Disruption waits in the wings for football in 2023

A YEAR ago, speculation was rife about the Qatar World Cup and the uncomfortable moral issues of the country’s suitability as host. With the competition now over and the football industry seemingly unable to dent the resolve of Qatar and FIFA,  the game now attempts to moves on until the next error of judgement or scandal.

FIFA has already unveiled its preliminary plans for the future, although the idea of a 48-team World Cup may be rethought after the supposed “best ever” tournament in Qatar. This was always going to be the summing-up message by FIFA, the implication being, that for all its faults, the governing body made the right decision all along. There’s something a little delusional about this conclusion, a combination of outright presentism and wishful thinking. FIFA and Qatar got the winner they wanted.

The landscape will be dominated by club football in 2023, in particular the stubborn campaign to form a European Super League, which simply won’t go away.  The European Court of Justice has decreed UEFA and FIFA were not guilty of breaching European Union laws in blocking attempts to start up a rival competition. This was a setback for the three most enthusiastic advocates of the super league, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus. This story will roll on in 2023, especially as Barca and Juve have problems of their own to solve.

The elite clubs remain convinced a super league is the way ahead, regardless of the unanimous disapproval of the project. The research used to support the concern that football is in trouble and that the younger generation is less interested in watching games was self-serving and tailored to support the agenda. The super league was dressed-up as being the salvation of European football.

La Liga commissioned a study by KPMG[1] to examine the effect of a super league and revealed a 55% loss of revenues should the concept materialise. The same could possibly apply to the English Premier League and Serie A. Importantly, more than 70% of revenues in European football are derived from domestic leagues, so fragmentation of the eco-system could be catastrophic.

Football has shown over the past year that nothing can be taken for granted. The prospect of clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool changing hands would have, at one stage, seemed unthinkable, but within a short space of time their owners – both US-based – revealed they would be open to offers. Both are trying to compete with Manchester City, a middle-eastern owned club with vast resources. Manchester United’s owners, the Glazer family, are unpopular, largely because over the past decade or so, the club has declined from the highs it enjoyed under Sir Alex Ferguson. Liverpool have a conservative business model that has reaped rewards under the charismatic Jürgen Klopp, but in the long-term, they cannot keep pace with Manchester City.

Arsenal found themselves in a similar situation under Stan Kroenke and graffiti urging him to go can still be found in the streets surrounding the Emirates stadium. However, Arsenal’s start to 2022-23 has all but silenced the critics, at least until the next downturn. The Russian invasion of Ukraine brought to an end the reign of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, who were bought by a consortium fronted by US businessman Todd Boehly. Chelsea’s fans will soon discover the new regime will be very different to the generous but controversial era of Oligarch football at Stamford Bridge.

In some respects, the sale of Chelsea for £ 4.25 billion alerted owners like Liverpool’s Fenway Sports and Manchester United’s Glazer family to the potential rewards from selling Premier League clubs. Both clubs are highly valued, but the headline-grabbing figures for United of £ 8 billion are somewhat greater than calculations made by football business experts. As Football Benchmark said: “Economic theory teaches us that price and value are two different concepts and what we pay for a product is not necessarily its fair market value.” [2]

Clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United are costly investments and hence, the pool of possible buyers will always be small. Inevitably, the Middle East will be among those that can afford to buy one of world football’s top clubs. The US may be interested in both clubs, but the pragmatic and return-oriented approach of American investors will not move the needle forward enough for some. US investors believe there is substantial upside in broadcasting and in creating global franchises, so much so they anticipate the Premier League will overtake the NFL in the near future. [3]

The Middle East, notably through its huge sovereign wealth funds, will continue to seek-out football investments in 2023. There is a perfectly logical explanation for this appetite for western football teams given the world’s finite oil resources. The region is preparing for the post oil world and looking to secure links to the commercial networks of Europe and the US. Certainly, the increase in club valuations and the rising operating revenues, indicate there is a platform for growth.[4]

Inevitably, the transfer market will feed off investor sentiment in 2023 as well as the halo effect of the World Cup. In the aftermath of Qatar 2022, the football world will experience a period of change that has not been seen for some years. Many of the top players and national teams have reached a point in the cycle that means retirement for some and displacement for others. With unlikely names such as Japan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco all making their mark, big clubs may try and raid these countries for fresh talent. As with the ownership issues, in 2022 we saw the first signs of football royalty like Cristiano Ronaldo reluctantly relinquishing their crown. More will follow in the months ahead and by the end of 2023, the deckchairs will have started to be rearranged.  

Equally, managers once felt to be part of the club’s DNA may also decide it is time to move on. While the fans of Liverpool and Manchester City, to name but two, see the departure of their iconic coaches as seismic events, it will happen at some point. Change is a constant in life, even in football, and the longer things remain the same, the closer to change we are. In 2023, the game will surely be impacted by a worsening global macroeconomic climate that could damage match attendances, sponsorship and even the much-coveted broadcasting revenues. With Qatar out of the way, the focus will shift towards existential problems for many clubs, particularly at the lower end of the food chain.

[1] La Liga newsletter, December 15 2022.

[2] Football Benchmark, “What is the value of Manchester United?”. November 2022. https://www.footballbenchmark.com/documents/files/MU%20Report_07DEC.pdf

[3] FT: America’s English football takeover by Craig Coben and Constantine Gonticas, October 2022. https://www.ft.com/content/6f7c3b92-42d1-46d8-9dc3-0276c1ef703f

[4] Atlantic Council: “Many European soccer teams are owned by Gulf states. But why? April 2022 https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/many-european-soccer-teams-are-owned-by-gulf-states-but-why/

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