From April 2020 to June 2021, a postponed season and collapsed broadcasting deal will have cost Ligue 1 clubs in the region of £1.5 billion. As a result, a league already self-conscious about their status as the fifth of Europe’s top five is now scrambling for money and clinging onto their top talent.
Going back to 2019/20, Ligue 1 made the cautious decision to cut their season 10 games short while Italy, Spain, England and Germany all played on without incident.
Ligue 1 journalist Eric Devin said: “I am sure there are those who regretted it. But, for whatever reason, the issues that France have had with COVID have been strongly felt within football.
“The fact that there have been so many issues in France implies that the decision may have been the right one. PSG missed virtually every important player at various points in the season due to COVID. Some footballers were seriously ill, Montpellier’s Junior Sambia was in hospital for weeks with question marks over whether he would live.”
Like it or loathe it, the decision certainly came at a price. Loss of gate receipts and broadcast revenue from those final games amounted to almost £1 billion on its own, and that is without what happened next.
In 2018, Barcelona-based broadcasting company MediaPro pledged £700m per season to Ligue 1 and 2 until 2024, an unbelievable 60% increase from France’s previous record deal. Serie A had rejected a similar offer from MediaPro months earlier due to concerns over their financial stability, a shrewd move which retrospectively rubs salt into the wounds of French football authorities.
A monthly subscription service was set up, requiring 4 million subscribers for MediaPro to breakeven. After a meagre 600,000 signups, 15% of their target, scheduled payments to Ligue 1 were missed and the whole deal fell through. Without matchday or broadcast income, French football clubs were suddenly without two of their three primary revenue streams.
Given that circumstances surrounding the collapse did not exactly shower Ligue 1 in glory either, or that according to Forbes, French football broadcasting has been unprofitable for many years, finding a replacement has not been easy.
Devin said: “There is money in the league but the ambition of the broadcast deal was probably a step too far. What the broadcaster hoped to get out of the league in terms of subscriptions was overly ambitious and should have been examined a lot more closely.
“The economic downturn as a result of the pandemic also had a knock-on effect. There is a general sense of fear and conservativism so people are being more cautious. Nobody could have predicted the pandemic when the deal was made but perhaps there should have been some allowances given the circumstances.”
Aside from Qatari-led PSG and Chinese-owned Lyon who remain relatively insulated from the financial chaos, there are serious implications for the rest of the league as the task of raising funds becomes more and more pivotal.
Morgan Sanson was one of the first to fall, joining Aston Villa from Marseille in January, and more are set to follow. Lille are joint-league-leaders having performed well above expectations, but the huge debts piling up behind the scenes suggest that many of their breakout stars will need to be auctioned off in the summer.
Devin remarked: “We hate to acknowledge this but it is a selling league which relies on the churn-out of players. Lille pay a massive £6 million per year to use the Stade Metropole, a payment which still needs to be dealt with even though there are no fans in the ground.
“They inflicted AC Milan’s heaviest ever home defeat in Europe this season, but who knows what the team will look like come this summer.”
Another unwanted product of financial turmoil is a reluctance to announce contract extensions. The uncertainty surrounding an unsettled broadcast deal means clubs simply do not want to commit to bumper long-term wages, while those with short contracts come transfer time will be worth a smaller fee.
The elephant in the room surrounding this summer’s window is the future of Kylian Mbappe. A 23-year-old World Cup winner, Champions League finalist and global superstar already has little left to prove in the French game, but his departure would be a huge blow to the allure of Ligue 1.
Devin said: “Those who have left PSG in recent seasons have done so because they are older, out of contract or not as useful. By and large, players don’t leave unless things are winding down, that’s what is most troubling.
“As much as PSG have made their way into the upper echelons of club football, they’re never going to have the cache of a Real Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester United.
“With Robert Lewandowski missing for Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals, this could be a grand opportunity for PSG to win it. If he does then maybe he is convinced to stay, but I think maybe another disastrous exit could be too trying of his patience.”
So where does this leave French football? Well, a pending court case should grant the league a portion of their foregone broadcast revenue, but significant damage has already been done. This being said, as long as clubs ride out the financial storm and commit to a damage-limitation summer, there are still positives.
Within the past 12 months, Lyon knocked Juventus out of the Champions League, Lille triumphed 3-0 at the San Siro and matters at the top of Ligue 1 have become markedly more competitive.
Devin said: “As long as PSG are what they are, even without Mbappe, I don’t see France going anywhere as one of the top five leagues in Europe. They are definitely closer to the leagues above them than the leagues below them.”
Their heavyweight status seems safe for now, but talent scouts will be on high alert as the remainder of Europe’s best seek to pounce ruthlessly on an opportunity to pull away from France.