Doc Ritchie tells us to resist capitalist accumulation in football by tightening regulation and changing the ownership and management of football clubs. Images courtesy of fan-owned Clapton FC
Football is a game owned by billionaires, played by millionaires, and paid for by you.
Premier League players have no real relationship with the cities or towns they play for, and are quick to sign a contract with another team, facilitated by greedy agents and managers who have more loyalty to their bank accounts than the strangers who cheer them on each week. And money determines the future of every team, professional or not.
Over the last few weeks sports writers from many newspapers and websites have worried about the future of Bolton Wanderers and Bury FC, who are experiencing serious financial problems and questionable futures in the lucrative and commercial end of the football leagues. They clubs have much in common: both are from the North West; both have been around for more than 120 years, with Wanderers starting in1888, and Bury in 1885; and both have witnessed many structural and financial changes within the UK football industry.
Other clubs share their concerns, especially those in the smaller divisions who could become financially vulnerable, are unable to afford top prices for players, and who cannot guarantee a place in the high-end leagues.
We should not be surprised that financial issues have become more important than the contribution to football history that Wanderers or Bury have helped create, or that the relationship of the club with the supporters is practically irrelevant to the FA or owners. And we should not be surprised that the football industry is unconcerned by those who fail to generate sufficient revenue. The crisis that Bolton and Bury are going through looks like a capitalist Darwinian adventure, where the rich get rich and the small get smaller until they practically evaporate.
Instead of supporters questioning the clubs, maybe they should be questioning those who own the Premier League and other divisions, and ask why this bloated profit- making machine cannot offer a subsidy, a tiny fraction of its immense profits, to those teams who are facing liquidation. Football, true to market forces, relies on competition to cull the unprofitable and reward the successful.
The goal of capitalism is to accumulate. Capital is invested with the aim of multiplying returns. It is a gamble. Capital must generate profit – if not, it becomes a loss. In the Premier League, multi-millionaires invest capital in the teams, the money goes to buy better players whose success guarantees more TV exposure and thus more profits. Players hope to increase their own accumulation via advertising agents who pay millions to promote their own products via logos which are all over players' shirts, hoardings and adverts at half time. When the teams accumulate more profit, this is split between capital investment and returns for shareholders. The money also helps the teams become better competitors so they can reproduce their successes the following season and further increase accumulation.
It is a matter of chance where we are born, and many of us support the team closest to our childhood homes. How we select a particular team to follow becomes confusing if we have moved around in our formative years. Even after this, we may still have no domestic link to a particular team beyond an arbitrary or emotional one.
Football supporters create separations along geographical lines, dividing supporters by local affiliation, creating needless divisions, that can become territorial, racist or violent. It is perhaps the long and friendly relationship between Liverpool and Everton supporters that demonstrates a more unified model of support. So my dad is a red and my mum is a blue; one brother is red, my cousin blue; one of my best friends is red, another one blue. And I’m neither! Compare this to the sectarian rivalry between Celtic and Rangers, or the historical animosity between West Ham and Millwall.
In the 1970s, Liverpool's squad included Sammy Lee, Tommy Smith, Terry McDermott, Jimmy Case, Ian Callaghan, and Phil Thompson – all Scousers. Bolton born players included Nat Lofthouse, Francis Lee, Dave Hatton (who also played for Bury), Roy Greaves, Alan Waldron, and Don McAllister (well, Ratcliffe). And although Liverpool had two high profile Scottish managers – Bill Shankly and Kenny Dalgleish – they are forever identified with the team due to their tenacity, passion and endurance. There was less separation between supporters and the players and some of this has endured: remember the horror when Wayne Rooney moved from Everton to Manchester?
In the 21st century, the high-end teams rarely include local players, managers or owners. So what, apart from profits, are we actually contributing? This is a further separation between supporters and the team.
The passion of football is real – and the stands are the only place where English blokes get tactile and sing together – and the players become temporary avatars of that passion. They play for us in conflict with the opposition, which is made spicier when local rivalry or historical animosities are involved, but they are ultimately replaceable and temporary.
Supporters obviously want victory over the other team which reinforces local pride, community identity, and a sense of achievement – but who are we actually cheering on? The players are not local; the managers are ambivalent; and the owners exist in another economic and social level altogether.
The game has become impossibly lucrative. Players are involved in multi-million deals, the profits from Sky TV, and cash injections from foreign investors, as well as inflated ticket prices. The game has priced out families and many regular fans, especially those on no or low incomes, and many of us have to watch it in the pub. Yet another stage of separation.
There are emotions, disappointments, and relief after 90 minutes, and all of that exists in a mutual, shared social space. It’s a communal, community-building game for us, the many – but for the few, the investors, we’re there to make noise, reproduce the environment of enthusiasm, and hand over the cash at every match. Like the players, we’re interchangeable.
At the top end, the players' reality has no relation to that of their spectators. They operate in a rarefied environment of privilege, exclusivity and disposable cash; the most high profile players can also become involved in the auxiliary industries of product placement, advertising, media gossip and scandal about private lives. Think about Beckham promoting sunglasses, or his tedious wife promoting her own products through tabloid over-exposure – all of which increases accumulation.
Supporters have power
However, supporters do have power. Boycotts can force greedy owners out or make them listen to what supporters are saying, and we can unite to put pressure on the FA and financial backers. Following a turbulent period, Chester City FC was dissolved and replaced by Chester FC, which is now a fan-owned team. Whilst on a smaller scale, Clapton FC and other teams in semi- or non-professional leagues, have a devoted following who have a say in the future of their teams. Their personal investment removes that separation so obvious in the larger teams.
So next Saturday when your team is playing away, or you can't afford a ticket, try and find the team who play locally and whose players and supporters are from your area, it might give you another view of the global football industry.
You could also organise your fellow supporters. Let’s start lobbying the Labour Party for legislation on culture, to make cultural activities like football more democratically owned and managed. For starters, let’s campaign for a progressive legislative programme, involving much tighter regulation by the authorities, which should include democratically elected representatives of the fans. There should be financial support from the state via taxation of the richer clubs and TV rights, which could help prevent disasters at poorer clubs like those at Bury and Bolton.
We also need to change ownership structures, away from allowing our game to be dominated by private individuals and cabals of profit-seeking businessmen. A variety of alternative ownership arrangements are possible, including supporter ownership, community co-operative ownership, municipal ownership or part ownership, and the nationalisation of key assets. Football clubs should be run for the common good, not for private profit.
So, don't just spectate! Agitate!
Doc Ritchie is the founding editor of Comedy Studies Journal and the author of The Idler & Dandy In Stage Comedy and Performing Live Comedy.