Commentary Box: Corporate football, footballing corporates

OVER the past few years, there’s been a reaction to the increasingly polarised state of top-class football, an industry that continues to grow and detach itself from grassroots. There’s arguably no turning back, the football world now revolves around a dozen or so clubs that are bigger, wealthier, more influential and more interconnected than the rest of the game’s constituents. We might not like it, and may hanker for the days of wooden grandstands, muddy pitches and players who might jump on the bus to get to the stadium, but it is here to stay – you embrace it, or reject it.

When the so-called “C-suite” moved into football clubs, rather than boards comprising local businessmen with chains of butcher’s shops, bingo halls or pubs, the signs were very clear the sport had moved up a gear. In the past, high finance didn’t really want to know football, the City of London viewed the game as “played and watched by oiks”. Rugby was the sport of gentlemen, the game that financial institutions were more likely to lend their backing. The Premier League changed that, but the first signs were visible with the stock market floating of Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. In the case of the latter, the arrival of Alan Sugar, a big client of City banks, brought the concept of “a market” to football. Later on, Southampton had a City Veteran, Rupert Lowe, as chairman, but it is often overlooked that Arsenal, for many years, had the Hill-Woods in the marble halls of Highbury, a family connected with Hambros Bank. Generally, football supporters see the involvement of bankers, hedge fund managers and private equity as something to be avoided in a sport that has such an emotional pull. Lower down the food chain, non-league clubs are often vulnerable to the opportunist property developer.

Football, in the 1990s, with its new found wealth provided by broadcasting and global ambition, suddenly became attractive to corporate financiers and speculators. Certainly, post-1990 finance professionals were discovering football as a corporate hospitality winner, partly due to the globalisation of markets and the attempted removal of the class barrier attached to the sport. As football became more gentrified, much to the disgust of many segments of the game’s traditional audience, the more financial institutions and large corporates were willing to attach themselves to it. Executive boxes echoed to the sound of top business people who had just become experts in a sport they had recently discovered. They had the money to meet the cost of an expensive night-out in London watching Chelsea take-on Barcelona.

In some ways, corporate life and football, indeed any top level sport, mirror each other. While initially the idea that City of London business process and creativity was something football needed to “professionalise” itself, the demand for instant gratification that so typifies the current ethos of football also became prevalent in the corporate world. Recently, a top European financial institution, now cast in the role of a faded giant struggling to recapture past glories (the script could be football-related), sacked its CEO after a relatively short stint in charge. This knee-jerk reaction seemed especially harsh given the size of the task in hand, which was, effectively, to steer the company away from “relegation”. Some accused the people in the boardroom of managing the institution like a football club. CEOs at that particular firm are being hired and fired in a manner normally associated with former Atlético Madrid president Jesús Gil. It was no coincidence that one executive used Bayern Munich to describe the firm’s ambition: “Nobody particularly likes Bayern, but they respect and admire them…that’s what we want to be.”

Financial institutions now line-up to be in bed with football. Barclays had its moment of backing the  Premier League, but the crisis of 2008 put paid to many banks directing cash towards something as unimportant as football. Standard Chartered have stayed loyal to Liverpool and Allianz are still linked with Bayern Munich. Today, ambitious rising stars in the financial world are just as likely to be providing sponsorship, such as the AIA Group from Asia, who sponsor Tottenham. More can be expected from places like China and South Korea in the future.

The changing dynamic in the global economy also reflects upon club ownership. Of the world’s leading clubs, only one, Tottenham, has a significant UK backing. Of the widely acknowledged top dozen, the US, Middle East, Asia and Russia all have a big say in club ownership. As clubs have become more global, building customer bases outside their own domestic markets, they have become increasingly attractive to the financial world, evidenced by the number of consultancies, agencies and number-crunchers who are analysing the industry. League tables have moved beyond football results and extend to revenues, brand value, debt, wage-bills and sponsorship deals.

But it is not just in the boardroom that football clubs and corporates converge. There is common ground in the way people are managed. A club will always accommodate a maverick if that player produces on the field of play. Likewise, a difficult and single-minded individual in a financial institution will be tolerated if that person creates money for the firm. Business life is certainly changing, however, with upcoming generations adopting a different style from traditional “City types”, but too often people are aware of those who do not adhere to “team values”. Like football clubs, banks will hire star performers who are over-aware of their personal brand rather than any desire to become part of a team.

And of course, there’s one very important element that links football and bankers – the accumulation of wealth and conspicuous consumerism. Footballers illustrate their wealth in the form of big tattoos, saucepan-sized watches, bling, big cars, trophy wives and, with some, a little bit of surgery. Bankers, perhaps not so obviously today, flex their wallet with property, watches, cars, yachts and so on. After footballers, bankers are the most envied and, and equally despised, breed of people.

That’s maybe why an association with charity is seen as a good career move for both footballers and bankers. Corporates and financial institutions are quick to publicise their Corporate Social Responsibility activities to let the broader world know that “we’re not a money-making machine, we care”, but obviously not the type of people who sit in a London restaurant and tell a waiter, after ordering a £200 bottle of wine, “I bet you’ve never seen a bottle so expensive in your country”. Similarly, upper echelon footballers establish “foundations” to put something back into the community. There are some genuinely decent players who are aware of their privileged position in society – for example, Juan Mata of Manchester United and the veteran Jermain Defoe.

I’ve interviewed star bankers, CEOs and “rainmakers” and I have also met leading footballers and managers. In most cases, there’s been very little difference. Some of the qualities that define sharp-suited corporate financiers – overwhelming self-confidence, passive and active aggression and incredible perception can almost certainly be found in football folk. At the same time, successful people in any avenue of life have an aura, a certain ingredient that allows them to rise above the rest. I’ve met some wonderfully creative and talented people from both worlds, some worthy individuals who actually want to help others, share their good fortune and pass on some of the secrets of their success. In that context, football and big business can certainly – and should – learn from each other.


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