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Is football really a free market sport?

July 6th, 2009 Posted in Culture by

football and cashA major disadvantage in being a convinced free marketeer and an impassioned supporter of Southampton Football Club is that I get precious little sympathy when I whinge on about how my beloved Saints can’t compete fairly against the big teams because of the wealth gap.  Grumbling football fans of chronically underperforming teams are a pretty sorry sight in the best of circumstances. But when you’re also characterised as a supporter of “the weak should go the wall” approach to business,  you elicit even less sympathy than normal.

Nevertheless, the news that stinking rich Chelsea have received a £40m bid for John Terry from even more filthy rich Manchester City has made me consider again whether football really is a competitive market or whether it’s just a badly structured oligopoly that’s heading for disaster. The offer for the services of Terry is about four times the amount needed to buy ailing  Southampton Football Club in its entirity.

In most markets, that’s just the way things are, and so be it. But football requires not just competition, but fairly dramatic swings in the fortunes of different clubs in order to thrive and excite. If in the annual results for supermarkets consistently put Tesco in first place, Asda in second and Sainsburys in third, with a string of other smaller shops making up the numbers, the consumer needn’t suffer and needn’t care.  

Not so with sport. One key reason for football’s worldwide appeal is that – in all but the most extreme circumstances – professional matches are genuinely competitive. The underdog nearly always has a genuine chance of winning.  That key selling proposition is in danger of disappearing in English football – especially over a 38 or 46 game season.

As is so often the case, the Americans have the right approach. Although some pundits claim that their sports regimes are more “socialist” than the European equivalents, in fact the only real difference is that the Americans realise that the key “products” are baseball, football, basketball and ice hockey – not the individual franchises/clubs. They therefore operate a system which ensures something approaching a level playing field amongst competitor teams for the sole purpose of generating an engaging and exciting sporting spectacle.

Since the English Premier League was formed in 1992, only four clubs have won it (and one of these  – Blackburn Rovers – readily accept they will never win it again). In the same time period, eleven teams have won the baseball World Series – and a further eight have been runners-up (meaning that nearly 2/3 of all Major League Baseball teams have competed in the “grand final”).

So, I don’t support nationalising football. But I do support making the League, the FA and UEFA the key financial bodies and the promotion of English and European football the key aim.   If it’s too late to stop the global “brand expansion” of Man Utd and Chelsea, then perhaps the best thing for the sport is for the big four English teams to sod off and join Florentino Perez’s Euro super league and leave the remaining 88 clubs to devise a system that is genuinely competitive – and based on footballing performance rather than a club’s ability to attract a supportive sheikh or Russian oligarch.

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18 Responses to “Is football really a free market sport?”

  1. Joe Otten Says:

    Nice try. But clearly the club is the product when you can afford to buy one as a luxury consumer item.

    You and I might disagree, but we don’t have the spending power to shift the market.


  2. Mark Littlewood Says:

    Well, the club is the product. That’s the problem. It’s all about selling Man Utd shirts in Singapore…


  3. Gareth Aubrey Says:

    And even at a basic level there’s a total lack of realistic financial control (particularly with Florentino Perez whose efforts at Real are entirely based on buying players with debt) which allows teams beyond a certain size to expand like a stock market bubble…


  4. Ziggy Encaoua Says:

    ‘I get precious little sympathy when I whinge on about how my beloved Saints’

    That’s if there is to be a Southampton Football Club I heard its about to be wound up

    As you say you get little sympathy but hey if you supported a decent team like Celtic you might 😉


  5. Julian H Says:

    Decent in what sense – one of the worst away records in Europe and a capitulation in the league to Rangers?


  6. Ziggy Encaoua Says:

    How ma\ny European Cups have Arsenal won?

    Who was the first British team to win the European Cup?


  7. Julian H Says:

    Football didn’t start after WWII and the formation of pan-European club football – it was thriving before then, and the Arsenal dominated world football in the 1930s, being widely considered the best team in the world. To prove this they played the World champions, Italy, and won. Herbert Chapman’s teams pretty much invented counter-attacking football as we know it, all of which, methinks, somewhat outweighs a few rounds of a knock out competition ’67.

    What’s your connection with a club several hundred miles from West London, anyway?


  8. Ziggy Encaoua Says:

    Yet again I ask how many European Cups have Arsenal & Southampton won?

    Me thinks the answer is zero

    In fact I think Celtic have reached more European Cup finals then Arsenal

    As well as the win in ’67 we reached the final in ’70 & should of beaten Feyenoord.


  9. Tristan Says:

    In the same time period, eleven teams have won the baseball World Series – and a further eight have been runners-up (meaning that nearly 2/3 of all Major League Baseball teams have competed in the “grand final”).

    But not the Cubs :( Oh well, there’s always next year… (and the year after that, and the one after that…)


  10. Mark Littlewood Says:

    Southampton have never won the league. Never won the European Cup. Won the FA Cup once – very much against the odds. Wouldn’t expect us to win it again, ever. Might win a League One – or possibly even Championship – trophy in the next five to ten years. That’s the absolute maximum height of Saints’ ambitions.

    Oddly enough, I didn’t choose my football team based on picking up a copy of the Rothmans football directory and checking which team had a large amount of silverware.

    I’m not sure Celtic have won anything of much significance in the last forty years. I doubt Scottish league football teams can compete seriously in the Champions League nowadays. An occasional good run to the knockout stages of the Champions League or a few fun days out in the UEFA Cup (or whatever its called now) is the best that any Celtic or Rangers fans can ever hope for these days.

    Sad.


  11. Julian H Says:

    Ziggy – why Celtic?


  12. Ziggy Encaoua Says:

    ‘But not the Cubs Oh well, there’s always next year… (and the year after that, and the one after that…’

    Use to be like that for Redsox supporters


  13. Ziggy Encaoua Says:

    ‘I’m not sure Celtic have won anything of much significance in the last forty years. I doubt Scottish league football teams can compete seriously in the Champions League nowadays. An occasional good run to the knockout stages of the Champions League or a few fun days out in the UEFA Cup (or whatever its called now) is the best that any Celtic or Rangers fans can ever hope for these days.’

    Let me remind you that in 2003 if it weren’t for a goalkeeping mistake Celtic would of won the UEFA Cup

    ‘Oddly enough, I didn’t choose my football team based on picking up a copy of the Rothmans football directory and checking which team had a large amount of silverware.’

    Yeah but Southampton ain’t the closest league team to Wokingham is it?

    No that would be Reading


  14. Ziggy Encaoua Says:

    ‘Ziggy – why Celtic?’

    My Grandpa was an Irish Catholic & have a guess what team he supported I just carried on the tradition


  15. Charlieman Says:

    Nice try, Mark, but you’ve missed the politics of soccer by half a goal net.

    Read the Tom Bower book. Question whether player sales are good for clubs or for managers or for agents (who may be family members of managers).

    Super leagues only provide wealth to the super teams. Remember the vision of Premiership telly money and all of that, cascading to grass roots football? There’ll be even less money for Everton and Villa and whoever won promotion if a super league is created. And fewer people will watch the Premiership, so less money from that pot.


  16. Mark Littlewood Says:

    If it wasn’t for a defensive error in 2003, Saints may well have won the FA Cup. But we didn’t. Like Celtic, we haven’t won anything of note in over three decades. Like Celtic, that will continue for three decades. Probably harder to win the FA Cup than the UEFA Cup IMHO, but not much in it.

    I didn’t pick my team by looking at a road atlas either.

    @Charlieman. I don’t think the cascade downwards has been enough to make the Premiership competitive, although the Boltons and Blackburns et al are obviously richer than they used to be, the gap is bigger. I think a separate European Super League would change the dynamic, because I think there is more interest in games such as Villa v Birmingham, Sunderland v Newcastle and Saints v P****mouth (okay, those teams aren’t all in the same divisions, but the point stands) than e.g. Man Utd v Rosenborg, Liverpool v Sporting Lisbon or Arsenal v Anderlecht.


  17. Ziggy Encaoua Says:

    ‘Super leagues only provide wealth to the super teams’

    A European Super League would probably suit Celtic better then the league which play in now.


  18. Charlieman Says:

    Mark, my comment about cascading wealth was ironic. At various times, the FA and others have attempted to reduce the size of the pot taken by the Premiership teams. If I recall correctly, 10% of TV income for lower league funding has been assigned; perhaps somebody could update me on what really happens.

    I agree completely that local derbies are why British (and I mean British, rather than UK) football works as well as it does; the big ones in the lower leagues, such as Leicester City v Nottingham Forest deliver the income to pay wages for a couple of months. If there was a European super league, British soccer would continue as is, but the step difference between national games and the super league would be even greater than between Premiership and Championship leagues.

    Ziggy is spot on regarding Celtic and the “wrong league”. But that argument applies to all sports where the UK gets away with presenting four national teams or leagues. If England had to play against Catalonia to qualify for the world cup, perhaps the FA would think again.