Covid-19: It’s a political football

FOOTBALL continues to be divided over the timing of fans’ return to the stadiums. From a business perspective, no paying spectators is a disaster for most clubs, but the game still suffers from the ingrained perception that it is not a very important segment of society. Equally, there is a lack of widespread acknowledgement that culturally, football has a key role to play in maintaining public morale. 

There is a growing belief that suspending football and its resumption behind closed doors, was a decision based purely around politics rather than necessity. Although the game is the biggest crowd attraction among virtually all major sporting events, the historic sentiment suggested it was frivolous, inessential and, after all, merely a game. That may have been true in 1914 and perhaps 1939, although the mood around football was very different in the second world war, but in 2020, football is an industry enjoyed by millions, bringing meaning and enhancement to the lives of many and also generating huge sums of money. It is certainly no longer frivolous.

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A group of academics[1] recently produced a paper on the subject of Covid-19 and the return of the fans, calling for the UK government to reverse the decision to prohibit spectators from attending football matches. Covid-19: The return of fans is published by the journal, Managing Sport & Leisure.

The report underlines that since the financial crisis of 2007-2012, a chasm has developed between supporters and the football elite. Fans have been taken for granted yet the game has become a socially constructed product. “A football club provides an identity, a cultural icon, escapism and a focus for social interaction,” says the paper.

Yet there are still examples of politicians failing to understand football’s true position in society. Conservative MP Jake Berry, speaking in the House of Commons[2], said the game was at the heart of the community in the north of England while in the south, opera, ballet and the theatre fill that role. He added that clubs like Accrington Stanley, Barrow and Carlisle United are the northern equivalent of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Such a comical view is very worrying for an industry that contributes so much to the whole nation.

It is clubs from League One and Two, not to mention the financially fragile Championship, that are most vulnerable to the impact of Covid-19. As the report reminds us, matchday income accounts for a high percentage of overall income, 30% for League One and 34% of League Two. The Premier League derives 13% of its revenues from matches and the Championship 20% but Scotland is even more vulnerable with 46%. 

Behind closed doors football has provided the public with its opium and although the Premier League can survive with this arrangement, thanks to the still sizeable broadcasting revenues, lower down, the clubs are in a precarious position. Gary Sweet, the CEO of Luton Town, told the BBC that football cannot survive a year without supporters and that if clubs tip into trouble, “there’s not really a queue of people willing to buy football clubs”.

The Chairman of the EFL, Rick Parry said the league’s members would lose £ 50 million in gate revenues and a further £ 250 million if no fans were admitted in 2020-21. “Such a hole in club finances will inevitably lead to insolvency for some…there is somewhat of a Darwinian feel around football if this impasse is not reversed, with the strongest clubs getting stronger and the weaker clubs perishing along the way,” said the academic paper.

Capitalism

We may have already witnessed the first attempt at exercising a power grab, something the paper suggests will happen if the current situation does not change. The “bail-out” of the EFL by the top Premier clubs, which would come at a cost, may have failed, but the problems may not have gone away. “This is how capitalism works,” said the research team. It is difficult, however, to see the modern game as anything other than a product of capitalism, which doesn’t bode well for those that want to see a more democratic football universe.

In a recent interview with POLITICO[3], the Premier League’s CEO, Richard Masters, hinted the Premier’s top clubs cannot afford to cut spending – the top six clubs spend more than £ 1.5 billion a season on wages – to support smaller rivals. “The Premier League is the most competitive in the world and you can’t stand still, you have to continue to compete and have to continue to invest,” he said. Meanwhile, some MPs have called for the Premier and the EFL to reach an agreement over any bail-out “for the good of the game”. There’s also pressure from the fans, some 200,000 of which have signed a petition for crowds to be permitted after the current lockdown. 

It is not just matchday revenues that have suffered from the pandemic, commercial revenues have also been compromised. The value of sponsorship is certainly diluted by a lack of supporters in a stadium. Broadcasting, too, may feel somewhat short-changed. PP Sports of China did not pay the Premier League its £ 160 million instalment for the 2019-20 season, resulting in the league terminating a lucrative £ 523 million deal two years ahead of schedule.[4]  The Premier League still manages to earn more than € 1.9 billion through the sale of TV rights.

The academic team cautions that “while we argue spectators need to be allowed back to games to ensure football survives, there are things clubs can do”. This includes more creative thinking around monetising of assets, perhaps suing technology to better effect. Clubs also need to make tougher financial decisions. The paper concludes: “Football is more than a business… if the UK government do not change their policy and allow spectators to return, they threaten the sustainability of our entire football infrastructure.”

@GameofthePeople
Photo: PA Images


[1] Alexander John Bond, David Cockayne, Jan Andre Lee Ludvigsen, Kieran Maguire, Daniel Parnell, Daniel Plumley, Paul Widdop, Rob Wilson. “Covid-19: the return of football fans”.

[2] The Independent, “Tory MP mocked after saying northerners like football but southerners prefer opera”, report by Colin Drury, November 12, 2020.

[3] POLITICO, November 9 2020: “Political Football: Premier League braces for scrutiny amid Covid deadlock.”

[4] Football Benchmark, “Season one after the Covid Outbreak” – September 15, 2020.

Football’s experts and influencers – some of the people we listen to

ONE OF the big changes in the football business world has been the recognition that the most popular sport on the planet now carries far greater weight than ever before. Admittedly, the game is dismissed as being the most important of the unimportant things in life, but in terms of contribution to the economy, social relevance, employment and community, football can no longer be regarded as trivial.

The rise of football as a business sector has, quite naturally, given birth to agencies, consultancies, intermediaries and commentators who earn a living on the back of global football. Equally, these companies and individuals also provide intelligent insights and interpret the economics, politics and data that gets produced.

While many fans care little for anything other than the game of football itself, understanding the background, financial structures and key elements of reporting allows people to understand why a club is successful or unsuccessful.

Game of the People  has worked with many of the key players in this industry and has provided editorial content for a wide range of reports and papers. The following is a list of some of the people we consider to be important and influential in this field. The list is not in any order and represents a selection of our most used sources. Needless to say, the list is being added to by the week. We welcome suggestions and recommendations.

UK Media: We see the Guardian as having the best stable of journalists when it comes to football – away from match reporting, writers such as David Conn and Jonathan Wilson are not only excellent scribes, but they lay a level of intelligence and sophistication to their work that is unmatched. David Conn has a strong business element to his writing but also understands the culture of the game, witness his coverage of the Hillsborough disaster trials. Jonathan Wilson, as well as being an incisive historian, has the ability to explain how football is played and how it has evolved down the decades. And there are others from the Guardian deserving of praise and respect, including women’s football expert Suzy Wrack and Italian football authority Nicky Bandini. The Athletic has lured a number of writers away from newspapers, such as Amy Lawrence and Raphael Honigstein while the Times has the likes of Henry Winter and Alyson Rudd (who was named GOTP’s top journalist in 2019). 

Swiss Ramble: This gentleman, a Brit living in Switzerland, provides possibly the most accessible and lucid explanation of football club accounts. His analyst-level content is football finance 101 for journalists, clubs, agencies and anyone with an interest in the game’s economics. And it is quite possible that he gets nothing for his considerable work. There are countless reports that reference Swiss Ramble and plenty who take his content and give no credit to the Zurich-based Arsenal fan. He is, without a doubt, social media’s foremost analyst.

KPMG Football Benchmark: KPMG’s Football Benchmark team is based primarily in Budapest, but it’s an international group led by Andre Sartori, a Juventus-supporting Italian. They came to the game after their corporate rivals Deloitte, but their European Elite report has become one of the “go-to” papers on football club evaluation. KPMG also produces a rolling player valuation tool and are regularly interviewed on TV.

Inside World Football: Experienced journalists form the backbone of this news portal which covers a broad range of topics and geographies. The site has a number of well respected writers including Mihir Bose and Andrew Warshaw. As a reference tool, Inside World Football is invaluable.

Soccerex: An events-driven company founded by Don Revie’s son, the late Duncan Revie, which stages conferences in various parts of the world. Soccerex published its third Football Finance 100 earlier this year, a report on the financial health of the top clubs.. Soccerex’s events are great networking opportunities and invariably have some top notch speakers.

Brand Finance: Brand Finance are based in the City of London and evaluate brands across many sectors and geographies. Included in their very considerable portfolio is the Football 50, which has been expanded to take the form of an annual that includes expert opinion, data and research findings. Their publications are backed by sound methodology and industry viewpoints.

Deloitte: Deloitte’s Football Money League is really the product that started the ball rolling in football finance. Although Deloitte’s research is primarily based around revenues and the elite end of the game, rather than other contributory factors, the presentation, editorial and format provides a clear snapshot of a club’s strength. Deloitte also produces an annual review of football finance, which is equally interesting and informative. These are the people that other companies aspire to emulate.

CIES Football Observatory: The Swiss-based CIES are the data gurus of the football world, producing reports that range from basic information about performance, player values and demographics to some quite obscure topics. So strong is their offering that other companies aim to partner with CIES to make use of their skills. We live in the data age and CIES are at the heart of football’s transition to a more scientific game.

Soccernomics: If Deloitte were the groundbreakers in producing club analysis, then Soccernomics , the book written by Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper, provided the ultimate text book. Soccernomics is more than a tome, though, it is arguably the most intelligent volume written about the game. Soccernomics is also an agency, comprising Kuper, Szymanski and Ben Lyttleton. They advise clubs, federations and businesses across the football landscape. The book, though, is what sells Soccernomics, it is an essential companion for anyone interested in how football works.

Academics: Kieran Maguire of the University of Liverpool’s Sports Business unit is one of the pre-eminent figures in football finance. He wrote The Price of Football  (if you can get hold of it) and has featured regularly on TV, in newspapers and websites. David Goldblatt, a larger-than-life character, has written some outstanding books, such as  The Ball is Round,  The Game of our Lives  and  The Age of Football. Also worth mentioning are: Simon Chadwick, Director of the Centre for Eurasian Sport Industry and Professor of Eurasian Sport Industry; Paul Widdop, senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University; Daniel Parnell of University of Liverpool; and Rob Wilson of Hallam University. There is a growing field of experts who have recognised the contribution made by football to society and the global economy. All of the aforementioned, who represent a far wider body of men and women from the field of academia, are worth listening to.

 

@GameofthePeople