1 April ~ For journalists used to writing match reports rather than covering the commercial side of football, the annual Soccerex conference is a shock. Clubs can take stands at the venue in Manchester and Burnley, Huddersfield and Wigan were all there in 2010, when Qatar’s quest for the 2022 World Cup filled one end of the hall with a giant hospitality tent. With the World Cup hosting wrapped up, Middle Eastern largesse is absent this year and Birmingham City are the only Premier League club in evidence, but Soccerex has hardly been hit by the downturn.
Celebrity attendees ranged from Hristo Stoichkov to Bryan Robson and the hall was crammed with stands from companies looking to turn a buck from football. Hardly anyone noticed when Andrea Traverso, UEFA’s head of club licensing, disclosed that an audit of the accounts of Europe’s top clubs in 2010 is expected to show combined annual losses of circa €1.8 billion (£1.59bn), up 50 per cent on 2009.
Delegates’ ears did prick up when Traverso revealed that "specialist monitors" will be used to enforce UEFA’s new Financial Fair Play (FFP) system aimed at stopping clubs haemorrhaging money on transfer fees and wages. The new monitors will rule on whether cash injections from rich club owners that are described as being for sponsorship or naming rights are genuine deals done at a "market value". It's not clear whether UEFA’s own staff will rule on these deals, or if the private sector will provide the moderators, adding their own margin to an initiative aimed at curbing those spiralling losses.
One session entitled "All clubs great and small – the differing commercial challenges" best summed up the prevailing mood. The layman could be forgiven for thinking a small club is one three or four rungs down the English ladder, but no. The "smallest" team at this session was probably Leicester City of the Championship, recently enriched with significant funds from Thailand. The representatives on the panel, meanwhile, were from Ajax, Fiorentina and Boca Juniors, whose tentacles now include youth set-ups from Australia to Bolivia, Ecuador and El Salvador.
Ajax’s articulate head of business development moaned that the four-time European Cup winners "clearly cannot box ourselves up against the major brands", but he would have earned little sympathy from fans of a truly small club. The session was concluded by panel moderator Esteve Calzada, Barcelona’s former marketing chief, summing up what most Soccerex visitors probably think: "The panel agrees that there will be a bright future with a few exceptions as fans will always be around." What if they weren’t? What if the fans were suddenly sick of being drained financially? That didn’t seem to occur to anyone at Soccerex. Steve Menary