Karl McCartney MP is the recently elected Chairman of the UKPFC APPG, and the first ever Conservative Captain of the Parliamentary Football Club.
We are now faced with a true football travesty – and I say this as a Tranmere Rovers, Liverpool, and Lincoln City fan.
Newcastle United (NUFC) – the club of England football legends, such as Alan Shearer, John Barnes, Paul Gascoigne, Kevin Keegan, Sir Bobby Robson and many others – is set to have 80 per cent of its finances supplied by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.
Given the country’s levels of personal prosecution, rules and regulations regarding individual freedoms, sentencing for law breakers, and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 – whose death was allegedly ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, this news will make many people shudder.
Yet despite the legitimate concerns put forth from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Khashoggi’s fiancé, the deal seems to be going ahead.
For me, the most insidious fact about this purchase is profit. Not that profit is a bad thing – but it shouldn’t come at the expense of everything else. Yet that is the core aim of the buyers: Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the nominated Chairman, is on record as saying the most important thing for him with any investment is a double-digit return for Saudi Arabia – not English football.
A mass investment in the club, part of our national game, akin to the likes of the Manchester City FC purchase, this is not.
Of course, Saudi Arabia, or its operatives, has for years been undermining British football by operating the now-notorious pirate broadcaster “beoutQ”. Indeed the Saudis are in the enviable position of currently not paying anything to watch world-class football – unlike every other country in the free world.
Now, if this purchase goes through, not only will they receive their UK football on TV for free, they will also reap the rewards from legitimate rights-payers like Sky, BT and beIN Sports, who all pay huge sums for broadcast rights and whose money goes directly to grassroots British sport.
That, to me – as the Chairman of the UKPFC APPG – is mightily important and should not be overlooked.
All the while, the rule of law – for which this country, our country, prides itself – is ridden over roughshod by the Saudis. Not for the first time, some might rightfully point out. It is an outrage.
Two weeks ago now, my colleague, Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State, refused to be drawn on this issue when he appeared before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. Understandable, perhaps. No-one wants to confront a country which has historically been one of our biggest export markets, and so I have some limited sympathy with him.
But frankly, the Premier League, Wimbledon, Horse Racing and Formula One are some of our country’s greatest sporting exports. And football fans across the UK, and there are many of us, deserve better from their Government than Dowden’s dodging.
At a time when the whole country is hurting from the coronavirus crisis, early last week it emerged in another DCMS Committee inquiry session that broadcast revenues for the Premier League (totalling £3 billion) barely cover total player wages (£2.9 billion).
Anything that undermines the value of UK football risks driving down the value of broadcast revenues, putting at risk clubs’ financial sustainability. This means that British football could struggle to attract the kind of talent we have come to expect and admire.
We know this risk is very real. beIN Media Group, one of the broadcasters most affected by Saudi piracy, has already had to shed a third of jobs and discontinued broadcasting Formula One as a direct result of beoutQ’s piracy, I am informed. That decision cost the sport seven per cent of its revenue, totalling around £30 million a year.
Given the hit UK sport has already taken as a result of Covid-19, clubs could find themselves teetering on the brink of survival if they suffer that kind of a financial loss unilaterally.
For now, Sky, BT and beIN have said they are committed to continuing their support of the Premier League through rights purchases. But as beIN’s CEO Yousef Al-Obaidly said to the LEADERS in Sport Conference at Twickenham just last year, beoutQ represents an existential threat to the whole industry. Sky has also tried to take legal action against Saudi Arabia, to no avail.
The BBC, one of our most cherished national institutions (if you believe the BBC and its Labour friends in and outside of the corporation), has been raising this as a grave concern with the Government and with the European Commission for years, and yet the state-sanctioned piracy continues.
What is to be done? Last year the Government said it was committed to tackling what they recognised was an immediate threat, as a matter of urgency, yet very little has happened since.
That is a disgrace. It’s time we took this seriously. The stakes could not be higher for UK football as an entity. It’s time to stop gambling with its future; it’s time to stop Saudi piracy. The best way to start is to block, at the very least delay, the Saudi purchase of Newcastle United – and at least impose some sanctions before allowing it to progress.
Otherwise this will lead to wage reductions (perhaps overdue), less taxes paid, and more clubs under financial pressure and vulnerable to takeover.
I believe in free markets, but I also believe in a level playing field and not trying to ‘pull a fast one’. It is time we sent them, and others around the world, a message loud and clear: hands off our football, stop stealing our national assets and play by the rules – or suffer the consequences.
For more information about the UK Parliamentary Football Club, visit www.parliamentary.soccer.