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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Evolution of Football


To many men, Football is a big deal.(Something women can't get their heads round) It occupies our souls and is one of the most significant determinants of our general mood and attitudes. I remember a friend telling me her father was always at his best when his favorite football club won a game. This would see him oblige to virtually any sensible request she made. And on the bad days when they lose, his mood, like mine and many other men,  would automatically become grim and worrisome to those around. Football scores at the weekend often determine my mood and behavior over the next few days. When the going is good, I’m full of life and willing to take on any challenge life rears. When the bad times come, I automatically become cranky. In some cases, I boycott social networks, the news and anything that could remind me of the travesty that occurred over the weekend. This can even affect one’s social lifestyle as we tailor our movement and activities not to come across any acquaintances or friends who might taunt us and remind us of that piece of reality we are trying so hard to forget.  We, fans, are at our most irrational when our teams are concerned.

Football represents one of the most lucrative walks of life. In 1992, the English game witnessed a revolution.  A decade earlier, football had been a hit on television and this had seen the television corporations sinking millions in a bid to gain coverage.  Some of the leading clubs at the time: Arsenal, Manchester United, Everton, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspurs and Liverpool threatened to break out from the Football League and create a ‘super league’ in a bid to capitalize on the influx of investment funds into the game. This oversaw the collective resignation of all teams in the Football League and the break out of the new Premier League. The television rights were won by BSkyB, then the paragon of a pay television system that was untested in Britain.

Paying £304 million for the first five years allowed BSkyB to build the platform for what is now the Sky cable network. On a Nigerian level, this is very similar to what HiTV did, using their possession of TV rights as the framework to build a cable network albeit ineffectively. With the influx of television money in the game costs skyrocketed. Player power rose, transfer fees went up whilst agents and lawyers became an essential part of what I would describe as ‘Modern Football’. In 1991-1992, the last season where the old format was used the average wage of a first division player was £1,152. By the next season, when the Premier League had been introduced, this had risen to £1,482. In 1997, when the more lucrative Sky deal (worth £670 million over 4 years) came into effect  the average wage stood at £4,710 a week. By 2010, the average wage was £28,076. As more money came into the game, the lines have blurred as embodied by the wider international influence. Players like Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba are revered worldwide whilst the leading clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool claim fans from every nook and cranny of the world.  I can name the first 11 of most Premier League teams but don’t know a single player in the Nigerian league.

With the money being pumped into the game, as seen with the most recent television rights deal being valued at £3 billion over the next three seasons, more people have sought to claim stakes by investing their hard earned funds in football. This has brought with it an influx of foreign investors. Of the traditional ‘big 4’ teams- Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool are owned in majority by Americans whilst Chelsea are owned by the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. All in all, only 9 of the 20 teams in the Premier League are still in British hands.

The foreign investment and the transformation of football clubs to ‘PLC’s has created a sense of disillusion between clubs and fans. Business men think based on margins, costs and profits while fans think on sentiments and emotion. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to decipher that both are incompatible.

Recently, this has been brought to the fore with the tug of war at the Emirates between Alisher Usmanov and Stan Kroenke. Usmanov and his partner, Farhad Moshiri own 29.63% of the shares at Arsenal in contrast to Kroenke’s 66.76%. A day after the Arsenal skipper and talisman, Robin van Persie released a press statement announcing he would not be renewing his contract with the team, Usmanov and Moshiri—opportunists that they are—released a letter to the fans deploring the board members for the self-financing model employed by the club which works on the principles of the club generating its own funds without injections by the owners.

On a simplistic level, there is nothing surprising or astonishing about this. Even a fool knows that a business cannot spend more funds than it owns. Arsenal are a well-run football club. However, there is a bit of an unfair comparison to teams like Manchester City and Chelsea who in some quarters are viewed as the playthings of billionaires. In one world is a team that pays a Wayne Bridge who made only one appearance in the past season and has since been loaned to Championship side, Brighton and Hove Albion, £90, 000 a week. The same club, Manchester City, paid £174m in wage bills last season, an amount that was £21m higher than the club’s entire turnover last year. In that same period, the club made record losses of £195m but as expected this would be wiped out by their Arab owners.  No one with a sound mind should even be comparing both clubs in such instances. In the last year, Arsenal had a wage budget of £124m while turning over £255.7m. Ideally, the company turning over a surplus would be hailed and be sought by investors. Some fans have suggested offering Van Persie as much as he wants on the basis that the club would surely be able to afford it. However, they fail to consider the external variables. Van Persie has an atrocious injury record and it is only rational to be wary in offering him the terms that might pacify him. They also fail to take on board that setting such precedent would only push his teammates to seek bigger pay days.  With this, it’ll only be matter of time before the club go the path of clubs like Rangers and Portsmouth who presently have to stomach uncertainty over their existence.
Usmanov and Abramovich

I have read blogs and op-ed's. I have gauged reactions on websites and news articles and seen countless of tweets and I’m surprised at the lack of coherence or rationality in some arguments. It’s crazy that a good number of us sit on our gadgets criticizing business owners for the ways in which they choose to run their businesses. There’s a reason why they have invested their hard earned cash to have the title ‘Majority Shareholder/ Owner’ added to their resumes.  They don’t do it ‘cos they’re fans. They do it because there’s something in it for them. They do it to make their bank accounts fatter. As fans, we want to have a say in the way things are. We want to challenge for trophies. We want marquee signings. The ugly truth is that all those are side attractions and of limited relevance these days. To those who control our clubs, the priority lies in the figures on the balance sheet. There has been an evolution from a time where the teams we support were primarily football clubs and any other thing after to today where they are business entities and the typical principles of cutting costs and making profits are what govern the state of affairs at our clubs.  Curse that day in 1983 when Tottenham Hotspur created history by becoming the first ever English club to float on the Stock Exchange. That lay the foundation for the commercialization of football. As fans, the right thing would be to reconcile our sentiments with what I call the ‘bitter truth’. There are instances of fans investing in their preferred clubs on the basis that it gives them the opportunity to get involved in the management process of the teams they support. This promotes fan-power and democracy to some extent. However, it is worthy of note that there are no major cases of fan involvement at a mainstream level. At Arsenal, the supporters' trust owns a couple of shares but nothing significant enough to challenge the Kroenke’s and Usmanov’s of this world.


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