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The Long Search to Fill Soccer’s Biggest, Toughest Job

LONDON — There should be no more attractive job in the sports business than being chief executive of the Premier League. England’s top division, after all, is not just a soccer phenomenon, but a cultural one, too.

Its chief executive sits at its apex, leading negotiations on the dozens of television contracts that generate billions of dollars in revenue for the league and its clubs every year; arbitrating disputes between teams and owners used to getting their way; and keeping the biggest soccer league in the world ticking. And yet for more than year, and despite an extensive search, that post sat vacant.

Two candidates accepted the job, only to fail to take office. The first, a woman hailed as a groundbreaking choice, withdrew for reasons that were never made clear. The other resigned before he had even started work after news reports accused him of inappropriate workplace conduct. And in a previously unreported episode, a third candidate was offered the job, accepted it, and only then was told the league had changed its mind.

In the end, the Premier League chose the man who was holding the fort, its managing director, Richard Masters. A consensus pick, Masters, 53, represented a safe choice after an embarrassing recruitment process that reflected poorly on a league that has long prided itself on getting its immensely lucrative business done with minimal fuss.

Last week, in his first news media interviews since assuming his new role, Masters projected the air of a modest middle manager, an Everyman happy to coach his children’s soccer teams on the weekend and then return to one of the biggest jobs in global sports on Monday.

“We will develop the league in a slightly different direction,” Masters said of his approach to the job held for more than two decades by his predecessor, Richard Scudamore. But not too different, it seems: Masters quickly added that he was already keeping one of Scudamore’s mantras in mind. “It’s all about the football,” Scudamore liked to remind people. “Never forget the football.”

Still, the turbulent search and long wait that ended at last with Masters’s hiring in December exposed brittle fault lines in the Premier League’s power structure that may prove difficult to repair. The Premier League has always prided itself on its egalitarianism. It credits its collectivist approach — of balancing the interests of smaller clubs with those of the so-called Big Six of Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal — as the source of almost three decades of worldwide success.

But in a series of interviews with executives familiar with the league’s search for a new chief executive, a different picture emerged: of a rift in which the priorities of the Big Six clubs and their colleagues no longer align; of a league struggling to contain the ambitions and financial demands of its most powerful members; and of a competition in which, increasingly, some teams are more equal than others.

“There’s challenges that come up every day in terms of protecting the integrity of the league, the value of the league,” Tom Werner, the Liverpool chairman, said. “We’re in a very competitive world.”

Werner expressed confidence in Masters last week, and he emerged from the Premier League’s first board meeting under its new leader on Thursday declaring it “business as usual.” But the road to putting Masters in the job was anything but.

By May 2019, the Premier League had been without a chief executive for six months. It had missed out on two top candidates. The first, the television executive Susanna Dinnage, had accepted the post in the fall of 2018 and then, unexpectedly, reversed her decision without explanation weeks later.

The next candidate was Dave Howe, a top executive at NBC Universal. Howe appeared to fit the bill: He worked for one of the league’s most important broadcast partners in one of its key markets, the United States, and he came from impeccable soccer stock. Not only had he worked for 15 years at the BBC, but his father, Don, was a former England player and respected coach.

Howe impressed the nominating committee — then made up of Bruce Buck, the chairman of Chelsea; Burnley’s chief executive, Mike Garlick; and Leicester City’s chief executive, Susan Whelan — and was told the job was his. Presented with details of the financial package he could expect, terms he was said to have found agreeable, there was just one final hoop to jump through: an informal meeting with representatives from Liverpool and Manchester United.

Howe met with Liverpool’s Werner and Ed Woodward, Manchester United’s executive vice chairman, and another Premier League executive in May. They discussed his vision for the future of the league, and what he saw as its most pressing challenges. Howe told associates that the meeting went well. Liverpool’s feedback to Buck, the head of the nominating committee, was positive.

Soon after, though, the headhunting firm working on the search, Spencer Stuart, was told to inform Howe that the Premier League would be looking elsewhere. No specific explanation for the change of course was offered — Howe, like Dinnage, has made no public comment — and Spencer Stuart was later replaced by another search firm.

To those tracking the search, though, it appeared that Liverpool and United had been offered an unofficial veto on the nominating committee’s choice. That is not how either Liverpool or United saw it: Executives at both insisted they did not believe they had unilateral power to decline a candidate.

But Liverpool and United had met privately with Dinnage, too, and after Howe was cast aside they also were given a chance to assess the next contender: David Pemsel, the chief executive of the Guardian Media Group. By the time of that meeting, in October, United’s Woodward — as well as the chairman of Crystal Palace, Steve Parish — had been formally added to the nominating committee.

Pemsel was offered the job, and accepted, but was forced to relinquish it months later after a British newspaper reported he had acted inappropriately with a female subordinate.

A few weeks later, and now more than a year into its search for a chief executive, the Premier League announced that Masters, who had been doing the job on an interim basis, would have the role permanently.

The special treatment dispensed to Liverpool and United, though, did not go unnoticed by other teams. Though the Big Six clubs are rivals on the field, they often act in concert off it, sometimes meeting privately to discuss strategy related to board proposals or rules changes.

Last week, the split between the big clubs and their rivals was again apparent. A group of Big Six executives held a private discussion before joining the others for the first board meeting under Masters. The meeting yielded an immediate victory: In the first vote under Masters, the Premier League approved a plan to align the closing of the summer transfer window with other top European leagues, an extension sought by the biggest clubs.

It was the type of power play teams have warned about for years. “We all recognize the part the biggest clubs play, but they already get big rewards as well,” the Stoke City chairman, Peter Coates, said in 2018, adding: “Fans and viewers want to see a competitive game. Big clubs must never take their eye off that.”

The formidable challenge of balancing the needs of the elite with the rest of the league now falls to Masters. He must find a way to convince clubs who believe their brands are stronger than the league’s — particularly in the expanding, emerging markets of Asia — that their self-interest is best met by submitting to the growth of the collective.

That approach has worked spectacularly well over the last three decades, turning English soccer’s top league from a forgotten backwater into a market leader, the producer of some of the most valuable live sports content in the world. The Premier League’s current cycle of domestic and overseas broadcast deals is worth $11 billion, revenue that has helped the income of even minor Premier League clubs outstrip some of continental Europe’s oldest and most decorated clubs.

And yet Masters has taken the post, almost by default, at a time when the sports media landscape is changing and as the Premier League — still without peer financially — has failed to display anything like the innovation of some of its rivals.

La Liga, the Spanish top flight, has worked to close the gap by opening offices around the world to try to build its audience. It has struck a deal to show its games in India through Facebook, and in January announced the start of an in-house network that will beam its matches to British viewers. Germany’s Bundesliga not only produces its match broadcasts and sends a constant stream of promotion into the world, but it has also found ways to sell its archive to companies hoping to find analytical insights.

The Premier League continues to lead the way financially. It recently completed a six-year, two-billion-pound (about $2.58 billion) TV rights agreement in four Nordic countries. The figure suggests the appetite for the Premier League is still enormous. Masters said last week that he would continue to expand the league’s operations to serve those audiences. “It has to change a little bit,” he said. “We have to open ourselves up more.”

Persuading every club to go along is the challenge. For several years, the Big Six, in particular, have prioritized growing their own commercial revenues abroad and ensuring a greater portion of television income is distributed according to performance — in effect, to them.

To date, the rest of the league’s clubs have been happy to ride with what has felt like an ever-rising tide. It is, perhaps, Scudamore’s greatest achievement that he managed to convince the sharks that what they really needed were healthy fish around them.

The problem that overshadowed the search process — the one that changed Dinnage’s mind, that cost Howe the job, that Masters now must solve — is what happens when that no longer works.

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