Crisis breeds consolidation – but would football allow it?

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.

Impossible

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.

 

@GameofthePeople
Photo: PA

1 Comment

  1. Interesting article!

    I’d like to gently push back on the notion that fans are “emotional” or “irrational”. This seems to be common wisdom among people who think critically about football – that “football is a business, but a business like no other” because fans, for emotional/irrational reasons, don’t consume football in the same way that shoppers buy washing powder.

    Following the work of academic researchers David Kennedy and Peter Kennedy, I suggest it might be more fruitful to locate the peculiarity of football as a business in the contest over the “product” of football, rather than in supporter behaviour.

    Put crudely, we could say that the main historical narrative of football since the 1950s (but especially since the EPL era) has been the attempt by capital/owner/media interests to commodify the sport into neat product packages: season tickets, matchday experiences or TV channel subscriptions that consumers can dip in and out of.

    As K&K persuasively argue, however, this attempt at commodification has never been fully achieved – the commodity status of football is highly unstable and contested. Football simply doesn’t fit into neat packages: for a start, supporters themselves produce much of what “football” is and means (by creating atmosphere at matches, engaging in pub and office banter, social media, blogging etc), and consume it in ways that are not about immediate utility maximisation.

    Viewed this way, it becomes slightly perverse to speak of supporter “emotion” or “irrationality” as barriers to football becoming a “normal” business. To do so means siding uncritically with the notion that normal business is necessarily rooted in commodity exchange, and anything which resists this is “irrational”. We can surely just as easily say that it is the capital/owners/media interests who are attempting to force an unsuitable, irrational logic on a pre-existing set of relationships.

    I’d like to propose another way of looking at the economy of football fandom that I hope allows us to bridge the “rational v irrational” divide. What if we looked at football fandom as investment in an interest-bearing asset, rather than consumption of a commodity? I suggest that, to many supporters, what is being “consumed” is the habit, loyalty and community-building itself, as much as the actual football being played. This is better understood as investment rather than consumption. It is something that must be paid into over time, like a pension plan. As any supporter will tell you, the highs are so much sweeter when you have experienced the lows (e.g. losing 1-0 at home in the rain to Newport I-O-W). Sometimes you might get lucky and your investment comes good, like for pre-Abramovich Chelsea fans. Sometimes the investment goes south, like for long-term Forest fans. But even beyond pure football success, there are social and cultural “returns” on your investment.

    I see no obvious reason to dismiss this as “irrational”, any more than it is irrational to make any investment that does not yield immediate benefit and involves risk, in hope of future return. “Emotional”, perhaps, insofar as it involves a sensible investment of time and energy in something emotionally rewarding, but not “irrational”.

    This point was driven home to me recently by a fellow Bath City supporter. Every year, we host a “Pay-what-you-want” day to entice the people of Bath to give their football club a try. In other words, we reduce the price of the commodity to attract more buyers. Sure enough, we usually attract a bumper crowd, and hopefully a few come back for more. But as my terrace-mate pointed out, it’s the *habit* of football that’s the real product – building a routine, settling into a culture, experiencing fear of missing out. We now have new promotions like half-season tickets (timed for Xmas) or “5-for-4” match tickets, which are geared more for selling the habit and routine of football fandom than for selling matches as off-the-shelf leisure experiences.

    That said, viewing football fandom as investment in an asset doesn’t mean that fans can’t be irrational. For example, to pressure the board to punt everything on short-term success while risking long-term sustainability would be irrational through this lens. But seeing a club merger as the destruction or liquidation of your prior investment would not – it would make perfect, rational sense.

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