The Sweeper: The Fan, the Customer and Money in Football

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Yesterday, we noted that the avalanche of negative media stories about the Glazers’ regime at Old Trafford seemed finally to be pushing the moderate fans into the rebellious camp. Pointing to the same piece we noted in the Daily Mirror by Oliver Holt yesterday, Ian at Two Hundred Percent suggests there is a “sea change” in the analysis of football and money by the English media:

In an extraordinary article in the Daily Mirror yesterday, Oliver Holt put forward a call to arms to all football supporters and offered an impassioned defence of those that are protesting against the way that our game is being mismanaged at the moment. Last Friday the Daily Mail, of all people, ran an article on FC United of Manchester that came close to being a eulogy and was at the same time a stinging attack on the Glazer’s management of Manchester United. The Guardian is getting its teeth well and truly into the proposed Manchester United bond issue, with new stories about the state of the club’s finances being reported on a seemingly daily basis. There’s something in the air. Attitudes are starting to change.

The writers on the sports pages are generally given a freer political reign than those in other parts of a daily newspaper. Much as it might seem jarring to see FC United being talked about in the Daily Mail, it isn’t, upon reflection, actually that surprising. Football is in the process of eating itself, and football sells newspapers. At this moment in time, however, there is a tangible sea change in the attitude of the printed press in its attitude towards football and money. The bare fact of the matter is that articles such as the two linked to above simply wouldn’t – apart from the ever-impeccable David Conn in The Guardian – appeared in British newspapers a year ago.

This change in attitude towards money and football, with an apparent recollection by the press that fans are more than customers and that subordinating football to the vagaries of the market with no regulation by the football authorities might not actually be the best idea, seems to be the result of several high-profile crises in the Premier League. Manchester United and Liverpool top the list, and the debt at other Premier League clubs such as Portsmouth and West Ham is all too obvious. But these cases are hardly the first time English football clubs have over-reached themselves. Leeds United are the most obvious recent example, but lax financial regulation by the football authorities and the willingness of club owners to gamble their club’s future on the market dates back to the 1980s in England.

Tottenham Hotspur, for example, were the first English club to be floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1983, and the club embarked on an ambitious attempt to become a leisure-orientated company based on the Hummel brand, then diversifying into other areas such as travel and restaurants. These efforts were an absolute disaster, and the football club faced bankruptcy by 1991 not because of poor performance on the pitch (Tottenham were quite successful, winning the FA Cup in 1991 with stars such as Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne), but solely because the football had become subordinate to business. And that business was not a success.

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Spurs were saved by the essentially enforced sale of Paul Gascoigne to Lazio and a takeover by Amstrad chairman Alan Sugar. But Tottenham Hotspur Football Club was no longer in charge of itself; it was now part of, and ultimately dependent on, the performance of Tottenham Hotspur PLC.

Manchester United would follow Tottenham onto the Stock Exchange, leading eventually to the debt-ridden Glazer takeover. And now, despite extraordinary success on the pitch under Alex Ferguson in recent years, United find themselves more and more in debt as the football club itself is subsumed under and reliant on the complex corporate structure of Red Football Limited, and need the market to respond to their bond issue, or face even greater problems.

Just as a media storm now surrounds the Glazers, there was much criticism of the man who had taken Spurs to the brink of bankruptcy, Irving Scholar. Many questioned the PLC model. But it was all forgotten soon enough, as other clubs embraced the market model, in most cases disastrously. Football was seen as riding a rising tide of prosperity as television money flooded in.

And so as clubs now needed to produce dividends, the relationship between the fan and the club was transformed: extraordinarily, ticket prices at Manchester United increased by 241% between 1989 and 1995, and at Tottenham by 118%. Football was now seen as a profit-making business rather than as a public utility, as Anthony King puts it in The End of the Terraces. Can’t afford to go to the game any longer? Tough.

How was this sold to fans? King says the new regimes at clubs like Man Utd and Spurs “had to establish the legitimacy of profit-making as the clubs’ central meaning and, following from this, the new directors have had to transform the relationship between the fans and the club. Such a transformation can only be achieved through altering the way in which individuals understand themselves and, in particular, making fans see themselves as customers.” The English media, King explains, played a key subservient role in accepting this transformation.

The present discontent with this change that now means a successful club like Manchester United is somehow over a billion dollars in debt and that sees fans squeezed ever more for every last penny due to this commodification of football was expressed some years ago in the creation of FC United of Manchester. But is this fringe rebellion now finally becoming a part of mainstream thought about football?  Ian ends the piece we began with by asking the key question about this: will, as with the Tottenham Hotspur example from the 1980s, the lessons be quickly forgotten?

The game is starting to smell rotten from the inside out, and this smell is starting to become all-pervasive to the extent that even those that have been trying to avoid the smell or [who] don’t have a particularly strong sense of smell are starting to notice it. The question now is whether the current press enthusiasm for sniffing around is a passing fad or something capable of bringing about meaningful change.

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The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

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