An eye-opener – life on the fringe of the football industry

AFTER a long career in finance, working for major, highly-regulated institutions, coming across many of the companies in the football industry has been something of a reality check.

For three years, I have combined my successful financial writing career with my freelance football activities, which date back to the late 1980s. For most of my working life, I was involved in an environment that was disciplined, well-run, had reasonable levels of accountability and, effectively, you worked long hours and were well paid. As a writer, I could not have earned anything remotely close to my salary from a media company. My entry into the football industry has been an eye-opener in many ways, and it just doesn’t stop at the financial contrasts between finance and football.

At the highest level, there’s not a lot of difference between footballers and investment bankers. You could argue that both are overpaid, both are extremely focused on achieving and both depend on results. As we saw during the economic crisis, finance can bend rules, act irresponsibly and be fanatical about making money, often forgetting any ethics.

Footballers – and bankers in a different way – are prime examples of conspicuous consumerism, witness weddings on thrones, huge cars and houses, tasteless demonstrations of wealth. While footballers, generally, are from humble backgrounds, most bankers are well educated at some of the world’s top universities and their talent, if that is the right word, extends beyond making money in capital markets.

But what I have discovered in the football industry is that there is a lack of scruples, financial discipline and a culture of ignoring responsibility. Such as paying bills.

Football has become a vast industry, with many intermediaries and operators earning a crust, from player agents to events management, number crunching, data analysis and the stadium development sector. It’s a little like the elephant or rhino with small birds feeding off the hide of the beast. An eco-system that has many, many creatures pecking away for money. You could say my own activities fall within that category, although freelance football writing is only part of my portfolio, I am not reliant on it as my sole source of income.

I have family members who are self-employed builders and plumbers. They have told me, for some years, of the struggle to get paid by people who gladly welcome them to construct an extension or refit a bathroom but then refuse to pay or delay payment for months and months. Sometimes, it ends in court or is settled after negotiation.

I have found a similar situation exists for the freelance writer, although it is interesting that there is a differentiation between the type of client. Any firm that is regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, or other professional bodies, always pays within a strict timeline and there is never any problem. Unregulated firms, or those that are loosely regulated, often sit on their cash or ignore your invoice for some period of time. The sums involved, independently, are relatively small, but when added up, they represent a significant sum of the percentage of my freelance earnings.

Now, I am not losing too much sleep over this, but I find it extremely annoying that a client is basically abusing my trust and also ignoring the “little man”. I have tentatively sought legal advice, but I know – and the client knows  – that I am unlikely to take any drastic action. However, the football industry is an incestuous world and everyone seems to know everyone else. Reputational damage can be a difficult thing to shake off and those clients that are lacking in transparency will, ultimately find that trust is eroded and, to be blunt, they acquire a bad name.

So what do I do? I am grateful that most of my clients, especially those that operate properly and under strict regulation, are decent, responsive and appreciative. That’s where my focus will be going forward.

Instant gratification rules in the big-time

AS if we didn’t know it, recent analysis by CIES Football Observatory has revealed that major football clubs are geared towards short-termism.

Across 31 European leagues under consideration, the percentage of club-trained players fell from 23.2% in 2009 to 16.9% in 2018. Southern Europe (12.8%) and Western Europe (15.7%) show the lowest number of players developed at home, while Northern Europe (21.9%) is at the top of the list.

Among the “big five” leagues, Serie A has a worryingly low 9% of club-trained players. Premier League and France’s Ligue 1 are next with 22.7%.

The Premier League has the highest percentage of “migrant” players, with an astonishing 59%, underlining the global nature of the league, both in terms of ownership and spectator appeal, as much as the financial clout of the English league. It is debatable if this situation will continue once the UK leaves the European Union. Italy has an expatriate percentage of 52.4%, while Germany has 46.2%.

CIES commented: “The evolution in the percentage of players having already migrated over the course of their career also allows us to account for the process of the internationalisation of the football players’ labour market. The proportion of footballers in this situation has increased from 46.4% in 2009 to a record level of 56.9% in 2018.”

CIES’ work reveals a number of very clear trends. The market has become very deterritorialised by a decreasing presence of club-trained players, a higher level of expat players and greater mobility. Therein lies the problem – clubs have a responsibility in their local market which is not necessarily being fulfilled.

CIES added: “In an increasingly segmented and speculative context, owners and executives tend to optimise financial returns on the transfer market to the detriment of more eminently sporting considerations. An increasing number of players consider their team as a mere stepping stone to more lucrative markets. Agents and their entourage also play a decisive role in this regard.”

CIES believes that this scenario creates instability that reduces the competitiveness of a growing number of clubs, tipping greater advantages towards the wealthiest clubs. In other words, as the market becomes more reliant on the transfer market, rather than the development of talent, those without resources cannot possibly compete.