Ken Early: Big money in football may not last forever
The costlier football becomes the greater the chance people will just turn off
Uefa insist they have “strengthened” the FFP regulations but such a claim is hard to square with the fact Manchester City’s net spend this transfer window is €165 million (€227 million). Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Arsène Wenger is the only Premier League manager who regularly issues big-picture bulletins on the state of the game. Last week, the man who did more than anyone to popularise the notion of “financial doping” in football expressed his disgust at Uefa for apparently giving up the five-year struggle to reform the economy of the European game according to the principles of Financial Fair Play.
“It has gone,” Wenger said. “I have seen the signs coming from Uefa for a while now. I thought for a while FFP would happen but now it is not possible. The clubs threatened to go to civil court . . . That brought a lot of insecurity in the decision making of Uefa so they started to soften the rules a little bit.”
Uefa insist they have “strengthened” the FFP regulations but such a claim is hard to square with the fact Manchester City’s net spend this transfer window is £165 million (€227 million). That is equivalent to the entire 2014 turnover of clubs like Atlético Madrid or Inter.
Kevin De Bruyne’s move to City is significant in that it is the first time a reigning footballer of the year from the German, Spanish or Italian leagues has left that league to join an English club. Jurgen Klinsmann was the German footballer of the year when he joined Spurs in 1994, but Klinsmann was already playing abroad at the time, with Monaco.
In the past, the major European leagues simply did not lose their very best players to England, but the gigantic Premier League TV deals, in tandem with the recent appreciation of sterling against the euro, are ushering in a new era.
This trend is set to intensify in the medium-term. The Premier League’s new domestic TV deal kicks in at the beginning of next season, at which point the team that finishes last in England will be earning more from domestic television than any European club except Real Madrid and Barcelona.
That poses some interesting questions, because if Bournemouth are earning as much from television as Barcelona, something has gone wrong. With all due respect to Harry Arter, more people would rather watch Lionel Messi. It looks as though the market is due a correction.
Some may argue that fans aren’t paying to watch Bournemouth or Barcelona per se, they’re paying to watch the Premier League or La Liga. And La Liga was subverted long ago by the power of the big two clubs, who hogged the TV money so ruthlessly that all the others were starved into insignificance. Most of the matches between the big two and the rest are now so one-sided that they’re hard to watch.
The Premier League has done a better job of protecting its competitive integrity, with the champions making about 60 per cent more than the league’s bottom team. The result is that more of the matches are worth watching. We’ve just seen a weekend in which Crystal Palace beat Chelsea, West Ham beat Liverpool and Swansea beat Manchester United. And yet it’s hard to look at pictures of Steven Fletcher posing next to a €350,000 Lamborghini Aventador and not suspect the existence of an English football bubble.
There is a hidden cost to the enormous TV deals from which English football is benefiting. Aside from a few FA Cup matches on the BBC, fans in England can no longer watch top-level club football on free-to-air TV. English fans pay more for the privilege of watching football on TV than fans anywhere else in the world, and the cost keeps climbing.
The clubs are taxing the fan base and making it more difficult for them to keep in touch. The league and TV companies act as though the demand is inelastic and inexhaustible, but that belief may be based on out-of-date assumptions.
For the TV companies, there is evidence of a worrying trend from the United States, where the number of cable TV subscribers peaked in 2012 and has been in decline since. Now that people have access to limitless quantities of free content online, many are deciding that pay-TV is an extravagance they can do without.
Then there’s the question of the intrinsic long-term appeal of the game itself. The declining popularity of baseball in the US shows no sport is impervious to changes in popular taste. Things which fascinate one generation are boring to the next. The dense novels that enthralled Victorian England attract few readers now – as Kingsley Amis wrote: “What do I care if they liked it that way then because there was no television.”
Football is basically the same game that first became a popular mass entertainment during the inter-war period. But the people who watch it have changed. Attention spans are shorter. Football asks its spectators to devote their attention for 45 minutes at a stretch to a spectacle that doesn’t involve them at all. Will that conception of entertainment always command the interest of audiences that have become accustomed to interactivity?
Already it’s obvious that many people who watch football prefer posting on social media about the game to actually watching it. The costlier football becomes to follow, the more likely it will one day be regarded as that thing people used to sit and watch in the days when there was nothing better to do.