WE all assume football’s biggest problem is the way that money has overtaken the game and fuelled its transformation from sport to a business sector. This is not a modern issue by any means, people were complaining about the direction football was taking back in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, the recent SKY documentary on Sir Matt Busby includes an interview with the great man where he talks of football’s evolution into the world of commerce.
Before the modern game emerged, we often perceived football to be something almost vocational, that players had an obligation to put the club before their own requirements and that it was almost sacrilege for any employee to be interested in getting the best possible financial deal for themselves. “They’re only interested in the money,” would be the complaint from disgruntled fans.
Players who recognised their value and therefore confidently negotiated their contracts with their clubs, such as Johan Cruyff and Kevin Keegan (to name but two), were often criticised for being money-orientated when they merely had more savvy than most of their contemporaries. And nobody can seriously deny both gave excellent value for that money.
Most of us aim to get the best out of our careers in terms of remuneration, and footballers are no different. One of the things that has always attracted people to the game has been its glamorous image, which is down to adulation, glory and, dare we say, a materialistic lifestyle funded by big money. And they loved playing football, of course.
The problem is, in today’s environment, the pay packet of a footballer at the highest level has soared into the world of fantasy and represents multiples of the average daily wage. The lowest-paid Premier League club in 2019-20 was Sheffield United, whose players earned an average of £ 910,000. The average UK salary in 2020 was £ 31,000 – one 29th of that figure. Go higher and the statistics made you wince even more – Manchester City’s average was £ 8.7 million per player. The riches that have been handed to football at the top are not going into club coffers, they are making players even more wealthy.
On the face of it, the vast sums paid to the Premier League should make the clubs secure and prosperous, but as the pandemic has shown, it wasn’t that difficult to expose the fault lines in the business models of a lot of clubs across Europe. Put simply, there is considerable financial distress at the moment. The situation at Real Madrid and Barcelona indicates that even the biggest clubs can be vulnerable, but how can you sympathise with any club that earns as much as they do but pays 70%-plus to its playing staff?
Barcelona made a huge loss (€97m) in 2019-20 and every Premier League club bar two (of those who have reported) also posted losses. All the major Italian clubs also generated big deficits.
Football has long deluded itself that it is a huge sector when it is quite plainly far from it. In corporate terms, the industry is small beer, but where it differs is the reach of the top brands, which is enormous and globalisation encapsulated. Brand Finance, a UK-based consultancy that looks at company brands, estimated that football club brands have not been overly impacted by covid-19 compared to some areas of business. While most clubs have seen their revenues drop, quite a few have had surprising increases in commercial activity, which underlines how fans still clamour for branded goods such as shirts and leisurewear.
Football’s image has taken a battering in recent months, but clubs have long been very focused on generating positive public relations (PR), employing teams of staff with expertise in media communications. It is evident that most interviews, statements and announcements are carefully-tooled, scripted to include the corporate tone and, mostly, very anodyne. I have been in a couple of press conferences where journalists have asked a difficult question to a manager and afterwards, the offending hack has been identified and a note made (mental or otherwise), suggesting they had made it onto a black list. Clubs seem to have near total control of the news and opinion coming from their staff which is understandable to some extent, but doesn’t make for good copy.
The obsession with good PR has also extended to being seen to do the “right” thing which often seems disingenuous and feels as if it is just designed to score moral points. It’s a characteristic of the corporate world where a company tries to make itself feel better because their core activity might be something that isn’t perceived to have great social value. Moreover, at some firms, employees are encouraged to engage in charitable activities to improve their CV and enhance their career prospects.
Football’s “wrongs” really revolve around paying extraordinarily high and unsustainable wages to young men. It is positive to do good things in the community, but even better to allow the public to find out without intensive publicity. The best people are those that help others but do not seek attention for doing so.
There’s no doubt that clubs, to their credit, “communicate” more than ever before with their fans – compare the current situation with the 1970s and 1980s – but unfortunately, the messaging is frequently disappointing.
Professional football often gives the impression of being an industry sitting on the edge of its seat, wringing its hands with high anxiety. If it is not players and their agents causing challenges for clubs, it is fan dissatisfaction, protests against unpopular owners and temporary appointments such as managers. Football’s unpredictability doesn’t make for a stable business model – relegation can be the catalyst for a massive swing to the negative in income, a seismic shift that would send stock prices plummeting in any conventional sector. And stability is also compromised by short-term hirings in key positions such as the coach – the clubs really do inflict pain upon themselves. Little wonder that club owners backing the European Super League were trying to protect their investment by creating a closed league where revenues would be guaranteed and status preserved.
The answer is surely to introduce a more level playing field while retaining the meritocracy football desperately needs and the pathway for clubs to climb the system and recover when they fall. A sport that rewards winners so handsomely but punishes failure so harshly is hardly conducive for the creation of a healthy eco-system, which is inevitably ailing because very few clubs plan for a rainy day.
Change cannot be achieved in five minutes, possibly not even in five years, but in the medium-to-long term, football has to protect itself by making the landscape more equitable. The European Super League may have gone away for the time being, but if we are talking about the law of the footballing jungle and the survival of the fittest, then they will be back. The irony is that those pushing for an elite structure are the very clubs who wish to be seen as caring, sharing, philanthropic institutions and therefore proudly display their corporate social activities for all to see!