams is seen as unrealistic, too, given the likely impact on that season’s calendar, which is already compressed by this year’s events and the need to stop in time for the postponed European soccer championships to take place in June 2021.
The financial implications for Brighton, or for any of the teams facing demotion, are dwarfed by the hit the league faces should the season not be completed.
Broadcasters alone would have to be repaid 750 million pounds, or about $933 million, for the games that wouldn’t be played. Including the loss of stadium revenue and other income, the league estimates the total figure to be closer to $1.5 billion. Even if the games are played, the estimate for losses is as much as $622 million, including millions in rebates to television companies because of schedule changes.
The next meeting is scheduled for Monday, though it is unlikely a vote will be taken. Instead, the teams will be asked to agree to a training protocol, a phased return for full practices that executives believe is achievable.
Like sports leagues elsewhere, and businesses more generally, the Premier League figures in broader government plans.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to give an update on Sunday about plans to lift some of the nationwide restrictions, which have been in place since March. Government officials have supported the idea of soccer’s return without fans, provided that can be managed safely. And the league does not want to be seen as getting preferential treatment, an accusation that has been leveled at the Bundesliga in Germany, a league English officials have been in constant touch with.
Discussions with the government have included talks about making all the remaining games available on television in Britain — which, unlike most other countries, does not broadcast all matches domestically. There is also a possibility of streaming the games that are not already scheduled for the league’s broadcast partners on platforms like YouTube.
But those options will be moot should the league ultimately not get the necessary votes in time to play on.