Yes, elite football is a plaything of global wealth. But it could be part of another, better England | David Goldblatt
LThe Premier League last week announced a six-year, $2.7bn (£2.3bn) US television deal with Comcast NBC, a sum that will boost the league’s annual revenue above £6billion and marks the point when revenue from foreign media rights exceeds domestic income. It’s a fitting marker for the league’s 30th season and its three decades of hyper-globalization. Firstly, the Premier League’s global television audience has overtaken domestic viewership. Then the all-foreign XI fielded by Chelsea in 1999 heralded the globalization of the league’s labor market; foreign players now make up around three-quarters of the club’s workforce. Foreign coaches, once entirely absent, are now in the majority, as are foreign owners, who hold majority stakes in 16 of the 20 clubs.
The league has benefited from a revenue-sharing model between clubs that ensures, if not widespread competition for the top spots, a fiercely competitive league on a game-by-game basis, as it has done through shrewd marketing, broadcast world class and the value of English as a global language. But it is economic globalization itself that has been the main driver, generating an upward spiral of growth. Over the past 30 years, seemingly unaffected by the global financial crisis, austerity and Brexit, the league’s annual turnover has skyrocketed by 2,900%.
However, while globalization has been the driving force behind the league’s growth, it has always relied on the local narratives and identities of English clubs to frame it and on the energy and culture of the English public to drive it. animate. Much of the league’s television appeal appears to be based on the intensity of the fans and the hard-fought attacking football it encourages, despite the huge increase in ticket prices, a rapidly aging audience and the effect of amortization of increasingly corporate stadiums.
These are all particularly English stories. As the last 30 years have seen a widespread sale of communal assets to foreign states, so too has football. The wild inflation of the housing market by the world’s super-rich is offset by the increasing and implausible prices paid for football clubs. With the unstoppable growth of a globalized financial sector paying huge salaries to a small number of people while increasingly disengaging from the rest of the national economy, the Premier League is an even sharper analogy to the economy. British; the lower leagues find themselves falling further and further behind, with club owners risking more and more debt in a bid to join the enchanted circle.
Not that they actually make money from the Premier League, where most clubs continue to rack up losses. But profit is not really the goal of the exercise. Mohamed Al Fayed did not buy Fulham and Harrods because of their rates of return, but to use them as tools in his long battle for British citizenship and entry into his elite. Roman Abramovich lost £1.5billion laundering his own reputation and managing his escape from Putin’s Russia. Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s exiled prime minister, bought Manchester City to send political messages back home. The ruling houses of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are certainly not relying on Manchester City and Newcastle United to fund their pensions, but are busy using them to restore their global reputations.
In this, too, the Premier League is a very English story, for it is obvious that power, voice and influence can all be bought by foreign individuals and corporations. Add to that the American billionaires, asset strippers, hedge funds and various Czech, Chinese and Greek oligarchs who have bought stakes in clubs and we have a reasonable cross-section of the global elite who call London home. . Look at the way Manchester City bullied the city council and the American owners of Manchester United and Liverpool tried to reform the Premier League to benefit big clubs and you get a reasonable idea of how business is now here.
Yet despite all of this, the Premier League, and English football in general, continue to offer glimpses of another England. Victory in the Women’s Euro came with a version of the English nation that was not only feminine but pleasantly devoid of WWII references. Widespread fan protest against the creation of the European Super League last year demonstrated deep resistance to the crude commercialization of closed leagues and forced the government to review its football governance policy. The Premier League’s support for Black Lives Matter and players who have chosen to take a knee has been among the most public and powerful statements of anti-racism in English civic life. Perhaps most notable of all, Marcus Rashford forced the government to change its petty school meals policy, while Fans Supporting Foodbanks, which collects donations on pitches on matchdays, has become one of the biggest grassroots initiatives in the sector.
What story will the Premier League tell us this year? The needs of the World Cup, shifted from its usual summer slot to a milder winter in Qatar, will see the league shut down for six weeks in November and December, promising to disrupt each team’s best-laid plans. But most telling, I think, will be to see what an ever-richer league will look like alongside rampant inflation, precipitous declines in real wages, widespread fuel and food poverty and no doubt harsh conditions. more extreme weather.
Given such extraordinary wealth, the league could invest a lot of money in a zero-carbon transition, as some of its most environmentally conscious clubs have begun to do; this could cushion the inevitable difficulties faced by clubs lower down the ladder who will be crushed by rising energy prices; he could support and finance the magnificent demonstrations of compassion and solidarity of some of his fans and players. Or he could, given his isolation from English society and his economic woes, choose, like the current government, to do nothing at all. It would be the most English story of all.