An Economic Geography of Football
It’s a pattern that is repeated the country over: marking a resilience that has falteringly defied the slings and arrows of the financial crisis. Take Cardiff. Flush with Millennium money and building projects, it’s a youthful, dynamic capital; its football club threatening to dine at the top table for the first time in eons — the community focus heightened by the sometime presence of national heroes Craig Bellamy and Aaron Ramsey.
Despite the recession, the underlying prosperity of UK cities has impinged greatly on football during the post-Hillsborough era. Regional Innovation Systems — broadly, the institutions that influence innovation and the performance of firms in particular regions – have had a swingeing effect. The rise of new technology, knowledge spillovers, linkages between companies and a healthy spirit of competition and collaboration are said to be at the heart of economic success, spurring entrepreneurial activity and driving growth.
At the heart of this is that prime component of economic geography: the cluster. Just as a city region like Oxford has benefitted from the concentration of biotechnology firms in its orbit; thus attracting a host of businesses that feed off this trend and leading to a spurt of pharmaceutical industry start ups, certain patterns of production, distribution and usage in the economic landscape can be seen to have boosted our national game.
For contrary to received wisdom that a club needs a large catchment area free of competing attractions from which to draw support, being close to one’s rivals can provide benefits. London sides contest for Champions League honours like never before, Greater Manchester and Lancashire provide us with an extraordinarily high number of Premier League participants and the likes of Watford and Reading have ridden the wave of regional prosperity to establish themselves higher up the pyramid than their history has led them to be used to. The pattern is also repeated abroad in Germany’s Ruhrgebiet (Schalke, Borussia Dortmund), Lombardy and Piedmont (Milan, Turin), Catalonia (Barcelona and Espanyol) and elsewhere.
For the satellite businesses that football interacts with include the constructors of new stadia, providers of electronic ticketing schemes, caterers, sponsors and hoteliers along others – it’s held that more money circulating in the economy is good for everyone. Wigan and Bolton maintain their top flight status partly because the supplementary amenities that a football club needs to function are located handily and locally.
But this is only part of the picture of course and the downturn is far from the blip it is often painted as. UK regional growth throughout the Blair years in particular was very much centred on landmark projects, and showpiece city centre developments were encouraged at the expense of hinterlands. Hence, those parts of Britain most likely to attract investment, including from abroad, were helped along at the expense of more out of the way places. One only has to contrast Sheffield with Barnsley to view the impact of this — the former has its Showroom and Winter Garden pavilions; the latter had changed not a jot when I visited in 2009 after a gap of 10 years.
For we are now witnessing the dangers in fostering uneven growth. It’s said that the private sector is a major engine of wellbeing, but entrepreneurs tend to flock to an area once it’s up and running and rarely start their activities in a vacuum. The conditions that attract them — tax breaks and benevolent funding – have often been positioned strategically and ideologically, with the outcome of science and technology policy diverted towards city centres and faceless business parks.
Kevin Morgan of Cardiff University has argued that the state has sought to make and break development in Wales by preventing the coal industry from diversifying into the related engineering sector that supplied equipment for the state-owned industry, and concentrating instead on a knowledge economy through the creation of a network of so called Technium Centres to promote business-university linkages — a strategy that left traditional working class communities behind, union strongholds as they are.
For those areas that have missed out, the successful specialization of the past can lead to disastrous lock in with towns reliant on one employer or one sector. The Welsh valley towns are a world away from Cardiff Bay and the Millennium Stadium, beset by unemployment and some of the lowest average incomes in the UK. In football, more isolated burgs like Gillingham, Wrexham, Carlisle and Plymouth have felt detached from the agglomeration economies enjoyed by the Northwest, London and, at least for this season alone, the West Midlands.
But at least Blair and his cronies did pump some money in, even if it was unevenly distributed and eagerly gobbled up by the private sector and the middle class — presenting a large scale shift in economic governance from the regional to the city-region level. There is even more danger in allowing regions and cities to develop organically. Our new year-old overlords are more parsimonious with the finances and the ideological basis of the Cuts agenda is clear and present.
In the past, many of our cities as well as those in Europe, fell into what has been termed a “museum trap” — inhabited only by tourists and abandoned by residents unable to afford to properly participate in the cultural life of the city. The Italian academic Luciana Lazzeretti has argued for more creative spaces within cities — viewing the metropolis as an informal collective environment that can foster creative activity. I would argue that football can be a very big part of that, but socializing activities have instead been hit hardest by the tightening of the purse strings.
Economic growth does not happen spontaneously. This is a post that has explored some elements of the economic geography of football but the ingredients that go to make up this heady brew would be nothing without money. The strangling of public funds, significant under Blair, is now influencing every aspect of our lives, with football no exception. Whether or not the game should be directly funded by taxes is not a view many favour; but the sport’s centrality to the cultural life of a town or a region is, in my opinion, unarguable. So, leaving our heartlands to fend for themselves is a short sighted tactic, leading to an unsustainable future and concentrating wealth even more in a few dazzling cityscapes – perhaps hastening the likelihood of a European Super League and damaging the grassroots of English football as we know it.