The human cost of Premier League relegation

The human cost of Premier League relegation

This weekend, two of Leicester, Leeds United and Everton will be relegated from the Premier League alongside Southampton.

It will be bad news for the fans, the players, the managers and the club executives. Nobody likes the sting of failure. Having a relegation on your CV is not a positive.

But the fans will be back. They always are. The players that don’t get a big move might have to take a pay cut, but in many cases that will mean someone currently being paid £50,000-a-week will have to scrape by on a mere £25,000. The managers might be sacked but will get a payoff and probably another job at some point soon. And the executives… well, barring a takeover, the chances are that the people who made the decisions leading to this relegation will be there to make more decisions about their club’s future.

They will, broadly speaking, be fine.

But they aren’t the only people who will be impacted by relegation. Every club employs hundreds, sometimes thousands of full and part-time staff behind the scenes. Ticket office staff. Security people. Waiting staff. Stewards. Marketing and advertising. Media relations. Shop assistants. Receptionists. Administrators.

All of those people will be nervously watching their club’s games, knowing that for them, relegation could cost them their jobs, and there isn’t a damn thing they can do about it.

“You’re losing about 60 per cent of your revenue,” says football finance expert Kieran Maguire. “And that’s with parachute payments.”

The Premier League is awash with money. Even the more modestly-sized clubs in England’s top tier can outspend traditional European super clubs, as AC Milan CEO Giorgio Furlani explained recently.



Milan CEO Giorgio Furlani on battling against the Premier League’s wealth

But when you drop out of the massive pool of cash, belts have to be tightened. Those parachute payments will soften the blow: currently, each Premier League team gets a minimum of around £94million per season from broadcast payments, which drops to £44million in their first year after relegation, £35million in their second and if they had spent two consecutive seasons or more season in the top flight, they get £15million in the third year.

Player wages are usually the biggest expense and all but the most reckless of clubs these days will have relegation clauses in most contracts.

But cloth will have to be cut elsewhere.

“It’s the people that have worked in the ticket office, in the marketing department — those sort of people are the ones you fear for,” says Maguire.

“It’s also things like the community schemes. Premier League clubs have always done fantastic work, but ultimately it’s discretionary spending. There are grants that come from the Premier League to support that work (the Premier League distributes £30million to 106 different club-related schemes every season), but it becomes that much more difficult to do the outreach, health and education programmes.”

Women’s teams that receive funding from the men’s side will also suffer. Community education programmes will be pared back. Charity work rationalised.

And, of course, people will fear for their jobs.

Aston Villa are the big case study from recent years.

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When they got relegated in 2015-16, it was not pretty. In the aftermath of relegation, around 130 full-time and 400 part-time staff lost their jobs. Former chairman Steve Hollis told the 1874 podcast a couple of years ago he had to gather staff in the Holte End to lay out what was going to happen: at first, you think that seems like an overly dramatic setting to tell people they might lose their jobs, but then you realise they had to sit there because it was the only place big enough to hold the number of staff Villa actually had.

It was an interesting time for Keith Wyness to arrive as the club’s new chief executive: as well as having to deal with the construction of the first team in a lower division and a new owner in Tony Xia, one of his first tasks was to decide which staff were going to lose their jobs.

“It’s a horrible job,” Wyness tells The Athletic. “What you’ve got to look at is the cost basis against the new revenue streams and some of the areas that won’t be making as much. Catering, for example, or hospitality.

“The staff have just gone through a pretty traumatic experience in relegation. That usually comes with a fairly hostile fanbase and a bad media situation. They have probably been getting kicked for months. And then they have the fear of their job situation hanging over them.”

In this instance, Wyness identified one area where staff were to be let go — “I always said taking over Villa was like taking over a catering club that happened to play football” — but that didn’t necessarily make things easier.

“It’s difficult because they’re good people who have given a lot to the club and it’s the case that you have to work within a new budget and a new reality.”

Last year, the chief executive of a Premier League club threatened with relegation told The Athletic’s Greg O’Keeffe and Patrick Boyland that they had to draw up a plan for cuts should the worst happen, in which it was estimated that around 30 to 40 per cent of their full-time staff would be made redundant. In that case, the club avoided the drop and the jobs were saved.

Not so for Southampton. This week an email was sent to all 340 staff warning that there could be redundancies made across all areas of the club, following their relegation. As our Jacob Tanswell reported, there will now be a consultancy period until July 20, meaning basically everyone who works there will spend the better part of two months worrying about their position.


What relegation would mean for Everton

Priorities can change pretty quickly. At one recently-relegated club, a young intern had impressed in their media department and essentially had a job wrapped up for the following season. Then results nose-dived, the team went down and the job never materialised.

Some clubs are fairly transparent with their staff and have provided adequate warning about what might be ahead. Others, including at least one club threatened by relegation this season, have not, giving the impression they were just hoping things would work out and they wouldn’t have to face the problem. They may have done this to avoid alarming staff, but it just led to rumours spreading.

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Most clubs for whom relegation is a possibility will usually have plans in place and should be able to stave off the most drastic action for a season or two at least. “There are seven Premier League clubs that are never going to be relegated,” says Maguire. “So you’re starting with a three in 13 chance of going down. If I started off a year with a 25 per cent chance of losing my job, I would act accordingly.” The parachute payments, plus relegation wage clauses in most playing contracts, will absorb much of the impact.

The bad news is that there are some clubs who… aren’t quite so well prepared.

Take Sunderland, who in February 2017 actually made a series of redundancies before they were relegated from the Premier League, something that didn’t prove popular given the first team had just been on a mid-season bonding trip to New York. They lost 10 of their next 13 games and went down with a whimper.

That was just the start of their problems, though.

Parachute payments were used to finance the takeover of the club when new owners purchased it from Ellis Short. Key players were sold, their replacements were… more modest, they got through four managers in the following season and ended up bottom of the Championship and were relegated again.

After the drop into League One was confirmed, more redundancies were announced, with a little under 10 per cent of their behind-the-scenes staff departing. All of which was chronicled in the documentary Sunderland ’Til I Die, which provided a stark depiction of what it’s like to work at a club circling the drain.

Football clubs are absolutely miserable places to work when the first team is struggling.

The unusual thing about football clubs is that they are essentially a series of fairly disparate businesses bolted together: bars, restaurants, events spaces, a content and social media agency, a marketing business, a sportswear shop, community programmes, a charity, sometimes a hotel — all gathered under the umbrella of a football team.

But essentially the only thing most people care about is whether the 11 players in the first team win at the weekend. Which, unless you’re a slavish believer in marginal gains and think a great meal served by the hospitality team is going to improve your striker’s finishing, has absolutely nothing to do with any other area of the club. Most of us can have some influence over the success or otherwise of the company we work for, but for the most part, the non-playing and coaching staff at a football club can’t do a thing.

From Monday to Friday, you could be working anywhere. Club offices will often look just like any other office, so aside from the odd glimpse of the pitch or a footballer occasionally wandering the halls, you could go a standard working week without it really being obvious you’re working at a football club.

Then Saturday comes and everything else is a footnote.

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If the first team wins, the mood is great. But if they lose and they keep losing, then it can get poisonous. The negativity can be pervasive. One employee at a club relegated in the last few seasons described it as a “doom cycle”.

The team doing badly essentially makes everyone’s jobs harder. Take the social media team: if you’re having to continually put out news of the latest defeat or a managerial sacking and every post is met with gales of abuse, it isn’t exactly going to pep you up. Even if you know the abuse isn’t personal and isn’t directed at you, it can be demoralising.

It impacts your life away from work, too. Often, staff will wear club gear, whether that’s a tracksuit or a coat for example. When the team is doing well, it isn’t a problem, but when results are in the toilet then you might as well be on your morning commute with a sandwich board with ‘Choose your insult’ written on it. Clubs will routinely advise their staff not to make it obvious where they work for their own safety and comfort. And definitely, whatever happens, don’t look like you’re having a good time after a defeat.

One club which was relegated from the Premier League sent a company-wide email banning ‘the R word’ to try to protect the vibes around the place. Media activity will basically shut down, beyond the club’s own channels and whatever it is contractually obliged to provide broadcasters. Interviews will routinely be cancelled if results take a turn, even if on the most innocuous of subjects. Recently, The Athletic was due to talk to someone at a club about a team mascot, but it didn’t happen because the first team had lost a few games and the whole place was in crisis mode.

Most club employees are realistic and know that for the most part, the players are doing their best. And players will tend to care, perhaps more than you might think, about the wider impact of their results. Particularly players who have been at a club for a long time and have developed relationships with the rest of the staff.

But there can be moments of bitterness and resentment towards those players and it’s easy to understand why the sense of “us and them”, and that the players don’t really care because they will be fine whereas the staff will be worrying about paying their rent or mortgage, can spread.

On Sunday, two sets of players will look despondent on the pitch after their games. They will solemnly applaud their fans, some of them may well be in tears. Their emotions will most likely be genuine.

But for some behind the scenes, the problems may just be starting.

(Top image: Getty Images. Design by Eamonn Dalton)

  • May 26, 2023