THERE were around six main football stories in the sports section of the newspaper I was reading as I grabbed an espresso at my favourite coffee bar in my home town. All six had a big emphasis on the financial side of the game: transfers (Gareth Bale), clubs in trouble (Bury), sponsorship and, more modestly, cash support for anti-racism groups.
Admittedly, it was the last embers of the close season, the Championship was about to start in a few days and we’d just had a busy summer of Women’s World Cup and an assortment of regional competitions. However, the fact that the sports section could almost have been a supplement in the Financial Times, underlined the growing interest in the fiscal side of football.
You often hear fans bemoaning that “football is all about business these days” and that it is no longer sport but has become a multi-million pound and hard-nosed industry. The fact is, the game has always been about money, because money has almost always fuelled success, right back to the start of professionalism.
Football has always had a charmed life and a certain exemption when it comes to adhering to financial requirements. Nobody wants to be responsible for leading a club to the wall or squeezing a club so hard that it goes kaput. In some countries – Spain was a good example when its economy was staring into the abyss – the state actually helped clubs to avoid disaster.
Some politicians might consider football clubs are as systemic as banks. In 2008, Europe’s governments saved their economies from depression-era problems, but what would the effect be of a club like Real Madrid, Manchester United or Bayern Munich going bust? Finance is one thing, but the social and cultural void that could be created by a major blow-up of an important football institution could win or lose an election for a politician or council member. Football is a big business in some ways, but compared to the corporate world, it is still small beer, but an awful lot of voters follow football clubs. There’s currency in appearing at a club with an oversized scarf around your neck and pretending to be one of the boys!
Clubs with money dominate football leagues. A poor club rarely rises to the top. Therefore, money has, more often than not, decided championships down the decades. The exceptions have largely been where some extraordinary managerial talent has moulded a team from willing youngsters or acolytes – people like Don Revie at Leeds, Bobby Robson with Ipswich and Brian Clough at Derby and Forest.
Of course, the days of the aforementioned managers cannot be compared to the football landscape of today. The money in the game today has rocketed from the days when players were relatively well off but not automatic millionaires. When I was a lad, players were certainly better paid than the man on the Madrid metro, but the gulf between the people watching football and those on the pitch is now so huge, it is a wonder the average Arsenal season ticket holder feels comfortable about merely adding to the personal wealth of professional footballers, many of whom probably had little idea where the Emirates Stadium was before signing for the club. This is just one example of how disconnected supporters are from the clubs they follow.
You either buy into it – emotionally – or you don’t and perhaps become a neutral who just likes to travel to find something new and interesting. Fans complain about the price of tickets, but they still queue for them – online or in person – and the crowds in the Premier League suggest there is no sign of a cooling-off, no matter how often the prophets of doom predict the bursting of the bubble. And when we venture abroad to watch games, we often paying over-the-odds for tickets to see the great and not so good.
Football remains a discretionary activity and nobody is forced to support any club, but fans still feel compelled to keep watching their favourites, home and away and become neurotic about missing a game. They also use a fair amount of their disposable income on football. And when a club declines, gets relegated or has the tax or VAT people waiting to close their club down, the fans have no control. Fans see their club as belonging to them, but nothing could be further from the truth. Clubs have become an asset class, to be placed in a portfolio alongside a billionaire’s real estate, financial instruments and race horses.
Not everyone would like to admit it, but clubs have always relied upon benefactors, “sugar daddies”, corporate money and sponsors. In the past, club chairman were invariably local businessmen who might own a string of butchers, car companies or factories. Today, the people behind clubs are often incredibly rich. So yes, it is about money, your money, your club owner’s cash, your local community and others. The difference is, the stakes are that much higher and more visible, but at the end of the day, we are all helping to build these little empires.
This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine.
Photo: PA – The photo is of a bucket collection to save Bury FC… in 2002.