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A win-win for nobody?

Like I suspect many sports fans, over the last few days I’ve been watching developments in football’s European Super League debacle at one remove with something like “rubbernecking” fascination.

At one remove because I’m not a particular devotee of football – I’ve never been a supporter of any particular club but secretly have a “favourite” team or two largely based upon the romance of their long histories rather than current prowess – and with fascination because so many of the factors that have led to this latest (now aborted) attempted “breakaway” highlight the clash of interests between “ordinary folk” and the business side of major sports.

One of the “catch phrases” regularly deployed by once national UK celebrity Wilfred Pickles (1904 – 1978) – actor, radio presenter and ‘professional Yorkshireman’ – was “Where tha’s muck, tha’s’s brass” [it translates from the Yorkshire dialect into English as “Where there’s muck, there’s money”, brass being a Northern slang word for the latter] and he wasn’t wrong.

Wherever and in whatever line of human activity, including sport, in which there is a large amount of money to be made quickly and easily, the greater will the number of people of every possible nature trying to get involved at some level or another.

However, to bring my example down to football, the money doesn’t always go to those who play the game.

I’d emphasise my point – often, but not always.

I’ve no doubt that everyone involved in the business side of football would claim a life-long interest in the game. From there, for those with the inclination, it’s a no-brainer that – if you can somehow make a living from involvement in any sport, especially one you love – you’ll take the opportunity to do so.

Whether you’re qualified and/or experienced as a lawyer, accountant – or are an exponent of advertising, or marketing or PR expertise, a physiotherapist or a medical professional – if you are choosing between taking a position say in a high street operation in a country town or that of a Premier League football club … it’s an easy decision.

Nine times out of ten you’d combine your hobby with your professional life.

The trouble with this is, of course, that the principle “the cream rises to the top” doesn’t always work out.

When an accountant is also a football fan, he or she will often trade being hired by a football club over getting paid as much as they might obtain elsewhere. As night follows day, it thereby naturally occurs that sports clubs – many of them sadly operating in dire financial circumstances – will be run at all levels by fans of their sport who aren’t necessarily the best at what they do professionally.

And then we come to the agents.

It is inevitable that football players, facing a career with a limited and finite length which at any moment might be curtailed or even finished by catastrophic injury, benefit from having representatives who can negotiate the best possible contracts on their behalf.

I’ve just googled the figures – apparently the English Premier League clubs paid £263 million to players’ agents during the 2019-2020 season.

That’s a hell of a lot of dosh to be doling out to people who contribute nothing on the pitch, but at the same time (I suppose) one could argue that – as so much in life – a football club gets the players (and all the costs associated with them) that they deserve.

By definition – I would wager – most football clubs are not particularly well run by any business quality yardstick worth its salt.

To exaggerate to illustrate my point, some club executive boards would happily – if given the option – trade a year-on-year operating loss of £500 million for a European Championship trophy win of any sort.

Football is rightly in the news at the moment because of the enormity of the European Super League fiasco.

However, it’s not the first time that top clubs have sought – or is it just threatened(?) – to “break away” and form their own cartel which move they intended/hoped would “secure” what ought to have been their outrageously profitable business models.

And had the ESL come to fruition, there’s no doubt that those with their snouts in the proverbial trough might have done very well, thank you, out of it.

Furthermore, in the past the footballing authorities – themselves similarly peopled by inferior exponents of their supposed professional ‘specialities’ – have often fallen over themselves to accommodate the demands of the prospective “break-away” clubs’ demands, if only in order to be allowed to be appear to be still notionally in charge of the sport under their supposed jurisdiction.

Whether the current outcome of the ESL incident is the end of the matter or not is yet to be determined.

Is it a genuine case of “integrity, reason (and football fans) bite back” … or simply a temporary setback for those top rank club owners who are determined to maximise their revenues at all costs?

We shall see.

What is clear is that when – for whatever reasons – sports clubs pay scant attention to running themselves properly … e.g. at a fundamental level, concentrate upon turnover rather than profit … the prospect of things ending well are slight.



About Miles Piper

After university, Miles Piper began his career on a local newspaper in Wolverhampton and has since worked for a number of national newspapers and magazines. He has also worked as a guest presenter on Classic FM. He was a founder-member of the National Rust board. More Posts