The Times: Inside Premier League Productions: One of England’s finest exports
Shortly after Coventry’s Fankaty Dabo blasted his penalty over the Luton Town goalkeeper Ethan Horvath’s crossbar in the Championship play-off final shoot-out, planning on constructing a 26-mile-long underground fibre-optic cable between Kenilworth Road and Stockley Park had begun.
It is one of the unexpected rites of passage for a Premier League team: equipping every stadium with a piece of technology that transmits information at 200,000 kilometres a second, so that matches can be broadcast both within the UK and globally in seconds.
The Premier League has become one of the country’s most valuable products and biggest exports, reportedly reaching 900 million people around the world — more than 13 times the population of the UK.
After a deal was agreed last year, overseas rights (£5.3 billion) are now more valuable than domestic ones (£5 billion). Those funds are shared among the league’s clubs and allows them to attract the world’s best players. The contract was a 30 per cent increase on the previous arrangement and there is an expectation that when the next round of rights comes up for auction in 2025, those fees will rise again, entrenching the self-begetting cycle of demand driving quality.
But whereas supporters in Britain are able to witness the action in stadiums or via broadcasters — such as Sky, BT or Amazon — the international audience does so solely through the vector of Premier League Productions (PLP), which is operated by IMG from their Stockley Park Studios. The operation, which broadcasts the Premier League to more than 180 territories around the world, is based in Stockley Park, adjacent to the PGMOL’s infamous VAR headquarters.
The business park, just a couple of miles north of Heathrow, possesses a modern university campus vibe. There are tightly trimmed lawns, scores of manicured trees, a gentle stream that flows into a pond, and large glass buildings held together by metal fixtures.
A walk inside the building is accompanied by the perpetual gentle hum of servers, the soft whirring of countless computer fans. The facility is a technological suite packed full of devices at every turn, so that all 380 league matches across the season are beamed around the world. It is a colossal operation that exists in a uniquely British blindspot, but is the vanguard for the Premier League brandoverseas.
“What we do hereis unparalleled globally in terms of scale but also in terms of quality.” Nick Morgan, the managing director of PLP says. “Anyone who is not watching football on Sky, BT or Amazon should be watching feeds that come through this building.
“We are the gateway here: without what we do the footage doesn’t get around the world.
“The most important thing of all is what happens on the pitch. Everyone knows that however good a job we do, if the football is not brilliant — if it doesn’t have the best players in the world — then perhaps people don’t care quite as much.”
On the final day of the Premier League season, 230 separate lines in and out of the facility were transferring roughly eight terabytes of data, the equivalent of 2,000 films. Among the extra staff on hand — 170 in total — to assist in production, the usual humdrum of chit-chat rumbled on as goals rained in from every ground on the dozens of screens in the galleries, all managed and monitored to ensure each was being received clearly around the globe, even on aeroplanes. Audiences ranging from New Zealand, Japan, India, South Africa, Argentina and China — via the state owned CCTV — used those feeds to watch Everton stave off relegation, and condemn Leicester City and Leeds United to it.
There is a bizarreness to how every match is broadcast to everywhere but the UK, and that every league game since 1992, and the accompanying interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, is stored within PLP’s cloud storage — available to be drawn upon at the behest of broadcasters, but often left untouched. Though countries and regions such as the United States or the Middle East may have their own teamof presenters — from NBC and BeIN respectively — it is PLP that produces the footage. In the countries that do not have their own presenting and commentary teams, it is PLP that facilitates the coverage, the graphics and the analysis — disseminating the Premier League brand.
Whereas discourse in the UK is guided by the voices of Kelly Cates on Sky, or Lynsey Hipgrave on BT Sport, for the rest of the world that responsibility lies with Manish Bhasin, Seema Jaswal and Steve Bower. From a single green-screen studio, they — with their guests — act as the face of the league to the world.
“It’s only when you go abroad when it actually hits home how big it is and how much a part of people’s lives you are,” Michael Owen, the former England striker-turned-pundit, explains before Bower — his broadcasting partner — interjects: “Michael did the World Cup in South Africa and he texted me saying, ‘I’m walking through shopping centres being asked for a picture and they’re all asking, Where’s Steve?’ ”
Given the enormous reach and potential of Premier League Productions, there is a question of whether it intends to reach out more forcefully and offer its services directly to international consumers — cutting out the broadcasters in those countries altogether. However, Barney Francis, executive vice-president and head of global production at IMG is sensitive to the challenges that would pose. “For anybody in your own domestic market, you need an underpinning of revenue up front — the clubs need to know how much money they’re going to get, so they know how to scale their ambitions, know their investment plan, wage structure and all those things,” he says.
“For the past 30-odd years, that money has been fronted up by Sky, BT, Setanta, ESPN, Amazon, but that doesn’t mean a private equity firm [or] venture capitalist firm couldn’t do that and back a plan direct to the consumer. But it’s still fraught with all sorts of possibilities.”
The Premier League appears to be readying itself for the prospect. Richard Masters, the league’s chief executive, speaking at APOS 2022 last year, said there were “narrow opportunities in Asia to go D2C [direct to consumer] if we choose to do so,” and though those ambitions may be long-term ones, Singapore — which is home to the first Premier League office outside of the UK — may be the region where such a plan is trialled.
With such an in-demand product comes the issue of piracy too; last week, five individuals were collectively sentenced to more than 30 years in prison for facilitating illegal streams for viewers in the UK.
“Piracy has been rampant over the past 15 years,” Francis says. “Ultimately piracy could lead to the lessening of the value of the rights in the domestic market. We’ve got to protect the economy in this country, it helps us to put these great players on the pitch.”
One simple answer to that issue is the league deciding to open up domestic broadcasting opportunities during the Saturday 3pm blackout, but until that time comes, and PLP enters the domestic market, it will remain the invisible jewel in the Premier League’s commercial crown.