The Unwarranted Stigma Against Money in Football

Money in football

“Some people believe that football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much more important than that.” – Bill Shankly

The world of football is one filled with passion. Players, managers, backroom staff, and fans would go to any lengths to craft a victory for the team they support. For a while now football has been the biggest sport in the world. Along with the globalization of football came the advent of money in to the sport. From multi-million dollar television deals and sponsorships to clubs being bought over by some of the richest business people in the world, the flow of cash in to the game has been progressively increasing.

As fans of the beautiful game we all love excitement. Sold out stadiums, electrifying play, edge of the seat action, evenly matched teams battling it out on the field leave us wanting more. Abramovich, Sheik Mansour and other owners have contributed immensely to this. As a fan of the beautiful game that has more fans than Facebook, more member nations than the United Nations and sold out crowds week in week out I’ve been interested in the impact rich owners have had on their clubs. I’ll be looking at the case of Chelsea Football Club to show the positive influence of rich owners on football. Clubs like Chelsea are often criticized for growing unsustainably, I’ll be showing how this is a mistaken assumption.  Disgruntled fans often make claims such as players being less loyal, reduced sustainability, and less parity of competition, these claims fail to take in to account the bigger picture. At face value these claims may appear logical. However, deeper analysis of these claims would reveal how flawed they are. By the end of this article I’ll expose these flaws. Only by dispelling these misguided notions about rich owners can the football world truly begin to understand the contribution to the game made by this new development.

Roman AbramovichIn 2003, as he was flying over London, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich laid eyes on Stamford Bridge. His love for football had him yearning for a football club of his own. The moment he laid eyes on ‘The Bridge’ he knew that was the club he wanted. In June 2003 he achieved this dream when he bought Chelsea F.C. for around 60 million pounds. The rest as they say is history. Over the years Abramovich-funded Chelsea has gone from strength to strength. The reason I picked Chelsea to conduct this case study becomes apparent here. Chelsea was one of the first clubs to be taken over by a rich owner. This means that analysis of Chelsea would be more reliable as we have over a decades worth of experiences and data. The biggest argument against rich owners is that it affects the sustainability of clubs. Detractors often say that the moment the owner leaves to make bigger profits, the club is going to be in shambles. Chelsea is the prime example of a club that has built itself using Abramovic’s money and is now in a position to sustain itself. In the initial years of Abramovic, Chelsea were in debt and needed to be helped out by their owner. But this is a natural process for any small business looking to expand. Without the injection of money it is impossible to grow. If you look at Chelsea now their growth has led to a position from which they can sustain themselves. Further evidence of this can be seen in the graph below. [1]

                                     Chelsea revenue sources and percentages

The graph above shows how Chelsea’s revenue totals have kept increasing over the years. In the fiscal year 2012, Chelsea was the 5th highest earning club in the world. Some of the older Chelsea fans would never have dared to dream that their club could have grown to this level. In addition to growing revenue, Chelsea has built a youth policy that has helped build one of the strongest youth teams in the world. Unlike earlier when Chelsea had to rely on players bought from other clubs, Chelsea now has its own factory of almost ready-made products in the form of players like Islam Feruz, Lucas Piazon, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and Lewis Baker. These players provide the club with alternatives. They could go on to become the next Frank Lampard and John Terry after a few seasons on loan. If their development is not as good as expected, their sell they could be used to fund other deals. This was seen when Chelsea sold Romelu Lukaku to Everton for around 28 million pounds and Juan Mata to Manchester United for a fee in excess of 37 million pounds. The policy of buying or producing young players and loaning them out until they are good enough is a means used to improve the club’s ability to stand on it’s own feet. Therefore, we see that as long as the club adopts a model that aims at achieving sustainability. Therefore we see that Chelsea has laid the groundwork to sustain itself even if Abramovich was to leave tomorrow. Sponsorship deals with Adidas and Samsung coupled with ticket sales and a unique loan policy for young players would ensure stable cash flow that would oversee even a sudden change of ownership. A Chelsea without Abramovich would still be able to sell out week in week out. Why you may ask? We all love beautiful football. No neutral would want to watch Liverpool play Chelsea in the 1970’s, as the outcome would be inevitable. Today, everybody wants to watch Chelsea play Liverpool or Manchester United or Tottenham or Arsenal or even Leicester City for that matter. This stands as testament to the positive effect rich owners have had on the game. More teams are evenly matched now than they ever have been in the past.

People say that the Paolo Maldini’s, Javier Zanetti’s, and Franceso Totti’s, who were the epitome of loyalty and being one-club players, were a thing of the past. Most cite the advent of money as the cause for this loss of loyalty. I think this statement needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Are rich owners the cause of players who are mercenaries? I do not agree with this notion. The only reason owners are blamed, is because of the hefty transfer fees and wages involved. However, what people do not understand is that this was evident in the past too. There were players who would pledge their allegiance to their clubs and there were players who would move around depending on where they could get the most money. The hefty transfer fees are not indicative of a change in loyalty of players but rather of economic progression in the world. Inflation and development has led to greater trade and higher prices for goods. The evidence for this in football is the transfer fees paid for players. Today you come across players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic who go where the money is. This is not exclusive to today’s world. In the past players like John Burridge, Andy Cole, and Jimmy Glass often moved from club to club depending on what they were offered. This journeyman attitude reflects on the character of the individual player and not necessarily the change of loyalty towards a club as a whole. The world still has its share of one-club players. Steven Gerrard and John Terry are testament of that. These players are the epitome of loyalty in the modern English game. Even if loyalty was lost from the game we still would be enjoying what we love the best. Who would not want to see Hazard leaving defenders for dead or Di Maria glide past players with ease? We became fans to see these players ply their trade, we will continue to be fans as they provide us with thriller action week in week out whether it be in Spain, England, or Italy.

Often you hear people declare that money ruins football, giving clubs without financial resources no chance. This statement oversimplifies the existing status quo. The advent of money in to the game has been, in my opinion, the biggest equalizer in the sport. Clubs like Manchester United, Barcelona, and Real Madrid have such a rich history and tradition with regards to winning trophies. In that context, without financial backing it would be almost impossible to overcome the empire these clubs had built. Since the likes of Abramovich and Sheik Mansour of Manchester City, the playing field has been somewhat equal. We’ve seen the dominance of Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool halted in England with the emergence of Chelsea and Manchester City. One could say that five competitive teams is not that big of an improvement from three. But what’s important to note is that if not for the emergence of these two new teams others would have stood pretty much no chance. Nobody wants to watch a Premier League with two winners over 11 years. Everybody wants to watch a Premier League with competition. A six horse title race gets everyone’s blood pumping and heart’s racing. But even if the Premier League started being dominated by five teams I for one would enjoy that much more than a Premier League dominated by Liverpool for over two decades from the 1970’ s-1990.

Premier League fans in particular have seen the effects of money in football prior to the era of rich owners. The inception of the Premier League, in 1992, saw the increased flow of television deals and sponsorship money in to English clubs. This allowed teams like Manchester United to attract better names since they now had the resources to compete with Liverpool. Rich owners are simply the next step in this process of evolution. The platform they create allows Chelsea and Manchester City to compete with Manchester United much like added resources helped Manchester United over haul Liverpool in the 1990’s. These new resources have helped England compete better in Europe as well with Manchester United and Chelsea winning the Champion’s League in the recent past.

Chelsea Champions League win A strong claim against the increase in competition is that we don’t see surprise Champions League winners anymore like we did with Nottingham Forest, Feyenoord, and Steaua Bucaresti in the 1960 – 1990 period. However, one needs to understand that given the globalization of brands like Real Madrid and Barcelona it is extremely unlikely that any club could pose a legitimate and consistent threat to these teams. We see evidence when we look at the winners of the Champions League since 2000. Except for Jose Mourinho lead Porto in 2004 all the other clubs that have emerged as winners, were European giants at the time they won the title. It is nice to see a surprise winner, but today’s Real Madrid and Barcelona would inevitably find a way to thwart these threats much more effectively than they could in the past, because the wealth of resources they possess has grown immensely with the growth of the sport. Secondly, these surprise winners were only ever that. After one or two seasons of glory they’ve descended in to oblivion. The only way to consistently challenge the big clubs in the world is if you have the resources. Chelsea serves as evidence of this. With the backing of Abramovic, Chelsea have been able to mount a consistent challenge both in the Premier League and in the Champions League over the last decade. Surprise champions may provide temporary excitement but the real ambassador for the sport is when one could expect multiple teams to win the Champions League and not expect it to be a tussle between Real Madrid, Milan, Liverpool and Barcelona.

Even in the period of  “surprise” champions the Champions League was dominated by the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Ajax, Milan, Internazionale, Manchester United, and Liverpool. This is not what I want to see as a lover of the beautiful game. I want to see the day where Red Start Belgrade can win the Champions League and then go on to defend that crown. The only way they could develop to this extent is if they gather resources that would help them to continually grow. If we’ve learnt anything over the past decade Chelsea is a constant threat and a genuine big team in world football. Red Start Belgrade never was that, is not that and possibly will never be that without an Abramovich of their own.

Leicester AtleticoThe second question that arises is, what about clubs that do not have rich owners or a strong history? Do they stand no chance of winning? When we look across the top leagues in Europe, the answer to that question becomes apparent. Only last year we saw Atletico Madrid trump Barcelona to win La Liga and not too long ago Borussia Dortmund overhauled Bavarian giants Bayern Munich to the German crown. In England you have the likes of Everton who consistently make it to the top five and you see clubs like Leicester City, Crystal Palace, Sunderland teach footballing lessons to the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea. One of the biggest attractions of the English Premier League is that any team could beat anyone on a given day. All these examples show that clubs without financial backing can in fact challenge for top dog honors in their respective leagues. Who said there were no surprise champions anymore? Surely, not even the most die hard of fans would have predicted Atletico Madrid to topple the mighty Barcelona and Real Madrid. Surprise packages are well and truly alive. They keep the rush of excitement even in a world increasingly being influenced by money.

It’s also important to note that new ownership and funding is not a recipe for success. Just ask Queens Park Ranger’s fans if you need more information. Tony Fernandez’s take over was seen as a platform from which QPR could go on and become a heavyweight in English football. However, that very season QPR got relegated. Despite being promoted since then, they are still struggling to establish themselves in England’s top league. This example shows that rich owners pumping money in is not a guarantee for success. In order for success to be achieved it’s important to have a plan that focuses on achieving success. This is what we have seen at Chelsea and Manchester City.

Multi billionaires owning football clubs has also lead to a rapid growth in football around the world. The advent of more money has lead to club’s increasing their international presence in continents like Asia and North America. Manchester City’s plan to become a powerhouse in world football has lead to partnerships with clubs in New York, Melbourne, and China. The intention of this move may be selfish but it’s going to be a massive boost for the presence of football in these regions. The presence of a massive European football brand and the transfer of players like Lampard, and David Villa will provide an immense incentive for people in these regions to start playing and supporting football. The reason for this is people in these continents are exposed to the sport more by these ventures. Most countries in Asia do not have proper facilities to train and play football. Expansion strategies by European clubs provide people in these continents with the necessary facilities to become more engaged in the sport. Furthermore, pre-season tours provide fans from these countries to experience their idols in person. These opportunities strengthen the bond between fans and their club. It creates a spirit of inclusiveness that incentivizes following of one’s club. Another spill over effect of rich owners is the increased level of competition at Europe’s highest level, the Champions League. Fans can now experience not just Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich playing beautiful football but also the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, and Paris St. Germain.

The reason for these developments is quite obvious. These owners aren’t simply businessmen looking at their latest investment. During the process the club they own becomes their team. Much like parents take pride in their kid’s achievements and help them through their tough times, owners experience the highs and lows of a season just like the most die-hard supporter out there. This has led to them wanting what’s best for their clubs. This is what makes football unique even if an owner just wants to make money he would have to do what’s best for the club because in the long run that is what brings about the most money. This allows for stability to be developed after the initial injections in to the club are made. Unlike in the 70s owners are more likely to stick with their clubs because of how global the sport has become. If anyone says that money has ruined football. I would tell them that their opinion is misguided. The example of Chelsea shows that given time injections by rich owners could be developed in to a model of sustainability. The past decade has shown us that this is the most successful means of consistently competing with clubs that have a rich tradition and history.

We as fans expect few things: excitement, passion, edge of the seat action and most of all beautiful football. Owners like Abramovic, have done football the world over a massive favor in delievering this very brand of football. To accuse them of ruining the beautiful game is poorly analyzed criticism. ‘Sugar daddies’ work for the name on the front of the jersey as much as anyone else does. It’s time we as fans started appreciating their contribution to the sport without turning a blind eye towards the good and simply pointing out the flaws. Every system has its flaws. In this case the benefits far outweigh the flaws. In this sport where one’s club means more than life or death, it’s easy to be side tracked by emotions. Rationality shows the true impact of money on the sport. And it’s anything but negative.

Jeevith Senaratne

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