How big money took control of English football

The wealth of top English football clubs has allowed them to purchase many of the best players from across the globe.

The Club: How the Premier League Became the Richest, Most Disruptive Business in Sport|
Joshua Robinson & Jonathan Clegg
John Murray Publishing, 2019
338 pages

If football is a simple game (get the ball, pass the ball), then the football business is even simpler (buy the best players, bank the profits).

As sports journalists Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg note in The Club, for Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga and the English Premier League (EPL), there is a near perfect correlation between a football club’s total player wages bill on day one of a season and their club’s ladder position at the end of it.

As the University of Michigan economics professor behind this finding has shown, money buys success.

EPL footballing success has been bought by the world’s super-rich who have added historic, working-class English football clubs to their asset portfolios. A Gulf oil sheik, a Russian oligarch, Asian Tiger titans, a professional poker player, an advertising executive, an “adult” entertainment businessperson, real estate developers, commodity traders, hedge fund managers, an Icelandic banker, the owner of Harrods department store, an Indian poultry tycoon, a number of Chinese businesspeople, and a whole phalanx of US corporate tycoons have all gotten in on the act.

It doesn’t matter if they aren’t personally passionate about football, but they have to be passionate about making money from football. Spending hundreds of millions of pounds on English football clubs is a rational business investment. 

Newly cash-rich clubs can now buy serious footballing talent from across the globe. This can purchase silverware plus the annual £150 million income from the EPL’s broadcasting rights revenue.

Clubs that had yo-yoed up and down the old Football League Divisions can suddenly countenance EPL success under their new mega-wealthy bosses.

Wealthy EPL owners have opened the title door to Chelsea which, in 2005, won its first championship title in 50 years, while a decade earlier Blackburn won its first in 80 years. In 2011, Manchester City lifted its first major trophy in 35 years. The unfashionable Leicester City’s 2015-16 championship win ended a 152-year title drought courtesy of a Thai duty-free retail baron’s fortune.

Short of a title, however, the realistic prize for most club owners is the highly-coveted EPL golden pass to continued membership of the elite competition through avoiding relegation by just being less-worse than three other teams.

There are side-benefits, too. For the image-conscious billionaire (particularly those with political links and dodgy human rights records), an EPL franchise is a must-have PR accessory. For those owners who actually like football, they can purchase their very own late-life toy — a former Blackburn player said that his club had become a very expensive “train set” for its steel business owner.

Established more than a century ago in 1888 by local labourers and factory workers, the football clubs that made up Britain’s old Football League have since been transformed into EPL “trophy investments”. Their new owners have figured out how to monetise the people’s game by turning it into a commodity, treating its players as human production units up for trade, and reducing its fans to eyeball-counts for TV networks.

Huge satellite television broadcasting deals were the decisive factor in the transformation of English football. Wary of live television coverage lest it harm match-day attendance and revenue, English clubs had historically not courted broadcasters. In 1964, for example, the sole television coverage was the BBC’s edited highlights show, Match of the Day, for which the BBC paid just £5000.

The top half dozen clubs at the time were not happy with this monetary return and successfully chivvied the Football League to make more from broadcast rights. A combination of the big clubs’ business ambitions and Rupert Murdoch’s eye for a quid saw the media mogul pay £304 million for a five-year broadcast contract. This allowed him to sit back and watch the advertising dollars and satellite TV subscriptions pour in as a 20-team (down from 40 in the old top flight tier) EPL kicked off in 1992. 

The EPL is now “the world’s most popular league in the world’s most popular sport”, a global entertainment product marketed to 185 countries and generating revenue of £5.6 billion a season. 

The costs of turning the EPL clubs into London Stock Exchange-listed commercial enterprises, on the other hand, have been borne by you-know-who. Pricey season tickets (ranging from almost £1000 to more than £2000 for premium seats) and corporate luxury boxes have crowded out the great unwashed, and match-day atmosphere has suffered as a result.

As Roy Keane, the former captain of Manchester United, said of the corporate guests chloroforming the once-proletarian terraces: “I don’t think some of the people who come to Old Trafford can spell football, never mind understand it.”

Football in the EPL era is “a game increasingly divorced from its working-class roots”, say the authors. The discontents of capitalist globalisation as played out in the EPL have seen the organic connections between club, community and nation continuing to fray.

Now, driven by profit-maximising global outreach, English football risks “changing its very identity, perhaps irrevocably”. With two out of every three EPL footballers from overseas, the authors ask, what is so English about the English Premier League?

The new EPL football “product” may have scored with the world’s super-rich and broadcasters and advertisers, but the authors regret the passing of what they call the old “socialist model” of English football (egalitarian revenue distribution, salary caps, restrictions on overseas players).  They mourn the closed chapter of “competitive balance” when all clubs stood some sort of meritocratic chance of success, not just the usual EPL financial elite (Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham).

There is, however, discontent among these Big Six that footballing “socialism” has not been fully expunged. Their sense of entitlement is gargantuan.

Offended by the Leicester insurgents, they ratcheted up already insane levels of player transfer spending and have since reasserted financial, and score-sheet, hegemony. These apex predator-clubs also want to grab a greater share of the multi-billion-pound broadcast rights for themselves, arguing that overseas viewers are only getting up early or going to bed late to watch the glamour teams, not “bloody Bournemouth”.

Robinson and Clegg disapprove of how Big Money has soiled the working-class integrity of English football but, like so many fans, they are resigned to it. Coupled with a certain admiration for the principal, and very rich, new disruptors starring in a blockbuster “business and entertainment saga”, they rationalise the new money-mad direction of football as necessary to drag “the quaint and tribal world of football into the 21st Century”.

But that’s capitalism for you — if the goal is to put profit and prestige ahead of people and their football passion, then capitalism is in a most unattractive league of its own.

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