Has Monty Burns got a stake in the English Premier League (EPL)? Henry Bridge looks at the evolving role of financial backers in the game.
Like most of my generation, what David McWilliams calls ‘the Pope’s children’ (though ‘the archbishop’s children’ would have been strictly more accurate), I grew up with the Simpsons. And so, I hope you will indulge me if I start by recounting one of my favourite Simpsons episodes, the one where Mr Burns hires a team of Major League Baseball stars to play for his nuclear plant’s softball team, in order to win a million dollar bet with the owner of a rival plant. Thus the reality of the sport, which had meant so much to Homer and his friends, is exposed: in the hands of the rich, it is simply a plaything, a vainglorious pursuit, a trivial thing to score trivial points over trivial enemies. Exposed in hilarious Simpsons fashion, admittedly, and not least because the idea is so ludicrous, it could surely never happen in real life. Could it? I’m not so sure.
Modern football, and the English Premier League in particular, has become like Mr Burns’ softball team: a private affair, driven by the ego as much as the desire for profit. Premier League general meetings have become like the annual Davos summit, with (mostly) American financiers on one side of the room, developing-world billionaires on the other, and politicians and regulators mingling on the margins, trying to convince anyone who will listen that they actually matter. And for what? What motivation do the likes of Abramovich and Abu Dhabi have for investing in football?
Granted, one could just about make out a case for Abramovich to invest so heavily in Chelsea as a way of buying respectability, for want of a better word, which could come in useful the day he falls out with the Kremlin and applies for UK citizenship. Although one can’t help thinking he could surely have found a cheaper way to go about it. But Abu Dhabi and Manchester City really have taken things into the realms of fantasy football. The only purpose, it seems, of this ‘project’ is to disprove once and for all the old adage, beloved of fans of certain other rich, successful teams from Manchester (though not Liverpool, strangely enough) that money does not automatically buy success. They talk about boosting Abu Dhabi’s prestige around the world, but have we really reached the point, as a society, where they couldn’t have got there quicker by pledging those billions currently flowing into the pockets of Messrs Tevez, Dezko, Aguerro et al., towards something worthier, such as… oh, I don’t know. Ask Goal, or Trocaire, or someone like that, what they could do with £250,000 a week. And this is meant to make us respect the sheikhs?
In truth, football, and sport, was always like that. Cricket, for example, grew out of a Burns-like fad amongst wealthy English aristocrats to have their tenants play games of cricket against those from the next manor, so that the landlords could place wagers on their own men. Cricket’s spot-fixing scandal is really nothing new, only now, instead of one Lord cheating another Lord out of a few guineas, we have evolved to a point where it is an entire nation of cricket-lovers who is being cheated. In football, wealthy owners have always tried to unbalance the natural, sporting order of things, and buy success. It’s worth remembering that the last ’small’ club to win the league, Blackburn, did so primarily because Jack Walker poured millions into the club, enabling them to outbid all comers for players like Alan Shearer. In Italy, Juventus are historically the biggest club, in no small part due to the role of the Agnelli family in bankrolling success. In Spain, Réal Madrid have notoriously benefited time and again from what basically amounts to a form of political patronage, the most glaring recent example being the sale of their training ground in 2001 to the city of Madrid. Examples abound throughout football: only the impossibly naive could deny that money has always given an advantage, and wealthy owners looking to buy success have been there, in various forms, since the early days of the sport.
What’s different now, though, is that, in a globalised world, the wealth is off the scale, and the wealthy owners are increasingly neither from the area their clubs are based or have historically drawn support. When Blackburn won the league, though it may have been down to the tactical acumen of Kenny Dalglish as manager, or the financial power of Jack Walker as chairman, or both, at least Walker was someone who, as a local and lifelong fan, was someone Blackburn fans could relate to. How many fans of Premier League clubs can relate to, or identify with, their club’s owners? Or their, largely spoilt, out-of-touch, underachieving, overpaid players? Sports in Europe, unlike America, have traditionally been founded on a sense of community, a pride in belonging to, supporting, being a part of your local club. European football is in real danger of losing that, if it hasn’t already, and without that, football is just another branch of the entertainment industry.
Ah, but I hear you say, sports these days is entertainment. Sports was always meant to be entertaining, but there’s a difference between entertaining and entertainment. Sport, football in particular, was meant to mean more than just a fun way to spend an afternoon. The new mantra is that fans want to be entertained. And, to be fair, the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United have marketed themselves on a reputation for playing entertaining football. Manchester City, as the most obvious symbol of the new ‘football as entertainment’, have even started to join in. After a season of Roberto Mancini deciding to employ his wealth of attacking talent in a standard nine-man defence (the footballing equivalent of withdrawing Daryl Strawberry in the bottom of the 9th inning), he has decided to cut loose. He has picked attacking teams. He has told his players to score goals. He has Mario Balotelli. In short, he has done everything he can to entertain. And this has almost, but not quite, concealed the fact that City might as well change their name to Etihad City, for all they have in common with what we used to know as Manchester City (or better yet, change it to Manchester Etihad – Etihad being the Arabic word for United).
Two questions remain: what can be done about all this, and who cares anyway? The first question is quite depressing. The reaction of most football fans, depending on who they support, is to either self-servingly denounce the new money, or to wish for a sugar daddy of their own. The old ‘haves’, who thought they had secured themselves a dominant future by stitching up the Champions League TV money, resent this unexpected threat to their cosy position. Whilst the have-nots have realised that they cannot hope to close the gap and compete legitimately for trophies by any other means. This leaves us with this kind of dependence-lottery culture. The second question, ‘who cares?’, is more difficult to answer. As a mere branch of entertainment, rather than a sport, a way of life, the number of people who care may fluctuate (globally EPL TV audiences are growing healthily), but the depth with which they care can only lessen. From football’s point of view, that should be a cause for concern. But as long as the owners continue to care, it won’t really matter, or register. But what about the fans, doesn’t anyone care about the fans? Depressingly, there is not a lot of evidence that owners do. And why should they? After all, how many fans watched Mr Burns’ million dollar baseball game?
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