Incoming Deputy Editor Pete Syme takes us through the motives of football’s wealthy club owners, and the effect their investment has on the sport.
One of the biggest developments in sport has been the increase of capital flowing into professional leagues; most evidently in football. When Newcastle United broke the world transfer record to sign prolific hitman Alan Shearer in 1996 it cost them £15 million. Adjusting for inflation that’s £28 million – the same amount spent by Watford on Ismailia Sarr, who’s scored 5 goals in 18 appearances. The record has now ballooned to the £198 million PSG spent to sign Neymar. One cause of this is the money involved in TV rights, with the Premiership’s broadcasting rights being valued at £9.2 billion. However, almost all the big clubs are now owned by some of the world’s richest people who are willing to invest eyewatering sums to see their teams succeed at the highest level.
The most famous example of this is Sheikh Mansour’s purchase of Manchester City for £210 million in 2008 – a comparative bargain to the £2 billion at which they’re now valued. Under his ownership they became the first English men’s team to win the domestic treble, but are yet to win a European competition. His motivation for investing in the club has largely been seen as a hobby – it could be said that a successful football team is the new superyacht in a billionaire’s arsenal of toys. Indeed, comedian Frankie Boyle quipped that, when City win the Champions League, Mansour might turn to his assistant and say “I’m bored now, build me a robot spaniel.”
“IT COULD BE SAID THAT A SUCCESSFUL FOOTBALL TEAM IS THE NEW SUPERYACHT IN A BILLIONAIRE’S ARSENAL OF TOYS.”
Beyond this, though, there is also political motive. The Abu Dhabi United Group own a consortium of teams including New York City and Melbourne City, unified under a philosophy of playing entertaining, possession-based attacking football dubbed the City Way. The hope is that this reflects the wealth and luxury associated with the UAE capital, whose tourist industry has boomed in recent years. However, it would now appear that the rapid investments have backfired, with Man City facing a two-year continental ban for breaching Financial Fair Play regulations.
A more worrying example of club ownership is the role of Red Bull in taking over teams like Leipzig and Salzburg. After purchasing the latter in 2005, the club was swiftly rebranded, and the new owners declared “this is a new club with no history” even going so far as to update the club’s foundation year before being forced to revert by the Austrian FA. The move divided the supporters into two groups, the ‘red-whites’ who supported the changes, and the ‘violet-whites’ who wanted to preserve the club’s 72-year tradition. The company offered to maintain the original colours for the goalkeeper’s socks at away games – an insult which drove the violet-whites to form a new club. Ahead of their Champions League tie with Tottenham, RB Leipzig boasted on Twitter of their recent success climbing up the leagues in contrast to Spurs’ lack of trophies, with fans of the North London side berating them: “at least we weren’t built by an energy drink.”
In an era of increasing wealth disparity, football has taken the brunt of this with the marketisation of century-old clubs and rising ticket prices. The Twenty’s Plenty campaign was launched in 2013 to try to agree limits on the prices of away tickets, but it still has work to do. For example, just to see Stevenage take on Exeter in League Two earlier this year, it would have cost £23. The conceit of Red Bull in erasing the grassroots history of Salzburg exemplifies the worst of this, and it is no wonder that more fans are turning to the lower leagues and founding clubs like FC United of Manchester, or AFC Wimbledon, after their club was moved 81 miles to become MK Dons. Investment brings success, but at the cost of diminishing the fan involvement and passion which makes sport so entertaining.