LONDON • The English Premier League arranges its fixtures so that none of the "top-six" clubs meet on the first or final weekends of the season, The Times revealed on Tuesday.
The arrangement, which also guarantees a meeting between top-six sides on 26 other weekends, has been running for several years but has been kept secret from fans.
Sources close to the league say that it is done for commercial reasons, to appeal to TV broadcasters and to boost attendances at matches on the final weekend.
It also means that unless a side such as Leicester come through and challenge again like their 2015-16 title-winning term, there will never be a last-day decider between two clubs in the title hunt.
While the arrangement may give the bigger clubs the guarantee of an easier start to the season, league insiders insist that it does not affect the integrity of the competition as every club still have to play each other home and away.
But some supporters' groups have expressed concern that this gives special treatment to the "big six" of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Manchester United, who are already pushing for a larger share of overseas TV cash.
The "Big Six" argue that it is their clubs who drive the interest for overseas viewers, and there is an ongoing dispute between that elite group and the rest of the league.
NOT A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
Every Premier League club should be treated equally, and we also do not agree with this push for them to receive a bigger share of television money.
ARSENAL SUPPORTERS' TRUST SPOKESMAN, on the need for every EPL side to be given parity.
Richard Scudamore, the league's executive chairman, had previously suggested that 35 per cent of the overseas money be distributed according to where a club finishes in the league table.
At the moment, it is shared equally and while that idea was blocked by the smaller clubs, Scudamore has told the league's chairmen that he wants a resolution to the dispute at next month's annual general meeting.
A spokesman for the Arsenal Supporters' Trust (AST) said: "We are very concerned about this apparent designation of an elite group of top-six clubs.
"Every Premier League club should be treated equally, and we also do not agree with this push for them to receive a bigger share of television money.
"The AST would like the focus of the schedule to be on organising fixtures and kick-off times that are convenient for fans who go to matches, rather than what best suits domestic or overseas TV viewers."
The Football Supporters' Federation added that it was unaware of the league's arrangement.
Kevin Miles, its chief executive, said: "This is certainly news to us and we look forward to holding discussions with the Premier League about the pros and cons of it."
The arrangement is revealed in the tender document that the league provided to broadcasters for the 2019-22 period.
The top six for fixture purposes are decided before each schedule is devised, and although Liverpool played Arsenal on the opening day of the 2016-17 season, the Merseyside club had finished eighth in the previous campaign.
There are many other considerations that affect fixtures, most of which are widely known - for example, competition dates set by the world and European football governing bodies Fifa and Uefa.
Other factors include if the police do not want neighbouring teams playing at home on the same day, if other events are taking place in the vicinity or the demands on a particular stadium.
The decision to avoid matches between the top six on the opening weekend is believed to be because the league does not want to stage one of the biggest games of the season during the holiday period when there are usually smaller TV audiences and when there may be other big sporting events.
The top six are understood to be kept apart on the last weekend because all matches are played at the same time, and the league wants to boost attendances at every game rather than tempt fans to watch a potential "Big Six" clash on TV.
The English Football League (EFL) is also seeking a 50 per cent cut from the proposed sale of Wembley stadium to American billionaire Shahid Khan.
The Football Association (FA) confirmed last month that negotiations were ongoing, with the deal potentially worth up to £1 billion (S$1.8 billion), and EFL chief executive Shaun Harvey has said that English football's governing body must distribute money from the sale - if green-lit - to both league and lower-tier clubs.
"Under the current distribution mechanism, the professional game is entitled to 50 per cent of the proceeds after central costs have been met," Harvey told The Times.
"Any move away from this principle will only be achieved if we can be satisfied that the money will be properly utilised for the benefit of the game as a whole in England, including at our clubs."
The 48-year-old added that EFL clubs could use the money to start their own youth academies, help boost existing community programmes and create new ones.
British media reports estimate that the FA will cash in on around £600 million from the sale after repaying all their debts.
REUTERS, THE TIMES, LONDON