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.