THERE ARE simply too many professional football clubs, that was the view of advertising guru Sir Martin Sorrell, the former head of WPP and head of S4 Capital, speaking at the World Football Summit’s online conference.
In many industries, a crisis like coronavirus would spark off a chain of mergers as companies come together to strengthen their financial base, expand customer bases and improve competitiveness. Sorrell said football, in the current climate, is ripe for consolidation.
Sport doesn’t lend itself very easily to mergers, even though some clubs are the result of consolidation – any team with “United” in its name is invariably the result of two clubs combining forces. In fact, 20 of the 92 clubs that were due to start the 2019-20 season in Britain had a merger tucked away in their history.
But football is a game of emotions and irrational behaviour and any attempt to merge clubs is met with resistance and obstacles. It is a brave chairman that announces his or her club is about to join-up with another entity, mostly because the public reaction would be negative and undoubtedly trigger-off protest, suspicion, hatred and denial.
Sorrell called for football to be run more efficiently and professionally and predicted that the possibility of a world club championship or European Super League has an air of inevitability about it. “The ramifications of both would be huge and would send ripples through football,” he said.
In a subsequent session involving officials from Bari, Brighton, Orlando City and Emilio Butragueño from Real Madrid, Paul Barber of Brighton felt club failures are inevitable in the coronavirus crisis.
Heading off crisis?
If consolidation is a way to stave-off the threat of financial disaster in football, would the fans embrace it, or would historic ties, family traditions and local bias prevent steps being taken to keep the eco-system intact?
Not that mergers and acquisitions in the business world are always successful. In financial services, they are rarely profitable and often expensive and laden with irritation. Although football’s history is littered with amalgamations, most were created to provide substance and the critical mass needed to make a club more relevant. Any football merger today would be in response to a financial crisis and therefore be founded on business grounds.
As broadcasting becomes more and more influential in the game, the pressure to merge crippled clubs would come from multiple directions, with TV one of the drivers. If that was the case, what mergers would make sense and would create a better product? It is doubtful if any transaction would be seen as acceptable by supporters of the clubs involved, especially if the two parties happened to be fierce rivals.
In London, consolidation would certainly be championed by those wanting to reduce numbers and build a set of “super clubs”. For example, a south London club could be constructed that brought together Crystal Palace, Charlton Athletic and Millwall and create something that could look Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham in the eye. London actually has more professional clubs than virtually every major European capital city and south London has a huge population.
Further north, you could see consolidation in the midlands, perhaps a Birmingham club that could really leverage the “second city” status. And Bristol – how would a combination of City and Rovers fare – arguably better than the clubs would independently?
There are other possibilities – Leeds & Bradford; the East Midlands, Sheffield, the North-West and East Anglia. While the marketing men might salivate at the prospect of consolidation in the big cities, the truth is, the real problem of under-funded institutions is found in smaller, off-radar communities that are in earshot of larger, more successful football clubs.
Frankly, it would be a near-impossible task in normal circumstances, prompting something close to civil unrest in Britain’s towns and cities. But what if it meant survival, a change to the normal diet of soldiering on, the drudgery of just scraping by, punctuated by periodical financial crises? “I’d sooner be dead than red,” a supporter with a blue scarf might say.
But what would happen if football’s lower orders ran out of willing benefactors, the type of philanthropic people who prop-up league one and two – folk who are not oligarchs, oil barons or Asian retail billionaires? In other words, people who might be drastically and mortally affected by a financial crisis? There are signs that the generous, ask few questions sugar daddy may be a thing of the past, but who can blame anyone not wanting to pour money down a dark hole?
This past year, for various reasons, the UK has seen Bury drop out of the league, Wigan Athletic go into administration and growing fears for the future of Oldham Athletic, Bolton Wanderers and Southend United – among others. And let’s not forget that only Wigan can be considered a coronavirus victim, the wheels were starting to come off the wagon long before anyone had heard of Wuhan.
In reality, mergers would be an act of last resort. They would be risky and, for example, if it was suggested that club A (a healthy club), merge with club B (a club on its knees), the fans of A would probably not welcome the move, let alone club B’s loyal band. If you remember back to the days when comics amalgamated, the name of the inferior product was included as part of the masthead for a while, before gently drifting away. The fear for fans, the emotional stakeholders, would be that their club might do likewise. Once more, we have to acknowledge that mergers won’t make sense, because football is like no other business when it comes to pragmatism. In fact, some fans would probably be happier that their club hit the wall rather than merge, because at least they could launch a phoenix club, retain their identity, and rise from the ashes.