The show must go on
As things restart in England, a new stage in the game’s financialisation is about to begin, argues Paul Demarty
How things change. Back in February, it seemed that the bombshell story of the English football season would be the exclusion of Manchester City from the Champion’s League by the Union of European Football Associations (Uefa).
That story, for what it is worth, is still rumbling on - the court of arbitration for sport has held its hearing and made its judgment, all in secret, and no doubt various lawyers are eviscerating it behind closed doors, as we speak. But even close readers of the back pages could be forgiven for not noticing at all, and little wonder. By the time you read this, the Premier League will have restarted after Covid-19 brought it, like everything else, to a grinding halt. On Saturday, the Championship - the highly competitive second tier - will resume as well.
This will, of course, hardly be a return to normal. After the fashion of the German Bundesliga, which restarted a month ago, stadiums will be empty of fans. The legendary noise of Old Trafford or Anfield’s Kop, the fearsome crowds at Millwall’s New Den - everywhere you find away managers telling interviewers that ‘it’s a tough place to come’ - all will be reduced to silence, covered over unconvincingly with piped-in crowd sounds. Players must travel independently to games: no team bus, and no flights. Social distancing, bizarrely, is enforced on the touchline, but not on the pitch, since it is, after all, a contact sport.
So what we are getting is Frankensoccer, if you will - a mutilated body, reconstructed with whatever limbs are available to hand. Superficially this is a purer version of the game, perhaps, inasmuch as there are fewer variables outside the elementary athletic competition between two teams of 11. Yet that is hardly the reality. You have to go pretty far down the hierarchy of teams, in normal circumstances, to find matches with no spectators whatsoever. Even in the sixth and seventh tiers, the rickety stands can hold a few thousand people. Football without fans is like cricket without the threat of freak weather.
But so it must be, so long as there is significant danger of a new wave of infections, because thousands of people travelling to a single place to be packed in cheek by jowl is just about the least epidemiologically responsible activity imaginable - far worse than fully reopening schools, for example - and may have already aggravated the infection rate in Britain (Liverpool’s home leg against Atletico Madrid shortly before lockdown is now suspected to have been a disastrous ‘superspread’ event).
The irony is that, in the aforementioned lower reaches, where match-day attendance is far closer to zero than in the Premiership, the season has been called off. Indeed, both domestically and internationally, the choice between abandoning and restarting leagues has been made almost entirely on the basis of economics. The only major source of revenue for smaller clubs is gate receipts - with no fans in the stands and endless Covid-19 tests to buy, playing on means bleeding money.
In the premiership (and the Bundesliga, plus the Spanish and Italian leagues), however, there is the pervasive corrupting influence of TV revenues. This sets up the opposite incentive, since not finishing the season would leave clubs in a position where they needed to pay back huge scads of money to international broadcasters - money that is likely already spent in many cases. The Premier League reckoned that giving up entirely would cost clubs close to £800 million in rebates to broadcasters, whereas proceeding with Frankensoccer would reduce that bill to something like £330 million (the actual sums will be decided by lawyers). The Dutch and French leagues were rapidly abandoned - and, not coincidentally, are not syndicated nearly so widely as the English and southern European competitions.
There is one more or less inevitable consequence of all this, and a few possibilities besides. The inevitable first of all: many clubs will go to the wall.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Bury had been liquidated, Bolton had narrowly escaped similar circumstances, and Macclesfield was in serious financial trouble. The sense before March was that Bury was the tip of the iceberg, with unstable finances rife in the league, and more crises to be expected over the coming years. Now the timetable is accelerated. A proportion of the semi-professional non-league clubs will never return, and turmoil is to be expected at least as far up as the Championship, where clubs in aggregate spend more than 100% of their revenue on transfer fees and wages, in the hope of getting some of that sweet TV money if they get promoted to the top flight.
Even the TV money is not likely to be so sweet, with games likely to remain crowdless until the new calendar year at least, and the plain fact that a Sky Sports subscription will slip beyond the means of millions of newly unemployed people, who may previously have been able to pay for it. If it is uneconomical for lower-league games to be played without crowds, meanwhile, it is difficult to see how next season can get underway in a couple of months. The pain is only just beginning. Again, long-term trends - dwindling pay-TV audiences, the occlusion of lower-league clubs by elite ones - are brought to a head.
This raises one of our other possibilities - that the consequences will be devastating all the way to the top. We will face a sort of football depression, where the arms race of player wages and transfer fees abruptly seizes up, team budgets contract dramatically and big money flees the game. The game’s gilded age, lasting roughly from the mid-1990s to 2019, will come to a shuddering halt. There is a real ambivalence among both fans and pundits about such an outcome: though the consequences will be devastating and unpredictable, that era has brought palpable unease, from ‘conservative’ pining for the tougher sport of the old days (combined with contempt for the entitlement of modern superstar players), to leftwing and liberal disquiet at the source of the clubs’ filthy lucre among oligarchs, Gulf monarchies and parasitic private equity firms.
So perhaps we might hope that football, at the other end of all this, might be reformed into something more modest than its present state (at elite level, at any rate), with the extension of fan ownership and more democratic relationships between clubs and their communities (rather than the PR-offensive philanthropy typical today). This is an unrealistic hope, in much the same way as its equivalents in other spheres of life. The list of things that should not go back to ‘business as usual’ after the pandemic is over gets longer every day: the national; health service must no longer be starved of resources, children must not go hungry, the homeless must not be turfed back out onto the streets ... and so it goes on. Likewise, a return to elite football as was - a hyper-glitzy international circus, watched by a dwindling pay-TV audience and an ageing hard core in the terraces (the only people who can justify to themselves the phenomenal expense of tickets to see top clubs) - is supposed to be something we ‘cannot’ do.
If this is to be the case, we will have to see truly momentous changes that destroy the economic infrastructure of elite football forever - say, if the pay-TV market was to collapse completely and thereby reduce the TV rights money tenfold. It is possible that this will merely follow from the economic chaos of Covid-19, but unlikely. In practice, then, the reshaping of football in a more egalitarian, mass form is a task for politics, and it is not likely to be high on the agenda of the government of the day, to put it mildly.
It is more likely, then, that football gets its own dose of disaster capitalism. The carnage at all levels of the game is least likely to affect its uppermost reaches - the generally accepted top six in England, plus the top Spanish, Italian and German teams, and Paris Saint-Germain. All have different sorts of financial insulation, be they individual sugar-daddies (like Roman Abramovich at Chelsea) or well-capitalised ‘corporate’ sports franchises (Liverpool, RB Leipzig), and long-standing commercial operations outside of gate receipts and TV rights. The plan in this layer has been, for a long time, to break free of their national bondage into a European ‘super league’, where nobody will ever have to face Burnley again.
So, with smaller clubs dropping like flies, the viability of the existing national club pyramids and grassroots structures will fall into question; there will never be a better opportunity to make the super league a reality. Though it will be a European property, it will be American in feel: a permanent oligarchy which reshapes the sport around it. Further down, the same outcomes are expected; a collapse in income for those top-flight teams left behind, and indeed for those scrabbling at their heels, who can no longer bet on some great pay day for sneaking into the Premiership or Serie A.
This poses a subtle set of problems for socialists. I take it for granted that football is a cultural achievement of humanity worth preserving in some form - as are basically all sports with real mass cachet. The forms in which these sports currently exist are, however, less than perfect from the human point of view, which is ultimately down to the deformations inflicted upon them by capitalism and the political strategies mobilised in its defence.
Football - being as it is the most popular sport on the planet - presents a particularly acute case; and English football - further afflicted by Britain’s financialised and pervasively corrupt economy - is the most acute case of all. It was English football that inaugurated the big-money era with the Premier League breakaway 30 years ago, and it is our comfort as a nation with dodgy money which built our elite teams.
But, while there really is a significant gap between that elite and everyone else, it is not a gap between capitalist clubs and somehow non-capitalist ones. The owners of smaller clubs are typically sentimental businessmen in the local area, and not infrequently more directly unpleasant than those at the top (think of the vile Oyston clan - the rapist father and his asset-stripper son - that ran Blackpool into the ground for years). As with capitalism in general, there is no possibility of a petty bourgeois utopia of small concerns: sooner or later, capitals will merge, and produce the sort of centralisation today reaching its apogee. Nor, for that matter, is fan ownership in and of itself the answer, as is demonstrated by the even smaller club oligarchy in Germany, where 51% of every club must be owned by supporters.
We must instead have the courage to imagine football after money altogether, and it is not a terrible sight. The gulf between supporters, players and staff could shrink; grassroots teams could multiply, rather than withering; the owner caste, appropriately euthanised, could be replaced by democratic stewardship. We might discover, in time, how much of the game was demeaned by the cash nexus - from the development of young talent to the prosecution of club rivalries.
Nothing of the sort looks likely to result from the Covid-19 crisis, however.