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Sport and money don’t mix well

Sport and money don’t mix well

Thursday 20 May 2021

The European Super League is just the latest example of a decades-long intrusion of business into sport. The people driving these changes don’t understand what they’re playing with


It was 1991. I was in Lausanne, interviewing the most powerful man in football, or as he would have put it, the world. This was João Havelange, president of Fifa, football’s world governing body. And I was struggling to get my bearings.

At the time, football was obsessed with the question of bigger goals: did it mean more scoring, more popularity, more fun for all? Or was that a betrayal of the game’s beauties? When I asked Havelange for his view, I expected vehemence, or perhaps the most urgent fudging. What I got was indifference.

Then came a lightning-bolt of understanding: he doesn’t like football. He’s not even interested.

***

In 2008, a helicopter landed at Lord’s cricket ground in London. It contained Sir Allen Stanford and a transparent chest containing $20 million in fake 50-buck bills. He was welcomed by two of the greatest of all cricket heroes, Viv Richards of the West Indies and Ian Botham of England. In the official photographs, you can see Giles Clarke, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, sidling into shot like the Benny Hill character Fred Scuttle.

It was seen, even at the time, as the most embarrassing day in the history of English cricket. It was supposed to be a mighty coup: England fighting back against the upstart Indian Premier League. Instead, it revealed the ECB as an organisation with priorities other than cricket.

To those who like the stuff, cricket means more than cash. But to the people running it, objections on that score were not only irrelevant but incomprehensible.

***

Havelange served as president of Fifa for 24 years and was later found to have accepted bribes worth more than $100 million. Stanford is currently serving a 110-year prison sentence for fraud. But all that’s by the by: what matters is the way these stories show how the people who run sport simply don’t get sport. They have no idea why people do it and why people watch it. Even if they once did, they have shifted their priorities to – well, as Steve Martin once explained in his stand-up days, he used to do far-out humour but now he’s more mainstream because that way you reach more people… and make more money.

Which brings us to an unprecedented event in football: billionaire owners of football clubs saying sorry. Joel Glazer of Manchester United, John W. Henry of Liverpool, and Farran Soriano, chief executive of Manchester City, speaking on behalf of the owner Sheikh Mansour, have all issued public apologies for their decision to take part in the European Super League.

This was the scheme in which the top 12 clubs in Europe – measured by income rather than attainment – were to take part in a private relegation-free competition. That doesn’t sound like an evil idea on the face of it: after all, it’s the model by which the major American team sports are run.

But it goes against the traditions of European football – most particularly those of England, where Manchester City, winners of this year’s Premier League, are technically connected to Redhill of the Cherry Red Records Combined Counties Premier Division, the first team I covered when I was on local papers. In theory, Redhill could win the Champions League within 20 years, and, for some reason, that matters. In fact, in 2016, Leicester City won the Premier League seven years after they were playing in the old third division. That connectivity is a matter of profound importance to the people who follow the game – and the owners of the straying clubs had no idea.

Glazer said “we got it wrong” and that he is “committed to rebuilding trust”. His reward was Manchester United supporters entering the ground and forcing the postponement of a significant match against Liverpool. It was a bizarre situation in which a match was abandoned because there were fans in the stadium.

The European Super League is a textbook example of business people attempting to make more money by selling their customers not just something they didn’t want but something that actively revolted them. The attempt of the Coca-Cola Company to market New Coke in 1985 is regarded as a classic cautionary tale of losing touch with your market. This ESL took the concept a good deal further.

***

How can you get something so horrendously wrong? How can you have so little idea of what your customers want? Perhaps the first error that sports administrators make is to think of their clientele as customers, to think of football as a product, and to talk about markets and brand recognition and image. Such thinking reveals their failure to understand sport and its followers. In football there’s an obvious clue and it comes in the form of a pronoun.

We.

We were struggling. We were lacklustre, but then we brought on Fred and we were all over them like rash. We scored twice and it was never in doubt. We’ve got City next, and I reckon we can do it if we win both our games in hand…

I am a customer when it comes to whisky, the phone in my pocket, the garments that keep out the cold. But I don’t say “we” when I discuss Famous Grouse, Apple or The North Face – and “we” makes all the difference. I am Heathcliff, says Cathy in Wuthering Heights: many, many people say we are Manchester United.

The supporters’ mistrust and hatred of the Glazer family who own the club, as shown by the great postponement, caused The Hut Group, which owns brand Myprotein, to pull out of a £200 million ten-year sponsorship of training kit. Supporters had been promising to boycott all their team’s sponsors in order to teach the Glazers a lesson about football, with a long-term view of getting them out. THG, feeling that commercial association with the club might be seen as an alliance with the hated Glazers rather than the beloved (up to a point) players and the manager, decided to get out.

***

I have a t-shirt in my drawer. It was given to me in mid-September 2005, and it bears the words “I can now die happy”. It commemorates the first victory of the England cricket team in an Ashes series for 16 years: the country basked in the unifying joy that can come from international sport. Andrew Flintoff, the hero of the series, was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year: bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be at The Oval was very heaven.

The England Cricket team celebrating the Ashes win in 2005

Ten years later, England won a tight Ashes series at home and Joe Root was officially rated as the world’s leading batsman. He didn’t even make the shortlist for the Sports Personality of the Year. Schoolchildren were shown photos of him: they had no idea who he was.

What had changed? In 2005, high on Ashes-winning glory, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) took the decision to leave free-to-air television and take the money from Sky. Since then, Sky has covered almost all England cricket, and done so extremely well. It’s just that fewer people can watch cricket. As a result, fewer children play and recruitment is increasingly restricted to public schoolboys, British Asians and South African émigrés.

A fair amount of the Sky money was invested in the England team, and plenty of things have gone well, including victory in the 50-over World Cup in 2019; the final was shown free-to-air, and the hero, Ben Stokes was, yes, BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Cricket still has power and meaning – but only when the sport is easily available.

The ECB, aware of the problem, has come up with a competition called The Hundred, and it’s more revolutionary than any European Super League. A traditional Test match lasts five days: matches in The Hundred will last two and half hours, one hundred balls each way, contested by teams with fancy names like Welsh Fire and Northern Superchargers.

There will be matches on the BBC, and it will all be available free on YouTube. The ECB says it will bring a whole new audience to sport. Well, why not? It’s been specially designed for people who don’t like cricket. But the reaction from almost all existing cricket followers has been horror.

Cricket lost its wider public when it went behind the paywall. Now, in a desperate attempt to win the lost ones back, it is alienating its traditional supporters. First they betrayed the floating voters in pursuit of money, now, in pursuit of money, they are betraying the heartland. 

Once, sport was run by cabals of clubbable old farts. Much of sport was still amateur. Professionals were not allowed to compete at the Olympics until 1988; rugby union finally became professional in 1995. Sport was run by well-meaning old boys with the best interests of sport – as they saw it – forever in their hearts. Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for 20 years until 1972, was a classic example of this trend: blind-eying blatant Soviet professionalism and espousing a long series of judicious hypocrisies.

But television was taking over the world, and sport is what television does best. Sport got ever more exposure and that gave it unprecedented financial heft. But how do you exploit financial heft? The question beyond the comprehension – still less the abilities – of the old farts. Sport was ripe for the plucking.

The biggest players in the new, financially aware world of sport were Havelange, Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the IOC from 1980; Horst Dassler, son of the founder of the sports brand Adidas; and Mark McCormack, founder of the player’s representation organisation International Management Group.

Havelange and Samaranch negotiated vast fees from broadcasters, brought multinational companies into sport, and presided over increasingly corrupt organisations. McCormack and Dassler showed what can be done by adroit use of the market.

McCormack I rather liked: he understood sport and was worried that money might become too important; that he and his followers might have succeeded not wisely but too well.

He had the enviable facility for seeing business as a natural process, inevitable as photosynthesis or evolution. As Pooh Bear could hear his honey-pots calling when far from home, so McCormack could hear the money. It seemed an almost apologetic process: sorry, but the market demands it. He knew what business could do for people who play sport, and he was the ideal medium for doing it.

A new principle was established and accepted. Why shouldn’t popular and talented people get decent money? Why shouldn’t sport make money as it pursues its daily task of bringing an inconsequent joy to the world? Why shouldn’t you get a fortune to go with the fame of winning the 100-metres gold medal? Why shouldn’t football clubs make money from football matches?

The next phase followed with inexorable logic. Sport makes money like a business, therefore sport is a business and should be run like a business. The time-tested principles of business would ensure that everything worked out for everybody in the best possible way.

This was the romantic view of money that ruled the 1980s: a Panglossian notion that something that makes money couldn’t help but be good for everybody. Once the trains were privately owned, unreliable services and overpriced tickets would be abolished at a stroke. In the same way, money would make sport a richer and happier place for everybody.

Big-time sport was first organised on time-honoured principles of gentlemanly hypocrisy. It was then rebuilt on the principles of Milo Minderbinder, the great entrepreneur in Catch-22: “Of course, I didn’t make the profit. The syndicate makes the profit. And everybody has a share.” And in the belief that what’s good for M&M enterprises is good for the country, he accepted a contract to bomb his own airfield.

***

The money in sport comes from visibility. The more viewers, and especially the more rich viewers, you can attract, the more opportunities there are to make money. It follows that primetime on the East Coast of the USA is the slot you want, which explains why the 100-metres final at the Seoul Olympics was run at noon, and why at the Beijing Olympics the swimming finals were in the morning and the heats in the evening, the reverse of the normal practice.

How far should you bend a sport to attract viewers? Tennis invented the tie-break, instead of playing on and on; cricket became the ever-shrinking game, with shorter and shorter formats; and football went for the penalty shootout, a way of finding the winner without disrupting television schedules. It’s got very little to do with football, but people watch it so who cares?

The Olympic Games keeps adding sexy new sports to please the uncommitted. In 1988, they introduced tennis, in search not of sporting excellence but ratings. In 2016, they brought in golf, in the hope that Tiger Woods would be striding to a gold medal across East Coast primetime. (The inaugural golf gold medal was won by Justin Rose of Britain; Woods didn’t even take part.)

The next Olympics were set to take place in Tokyo in 2020, postponed for the pandemic; they may or may not take place this year. Baseball and softball will be back, even though the standards of Olympic baseball are shockingly lower than those of the Major Leagues. Surfing and skateboarding will be introduced in a rather embarrassing attempt to woo the young. Karate will come in at the wishes of the host.

This rather wild series of innovations shows how keen the IOC is on chasing audiences, and therefore money. It puts at risk the very thing that makes the Olympic Games compelling. This is not a game show begging for viewers; it’s a global gathering in pursuit of sporting excellence, and watching it is supposed to be a privilege.

Let’s look at three essential business principles and see how they stack up when the business is sport. The first is competition. You’d think that was right up sport’s street, since sport is nothing if not competitive – and if you’re running a plumbing business in, say, Manchester, your aim is to wipe out all the other Mancunian plumbing firms. Like Monopoly.

But the problem in sport is that if you wipe out the opposition, you don’t have any sport; and if you weaken the opposition at the expense of your own aggrandisement, you get second-rate sport. The ESL was an attempt to wipe out the opposition.

In international sport, dominant countries routinely take profits and keep less successful nations – in both the sporting and the financial sense – in their place. It happens in rugby union and in cricket. The idea is to make sure that lesser nations will never be rivals. The people involved fail to grasp the point that in sport, rivals are precisely what you need. 

Such a situation can be changed, but that requires difficult things like courage and vision. They actually used both these things in Formula One, usually seen as the most money-obsessed sport of them all. 

Formula One has traditionally played favourites, especially with Ferrari and, in recent years, with Mercedes and Red Bull. These teams won most of the races and got most of the money – and the opposition teams were finding it close to impossible to carry on. But, in August last year, the participants signed the Concorde Agreement, in which all ten teams get equal payments for taking part. There is also a spending cap, plus rewards for success. It can be done: but it is not done very often.

A second business principle is to look for new markets: stagnate or die. A business should be restless, constantly looking to improve, innovate, sell itself.

But sport is not a product. It is a tradition, a culture, an idea; it is to do with love, loyalty, beauty and truth. Sport offers partisanship, drama and, above all, the pursuit and occasional capture of excellence. People have a kind of reverence for sport. Comparisons with religion are often strained: but sport, like religion, matters to people in ways that business analysis cannot express in numbers.

All sports have a core of true believers who love the sport. Sports administrators assume that such people will always be with them. So they don’t care about the people who love their sport: they care about people who don’t like it.

The third great business principle is that success is measured in money. If you’re making more money than before, you must be doing the right thing. That’s a dubious proposition in many actual businesses, but in sport it is disastrous.

Sport was not invented to make money, nor, for that matter, to entertain people. Sport is a struggle that is incidentally interesting, at least to spectators with a taste for such things. Therefore, it is something that incidentally makes money.

But if making money becomes the purpose of sport, sport becomes less and less like sport.

***

If there’s one thing the old farts and the modern sporting business-people have in common, it’s their conviction that they are the people who matter. But they’re not. Sport is about players. People watch it because of the players. People love to watch marvellous people doing marvellous things, winning, losing, and doing stuff we thought was impossible. It is from the players that sport draws every aspect of its money and its power.

Or to put that another way: what will happen to sport now that sport’s priority is no longer sport?