“The Football Crash”: are footballers the bankers of modern sport?

For some time now, the headlines about footballers’ wages have seemed oddly familiar; and, with the publication of a new report, the analogy has finally become clear.  These athletes, with pay packets beyond the imagination or comprehension of the average working person, appear to be the bankers of modern sport.

Dave Boyle, the author of The High Pay Centre’s new report “Football Mad: Are We Paying More for Less?”, writes that “since the creation of the Premier League in 1992, top footballers’ salaries have mushroomed, rising by 1508% to 2010. Over the same period average wages [i.e., those of the ordinary UK worker] increased by just 186%.” Moreover, he notes that “the amount spent by clubs on wages has also increased dramatically. The percentage of turnover spent on players has increased, from 48% of turnover in 1997, up to 70% in 2011.”

These superheated salaries, continues Boyle, have hit the ordinary fan particularly hard. “Fans are now paying up to 1000% more to watch their teams play, all in order to support their club’s gargantuan wage bills,” he writes. “Fans watching at home are similarly seen as a captive market, whilst those who want to watch at the pub are paying more – or finding their local can’t afford it, given the 10,000% increase in pay TV subscriptions.”  Perhaps most alarming is his observation that “since 1992, over half of England’s professional football clubs have been formally insolvent. Most only survived because the wider community received less of what they were owed in order to ensure players continued to get all of what they were promised.”

But why does this matter? Who cares about inequality of pay? After all, pubs were packed for this summer’s Euro 2012 tournament.  The new season has begun in spectacular fashion, sweeping aside the last traces of Olympic fervour with a series of wonderful goals.  And so what if many clubs are living beyond their means?  People are prepared to shell out substantial sums in support of their teams, whose adventures offer an experience that they can’t find anywhere else.  There is also the fact that the overwhelming majority of elite players have come from poor backgrounds against severe odds, and, so the argument goes, are entitled to the windfalls that come from their very short careers at the top of the game.  Most of these players – contrary to the unfavourable contrasts drawn between them and Olympians – are diligent and quietly professional, which is why most of them never make it into the papers.

Strong as these contentions may be, they do not satisfactorily address two of football’s greatest problems: an increasing lack of competitiveness, and of sustainability.  The Premier League is much-heralded for the possibility that any team is able to beat any other: however, a closer look at the statistics gives the lie to this assertion.  In the last three seasons, the bottom three teams in the league have beaten the top three teams in the league in only 7% of the matches that they have played against each other, scoring 41 goals in those 54 games whilst conceding 151.

So what, fans might say: the football, such as Manchester City’s title-winning 3-2 victory against QPR on the last day of last season, is still thrilling.  And they’d be right.  On the whole, supporters have accepted, if somewhat grudgingly, the predictability of league finishes.  The compelling problem relates to the health of the game itself.  Directors, instead of ensuring its long-term future, are chasing quick results, desperate for same-season gratification.  Accordingly, revenues are not flowing down to football’s grassroots; they are not even trickling down.  They are evaporating.

It is tempting, at a time like this, to look enviously at Germany.  There, notes the report, “clubs are owned by their supporters, who must control at least 50+1 % of the votes within a club.   That ensures a degree of accountability to fans (which works to keep ticket prices lower) and has prevented oligarchs and other wealthy individuals taking over clubs.”   There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with a wealthy individual’s takeover – you will not hear many complaints from Chelsea or Manchester City fans, for example – but the question becomes a more vexed one when those individuals, as in the cases of Portsmouth, Malaga and Manchester United, have financial goals that are at variance with the club’s best interests.

It seems that, both on and off the field, Germany get it.  Their clubs perform well, if not exceptionally, in Europe; their domestic league remains reasonably competitive, and their ticket prices remain cheap.  Moreover, they invest heavily in their coaching talent, as Boyle points out: “the ratio of coaches to players in Germany is 1 to every 150 players whereas in England it is 1 to 812…whilst the German FA makes qualifications mandatory, our own FA sets them as ‘aspirations’ for improvement.”

The message from Boyle’s study is clear: just as we had a financial crash, we may soon have “a football crash”.  Football is developing a serious case of tooth decay: however, even as the game is crying out for a round of root canal surgery, we keep on feeding it bowlfuls of sugar.  Sooner or later, this diet is really going to hurt.


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