Martin Cloake, in the latest in the joint Morning Star/ Culture Matters series on the Covid-19 pandemic and cultural activities, considers its effects on football and what's needed to improve the game
During the COVID-19 pandemic the football business has probably experienced one of the biggest jolts of any business. And, ironically, it’s at the very top of the game that the fault line in football’s business model has been laid bare. Because football is a business dangerously dependant on the willingness of another business – TV – to pay for it.
In the 2017/18 season, 79% of Stoke City’s total revenue came from broadcast payments. Even Liverpool FC, one of the four top genuinely global brands in football, got 48% of its total revenue from broadcast deals. That is a global brand relying for almost half its revenue not on what it produces, but on the willingness of another business to pay for it.
It could be argued that all businesses rely on other businesses to sell or distribute their product. But football is far too reliant on one stream. TV can survive without football, but football in its current state cannot survive without TV. That’s not good business.
There’s a twist. Football’s status as a business like no other is heavily reliant on the brand loyalty of its core audience. Followers of one club, in the main, don’t switch to following another. That kind of captive market is a tremendous asset to any business. Football clubs are repositories of community, of memory, of the bonds between human beings. They mean something to people. But the football business as currently organised doesn’t understand the worth of its most valuable asset.
The game’s cultural capital is something the writer David Goldblatt examines at length in The Game of Our Lives, arguing that it is ‘a social democratic game in a sea of neoliberalism.’ One of the enduring fascinations of the football business is the way the tension between these two poles plays out. In simple terms, the tension is between the crowd and the money. And whether at the TV-moneyed top of the Premier League, or in the lower leagues where money on the gate on matchday is a more significant element of income, it’s the value of the crowd that has been revealed by a pandemic that has put an end to crowds.
It’s a situation that challenges those interested in progressive reform to reframe questions. The accepted wisdom on restarting the football season at the top levels is that “they only did it for the money”. But of course they did – it would have meant the end for many clubs if they hadn’t.
Despite the lingering discomfort in some progressive circles about the idea of making money, we need to remember that the professionalisation of the game, which generated the money needed to pay people to play the game, is what made football the people’s game. Without that development those who played would have been drawn solely from the ranks of those who could afford not to be paid, and the connection between those watching and those playing would have been much weaker.
So creating wealth is not the problem, it’s what we do with the wealth created that should be exercising us. It’s as true in sport as in any other part of the economy. We’ve allowed the idea of a successful business to be posited against the idea of collective benefit, so that it’s taken as a given that conglomerate ownership can bring success but community ownership, for example, can’t.
The game’s core audience, its loyal customers in local communities who are its greatest asset, want the business to be run properly and sustainably. Just ask fans of Wigan Athletic, or Bury. Or any number of clubs that have suffered because the self-styled ‘business brains’ in charge proved to be anything but.
Neoliberal capitalist culture has become much more deeply embedded in the game. The direction of travel at the moment is for those at the top to crush the competition, rather than for all involved to recognise that strong competition can generate greater value for everyone.
The drive for dominance by individual parts of the football business eventually weakens everyone. Individual club owners are free to walk away, either to cut their losses or to cash in their chips. Few have a long-term interest in their ‘product’.
But fans do. And much as they want success for their own team, they also know that real success only means something when you succeed in competition with other strong teams, making everyone stronger, not when you eliminate the competition. So any truly progressive change for football has to be built on asserting the primacy of the game itself, against the sectional interests of those who own the clubs that play it.
That will not be agreed to by all the club owners. In fact it will be resisted by most of them and by the trade associations that have usurped the role of governing bodies. It needs the state to intervene in issues of ownership and control, and act in concert with those fans who have worked out how to organise the football business for the good of the game, rather than its component parts.
The rules of the game have been fundamentally changed by the Covid-19 pandemic – and the first people to understand that will control the future.
Martin Cloake is a journalist, award-winning author, editor, trainer and project manager.