Over the Bottom Line

Issue section: 
(266)

Do football and finance mix? Like oil and water.

When each new football season kicks off there is usually much hope and optimism that things can only get better, particularly if, like me, your team (the once mighty Spurs) has won very little in recent years.

The optimism is almost always based on little or nothing, and the expectations rarely met, unless you happen to support Man Utd, Liverpool or some London club whose name escapes me for the moment. This year, however, there is little for most football fans to feel even vaguely optimistic about. The game itself, in the face of financial chaos, seems in real danger of terminal collapse.

That this should follow on from what was seen as a hugely successful and highly entertaining World Cup may seem odd, but the truth is that the big money capitalists have woven their magic and as a result brought the game almost to its knees.

Now this will not necessarily displease all readers of this magazine. There are many who believe that under socialism there will be no competitive sport, and not a few who would quite like it to implode right here and now. However, leaving aside the leisure activity of future socialist societies, the truth is that in the humdrum world of capitalism, with its ability to alienate and atomise, sport (both participating and spectating) provides people with an escape, even a sense of belonging. As escapes go it is far from the worst we may resort to. Better waste an evening at the Valley than waste a life in a crack house.

Many of those who have loyally supported and felt part of their local football team feel as if it is being stolen from them. In the case of Wimbledon it practically has been. Wimbledon have for a number of years been forced to play their football outside the area at Crystal Palace's ground at Selhurst Park. At Wimbledon games it was just about the only ground in the country where the away fans would consistently outnumber the home supporters.

A small hardcore following remained loyal to the club, and a larger following awaited the return of the club to its natural home. They waited in vain, because the new hotshot owners of the club have decided that there would be much better 'market opportunities' if the club moved to Milton Keynes.

Now don't get me wrong, God knows the people sentenced to a life in Milton Keynes deserve some pastimes, but stealing away a football club from its lifelong supporters seems harsh to say the least.

In response a number of fans have set up their own club, AFC Wimbledon, and despite the fact that the team will play non-league football they have sold more season tickets than their First Division namesakes.

This is just the most extreme example, but in reality there are now many lower division clubs standing on the verge of bankruptcy, while even most Premiership clubs find their future inextricably linked to the whims and fancies of the Murdoch empire. Murdoch, having saved his whole satellite television empire by buying at a very high price exclusive rights to live Premiership football, has to all intents and purposes seen off all serious opposition. Having absolutely no interest in or loyalty to the game, he'll now seek to renew a deal, in which he saves buckets of money, and clubs are left reeling at the loss of earnings.

Only the very biggest of clubs will be sufficiently wealthy to come through (and, if Chelsea and Leeds are anything to go by, even some very big ones can run into serious financial trouble). A small number of clubs will pick up all the major trophies. Eventually the super-wealthy clubs of Europe will almost certainly split off to form their own league, and the rest will be left to second rate mediocrity, undertelevised, underfunded and many heading surely for extinction. As a result many footballers will end up out of work, and fans will end up being the mugs who will continue to pay exorbitant amounts to see less and less success. Football fans are unique in this respect. They are renowned for retaining what marketspeak types like to refer to as 'brand loyalty'.

Most fans stick to the team they started supporting as a child. I began supporting Spurs when I was seven, and despite their decline could never begin to think of supporting anyone else. There are exceptions, of course. One friend used to be a supporter of Nottingham Forest while they were winning things, but as soon as they started struggling switched to Man Utd (claiming loyalty to Roy Keane, of all things). But such renegades remain a small minority.

Yet it is this loyalty that has been abused most consistently by the clubs. Corporate boxes, hugely expensive season tickets, rip-off kit sales, merchandise, even pay per view television, have made the sport hugely expensive to follow.

Partly there has been an attempt to gentrify the game, making it more attractive to the middle class. Partly they know that working class followers will make enormous financial sacrifices to follow the game, especially when the kids are also exerting pressure for kits, and to go to games.

None of this is to say there was a golden age. In the past local businessmen would run clubs as personal fiefdoms, fans were herded onto terraces that often resembled and smelt like open air toilets, and players were viewed as little more than bonded servants.

Today many of the players earn huge amounts of money, and in place of the local shyster looking for a little glory, you have the multinational capitalist looking for huge profits. Either way, the fans remain the victims. Big capital, however, has so much more ability to tear the whole thing asunder that what little connection the fan felt with the club is being destroyed altogether.

Ah yes, the beautiful game!