Offside, 19 July
The idea that 'money is the ruin of football' is sentimental hogwash.
Summer is normally a time for frenzied football transfer activity. But something isn’t right this year. The football transfer market is quiet, very quiet.
In Britain the collapse of ITV Digital has deterred Nationwide League clubs from spending money on new players. But even in the Premiership, most clubs have been restrained with their cheque books. Chelsea and Leeds, once big spenders, are now under severe pressure to reduce their debts by selling players – the price of failing to qualify for the Champions League.
The problems are more acute in Italy and Spain, where the top clubs have spent dizzying sums on players in recent years and now face crippling debts and a 50 percent drop in revenue from TV rights. The Italian players’ union recently agreed to automatic salary cuts for players in relegated teams, while three of Internazionale’s star players – Christian Vieri, Ronaldo, and Alvaro Recoba – have offered to take pay cuts to help ease the club’s financial problems. Franco Sensi, president of Roma, has suggested delaying the start of the Italian season to allow clubs to get their finances in order.
Doom-mongers have been quick to declare the arrival of the long-predicted apocalypse. ‘Finally, it has happened. After years of excess inflation, the football bubble has burst in spectacular fashion’, declared Graham Hunter in the Guardian (1).
Arsene Wenger opted for a road traffic accident metaphor. ‘We all thought the car was going into the wall and the accident was about to happen – but the car has already hit the wall’, said the Arsenal manager. Guardian writer Frank Keating declared that ‘the curtain is being rung down on the end of an era, the end of an aura, the end of a dozen years of too-glittering, too-greedy, self-seeking self-delusion’ (2).
So has the football bubble, that wizened old metaphorical creature, finally burst? It seems a ridiculous question to ask only a few weeks after the 2002 World Cup, which drew huge TV audiences across the world. Clearly there is still a very big demand for televised football, but not necessarily for pay-TV, as the German media company Kirch discovered to its cost. Kirch agreed to pay £960million over four years for the rights to broadcast the Bundesliga, but attracted only 2.4million subscribers, well short of its six million target.
Frank Keating believes that today’s financial problems are ‘testament to the sell-out by football of football’s soul’. This contemporary parable, that money is the ruin of football, has become something of a familiar refrain. It also happens to be sentimental hogwash. In the mid-1980s British football was moribund, with league attendances sinking to a post-war low. Why? Because football’s administrators, who no doubt believed they were preserving the Corinthian ideals of football’s patrician founders, had for years refused to allow league matches to be shown on TV or players’ jerseys to carry sponsors’ logos.
It was precisely because of these restrictions on commercialisation that football found itself increasingly unable to compete with the newer post-war leisure industries. As social expectation rose, spectators steadily deserted the crumbling, uncovered terraces, having found better things to do on a Saturday afternoon. Meanwhile, the football clubs were denied the income from TV rights or shirt sponsorship that could have financed the modernisation of spectator amenities.
If you consider the disrepair into which the game was allowed to sink by the 1980s, there is no doubt that commercialisation has completely revitalised British football. The amenities for fans are vastly improved, the football is of a higher quality, and attendances are up. Like it or not, football’s remarkable cultural renaissance would simply not have happened without the Murdoch shilling.
The current slump in the transfer market is the result, not of British-style commercialisation, but of the failure of continental media companies to sell pay-TV to European viewers. Ultimately, armchair football fans in Europe were quite happy to watch televised football, but weren’t prepared to pay for the privilege. Although Premiership clubs can expect a drop in TV income when the current Sky deal comes up for renewal in two years time, the market for pay-TV in Britain is still strong.
And as long as it enjoys the blessing of the great British couch potato, the marriage between Mammon and Football will continue to prosper.
Duleep Allirajah is speaking the conference Sport and the All-Consuming Cultures of [P]leisure in London on 27 July 2002. For further details call Carlton Brick at the Centre for Cultural Research in Sport, University of Surrey Roehampton, on 020 8392 3541 (email C.Brick@roehampton.ac.uk).
(1) Transfer cash puts Europe’s elite on critical list, Guardian, 13 July 2002
(2) Who cares if half the clubs drop out of the league, Guardian, 29April 2002
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