Can we have our game back, please?

Froting up for the Premier League clubs has been a financially rewarding experience for Richard Scudamore

Fronting up for the Premier League clubs has been a financially rewarding experience for Richard Scudamore

News of the television rights cash bonanza for Premier League clubs has caused tidal waves of outrage and floods of advice in fairly equal measures. £5.136billion is a lot of money in anyone’s language, and deflating that down to approximately £12million per game rather puts the price of the football’s top-notch match ticket prices somewhat into the shade – but more of that later.

Speculation that club owners will reap huge rewards, and top players wages will reach £300,000 or £400,000 per week have been bandied about, whilst others have advised that there’s an opportunity for the game to redeem itself by showing a measure of largesse and sharing its bloated fortune among the less fortunate in the lower leagues and grassroots football. The problem is that whilst the former may well happen, the latter is much more unlikely, and in reality, we should be neither surprised nor express any kind of righteous indignation. It’s hardly a pleasant scenario to contemplate, but probably no less true for all that.

Back in the early nineties, football as we had previously known it decided to close its eyes, hold its nose and take the plunge into the world of rampant commercialism. Whereas a bit of toe-dipping into the waters had been the order of the day in a more innocent and naive time, the advent of the Premier League put the game up to its neck in the swirling cesspool of rapacious money-driven desire. Football became part of a commercial world more interested in return on investment than return passes, more Wall Street than wall pass, and less back of the net than net gain.

Basically, the game sold its soul. There had been a steady drip, drip of dignity draining away in the years up to 1992. The rag-end of the Thatcher years, promoting self-advancement and a lack of care for others; quick buck profits, and hang the consequences, had seeped in the heart of football, corrupting its soul. I’m all right, Jack. Pull up the ladder, had led to inequalities previously unseen for generations. In such a climate, anything was for sale; gas, electricity and, why not, football. But with the birth of the Premier League business, came the death of football as a true sport. Before 1992, a full 50% of any television deal was shared between the divisions below the top. See later, for how that has changed now.

If there can be only one defining characteristic for anything, for football it has to be business rather than sport. Fans of all clubs stood and watched in awe. Perhaps dazzled by the bright lights advertising of Murdoch’s Sky TV, dreaming of new-found glory and a brighter tomorrow, we bought into the dream. Signed, sealed and sold. The devil unfortunately doesn’t do ‘sale or return’ however, so with the dream now exposed as a rich man’s party to which so many fans remain uninvited, we can’t really complain.

Thirty pieces of silver?

Thirty pieces of silver?

Greg Dyke, ironically at the time one of the prime movers of the breakaway during his time with ITV – only to lose out to Sky as Sir Alan Sugar encouraged the broadcaster to gazump the commercial channels’ bid and ‘blow it out of the water’ – is now heading up the FA, tasked with picking up the pieces. Now armed merely with vinegar and brown paper, Dyke has the impossible task of putting the game’s humpty-dumpty shell back – please excuse the the mixed nursery rhyme metaphors – together again. It’s a task that Sisyphus would shun in favour of keeping his rock-rolling. The simple fact is that, with a few exceptions, the prime motivating factor is not to win trophies, or even to win games, it’s to maximise profits. This is a world run by accountants not coaches were balance sheets rather than league tables define success. So, whose fault is it? For the answer we should each take a look in the mirror.

30 years or so ago, Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times ran an article that described football fans as ‘slum people’ and back in 1989 when 96 supporters lost their lives at the Hillsborough semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, another of his publications, produced obscene lies and untruths, trying to paint the dead and injured innocent victims of the the disaster as the cause of it. Now however, we all watch Sky’s coverage of the Premier League, and gloss over the fact that the broadcaster is owned by same people that insulted football fans and then defamed 96 of their number after their tragic deaths. Apparently the money of ‘slum people’ is now welcome and readily accepted in exchange for the ‘thirty pieces of silver’ that comprise a satellite dish and viewing card. How quickly we forget.

With this in mind, can we really shake our heads in solemn condemnation, tutting when Richard Scudamore – replete with his reported £1million bonus safely trousered, to top up his meagre £900k salary – says that it’s not for him to instruct clubs how to spend the money his efforts have garnered for them. After all, if we don’t seem to care enough, why should he?

Yes, there is inequality but, let’s be honest, in what sphere of business is that not the case?  I’ve seen reports suggesting that from the money coming in from the current television deal, 3% will be going to clubs outside of the Premier League and a further 3% allocated to grass roots football, leaving 94% to be shared amongst the 20 clubs in the elite division. Does that sound equitable? No, not if you view it in sporting terms, but that isn’t the criterion deployed here. Understand it as a business case instead and it obtains overtures of generosity. Seeking to further the cause of rivals by gifting them funds that you have accumulated is the sort of philanthropic gesture that would normally get CEOs sacked by shareholders, rather than lambasted as some kind of ‘loadsamoney’ caricature.

Then of course there’s the issue of football being the ‘national game’ – and what about the England team as well. Surely, there are merits in the arguement that if England are performing well, there’s a boost for the domestic game and that in turn helps the clubs. Then, there’s the argument that investing in grassroots football, coach development and measures to support more English players through academy systems and into the first team. Is it not in clubs’ interests to support such enterprises and initiatives? Well, that’s the theory anyway. I’m not sure many clubs see it that way, though.

A tendency to encourage players to shun national call-ups, and even to announce retirement from the international game as a condition of a fat signing-on bonus is hardly unusual.  Of course a lot of businesses invest in R&D, and bringing young players through would fit into that category. In football however, it’s the sort of long-term investment that any R&D department would have a difficult fight to gain backing for in a commercial arena. Aside from the possibility that it may not work in any meaningful way, there’s no guarantee that any successful products would accrue benefit to your particular club. You could merely be financing the development of talent for the benefit of your rivals. Devoting 3% of a large pot of money to such an enterprise would be about all the most persuasive business argument could win from any hard-nosed financial director. Even if it were to be backed, with the average ‘life’ of a Premier League manager equating to less than two full seasons, would any budding youngster be seen as an optimal proposition rather than importing the ready-made article from abroad? Probably not.

The world of football we inhabit today is not what we would have chosen in any conscious moment, but is something we seemingly sleepwalked into in a semi-hypnotic state. The clubs we support now have a list of characteristics that we should all abhor. Despite having bank accounts chock full of Murdoch and BT money, only one club – Chelsea – are committed to paying all of its employees the ‘living wage’ £7.85 per hour, or £9.15 in London. Not money-bags Manchester City, not Manchester United with one of the highest incomes in world football. One in twenty. It’s a shameful figure.

Seats are never empty for long at matches, so why would clubs cut prices?

Seats are never empty for long at matches, so why would clubs cut prices?

If there’s been one clarion call arising from news of the the television bonanza, it’s that ticket prices, especially for away fans should be pegged. The ‘twenty is plenty’ campaign however, has about as much chance of success as I have of my lottery numbers coming up. With grounds largely full, week in, week out, the bigger clubs will never be persuaded to cut the costs. Why should they.  Do butchers cut the cost of turkeys at Christmas, when they can sell them all? Do Cadbury’s crack the prices of their Crème Eggs at Easter? The business model that suggests cutting the price of something that is in high demand snaps the very concept of economic price elasticity. Twenty is plenty? A bit like perpetual motion, free energy and eternal life, it’s a great idea, but surely doomed to failure in the real world of today.

It’s a terrible truth, but we have to face up to it if we’re ever going to change things. Let me illustrate my point. Of the club’s in the upper echelons of the Premier League, how many are now owned by foreign investors, simply to make money. You could make a case for the exclusions of Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City and Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, who merely seem to be having fun with an expensive hobby, but  try and think of another club of similar aspirations whose owners aren’t in it for the money, rather than the love of the game. The Glazers borrowed the money to buy Manchester united, by using the club’s assets as security and then milked its profits from supporters to pay off the debt. Shares in the club have now been salted away to offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands where they grow in value awaiting the big payday when the club is sold on.

Fenway Sports Group who own Liverpool and hold similar interests in America had a representative who spoke the sort of language never heard on terraces or when fans discuss the game. Descriptions of the club having “capture mindshare” where the potential media sell is so high that it “blew us away” and that “we believe there is a significant amount of monetisation we can do, on a worldwide basis, which is not occurring now”. He also went on to admit that “everybody would want to make some return for their investment”. You don’t say!

I’m not picking on United and Liverpool, or American owners for that matter. There could be many more examples offered. Suffice to say that if you were asked to pick out a club, set up for the current football scenario, Newcastle United wouldn’t be a bad fit. Run on a financial plan that focuses on league positions above cup runs, merely because that pays better, owned by a man who hardly has a cosy relationship with the fans, and run to make a profit, ticks most of the boxes required. Again, I’m not picking on Newcastle, just highlighting the realities of the day

Despite having an unsuccessful team, an unpopular owner and no sign of breaking a trophy drought that has last over fifty yeas, Newcastle fans still pack out St James park. But is this sort of devotion merely encouraging the problem?

Despite having an unsuccessful team, an unpopular owner and no sign of breaking a trophy drought that has last over fifty yeas, Newcastle fans still pack out St James park. But is this sort of devotion merely encouraging the problem?

.So, what is the answer? Indeed, is there an answer? Well, as with most things, the first step is in understanding the problem. Premier League football’s greatest strength is also its biggest weakness. If the riches it currently wallows in are what make it seem so powerful, its continued need of such money can only also bring its downfall. Television companies pay vast amounts of money to screen games because you and I will pay subscription fees and watch them, boosting viewing figures and advertising sales. Can you see where this is going?

Should a boycott of viewing be organised for a season, where no-one watched any live games on Sky or BT, a massive hole would appear in the money fountain that floods the game’s finances. Would that be sufficient to change the landscape? Perhaps, but with a further step primed that no-one would then renew their satellite subscriptions, return the thirty pieces of silver as we want our game back as it were, the dam would break.

What will be left of football when money has squeezed it dry?

What will be left of football when money has squeezed it dry?

Will it happen? Probably not, and I’m just as guilty as anyone else. A weekend of live football on the TV is a great comfort, and watching top-notch players plying their trade for our teams is a sumptuous attraction. One day, though. One day. Nothing is forever they say, and when the money men have tired of the game, and squeezed the last drop of blood out of it, they may move on. The game could be dead by then though. Exploitation weakens, and eventually it kills. We can’t afford to wait too long.

 

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