Playing with numbers

More and more fans are having to deal with club owners with odd accents. David Spark examines what attracts overseas billionaires and what the deals mean for supporters

The theme of the season in the Premiership is the gold rush towards foreign ownership of clubs. Unlike the scramble towards stock-market flotation a decade ago, this gold rush is strictly limited. Only serious global ­capitalists need apply.

In 2006-07, West Ham and Aston Villa have been bought by Icelandic and US interests respectively, while the state of Dubai has Liverpool in its shopping cart and “mystery” investors stalk Newcastle and Manchester City. Manchester United (USA), Chelsea (Russia), Fulham (Egypt) and Portsmouth (France/Israel/Russia) all started 2006-07 under foreign ownership. By the end of the season, half the top division could be in very private, foreign hands, for the tendency is for the new owners (eg Glazer, Lerner) to buy up all the shares and delist the company from the Stock Exchange. At this rate, the traditional, local baron-type chairman – Whelan, Gibson, Madejski – will soon look like a dinosaur, an operator from another age unable to find a successor in the same mould.

The Premiership is the richest club-based sporting competition in the world when the global TV rights, sponsorships and betting add-ons are taken into account. But it is still not that easy to make a profit from year-to-year trading, so why does your typical billionaire on a Monaco yacht want to get involved? There are two big reasons. The Premiership is now a world stage to an extent that the English are only just beginning to appreciate. Wherever in the world you go these days, you can be fairly sure that, if Manchester United, Chelsea, ­Arsenal or Liverpool are playing, you will be able to watch it on TV. And, guaranteed, there will be two or three cutaway shots of the owner during the broadcast. However dull or murky your business beginnings might be, a seat at the Premier League table brings instant celebrity billionairedom. You are now a player in the biggest league in the world.

Moreover, you have a pretty strong guarantee that there will not be more than 20 players at this table. What you have is very rare, rarer than a Van Gogh – though, it must be said, somewhat higher maintenance. Today, the underlying asset value of rare goods can rise exponentially, as one Terence Brown recently found to his benefit, his share of West Ham United being deemed worth £33 million.

This gold rush has implications for the Premiership, the FA and the football politics of the country. Ultimate decision-­making within the Premier League lies with the clubs and any proposed major change requires a two-thirds majority of votes; that is to say it can be blocked by seven clubs voting together. It would seem that the point has been passed at which any patriotic (or Little Englander) resolution attempting to block or restrict foreign ownership could be successful.

The Premier League obviously have a major influence on certain FA issues, such as the England team and the FA Cup. Historically, men such as David Dein of Arsenal have been able to wear two hats and smooth away some of the difficulties. Your average foreign billionaire is unlikely to appreciate sentimentality and the grass roots in the same way, because there is nothing in it for him and nothing in him for it, the wider English game.

Watching Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea win 1‑0 everywhere is the sporting equivalent of watching local butchers, bakers and candlestick makers close down week by week under the lengthening shadow of a new Tesco Extra. It has the grinding inevitability of a process that no one can stop but that not many seem to support actively. Yet there is no talk of counter-revolution at the Bridge, the Glazers’ United attract the largest League crowds ever seen and in Ports­mouth the “fit and proper persons” test has not been a hot topic of debate. “He might be a billionaire, but at least he’s our billionaire,” is the usual message from the stands.

It is an attitude that suggests a further shift in what most fans want from football: more merchandise, less morality; more victory, less voting. The quality of footballers in this country has never been better. But the engagement with football itself will be of a different kind. Before this gold rush, the big story of the past decade in club ownership had been Supporters Direct and the democratic supporters’ trust movement, which had established control at a handful of smaller clubs. The anti-Glazer forces at Manchester United were not short of numbers (even right around the world) or ­enthusiasm, but their principal legacy is likely to be FC United of Manchester. Like AFC Wimbledon, FCUM represent a throwback to the traditional organisation and scope of a football club. Anecdotally there is evidence of a small drift of fans towards non-League football and its values. But it is not a tide.

Throughout the 20th century, it was possible to debate whether top-level football was a business or a sport or, most likely, an amalgam of the two. Either by buying shares in a limited company or by becoming a committee member of a club it was possible to feel that, in theory, a supporter had some influence. In extremis it was possible for Brighton fans, for example, to besiege the house of Bill Archer, their malevolent chairman.

In the Billionaire League of the 21st century, fans will struggle to besiege, for example, the state of Dubai. The fan of this future is destined for two roles. The first is as a customer that is captive to the “brand”, a sucker stuck to the club badge on bedside lamps, duvet covers and every other form of quasi-religious impedimenta. The second is as an ecstatic and obedient devotee in the stadium, part of the congregation of believers that validates the meaning of the whole enterprise. For without the crowd giving a very public endorsement of the club, the match and the competition, the television spectacle loses its worth and the worldwide audience switches off. The power of the fan now lies only in his destructiveness; in not turning up.

All gold rushes by their very nature end, some sooner than others. The only way sport will come back into top-level football is if the business side goes bust. Perhaps, for the first time ever, there is too much money in football.

From WSC 24o February 2007. What was happening this month