The Coronavirus Pandemic Is a Blessing in a Dark Disguise for the World of Football
Football’s systemic economic flaws have long been known. The coronavirus pandemic could be the catalyst for some much-needed change.
The superpowers of the football world include the likes of Manchester United, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. These global phenomena are no longer simply football clubs, but rather major international businesses. The attraction of extortionate wage packets, mouth-watering sponsorship deals and lucrative broadcasting agreements have caused those at the zenith of football to detach themselves from the rest of the footballing world, creating an almost impenetrable ring of footballing and economical success.
While there have been instances whereby a less likely club has won a major honour since the dawn of the huge wealth disparities in football — such as Montpellier winning the 11/12 Ligue 1 title, or Leicester City defying 5000/1 odds to be crowned Premier League champions — these occurrences are extremely rare, which is what makes them so special.
Neither Montpellier nor Leicester have ever come close to that feat again, though, and it appears that, in order to bring sustained success to a traditionally lower-achieving club, a huge cash injection is required, predominantly in the form of a new club owner. For example, in their 109-year history prior to a gargantuan takeover by Saudi billionaire Sheikh Mansour, Manchester City won just nine major honours. In the 12 years since, they have won 11.
Evidently, money talks.
However, there remains hope. Currently, we have an unprecedented occurrence which can help change happen. The coronavirus pandemic is a blessing in a dark disguise for the world of football.
In the short-term, the cancellation of football, then the recommence of it without fans, has — and will continue to have — a devastating impact financially — especially for the smaller, less wealthy clubs.
The most direct impact on clubs is the drying up of matchday revenues. While heavily-supported teams sell a lot of season tickets — take Arsenal, for example, who sell 45,000 season tickets per season (74% of their average attendance) — the lack of matchday income may well destroy some lower tier clubs. League 2 outfit Plymouth Argyle sold 2,300 season tickets in 2019, which is just 20% of their average crowd. This means that 80% of their matchday income from ticket sales alone will be lost, which is seismic compared to the 26% lost in Arsenal’s case.
Then there’s everything else. It’s believed that matchday income represents, on average, approximately 30% of the overall income for lower division teams. As well as ticket sales, this includes sales from food, drink, merchandise and more.
Making up a sizeable proportion of the remaining 70% is community funding and reliance on local businesses. Naturally, dwindling prosperity in an uncertain financial time — in addition to a lack of games and fan attendance — means this factor will also be severely affected, exacerbating the situation.
So how is this worldwide pandemic positive in any way for football?
Well, it will be a catalyst for some much-needed change. In the long-term, the positive economic effects will outweigh the negative effects, as football finally learns its lesson.
The English Football League (EFL) will be more pro-active in how they deal with owners of clubs, and the Premier League will divert (at least slightly) from their money-hungry principles in order to help other clubs not only survive in their ‘elite’ division, but also compete. Evidence of more serious monitoring of club ownership has already been seen, as the Premier League have ostensibly rejected a much-anticipated takeover by Saudi investors of Newcastle United, due to large-scale controversy surrounding the project — though no one truly knows what’s happening, not-least the currently heartbroken Geordies.
In a time of financial uncertainty, massive takeovers may cease to exist for the foreseeable future. Although I am not against large-scale takeovers of clubs (when done right, they can have a myriad of positive effects for fans, finances and football) the Financial Fair Play (FFP) system — in place to ensure takeovers are fair and legal — leaves me — and most others — with no hope. A fairer FFP system would be a gigantic leap towards a better world for football. Perhaps a re-brand of FFP will also be some good to come of the pandemic, although UEFA’s suspicious recent decision to retract punishment for Manchester City over several years of alleged rule-breaching would suggest otherwise.
The economic implications of the pandemic will also result in a deprived transfer market this Summer. For instance, Manchester United — a traditional ‘big spender’ — expect losses of up to £112 million, as stated by their Chief Financial Officer. This clearly depicts a dearth in transfer funds. With most clubs in a similar situation, top clubs will be forced to trust their — oftentimes rejected — youth ranks, thus establishing opportunities for home-grown prospects and promoting the use of youth football as a viable option for success.
Alternatively, with less funds, buying clubs could look for left-field and, ultimately, cheaper options to bolster their ranks. Again, this grants opportunities for less likely players, and it also helps the selling clubs stay alive, as they receive sums of money which may be huge for them, albeit pocket-change for the top dogs.
The pandemic looks to have created perennial damage. But football is different.
For a sport proudly based upon working-class and socialist roots, the beautiful game has become too capitalistic. The coronavirus will resolve this.