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In a League of his own

Richard Scudamore, executive chairman of the English Premier League, the world's richest football league, is steward to a billion-dollar phenomenon.
Saturday, August 8, 2015 - 05:50
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'We are in the business of event-planning, and it's a joy to come to a place where you reach an agreement and you just know that things will be delivered on time. Singapore has put itself in absolutely the best position to have us come back here.'

IT doesn't take much to ease Richard Scudamore, one of the most powerful officials in football, into the start of a long interview.

Asked to talk about his favourite team, he immediately flashes a broad smile. He may be the executive chairman of the English Premier League (EPL), but he doesn't pledge his allegiance to any of the 20 clubs that ply their trade in that high-profile competition.

That honour goes, instead, to Bristol City, a modest club based in the south-west of England in the city of Bristol, not too far away from where he was born nearly 56 years ago.

"That was my team back then and it's still my team now. I've never supported any other team," says Mr Scudamore, who owns four season passes to watch the Robins (Bristol City's nickname) in action at their Ashton Gate stadium.

He first got hooked on the sport when, as an impressionable six-year-old, he joined his father for a match towards the end of the 1965/66 season.

"As my colleagues will probably tell you these days, they all watch out very closely for Bristol City's results at the weekend, because life (at the office) on Monday morning will depend on how the team performed," he says with a laugh.

His staff at the EPL's London headquarters didn't have to worry too much about the mood of their boss last season at least.

A rampant Bristol City stormed their way to the League One title - two levels below the top-ranked EPL - in May in some style, finishing eight points clear of second-placed Milton Keynes Dons. Not only was it the club's first league trophy in 60 long years, the achievement sealed promotion to the second-tier Football League Championship.

In the top league

Purely from the perspective of a fan, Mr Scudamore will be keeping his fingers crossed that his team can somehow defy the odds and one day play under the bright lights of the EPL, arguably the world's richest and most glamorous football league.

Such is his passion for his boyhood club that he once admitted in another interview that he would rather the Robins be promoted to the EPL than England win the World Cup.

There is good reason for this, and Mr Scudamore probably understands this better than anyone else. The EPL is widely regarded as one of Britain's greatest exports, a type of "soft power" for the UK to tap on, build networks and do business with the rest of the world.

The EPL's numbers are staggering, to put it mildly. According to business advisory firm Deloitte's latest The Football Money League 2015 report, 14 of the EPL's 20 members rank among the top 30 richest football clubs in the world.

Manchester United is the second richest club on the list, behind Spanish giants Real Madrid, having generated £433.2 million (S$956.2 million) in revenue for the 2013/14 season.

Stadiums are almost always full for each of the EPL's 380 games spread out over a nine-month season.

The players, many of them household names, are paid astronomical six-figure sums each week to showcase their talent to hundreds of millions of fans around the world.

Many clubs also release a new jersey design almost every year, resulting in fans snapping them up in droves. Last week, adidas launched the new Manchester United home jersey to much fanfare, the first shirt to roll off the production line after the German sportswear maker signed an exclusive 10-year deal worth £750 million with the Red Devils.

But nothing even comes close to what the EPL - often known as the Barclays Premier League because it is sponsored by Barclays in England - makes by selling its television rights.

Mr Scudamore - who has been the EPL's chief executive since 1999 before his recent appointment to executive chairman in June this year - is the man who helped deliver a record British TV rights deal for the 2016-19 EPL seasons earlier this year.

In February, it emerged that UK broadcasters Sky TV and BT Sport had forked out more than £5.1 billion to secure the deal, a 70 per cent increase on their existing £3 billion contract.

Throw in the over-£3 billion from overseas rights - the EPL is now shown in more than 200 countries - and you're looking at an eye-popping £8 billion that will flood in for three seasons starting next summer.

As a guide to just how much the mark-up has been since the EPL was first formed back in 1992, the deal back then was £191 million spread over a longer period of five seasons.

Mr Scudamore, who turns 56 next week, noted that the spiralling cost of tuning in to the wildly popular EPL on pay-TV was something beyond the league's control.

When subscription prices last went up in Singapore in 2013, Singtel - the exclusive rights holders to the EPL here - raised the cost of watching the EPL from S$34.90 to S$59.90 per month. Singtel reportedly spent close to S$400 million to wrest the exclusive broadcast rights to the EPL in 2010, up from the S$250 million that rival StarHub paid three years earlier.

When asked if the EPL could work with pay-TV operators to ensure that the product remained accessible and affordable to football fans, he replied: "Ultimately, this is a matter for those who have bought the Premier League rights. We have no say in how much they choose to bid for those rights, or how much they then charge for them."

What's high on his to-do list is to make sure that the EPL continues to have a direct relationship with broadcasters in individual markets, something that the league has done for the last 15 years and counting.

"What this gives us is the ability to work with local partners to bring a localised version of the EPL to each market. Rather than sell the rights to agencies or big pan-regional broadcasters, which did us well in the past, we now have a deliberate strategy to deal with individual broadcasters," he said.

"Some are semi-regional deals, and we provide the raw content for the broadcasters to package that up into something that's right for that particular market."

During the interview with The Business Times at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Singapore, Mr Scudamore speaks highly of the potential and business opportunities in Asia, in particular Singapore.

Last month, the EPL brought its Barclays Asia Trophy pre-season tournament here. The two days of competition - featuring English clubs Arsenal, Stoke City and Everton, along with a Singapore Selection side - attracted a total of 81,974 fans, a new record for the seventh edition of this biennial event.

The 52,107 people who packed the National Stadium for the grand final on July 18 was a record attendance for the Singapore Sports Hub's main venue, surpassing the 51,577 for last October's friendly match between Brazil and Japan.

Mr Scudamore says discussions on where to hold the tournament in 2017 would begin soon, and he lets on that Singapore would rank high on the shortlist once again.

"There is very little more I could see Singapore doing to make it even more attractive for us. You have one of the greatest airports in the world, it's easy to get to the downtown area, people are friendly, and it's the most open place to do business anywhere in the world," he says.

"We are in the business of event-planning, and it's a joy to come to a place where you reach an agreement and you just know that things will be delivered on time. Singapore has put itself in absolutely the best position to have us come back here."

Mr Scudamore, a fully-qualified level five referee, was not always involved in football. He studied law at the University of Nottingham, but eventually chose not to go into practice and instead spent the first nine years of his working life at Yellow Pages.

He quickly moved up the corporate ladder at the telephone directory giant, progressing through sales and marketing and planning and regional management before becoming sales director.

Mid-career switch

What followed was a mid-career switch as he entered the newspaper industry. He was the sales and marketing director in the UK for Thomson Newspapers, and the managing director of The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and Edinburgh Evening News.

When Thomson sold all its UK newspapers at the end of 1993, he went to New York to work for the Thomson Corporation as senior vice-president in charge of all their newspaper operations in the southern and eastern United States. At one point, he was overseeing more than 200 newspapers in 40 different states.

He returned to the UK after applying for the job as the Football League Championship's chief executive, a post he held for two years before he was later appointed the chief of the EPL.

He has accountability for all aspects of the EPL competition and business. His core responsibilities include regulatory, legal and political matters, and the negotiation of key commercial rights across 225 international markets.

"I was in a rather unique situation where I had gone abroad and done a lot in other businesses and built up that experience. I would say I got lucky by getting the job at the Football League Championship, to have that chance to oversee 72 clubs. After a couple of years, the Premier League came knocking and it's very hard to say no to that," he says.

Asked about the biggest changes since he first took up the top job 16 years ago, he says it would be the rapid internationalisation of the EPL and the advent of social and digital media.

He admits that his job scope has also grown significantly over time. "The scope has expanded, the Premier League has expanded. I've been to Singapore eight times in the last 10 years. You multiply that by every other major country that we're in, and that's an awful lot of travel. Some people might think it's glamorous, but it's not always the case," he says.

"The regulatory demands are much greater too because the more successful you are, the more they want to be involved. Even here in Singapore, (the regulator, the Media Development Authority) takes an interest in TV rights and cross-carriage. We have these regulatory issues all over the world."

The EPL clubs themselves have grown by leaps and bounds, he shares. At this year's Barclays Asia Trophy in Singapore, the total entourage that accompanied the three teams was about thrice the number that went to the inaugural tournament in Kuala Lumpur back in 2003.

"You just look at the entire infrastructure, both on the field and off it. There's the backroom staff, the sport sciences experts, sports psychologists, medical personnel, and so on," he says.

"And that's just one side of the entourage. You've also got the commercial people at each of the clubs, and they are all looking to do business and expand their brand. Everything is just so much more expansive than it used to be, on every level."

If there are any "perks" in what's a fairly hectic and stressful job, that would be getting to travel to the home stadiums of each of the 20 EPL teams to watch them play.

He'll be watching three matches in three different cities this weekend, with his itinerary including trips to Bournemouth, Newcastle and West Bromwich Albion. By Christmas, he would have visited all 20 stadiums, some of them more than once.

"If you've got a job that's effectively office-based, you have to go out and see the product, and that would be true for any business. It would be easy to just sit in my office and think that football is how it seems like on a TV or computer screen, or in terms of what I'm reading in the papers. But I enjoy getting out there and seeing what the game is all about. There's absolutely nothing like being there 'live'," he says.


RICHARD SCUDAMORE

Executive Chairman, The Premier League

Married with five children

1959 Born on Aug 11 in Bristol, UK

1977 Leaves Kingsfield School to study law at University of Nottingham

1980 Joins Yellow Pages in advertising sales, eventually becoming sales director

1989 Joins Thomson, later promoted to senior VP

1997 Becomes Chief Executive of English Football League

1999 Becomes Chief Executive of The Premier League

June 2015 Appointed Executive Chairman of The Premier League