Profile: Richard Masters – Football supremo turned diplomat
9 September 2020
Having faced Covid-19 just four months into his job, Premier League CEO Richard Masters finds himself embroiled in rows in the Gulf and China as the Premier League kicks off on Saturday.
53 year old Brummie credited with revitalising the EPL brand after previous stints with the Football League and ECB.
Colleagues describe Masters as a ‘consensual and collegiate’ manager. “There’s an overwhelming decency about him.”
Who would be a sports executive?
At times the Premier League’s chief executive Richard Masters must find himself asking that very same question.
In previous roles the EPL’s head honcho helped shake off the fusty image of English cricket, dealt with the collapse of ITV digital, ‘cleaned’ the Premier League’s brand when it seemed to be too intimately tied with its title sponsor, and then four months into his current job was faced with a global pandemic that shut down English football for the first time in peacetime.
But could skirmishes with Chinese and Gulf governments be his biggest challenge yet?
In August the longrunning and controversial attempts by Saudi Arabia’s state-backed Public Investment Fund (PIF) to buy Newcastle United collapsed after months of apparent prevarication by the EPL about the suitability of the owners.
The deal, generally and sometimes enthusiastically supported by Newcastle fans, drew derision from elsewhere because of well founded allegations human rights violations, conflicts of interest, rights piracy and accusations of sportswashing.
The EPL belatedly offered independent arbitration to decide on the suitability of the proposed owners. But the EPL’s critics say that it stalled for so long that it avoided the need to make a difficult decision, forcing the Saudis to make a face saving retreat because of what they described as “an unforeseen prolonged process.”
Some Newcastle fans saw the hand of Qatar – as if a dispute between Gulf kingdoms was playing out in the north east – and produced a banner of Masters with Qatar and BeIN Sports badges on his chest, bearing the word ‘CONTEMPT’ written below.
Into the freezer
Then last week the EPL’s shareholders voted to end one of the league’s biggest broadcast deals, which still had two years remaining. Chinese broadcaster PPTV had allegedly withheld £160 million from last season following the Covid-19 crisis and sources say it was either manoeuvring to end the deal prematurely or positioning itself so that it could grab a sizeable discount.
The EPL, however, were having none of it and last Thursday it cut all ties with PPTV with immediate effect.
Masters was credited for bringing in Coca Cola as title sponsor in a record-breaking deal in February 2004
It has been suggested that the Chinese government are pulling the strings behind this situation, angry as they are at Britain’s decision to ditch the electronics conglomerate Huawei from building the country’s 5G infrastructure as well as statements on democracy in Hong Kong and defence of Hong Kong citizens holding British National Overseas passports. Foreign direct investment in the UK from China in 2019 was less than a tenth of its 2017 level and the FT opined in July that "Bilateral relations… have descended into the freezer."
Had Richard Masters unwittingly found himself centre stage in another geopolitical hotspot?
The 53-year-old Masters was born in Birmingham and educated at Solihull School – a 16th century independent school whose alumni include Sir Bert Millichip, a former FA chairman – and University College London, where he studied economics and geography. An Aston Villa supporter, he describes himself as a “fairly average goalkeeper”, still plays five-a-side and coaches his sons’ teams.
In the mid-90s he got his professional break in sport with the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), where he worked as a marketing manager at a time when the sport was rapidly commercialising. Terrestrial TV deals were cut in the late 1990s, handing now lucrative live coverage to satellite broadcasters, while the Twenty20 format was developed around this time and subsequently introduced by Masters’ successor, Stuart Robinson. Two decades on T20 is credited with revolutionising the sport.
By then Masters had moved to the Football League, which he joined as commercial director in 2001. A year later ITV Digital collapsed, plunging the EFL towards financial catastrophe and forcing a score of clubs into administration. The league responded with a comprehensive rebrand, with the First Division renamed The Championship in 2004. This set the league towards recovery and on its way to becoming one of the best supported football competitions in Europe.
Masters was credited for bringing in Coca Cola as title sponsor in a record-breaking deal in February 2004.
A “Clean brand”
“A lot of fans don’t appreciate these sort of deals, but what that does is bring the EFL brand into all sorts of different places,” says a sports marketing expert who has advised both the Premier League and FA.
"Suddenly, for example, you have Coca Cola cans in every corner shop in the country carrying its logo, or foreign fans able to make a connection with the EFL because of the brand recognition of its title sponsor."
It was the Coca Cola deal that propelled him to the EPL, which he joined as Director of Sales and Marketing in January 2006. Masters was credited with dropping title sponsor Barclays in 2016 and developing the Premier league as a ‘clean’ brand – in the style of US sporting competitions – so that more sponsors could be signed up.
He uses humour a lot, not in a clownish way – but to make people feel comfortable in his presence. Making others comfortable is one of his great strengths
“This”, says the sports marketing expert, “elevated the EPL as a brand”.
“So much of what the Premier League did was tied into Barclays before then,” he says. “By “cleaning” the brand of the title sponsor and also using a flexible pallet of colours in the rebrand it made it a lot easier for other sponsors as well as broadcasters to use the Premier League’s branding.”
This, he adds has helped create a “virtuous cycle.”
“The more broadcasters and sponsors get out of it, the more they will put into it,” he adds.
Premier League CEO
Two years later, in 2018, Masters was appointed acting CEO after Richard Scudamore vacated his position as executive chairman after two decades in the job. What followed as an excruciating search for a successor: Discovery Channel executive Susannah Dinnage accepted and then rejected the CEO job; Guardian CEO David Pemsel was forced to relinquish the appointment before taking it up following tabloid revelations; BBC’s Tim Davie rejected the job so that he could wait for the Beeb’s Director General role; while NBC’s David Howe, son of the former Arsenal manager and England international, Don, was allegedly blackballed by Liverpool and Manchester United’s owners.
All the while Masters proved himself to be ultra reliable, impressing at shareholders meetings and also when grilled by MPs in front of a Parliamentary select committee. His appointment last November came a fortnight after Pemsel’s implosion. Masters, said the Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck, had risen to the occasion “dealing with our various stakeholders and partners with aplomb and skill… [facing] challenges head-on and has proved himself.”
The perception that Masters was somehow an accidental candidate is manifestly unfair says a colleague who has worked closely with him over the past two years.
“He’s a fantastic guy,” he says. “There’s an overwhelming decency about him. Self assured but very humble. He uses humour a lot, not in a clownish way – but to make people feel comfortable in his presence. Making others comfortable is one of his great strengths.
“He’s ambitious and wants to achieve things, but takes pleasure in seeing others achieve things too.”
Very lean team
While Richard Scudamore enjoyed an extraordinary amount of success over a sustained period of time, he shaped an organisation that grew up around him, whereas Masters has brought in outside voices to what has always been “a very lean team.”
"There was a sense sometimes that Scudamore was the best person at everybody else’s job and he honed their talent in his vision.
With regards to Chinese companies, we can assume a high orientation and attention towards policy makers – still, it would be naive to simply conclude that Suning´s decision to suspend license fee payments to the EPL have been “driven” by the Chinese government
“Masters is very collegiate and always looks to be consultative with people both from within the Premier League and from outside organisations. He acts as a bridge with outsiders, from modern business and across the football industry.
“What makes him progressive is his way of listening and being collaborative. He provides a very collaborative environment. He has an ability to distil all these different views and make a decision at the end of it.”
Master of crisis?
Masters certainly didn’t carry himself like a fifth choice candidate as he coolly plotted the Premier League’s way out of the Covid lockdown soon after his permanent appointment. Throughout last spring the British government used professional sport like a political football, with numerous politicians making pointed remarks about the game’s responsibilities and alleged excesses at a time of national crisis.
Project Restart, which had to balance the sensibilities of public opinion with the league’s public health responsibilities as well as its duties towards broadcasters, was, says one club executive “handled just about as well as it could possibly have been handled.” Failure to see out the season may have seen the implosion of a carefully negotiated three year overseas broadcast deal at a time of declining rights values before the first year was out.
Nevertheless, there was significant collateral damage. In April China’s PPTV withheld a sum reported to have been as much as £160m. Towards the end of last month there were legal moves by PPTV to end the deal two years early. Before they could do so, last Thursday the EPL shareholders voted unanimously to cut all contact with PPTV with immediate effect. The suddenness and the £560 million hole in the EPL’s finances shocked everybody.
Felt treated unequally
Professor Sascha L. Schmidt, Chair of the Center for Sports and Management at the WHU Otto Beisheim School of Management in Dusseldorf, has written extensively about China’s business interests in football. He and his colleague Gerrit Heidemann say that “it seems that the termination of the collaboration has been driven by both sides and is not a consequence of unilateral action.”
Schmidt and Heidemann say that a reading of Chinese media around the issue suggests that Chinese broadcasters “felt treated unequally” as they have not been given a rebate, in contrast to other broadcasters like Sky Sports and that there was a sense that the contract that they agreed in 2016 was overvalued.
Effectively Newcastle United would have been owned by Saudi Arabia, and the chairman of PIF – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – has been creditably accused of ordering the murder of a critical journalist not even two years ago
The academics believe that for Masters to add to the story of ever-growing Chinese media rights deals in the future “will be much more difficult given the current political and diplomatic circumstances.”
Has the Chinese government had a hand in this abrupt end given the perilous state of Anglo-Sino relations?
“The sports industry which has always attracted the interest of policy makers for various reasons, is – of course – not acting in a vacuum,” say Schmidt and Heidemann.
“With regards to Chinese companies, we can assume a high orientation and attention towards policy makers – still, it would be naive to simply conclude that Suning´s decision to suspend license fee payments to the EPL have been “driven” by the Chinese government.
“After all, Suning is mainly responsible to its shareholders. It is rather likely that the political situation was facilitating a commercial decision which had already been taken by the respective management level.”
The Premier League’s China crisis is not the only stand off with a foreign power Masters has encountered in his first year in the CEO hotseat. Attempts by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) to buy an 80 per cent stake in Newcastle United failed in July after PIF declined an offer of independent arbitration.
The saga had gone on since the start of the year and when Masters met with journalists in February he refused to comment on a takeover that was at once highly contentious because of Saudi’s human rights record but also because the kingdom had openly pirated the EPL’s broadcast rights in Asia. The latter issue had repeatedly confounded the EPL, despite legal action to challenge the BeoutQ piracy operation and condemnation of the World Trade Organisation.
James Montague, the award winning author of The Billionaire’s Club and When Friday Comes, a study of Middle East football, says that the Premier League were “tossed a grenade” by the proposed takeover, “arguably,” he argues “the most controversial takeover deal in the history of English football.”
“Effectively Newcastle United would have been owned by Saudi Arabia, and the chairman of PIF – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – has been creditably accused of ordering the murder of a critical journalist not even two years ago.
Above Richard Masters pay grade
“Any decision they, the EPL, took left them open to criticism from fans, government, broadcasters.
“It became a geopolitical issue and, quite frankly, that sort of thing is above Richard Masters pay grade.”
By handing PIF’s backers the subsequently rejected option of third party arbitration, Masters came up with “the least worst option” says Montague.
They have allowed the game to be bought by entities far more powerful than them that are impossible to regulate.
But Montague is nevertheless critical of the lack of communication over the matter, saying that following months of silence in which fans were left in the dark the EPL had to be “shamed” into giving a public statement after the intervention of a local MP in August.
“The whole saga reflected badly on everyone,” he says. “A state like Saudi Arabia, with its appalling human rights record, should not allowed anywhere near a football club.”
The reality is, however, that the Premier League has become a melting pot where entities intimately linked with foreign governments and repressive regimes come face to face. Figures close to or directly involved with the governments of Russia, China, UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Iran and Uzbekistan are all stakeholders in the EPL.
The nature of some of these regimes and the size of the finances at stake mean it is inevitable that political disputes will spill over in the footballing sphere. So long as English football remains open to the highest bidder that will continue to be the case.
What’s a football leader to do? Is the genie out the bottle?
“I think it is only now dawning on football leaders what they have done,” says Montague, who met many of the Premier League’s owners while writing The Billionaire’s Club.
“They have allowed the game to be bought by entities far more powerful than them that are impossible to regulate.
“Look at how difficult it is to bring PSG and Manchester City to book. Or some of the potential conflicts of interests thrown up by a Saudi owned NUFC when you have Sheffield United in the same league, also owned by a member of the Saudi royal family. It's almost impossible.
“There's only one real solution: banning any state, and actors who are obviously working on behalf of a state, from owning a Premier League club.”
He will listen
Such a scenario seems a long way off, if not impossible. So Masters will have to continue down the path of being part-CEO and part-diplomat, like a latter-day Klemens von Metternich eternally balancing irreconcilable foreign forces that now dominate our nation’s sport.
Although the decision by EPL shareholders to end with immediate effect the Chinese broadcast deal caught many off guard last Thursday – including some of those within his own organisation – his allies are confident he will steer a path out of these foreign challenges.
“He will listen, he will consult, and he’ll come to the best decision for all of the Premier League clubs,” says his colleague. “He’s shown himself as somebody who is willing to be flexible. He will do so again.”