Soccer, Sustainability and Degrowth

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Image available under Creative Commons © Desazkundea

A fortnight or so ago, we devoted a whole week to the financial ill health of five soccer clubs, but the quintet might just as well have been picked at random. Our loose remit is to cover the three divisions of the Football League, but others have chronicled the worsening situation at a host of locations: from Kettering to Truro; from Darlington to the Ibrox district of Glasgow.

Further, these cases are but the very grubby tip of an iceberg of those ‘bad with money’. Over the course of the 2009-10 financial year, 78 of Europe’s top clubs spent more than their income on wages alone, with a tribe of light blues from the North West posting a £121 million loss. What’s the betting that next time we run a Turmoil Week, Plymouth, Preston and Portsmouth will be replaced by Manchester City, Macclesfield and Middlesbrough?

UEFA have reacted and their determination to instil a climate of financial fair play will come into full force in 2014-15, with the years until then acting as something of an amnesty for houses to be put in order – a debt limit of €45 million has been imposed for the 2011-12 financial year and a panel will sit in judgement on those continuing to breach the rules when the legislation kicks into full gear in two seasons’ time.

Of course something had to be done and, leaving aside Michel Platini’s blithe unconcern when Juventus ruled the roost and hoovered up the crème of Europe’s players (himself included) in the 1980s, he and his co-workers are quite right to intervene. Will their efforts be effective, however?

Firstly, at the very top of the game, the likes of City, Málaga, Anzhi and others are likely to have their wings clipped but £45 million, even if reduced in future years, is still a pretty penny to owe.

Secondly, the sugar daddy get out clause could cover a multitude of sins – what if that owner is tipped from a ship, Robert Maxwell style, sees his or her other investments begin to tumble in value (Amstrad anyone?), gets bored or – as is more likely, was never as rich as we thought in the first place?

Thirdly, UEFA state that their directives will stand up in court – but will they? Britain’s is not the only neoliberal regime where the current ideology is to discourage government from interfering with the workings of business. I can’t see any judgement passed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport or another European Court being greeted with enthusiasm by the monied giants of the Champions League.

Fourthly, and according to David Conn of The Guardian, the penalties for non-compliance will range from ‘a reprimand, to a fine, deduction of points in UEFA’s competitions, withholding income, prohibiting the registration of players or restricting the number of players a club can field, leading ultimately to a ban from the Champions or Europa Leagues’. Fine, but leaving aside the problem of implementation, is a ban from Europe really the ultimate sanction when most clubs never take part in European competition? Being barred from the Europa League isn’t going to bother the new Russian owners of Reading should they prove to be shopaholics, and a certain potential England manager might actually see this as a plus point – the equivalent of getting banged up in a warm cell for being drunk and disorderly.

It has been claimed that the 60 million euro spent this January by clubs across the continent is early evidence that UEFA’s intentions are being taken seriously and compared to the 225 million disbursed in 2011, that may well be the case – but last January was anomalous – the figure for 2010 was only 30 million. Football is heading for its own sub-prime crisis.

What to do? A report authored by Paul Marshall and Sam Tomlin was released in March last year and entitled Football and the Big Society. Sponsored by London based think tank, Centre Forum, it proposed four main measures to bring about greater financial sustainability in football. Worth quoting the recommendations in full as exhibited on the Forum’s website, these included:

  • a consistent licensing regime across the professional game to include financial fair play rules encompassing income statement and balance sheet measures of financial sustainability
  • rights of supporter representation on football club boards and extension of the Fit and Proper Persons Test
  • community ‘Right to Buy’ rules, where fans are offered a chance to buy back their club when a change of ownership occurs
  • reform of the FA such that its regulatory and management responsibilities are separated.

 

So far, so admirable – and the clear intention to regulate the sport in a more meaningful way is to be welcomed. However, before commenting further, let’s look more closely at the concept of sustainability – the central tenet of the report – and financial sustainability in particular.

‘Sustainability’ and ‘Sustainable Development’ have become so widespread as buzzwords in the social sciences and society in general, that this witty graph was developed to lampoon their over usage. Defined by the Brundtland Commission as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, the notion is more usually wrapped up with issues of an environmental nature – so climate change, deforestation and land use are central concerns.

But the definition is certainly wider and in football, how far are we prepared to go to exchange immediate gratification for the long term financial health of the clubs we support? Which Pompey fans were uncomfortable as they watched their club defeat Cardiff in the 2007-08 FA Cup Final? How come only a minority of Doncaster Rovers fans have complained about the new regime ushered in by Willie McKay? Who at Stamford Bridge is concerned that Roman Abramovich need wait a mere 18 months before calling in a debt that stood at £726 million in July 2010?

The problem with sustainability is that it doesn’t go far enough. By its very definition, sustainable development requires continued economic growth – for as prices goes up, so fortunes, financial and otherwise, have to improve too. But economics as a discipline grew up as a direct response to the concept of scarcity. There simply aren’t enough resources to go round – so shelling out millions for players on gates of less than 20,000 is foolhardiness – yes, you Fulham; yes, you Queen’s Park Rangers.

Economists such as Herman Daly and Tim Jackson have discussed the notion of ‘steady-state growth’ and the latter has achieved a degree of fame with his book, Prosperity without Growth. The argument goes that there is more to life than financial wellbeing and that we should strive for a more holistic notion of prosperity. In soccer, clubs that appear on the outside to be well run and rarely overstretch themselves – Swansea, Reading, West Bromwich Albion – might fall into this category. Indeed, Swiss Ramble’s analysis of the Black Country outfit’s finances from last year highlight a business sticking to the straight and narrow remarkably well.

But is that enough? Even Reading posted a £5 million loss recently and rumours of a bid to take Wayne Bridge on loan following the takeover by Thames Sport Investment set alarm bells clanging. Over at Doncaster, years of financial prudence have been jettisoned at the behest of a superstar agent and a club as ‘unfashionable’ as Stoke City have spent big on the likes of Kenwyne Jones and Peter Crouch.

No – sustainability is a useful staging post on the route to financial health – but it’s just that – at its best, a sensible concept to follow; at its worst, a phrase for Andy Coulson or Alastair Campbell to insist be inserted into every third sentence. Latterly, it has been replaced in many people’s thinking by the concept of degrowth.

In the January issue of the Popular Stand fanzine, Doncaster Rovers supporter and erstwhile TTU contributor Glen Wilson suggests that it might not have been all that disastrous had the Yorkshire club retained the services of Sean O’Driscoll and settled back to life in the third tier; Rovers having spent the majority of their existence in the bottom two divisions. Sacrilege? Absolutely not. Similarly, as a Reading fan, I have had my two years of fun supporting a Premier League club and have no wish to return.

Degrowth – popularised by a cluster of academic thinkers including a significant group at the Autonomous University of Barcelona comes from the French décroissance – signifying a downscaling of production and consumption that looks to increase non-financial well-being, equity, democracy and stability. It does not mean recession and it does require an active role for regulation. In football, this means a greater emphasis on equality and, in actual terms, a greater role for activism and supporter involvement, a refusal to kowtow to the Scudamores of this world and the influence of Sky Sports; a return to grassroots attitudes and community sufficiency. In this case, it’s the community that many of us care about more than any other – the football club we support.

In a series of masterly articles recently reprinted in a new book, Pitch Invasion: 21st Century Soccer Writing, Gary Andrews spoke to a number of people involved in the supporters trusts that have sprung up in recent years – from those that are commonly regarded to have been successful such as Exeter City’s to those that struggled, such as Notts County’s – the general feeling was one of satisfaction that some control had been wrested out of the mitts of the money men.

As an example, there will be more than a few Manchester City supporters who felt happier after Terry Cooke and Andy Morrison inspired them to a 3-1 win over Reading in 1999 than they did after a routine 3-0 victory over Fulham last weekend – maintaining one’s league position may be one thing but dropping one or two may be more fun still. Sustainability may be one thing, but degrowth is a more pressing need.

Rob Langham (pen name: Lanterne Rouge) is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 44 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Football Attic, Twisted Blood, In Bed with Maradona, A United View on Football and The Blizzard.

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10 Comments on "Soccer, Sustainability and Degrowth"

  1. Matt B says:

    There was an article in The Telegraph last week which discussed why sports pages these days require knowledge of finance, statistics, biology, linguistics and law. This article IMHO is a good example of the unnecessary recourse into economic concepts that then get inappropriately applied to sport.

    Look, sport is a paradigm with winners and losers. There are multiple participants and each aims as high as possible. Some will achieve their aims others will fall short. The key point being that at the outset we don’t know for sure what will happen, upsets may occur, thats why we turn up and watch. Its not just hanging out and having a good time, its watching events unfold that are often full of twists and turns. That’s sport and it is what separates sports clubs from say private members clubs, where the aim is simply to provide a place to hang out and have a good time.

    I cannot imagine why any sports fan should want the concept of degrowth applied to their club. The fan wants to win, just as the players and management of the club and the owners all want to win. If you turn up in the morning uncaring about what happens on the pitch, well, better not to bother eh?

    And why this concern that everything should stay the same, living in a comfortable, consistent existance all the time? Things change, clubs change, they have eras and dynasties, they have peaks and troughs.. As with winners and losers, you can’t tell exactly when the good times are about to break out, or when you’re about to hit the skids. Who would have thought Portsmouth would have made it back to Wembley in the midst of their first meltdown?

    Portsmouth genuinely believe they would rather have stayed at the lower end of the Premier league or not got there at all, never got to Wembley (twice), never lifted the F.A. Cup, never seen Kaka and friends playing for the Rossineri at Fratton Park? Sure, at this point with the club on the cusp of its 2nd administration things look bleak, a phoenix club may be required. But in time, once they recover from their current plight, those memories, those matches will still be there, the photos and keepsakes will remind them of those halcyon days. They will have many stories to swap and share with their future Pompey fans.

    Take Birmingham City last season, winning their first major English Trophy since 1963 and their 2nd ever as well as getting relegated. Would they have preferred to stay in the Premier League and not win or even get to a cup final? Unlikely, they have been up and down between the divisions for years, but that one trophy may well have been the first time many of the supporters got to see them lifting a trophy – a memory that will live long after relegation memories have all blurred into one.

    Anyway, its Valentine’s day today, so I will leave you with this: its better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.

  2. Matt B says:

    Erratum: 5th para should start “Do Portsmouth fans genuinely believe…”

  3. Stanley says:

    I have to take issue with the comment below, no matter how cogently it is argued. Degrowth and `winning’ don’t have to be mutually exclusive. A well managed club on a modest budget can succeed, if it has the right people making sensible decisions and employs innovative thinking to its operations. It may be more difficult to do it that way, but triumph through adversity is surely more satisfying that just buying up trophies with funny money? Sadly, most supporters I speak to – even those following a low-budget Championship club – don’t share my opinion. As in society at large, instant gratification trumps deferred achievement.

  4. urzz1871 says:

    An excellent blog, as always, and I can see both sides of the argument when it comes down to clubs finding their natural level, which is what this is really all about. Because although there are of course short-term fluctuations, over time clubs will tend to find their own level – it’s attempts to force this where it’s not appropriate that will almost always store up long-term problems, for all the reasons given. The ultimate example of this is, of course, Gretna, but there are many other less extreme examples.

    As to supporters, so many lap up the “land of milk and honey, best league in the world” bullshit that comes out of the Premier League’s marketing machine that they don’t think beyond promotion. There seems to be a general, unquestioned, assumption that when a team gets to the Premier League that the increased income will be enough to pay off all the debts incurred getting there. The reality, though, for smaller clubs like Reading, Watford, Blackpool etc is that if they want to compete in the Premier League then the wage bills of the players they’ll need to try and do that will easily take up the extra income – with no guarantees of success because they’ll be competing with clubs with sugar-daddy owners or those reliant on “Bank of
    HMRC.

    Unless something fundamental changes in football’s financial model I really do despair for the future – and to be honest I can’t really blame supporters for only thinking in the short-term. If they realised just how hopelessly the whole financial playing field is tilted against smaller clubs then I suspect a good many would have nothing left to hope for and would just walk away.

  5. Lanterne Rouge says:

    I really appreciate your carefully worded reply Matt B even though you were in disagreement with the article. Who is to say that I as a Reading fan wouldn’t behave the same way should the same thing happen in Berkshire (as it might with these new owners)? Plus, Jon’s point that we might all give up supporting smaller teams if we really stopped to ponder the resources gap is a good one.

    Reading’s ascension to the Premier League is an interesting case. On promotion, the sum bandied around in order for the Royals to compete was quoted as £10 million in transfer funds – I eagerly awaited the incomers only to be disappointed when the most shelled out was £1.5 million for Seol Ki-Hyeon. Joe Royle, in the TV studio for the club’s second televised game in August 2006 – a 1-0 win over Manchester City – stated the reason – players simply wouldn’t come to a club capping wages at £30,000 a week (still a huge sum) – Pompey, Hull and others chose to go the other way wholesale in the former case and here and there in the latter (Geovani etc.).

  6. Michael says:

    “I cannot imagine why any sports fan should want the concept of degrowth applied to their club. The fan wants to win, just as the players and management of the club and the owners all want to win.”

    But degrowth doesn’t have to equate to a lack of success. Newcastle are run far more prudently now than when we had the likes of Owen, Viduka, Martins and Geremi in the team. That quartet took us down; I don’t need to tell you where we are at the moment. It’s not perfect, of course, and there aren’t many Newcastle fans who wouldn’t welcome the kind of investment Manchester City have had, but you only need to look at events in Glasgow this week to see that football clubs really, really need to start living within their means.

    A few years ago people mocked the German model – “It’s all well and good having fan ownership but where do they finish in the Champions League?” – but I’d far rather watch football in the Bundesliga than most of the crap in the Premier League. It’s cheaper, more competitive and, above all, more fun. Isn’t that why most of us fell in love with football in the first place?

    • Lanterne Rouge says:

      Great comment Michael – Newcastle are certainly warming the cockles of their fans’ hearts and it’s all the more enjoyable given the comparative lack of spending.

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