Thoughts on the business of football

I’d like to comment on the interesting Often Partisan article about the business of football.

I agree with Daniel that football is about money these days.  In one sense it always has been about money.  The men who set up the Football Association were well off and they had leisure time to play sport.  The original rules that prohibited payments to players were fine for rich men who didn’t need the money but the rules had to change when working class players became involved. Birmingham City turned professional in 1885 because their players couldn’t afford to take time off work to practice.  So the club agreed to give half of the gate money to the players.The change from clubs to limited companies was also dictated by changing circumstances.  As football became a spectator sport, clubs needed to invest in grounds and be run as businesses. It was prudent for the men who ran the clubs to protect themselves against possible loss by forming limited companies.

So I don’t believe that forming limited companies was the first step on the road to the financial ruin of football.  There is a better case for regarding 1983 as the year when the first steps were taken.  It was then that the smaller clubs’ share of football receipts went down as the rule for sharing gate receipts was changed.  In the same year Tottenham Hotspur worked out a way to get round all the FA rules by forming a holding company and floating it on the stock exchange.

I agree that football clubs have to be run as businesses but there is more than one business model to choose from.  I fear that the current model adopted by many clubs is unsustainable and while they are scrambling to get as much as possible of the golden egg of TV money, the football goose is dying.

When clubs are run as businesses and treat their supporters just as customers rather than stakeholders they risk alienating them.  High ticket prices and a disregard for the views of fans will drive them away.  That lowers the value of the product clubs are selling to TV because the crowd at a football game plays a vital part in creating the atmosphere that makes it entertaining.

There have been several examples of clubs alienating their fans and the fans concerned have made different decisions.  When Wimbledon was moved to Milton Keynes, some fans started a new club, AFC Wimbledon.

Manchester United fans who couldn’t stomach Malcom Glazer’s takeover of their club got together and formed FC United of Manchester.  On the ‘Who Are We?’ page of their website, they explain:

“FC United seeks to change the way that football is owned and run, putting supporters at the heart of everything. It aims to show, by example, how this can work in practice by creating a sustainable, successful, fan-owned, democratic football club that creates real and lasting benefits to its members and local communities.”

Other Manchester United fans have stayed with their club and seem to be content as long as it is successful.

The owners of Cardiff City seemed to be more concerned about the market back home in Malaysia than the local fans of the club when they changed the kit colour from blue to red.  Some fans feel this is a price worth paying for the investment that has been put into the club; others have stayed away.  It will be interesting to see what happens if they go ahead with the name change they have suggested and the club becomes the Cardiff Dragons.

I can’t imagine ever stopping supporting Birmingham City but at times I find myself wondering how I would react if I was faced with a situation like those the Wimbledon, Manchester United and Cardiff  fans have faced.  Is there something an owner could do that would alienate me from the club I’ve supported all my life and make me walk away?

Like Daniel, I’m hoping that Birmingham City FC will be  taken over sooner rather than later but I am not hopeful that new owners will solve all our problems.  More and more I feel that there needs to be a radical change in the way that football clubs are run in this country.