The introduction of a winter break is one of the best-worn discussions in English football and almost every stakeholder in the sport – from managers and players to broadcasters and federation chiefs – have had their two pennies’ worth over the years.
Arguments for its introduction centre around player burnout (this winter Premier League clubs were faced with the prospect of five games in 15 days), with the scheduling of English football’s top flight favouring the bigger teams with bigger squads whose strength in depth, in theory, gives them greater cover for injuries and enables them to rotate players. Some commentators have also suggested that English player burn-out, caused by being forced to play a packed schedule of games over the Christmas period, is one contributing factor to disappointing English national team performances at major tournaments over the past two decades.
So considering the major leagues across Europe all boast a winter break, is introducing one in England a no-brainer? For me, footballing pureists backing the winter break tend to neglect sport as an entertainment product, failing to realise the seismic changes that would have to come into force to accommodate a winter break and the negative commercial impact it would have not only on the Premier League, but on competitions run by the English Football Association (FA) and the English Football League.
With two cup competitions, international breaks and a 380-game Premier League season – a winter break would cause fixture congestion elsewhere in the year and the Premier League in particular is in no position to reduce the number of teams, and therefore fixtures, in the season. Reducing the number of teams would negatively impact the Premier League product – reducing the amount of inventory on sale to broadcasters and sponsors and restricting matchday revenues for clubs across the year. It’s also worth remembering the inaugural Premier League season comprised 22 teams, and therefore an extra four fixtures for each team compared to what we have now.
“Unless somebody is prepared to give something up, (introducing a winter break) is pretty hard” argues Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore. “We are not inclined to reduce the number of clubs in the Premier League – if you were running a theatre and had 380 nights that you wanted to sell, why would you throw 60 or 70 of those nights away?”
He continues: “Similarly, the Football League doesn’t want to lose the League Cup. It’s a huge source of funding for the Football League and it is a big solidarity play between the leagues. As for the FA, they don’t want to give up replays in the FA Cup…it’s pretty hard for those of us in English football to create that two-week space. Nobody has asked the Football League to give up the League Cup, but why would we? We are huge supporters of it and we wouldn’t have the temerity to alter the FA Cup either.”
A solution could lie in reducing the number of international breaks – meaning domestic league and cup fixtures could be more spread out across the season, allowing for a break over winter. But that’s a change, says Scudamore, that can only come from the very top of football administration.
“If you look at who is taking more dates out of the calendar, it is UEFA and FIFA,” he says. “We offered to start the season a week early, which is difficult in terms of summer holidays, but we don’t really want to be starting the season in July. You can understand why the 20 Premier League clubs, having come down from 22 to 20 (in 1995), are disinclined to reduce their games, from 380 games to something like 316 or 308 games.”
This is a personal perspective of Matt Cutler, editor of SportBusiness International.