BBC4 recently broadcast a series on the history of British science fiction, covering novels such as 1984 and Brave New World that presented dehumanised future societies. Had it been made a few months later, they might have been able to include a section on the dystopian hell recently conjured up by Peter Kenyon. In late November, talking of the forthcoming match with Man Utd, Chelsea’s chief executive offered a nightmarish vision of the near future.
“By 2014,” he said, “we want to be internationally recognised as the number-one football club.” Kenyon thinks Chelsea are on their way to this target as they are already “as a brand, more dynamic, more relevant” than his former employers at Old Trafford. Expansion plans include moving to a bigger stadium, increasing the fanbase worldwide, and hoovering up domestic and (please note, José) European trophies. All this, Kenyon proudly reported, constitutes a “ballsy vision”, which meets with the approval of Roman Abramovich. Well it’s balls, certainly.
Not long ago, Kenyon’s vision was “to own London”. Now, the world. Next week, returning to science fiction, Mars. Chelsea may well be the biggest football brand on Earth by 2014, depending on how that is measured. Sales of merchandise, perhaps, or simply recognition, in the manner of surveys that say Muhammad Ali is more famous than the Pope. But they are already world leaders at some levels – such as losses. Chelsea lost £140 million in the last financial year, £20m more than the total of Leeds’ infamous debts and, whatever Kenyon may say about targets for breaking even, simply stating an aim doesn’t make it happen.
There is only a certain number of glory-hunters who will actually change football allegiance on a whim, even with globalisation. Yes, there are always new fans to pick up, but the twin histories of Liverpool and Manchester United, England’s most global clubs, do not bode well for Kenyon’s plans. United continued to pick up support far and wide during the 22 years from 1968 to 1990 when they won just three trophies and Liverpool were becoming dominant; the pattern has repeated itself in reverse of late. There is something more socially acceptable about being seduced by past rather than present glories, too, even for children.
Is it possible for Chelsea to become the world’s biggest club? Yes. But it is probably incompatible with the target of breaking even, as the marketing cost to gain each new fan may well exceed the value, especially for those fans on the wrong side of the world who will never visit Stamford Bridge and whose replica shirt may be of doubtful provenance.
That is one of the bizarre aspects of the Chelsea revolution. The club are not spending money just to acquire fans, but if you believe Kenyon’s claims then that is effectively the prime reason for all the expenditure. Clubs have always welcomed new supporters as a byproduct of success, but till now that has not been the reason for seeking trophies in the first place.
Chelsea are not alone in spending in order to acquire fans, rather than service existing need. José Mourinho’s recent complaints about the noise levels at Stamford Bridge echoed those of Thierry Henry about Arsenal’s new home. Being a fan no longer means you are in any way “fanatical”. There are plainly those turning up at the Bridge, as well as at the Emirates, expecting to be entertained in the same manner as they would at the Odeon or Her Majesty’s.
Maybe Kenyon will pull it all off – at God knows what cost to the rest of the game. But for now, there’s only one Chelsea “fan” that matters. There’s a sense that Roman Abramovich would be happy watching his team play in an empty stadium (perhaps watched by a few of his mates; maybe not this week). The players are there to entertain him, like dancing slave girls in front of a Roman emperor. And if it wasn’t for Abramovich’s crash-proof riches then it is certain that Kenyon would not be conducting his experiment: no one looking for a financial return on their investment would fund deficit spending on this scale.
We may only be a decade away from a world full of people wearing Chelsea replica shirts and countries where Abramovich’s birthday is a national holiday, Kenyon’s face is on stamps and a Lampard is a unit of currency (worth ten Bridges). But if Kenyon’s forecast looks like falling short, rather than spending money to lure supporters in, he could just go the whole hog and start paying people to come to the new ground.
From WSC 239 January 2007. What was happening this month