Socialism Today            Socialist Party magazine

The football business

The Men Who Changed Football


Reviewed by John Reid

TEN YEARS ago the Football Association announced the setting up of the Premier League. In a recent BBC TV series, The Men Who Changed Football, those behind this decision claimed that, in setting up the Premier League, they had transformed a game that was in terminal decline into a thriving business.

In 1992, at the outset of the first Premier League season, the Socialist Party, then known as Militant Labour, published a pamphlet, Reclaim the Game, predicting that this new league would drive working class fans away from the game and possibly lead in the long-term to the death of many clubs. The Men Who Changed Football confirmed that this is indeed the direction in which our game is moving.

Football is an international game which has existed for thousands of years in many different forms. Variations were played thousands of years ago in China, Greece and Rome. Roman soldiers introduced their variation of football, Harpastum, to England. The ‘folk football’ that developed from this Roman activity in the Middle Ages was a mass participation game, involving whole villages.

The development of industry from the mid- to late-18th century onwards saw the mass migration of peasants from the countryside into the new booming cities. Work was often 16 hours a day with the only break on Sundays and church holidays. The state and the church, however, banned Sunday recreation. Their aim was to regulate and discipline workers around the needs of industry and profit. There were campaigns against sport, particularly folk football. In the early 19th century employers joined forces with other propertied groups to ban football matches.

It was only with the rise of trade unionism and the fight for the introduction of a shorter working week, including a free Saturday afternoon, that workers were able to indulge in leisure activity. That is why many of the original clubs were formed in the industrial and unionised areas of Sheffield, Lancashire, the Midlands and Glasgow, between 1860 and 1870. The early rules of the game may have been drafted by public schools and universities (the Cambridge rules of 1848), but the driving force behind the development of football in an organised, league form, came from the industrial working classes of England and Scotland.

Manchester United and Arsenal, for example, were originally works teams. As Simon Inglis explains in The Football Grounds of Great Britain, in reference to Arsenal’s history, ‘until the turn of the century it had been run essentially by exiled northern working men… But the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899 meant more overtime for the men and less time spent on the football club, which soon ran into debt. The organisers had never wanted it to become a proprietary or capitalist club’.

The game became hugely popular and very soon local businessmen took over clubs mainly for prestige but also to receive some monetary gain. Stadiums were developed (many not improved for decades) and people packed in, paying for admission. For the first time profit became an issue and football became an ‘industry’. Until the advent of the Premier League, however, revenue used to be shared by clubs in all four divisions. There was at least a pretence of equity.

Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards, one of the movers of the breakaway Premier League, complained that the smaller clubs among the Football League’s 92 clubs were ‘bleeding the game to death’; they were not viable as businesses and ought to be put to sleep. The advent of the ‘greed is good’ league in 1992 marked the final transformation of the peoples’ game into just another branch of the big business corporate entertainment industry. Football is more and more about merchandising a corporate image than the actual game itself. Manchester United describes itself as a ‘world brand’ to rival Macdonald’s.

The transformation of football reflects the trends in capitalism, the neo-liberalism of Thatcherism and Blairism. The aim of the chairmen of the big clubs is to ‘rationalise’ the football industry by the unleashing of brutal market forces.

On the surface football has appeared to go through a boom period in the last ten years, spanking new stadiums (built partly out of tax payers money), attendances up, the cream of world football playing in the Premier League.

But the real fans are gradually being cut off from attending the game. The Taylor report written after the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, advocated all-seater stadiums. The football chairmen used this report to massively increase admission prices (although this was never intended by the report). Prices soared to £25 plus whereas if ticket prices had kept place with inflation it would only cost around £8 to see a match. Supporters from social class A and B now outnumber those from social classes D and E.

The vast increase in football finances was driven by the commercial exploitation of ‘brand loyalty’. This loyalty was built up over generations of working class fans, passing their club allegiance from generation to generation. The transformation of the game away from working class support is cutting the new generation off from watching live football. The bubble is starting to burst.

Clubs floated on the stock exchange as a result of the billion pound plus put into the football industry by the Sky television deals of 1992 and 1996. These deals, plus the massive increases in ticket prices and the sale of merchandise, including replica shirts, initially saw the value of football clubs soar on the stock exchange. Now, as The Observer business section (8 April) says, "the city’s love affair with football is well and truly over". All clubs, including Manchester United, have seen the value of their shares fall, even before the recession bites. City analysts and institutional shareholders complain that the football Plc’s spend a much higher proportion of their revenues on salaries than any other type of business.

Even future big television deals are not certain. There are signs of boredom with saturated TV coverage. It is no longer the sure-fire audience driver that it once was. Television ratings for the designed-for-television UEFA Champions League are disappointing. As The Observer says, "the danger is that the new commercial version of the game – made for television and performed by individual stars paid millions – will fail to recruit the next generation of addicted consumers".

The only way football can be saved is by working class fans reclaiming the game. We the fans are still the biggest sponsors of football and we should, through a ballot of club members, be able to elect the boards of our clubs. Also on such boards would be elected players and club staff representatives. Local councils should also be involved in running clubs, to ensure full use of their facilities by the whole community.

The development of football was and is linked with the development of capitalism and the profit system. The fight to democratise football is linked with getting rid of big business domination within it. The same people and corporations who now own and control our teams and threaten their future existence also control our workplaces and decide whether or not these stay open. Socialists must link the battle to sack the boards at our clubs with the struggle to sack the boards at our workplace, to replace the anarchy of the profit system, capitalism, with a system democratically owned, controlled and run by the majority in society, the working class.

But if big business did not control and run football, how would it be run? I believe a socialist society could guarantee and protect the existence of all clubs, league and non-league. Football clubs are an integral part of working class communities.

Clubs would be community and supporter-run and non profit-making. Supporters would not just be involved in turning up to watch. There would be a proper club structure where people could enrol with the club of their allegiance for a nominal fee. It would be a sports club, with fans, if they wished, playing for their club in leagues based on ability. People of all ages, men, women, able-bodied and disabled, would be enabled to play for their club.

At the moment many players receive millionaire wages. But these players see a vast profit being made by the directors of the game and have tried to secure a share for themselves. Under socialism players would receive good wages, there would be differentials based on the level of the league, but these wages would be tied to the wages of a skilled worker.

Football came from the masses and to ensure the survival of every club we must fight to reclaim the game. This may sound like a dream but the alternative is the nightmare of many clubs, including some of the so-called big clubs, going out of business.


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