Socialism in one country... and English football's Premier League

The beautiful game is rotting because of its place in the global economy: meaningful participation and attachment is being commodified, a process which brings great whooshes of cash into football. Can the game be fixed for the better?

Julian Sayarer
7 April 2013

Image credit: Newley Purnell,

Cristiano Ronaldo was signed by Real Madrid, from Manchester United, for £80million pounds. The bank who underwrote the signing have, like many others in Spain, since hit upon hard times, and in 2011 were forced to receive bailout money from the European Central Bank. Listed amongst the collateral on the loans, along with a handful of other superstars, was none other than Cristiano Ronaldo. Absurdly, Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the world's best footballer, is now listed as an asset of the ECB. If that is not all you need to know about the intersection of the world economy and modern football, it nevertheless tells the wider story in a broad brushstroke.

Football has become the world’s biggest brand. Were it not for Spain’s La Liga, or rather, for Real Madrid and Barcelona, one could reasonably say this accolade belonged exclusively to the English Premier League. Technophiles and social networkers might moot that Apple, or perhaps Facebook, are the rightful claimants of the unofficial title, but the Chinese make do without Facebook, farmers around Asia will turn out to watch Manchester United whenever their time zone dictates, and meanwhile think nothing of ever owning an Apple product. Often overlooked are the elder generations of westerners to whom these brands and products are also far from essential. 

A handful of figures and facts, some more widely known than others, serve to illustrate the rise and rise of football’s stock, and its new place in financial markets. Most spectacular of all have been the sale of global television rights, last year raising £5.5bn for the twenty clubs in England’s top flight, across the period 2013-16. When you consider profits arising from ticket sales, merchandising, and sponsorship deals, and consider that it only cost the taxpayer £3bn to bail out Northern Rock, you begin to see how football has gone from sport, to business, to industry. Second of all, and in evidence of the growth of Asia as a football consumer, certain Spanish fixtures will this summer kick off at midnight, in order to provide Chinese and southeast Asian audiences with the convenient viewing and lucrative advertising revenues that will follow. Third is football’s growth in the US, something doubtless boosted by David Beckham’s decade at LA Galaxy, so that the US price of television rights has risen by 273 per cent, up to £157m. In the land of Superbowls and World Series, growth in the US will be something of a final frontier for football. I’m averse to using planets and universes in embellishing the significance of a subject; until we are sure life forms are playing sports on other planets, it seems redundant to describe anything as the biggest, busiest or most popular thing on the planet, but certainly, without dispute, football has become the game of planet earth.

The cultural homogenisation that accompanies this growth is also interesting. If twentieth-century socialism was divided between proponents of socialism in one country, versus socialism on a global scale, then (frustratingly for revolutionaries) it is football – and again, specifically the English Premiership – that has enjoyed such supranational success it can now offer a sort of insight into how the two schools of thought could meet; a unifying culture strong enough to absorb all the others, the first instance of a world where countries really don’t seem to matter. There are now Chinese people with an often quite deep, emotional relationship with the cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Tottenham and Arsenal (sic) - for this we should be grateful in the event of any future world war.

This is something of an aside, not least because modern football is to socialism what John Terry is to the Booker Prize, there are, however, a number of relevant quirks in the relationship between football and capitalism. When Theo Walcott recently signed a new, long-awaited contract with Arsenal, the equality think-tank, One Society, tweeted about the unfairness of the £90k weekly wage in the context of austerity Britain. Though few would disagree with the sentiment, a curious feature of football wage criticism is that it is often financially secure individuals who resent football’s gross unfairness most keenly, whilst those closer to poverty essentially pay these wages through TV subscriptions, religiously following their teams around the country, and regularly buying new merchandise. Whether the white working classes of northern England, or Mandarin-speaking farmhands in central China, some of the most economically disadvantaged people in the world are voluntarily, and even quite joyously, paying the wages of the 1 per cent.

The expense and inconvenience people endure to attend football matches, and the passion on show when they arrive, is worth further consideration because, essentially, these are the unremunerated inputs to the economy of football. This is significant because what is now being purchased on global football markets is not only 90 minutes of sport, but also a sense of atmosphere, heroism and triumph. All of this relies on crowds, supporters and noise, who essentially are paying (and singing/chanting/shouting) to help develop the lucrative brand of their chosen club. It goes without saying that supporters receive no monetary reward for their help in creating brand Real Madrid, Liverpool or Barcelona. Switching Spanish kick-off times to midnight will test this principle, revealing whether crowds will continue to turn up at the behest of Chinese viewing patterns, or whether the Chinese will be interested in watching twenty-two men kicking a ball around a half-empty and sleepy auditorium. As the Olympics showed, empty seats make bad TV, and this raises the question of whether football’s governing bodies will compromise broadcast quality in the quest to monetise. Were they to do so, clubs risk compromising the atmosphere of tribal unity that underpins the successful export football has become. 

Scrutinised a little closer, however, and that culture of unity already starts to look peculiar. Football club allegiances are different to others in that the tribe has no entry criteria, there being absolutely no conditions beyond devotion,so that what is induced in modern, globalised football support is not so much a belonging, but more a form of group hysteria, vicarious splendour and an organised frenzy, one that imitates some sense of camaraderie without requiring any such thing. The more convincingly a club can manufacture this emotional commodity, the further they can export it, and the more lucrative the club becomes. Every east Asian player arriving in the Premiership has to face questions as to whether they are being signed for footballing abilities or television audiences and kit sales, and whilst the former is always asserted, seldom is it believed. When Manchester United started to become successful once again, in the early-nineties, the chant by opposition supporters, against their suddenly southern fan base, was "do you come from Manchester?", sometime soon and "do you come from Europe?" might be just as pertinent a question of those supporting Europe's leading clubs. Looking deeper into the future, one day the spectre of television could become so central to the football experience, that crowds might seize the opportunity for interaction with a global audience, and aim to goad viewers in front of TV sets as much as anyone else in the stadium.

Most likely, football's need to balance profit and sustainability, to keep the experience seemingly authentic, will be heeded more out of sound product management than basic morality. It will, most crucially, be necessary to match global audience with physical attendance, if only to maintain the atmosphere that is a unique selling point of top flight football. There will, however, also be a need for quality control within the league, and while it might seem sad to think of governing bodies managing the quality of their leagues, there is – tragically – one very easy means of doing so. Money. In modern football, with very few outliers, money has bought success. As such, maintaining the quality of the sport has to have a redistributive element, ensuring that money is not consolidated in too few a number of teams. The English Premier League stands above the Spanish in doing so, with the £5.5bn in television rights split between the twenty constituent teams. La Liga, conversely, allows teams to negotiate their own TV deals, ensuring that Real Madrid and Barcelona maximise their brand and profits on a weekly basis, while the likes of Zaragoza have a heavy reliance on four money-spinning fixtures to sell each year (home and away to Real Madrid and Barcelona). This lack of redistribution has created a substantial gulf between Spain’s top two and the rest of the league, something that stands to undermine competition, suspense, and the unexpected, all of which are essential ingredients in sports media. As such, an unfettered capitalism impedes both the spectacle and the ultimate profitability of the sport. To maintain standards, the losing sides also need to be fairly remunerated, and incentivised, if only to show-up and provide spirited opposition. The tenacity of poorer clubs, along with the singing of their fans, is one more unpriced input in modern football.

What happens next with football in the UK will be interesting. The £5.5bn TV figure has attracted a lot of attention, and the Premier League’s dizzyingly wealthy owners, fronted by Richard Scudamore, have been told by parliament that something must be done. The Premier League has, quite clearly, failed to adequately self-regulate, and government will intervene come next year if the sport has not addressed affordable tickets, financially solvent clubs, and supporter participation in the running of those clubs. In Germany, where government has long-mandated for the national sport to remain of the people, low ticket prices have always been seen as a necessity in keeping football community-focussed and inclusive. Sunder Katwala's analysis of Paolo di Canio's Sunderland appointment, and the new manager's racist or fascist sympathies, ably illustrates how UK football politics is already expected to lead on certain standards of public morality; could the expectation be extended to sound economic management? 

The case of Josep Guardiola might also provide a warning of what could follow. Guardiola, the world’s most sought-after manager, shunned Premier League interest in signing from Barcelona to Bayern Munich last year, a choice motivated by a respect for the club and city of Munich. Continental stars have frequently shunned the Premier League, and it would be interesting to see the UK’s perceived poor quality of life, and the brash but economically successful showbiz of the Premiership, potentially undermine the league’s ability to attract football’s greatest talents.

Were the UK government to take drastic steps in regulating football, so low is the standing of the modern footballer, then it is hard to imagine any sizable backlash. Widely perceived to be overpaid and disrespectful, even without the fights, racism and rape allegations, footballers have conducted themselves in ways that leave them few allies, low social capital, and a lack – for the most part – of the articulacy or drive to mobilise in defence of their game’s fairly rotten status quo. A fixing of football’s fundamentals is long overdue, one can only hope that doing so will bring benefits off the pitch as well as on it.

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