All Money & No MoralsCash Threatens to Corrupt English Football Again
The recent history of the beautiful game has been defined by destructive greed, and the proposed European Super League is yet another example, says Adrian Goldberg
As the world of football works itself into a frenzy over the creation of a self-selecting European Super League of 20 clubs, it is hard to know which is worse – the nauseating greed of the six English teams leading the breakaway, or the rank hypocrisy from many of those who oppose it.
The Premier League, for instance, which immediately condemned the new competition, was itself born out of a desire to maximise the game’s income for a select minority of already wealthy clubs.
Before the Premier League’s formation in 1992, football’s TV and sponsorship income was spread among all four divisions of the Football League, according to a formula which ensured at least a degree of financial equality.
That ran counter to the free market philosophy of the so-called ‘big five’ – Manchester United, Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool and Everton – which recognised the commercial possibilities presented by the emerging technology of satellite TV.
They duly confronted their erstwhile colleagues with a breakaway competition and, although this was eventually integrated into the established football pyramid in the form of promotion and relegation, the resulting financial settlement was brokered on the big clubs’ terms.
The gross inequalities of wealth engendered by the creation of the Premier League virtually guaranteed that the biggest clubs would never again lose their place at the top table – as happened to Manchester United in the mid 1970s when it was forced to endure the indignity of a season in the Second Division.
Although smaller clubs still continue to receive what are known as ‘solidarity’ payments from their wealthier brethren at the top of the pyramid, one lower league chairman told Byline Times last year that these were merely “the scraps from the table”.
The accumulation of wealth at the top of the Premier League has brought with it a concentration of success, which – apart from the outlandish one-off title success of Leicester City in the 2015/16 season – has turned the competition into a doleful and predictable tussle between two or three clubs.
In the 1980s, the last full decade of the old Football League, 13 different teams claimed a top four place in the First Division, including unlikely names such as Ipswich, Watford, Southampton and West Bromwich Albion.
It was a lively, open competition. Yet, throughout the 2010s, the number of clubs occupying a top four place, which brings with it qualification to the lucrative European Champions League, had shrunk to just seven. The higher echelons of the game have become, in effect, a closed shop.
For supporters of a club without the wherewithal to take on the wealthy few at the top, any joy at promotion to the Premier League is tempered by the reality that finishing fourth from bottom, and thus avoiding relegation, is regarded as a triumph. This wildly unequal status quo is not worth preserving.
More than Just a Game
Another prominent critic of the proposed Super League is Sky Television which – as the Rupert Murdoch owned BSkyB – was effectively the midwife of the Premier League.
Murdoch had the technological knowledge and deep pockets needed to bankroll the new competition in its infancy, but was only interested in the major clubs that would attract thousands of subscribers.
The additional money pumped in to the top level of the game when the new competition was created could have been used to reduce prices for ordinary fans. Instead, the cost of admission has risen exponentially, with most of the game’s new-found wealth funding millionaire lifestyles for players and their agents.
Football finance expert Kieran Maguire from Liverpool University recently tweeted: “In 1992, when the Premier League started, the price of an 800g loaf of bread was 52p, it is now 106p. If loaf prices had risen at the same rate as Premier League wages, it would today cost £16.80.”
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Sky undoubtedly revolutionised match day coverage with sexy camera angles and in-depth pre- and post-match analysis, but few fans are grateful for their contribution to the game.
Supporters have complained for years that kick-off days and times are re-scheduled on the whim of TV executives without any regard for paying punters who might already have made travel plans or booked time off work to attend on the original date.
During the early months of lockdown, Sky even forced subscribers to pay an additional £14.95 for selected matches which were only available on a ‘pay per view’ basis. It was a paywall behind a paywall. The company only backed down in the face of a grassroots campaign aimed at persuading supporters to divert the cash to their local food banks instead.
None of this would have been possible without the connivance of the game’s governing body, the Football Association – which saw the creation of the Premier League as an opportunity to get one over on its old rivals at the Football League, a split which dated back to the advent of professional football in the Victorian era.
And, all the while governments of different colours have been dazzled by the sheen of stardust emanating from the Premier League, which has been sold as £3 billion a year British export success story – without asking too many questions about how this wealth has been achieved and to whose benefit.
The Prime Minister has described the European Super League plan as “very damaging” and said that it “would strike at the heart of the domestic game, and will concern fans across the country”. But, when challenged by Conservative backbench MP Damian Collins to take a more proactive role in the game during the Coronavirus pandemic, Boris Johnson did not respond.
Meanwhile, foreign investors have swarmed to the English game, some lured by the hope of basking in its reflected glory; others hoping to turn millions into billions by making a canny investment, confident that they will have an easy ride.
Does it matter that Manchester City is bankrolled by a Middle Eastern oil state with a problematic human rights record? That Chelsea’s success has been financed by a Russian oligarch? Or even that Liverpool and Manchester United have been leveraged by US investors with no relationship to the north-west of England? Apparently not, as long as the money kept rolling in.
None of this is to suggest that the proposed European Super League is a good idea. It isn’t. A concept which guarantees perpetual membership without fear of relegation for a dozen founding clubs is the definition of a monopoly and runs counter to the spirit of a sport in which competitors can rise and fall and rise again, based on merit rather than the size of their bank balance.
Nor is it, as many observers have pointed out, that “super”. Tottenham Hotspur, a proposed founding club, hasn’t won a league title since 1961. North London neighbours Arsenal, who would join them, currently sit ninth in the table.
It remains to be seen whether the Super League is simply a negotiating tactic to win yet more concessions from UEFA over a proposed revamp of the existing Champions League or – as seems more likely – an attempt to revolutionise the sport by locking in wealth for already extravagantly rich clubs.
Either way, the time has come to call a halt to the financial bullying which has already undermined the joy of top flight football and put the sport on a more co-operative footing – with or without the dirty (half) dozen threatening to destroy the national game as we know it.