Man City's legal challenge against the Premier League hints at dystopian football future

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now
Manchester City are challenging the Premier League’s rules on sponsorship spending, and the results could be disastrous.

The 19th-century political philosopher John Stuart Mill first coined the phrase “the tyranny of the majority” and, as the father of liberal political thought, he probably wouldn’t approve of the way Manchester City misused it in a 165-page document which set out their challenge to the Premier League’s fair competition rules. This is a club who already dominate the English game looking to tighten their choke hold further, and to put the idea of a level playing field between state-owned clubs and their rivals to bed forever.

City’s ownership have challenged the top flight’s associated parties transaction rules, which essentially prevent companies or other affiliated bodies who have an interest in clubs from ‘buying’ sponsorship deals at inflated rates, thereby artificially lining the coffers of the team they own. In other words, Abu Dhabi can’t currently pay Manchester City (which they own) as much as they like to have Etihad branding everywhere – they have to pay a rate commensurate with the amount that, say, British Airways might fork out instead.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad
Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak and head coach Pep Guardiola pose with the Premier League trophy their team successfully defended in the 2023/24 season.Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak and head coach Pep Guardiola pose with the Premier League trophy their team successfully defended in the 2023/24 season.
Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak and head coach Pep Guardiola pose with the Premier League trophy their team successfully defended in the 2023/24 season. | Getty Images

The hearing will start on 10 June and could last up to 11 days. It is being held in private, which means detailed reporting of discussions will be thin on the ground – but if City emerge victorious, then their owners may have license to plough as many billions as they please into the club and spend it as freely as they wish. Only Newcastle United would benefit alongside them, backed as they are by Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund. Every other team would be left in the dust. Even American hedge fund billionaires can’t compete with petrostates.

This legal challenge is a matter of naked self-interest, but City are doing their best to frame it as a battle between themselves and the “elites” who apparently control the game to the detriment of the little guy, which presumably includes them despite winning six of the last seven titles while backed by one of the richest nations on the planet. The theme of the hyper-rich and immensely powerful attempting to cast themselves as blue-collar crusaders sticking it to the “real” power is all too familiar to anyone who’s kept up with American politics over the past ten years or so.

That Trumpian cadence has led to predictable results already – partisan supporters happy to take any justification, no matter how illusory or even unhinged, to leap all over social media and tell us that City are going to bring down the established order as if they haven’t already usurped it and proven that it’s a thoroughly bad thing for the game. The inanity and insanity of the tweet below is a perfect example, and there is so much more where that came from.

At least City’s owners are consistent on one point – while they may have grossly misunderstood Mill’s concerns with the tyranny of the majority, their fear of the power of the many might at least explain why Abu Dhabi is an autocratic state where wealth and power is kept as far away from the majority as possible. It’s still tyranny, but at least the majority get to keep their hands nice and clean.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But that’s about as much logical consistency you’ll find between this legal challenge and the concept of something being done to “take down the Premier League cartel.” Their other arguments are specious at best – they claim that the current rules not only limit their ability to sign players but also that it may affect their capacity to fund their women’s team and academy as well as community programmes.

This is, bluntly, laughable – spending on women’s football, youth development, infrastructure and community projects does is not considered under the current profit and sustainability rules, and Abu Dhabi can spend as much on them as it likes without the spending power of the men’s team being affected in any way.

Presumably City’s owners know that, which means its mention can only be interpreted one of two ways: either as a line intended to be leaked in order to generate sympathy from their supporters, rather like Donald Trump claiming on fundraising e-mails to be a “political prisoner” before he’s even been sentenced for his crimes; or as a threat – let us have our way or we’ll cut spending in areas which have knock-on effects for the wider local and footballing community.

The ultimate consequence if City were to be successful would be dire. They would suddenly be able to outspend every other club in the country and probably in Europe – Newcastle potentially notwithstanding – by a vast margin. The playing field is already tilted at a precipitous angle. This would make it look like the Gloucester Cheese Roll, with precisely the same number of people ending up with any cheese to show for it.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The Premier League is already becoming imbalanced. City haven’t only earned their four consecutive championships due to their ability to outspend other sides (legally or otherwise – City finally face a hearing for those 115 alleged breaches of league financial rules later this year) and the exceptional coaching of Pep Guardiola has played no small part, but City are in effect already in a tier of their own, and the gulfs between the tiers below them are increasingly vast, almost entirely due to the colossal wealth gaps that exist.

Manchester City's treble-winning side from last season cost an estimated £1.1bnManchester City's treble-winning side from last season cost an estimated £1.1bn
Manchester City's treble-winning side from last season cost an estimated £1.1bn | Getty Images

Adding an extra wealth gap would take a system which already puts billionaires and community clubs into the same melting pot and add a ‘petrostate’ layer on top – and that would very likely destroy the last vestiges of balance the game has. Teams outside of that tier would have no meaningful ambitions left in a stunningly short space of time, with almost all silverware going to the select few. All that would be left was a new elite, made up solely of sides backed by nation states, acting in their interests.

The Premier League, which prides itself and advertises itself based on its supposed competitiveness, could quickly come to look like its Scottish counterpart, with one or two teams boasting spending power that blow the rest of the pyramid to pieces. Football is already a rich boys’ game and there aren’t enough billionaires with a passing interest in sport to go around to keep every historical side’s skin in the game – there are even fewer nation states who will get involved. If City’s challenge works then you’d better hope it’s your club that gets bought by Bahrain, or you may as well give up. It’s a dystopian vision of English football’s future, and hopefully it won’t come to pass.

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.