At a recent session of the House Of Commons Select Committee on football, Martin O’Neill pointed out that English football was in need of a “reality check” to counter the inflationary trend of spending by clubs. The annual review of football finance by Deloitte’s Sports Finance Group for 2010, the most recent available, pointed out the unsustainability of current spending where wages increased by more than revenue in all four divisions in 2008/9, borne out by unprecedented numbers of clubs subsequently being forced into administration. Why are clubs acting this way when it seems to be so clearly against their own interests?
We frequently hear that players have all the power in football without it being fully explained. Players are able to do what they want when they want, with their clubs powerless to rein them in. To understand the complicity of our clubs in this, we need to acknowledge the role fear plays in their behaviour. Every club interested in signing a player believes that somewhere out there is another club ready to outbid them if they are given the opportunity. Contract renewals are not an exception. The only way to prevent this is to tie up a deal – whatever the cost – as quickly as possible. In short, wage inflation is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It happens because clubs believe it might.
I’m loath to criticise anyone for maximising their own earnings. After all, if anyone deserves to be rewarded in football it’s the players, who actually provide whatever entertainment spectators receive. If someone is prepared to pay it then they’d be fools not to take it. But players and their agents have become so adept at screwing extreme amounts of money out of clubs that it’s killing football. We’ve had three straight years of double-digit percentage wage increases in both Premiership and Championship. Wages have increased in both leagues by a total of around 50% over the whole of that period, during which the rest of the world have suffered the effects of a devastating recession. The average wages-to-revenue ratio in the Premiership is up to 67%, in the Championship it’s a staggering 90% on average. Newcastle’s wages-revenue ratio for the season spent in the Championship was 90.6%, despite slashing the wage bill by the close of the 2009 summer transfer window.
Anecdotal evidence of players having too much money is common. Cristiano Ronaldo wrote off his Ferrari and went to training in his Bentley instead. Obafemi Martins managed to burn his way through his entire wage of £75000 a week, every week. Jermaine Pennant reportedly left his Porsche at Zaragoza railway station for five months, either forgetting that he owned it or being too busy to move or sell it. It’s not only elite footballers. The Deloitte report notes the very bad value most clubs get for their wage spending. At the very top and very bottom of the table, the higher spending clubs finish ahead of the lower as a rule. But between those extremes there is little or no correlation between wage spending and league position. Those clubs who overspend in an attempt to close the gap with the top tend to be wasting their money. That’s no real surprise as they are paying wages approaching those of the very top clubs while managing to sign only those players not good enough to attract the successful clubs.
Judging by the past, clubs may think, fans will continue to stump up increasing amounts to fund the generosity of clubs. This was behind Niall Quinn’s unfortunate criticism of his club’s fans for staying away in increasing numbers and watching games on TV in pubs. He seems to think that a fan’s loyalty is measured by the amount of money they pour into club coffers. In reality some of those the club mean the most to won’t spend a penny on the club, because they have next to nothing to spend. In a situation where I had a fiver a week to spend on myself, I wouldn’t save up and buy a ticket for a home game every six or eight weeks. I might, however, pop into my local for each match and nurse a couple of pints during the game. Quinn’s comments, that he despised such people, give the impression that he believes his club are entitled to that money, that it is somehow theirs by right. If they, in common with pretty much every other club, weren’t funding massive wage inflation it perhaps wouldn’t matter so much.
The bottom line is that you and I fund the lavish lifestyles of quite ordinary players through our ticket money, the merchandise we buy and subscriptions for tv sports channels. Newcastle fans are quite rare in having an opportunity to freeze the already sky-high prices they pay for their tickets. Kids are being priced out of football, and the forced gentrification of the game and freezing out of the lower-paid are all the result of the wage demands of our heroes. Self-regulation by clubs won’t work, because there’ll always be someone tempted to risk everything to reach for the stars. The only solution would appear to be legislation, either via football’s governing body or Parliament itself. Statements to the Select Committee have recommended that UEFA’s football finance rules be applied to all league clubs instead of just those wishing to take part in european competition. That would effectively apply a salary cap, not on an individual basis, but to a club as a whole based on an agreed sensible percentage of revenue to be spent on wages, at last placing some sanity into contract negotiations. It would have the added bonus of giving clubs currently struggling financially , Newcastle in particular, more of a chance of competing with similar-sized rivals. The very richest clubs would unfortunately remain virtually unchallengable because they’ve built their squads before such rules take effect and so without financial contraint, but setting their current advantage in stone would be a small price to pay for removing the players’ stranglehold on the game.