carnegieXchange: School of Sport

The Dirty Dozen Capitalists: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Capitalism has been in the English Premier League's (EPL) fabric ever since the English Football Association (FA) created it. It is not surprising then that some of football capitalists are exploring new markets.

Large, crowded football stadium

The 'big six' signing up for a new league (market) has caused more turmoil than the ongoing civil wars and global crisis, with even England's Prime Minister getting involved. Of course, this is not new and has bubbled away consistently since the nineties. So why now? It looks more likely for two reasons; global clubs look for growth in saturated markets and the reported €7 billion backing of investment company JP Morgan Chase.

Elite European football is a world of high finance with billionaire owners and millionaire players. Unlike other industries, football continues to perform well even through recessions and periods of global crisis. For example, European football still reported $26 billion in revenue amid the covid-19 pandemic, compared to $28 billion the previous year, according to consulting firm Deloitte. Like any other, it is an industry of imbalance, with 60% of this revenue coming from the 'top-5' leagues: English Premier League (EPL), Spanish La Liga, German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A and French Ligue 1. The imbalance continues with the EPL generating €3.5 billion compared to Ligue 1’s €900 million. These imbalances continue throughout individual leagues, with a small number of teams dominating financially. Given the consistent financial performance, even during downturns, it is not surprising that investment companies want to capitalise on Europe’s premier sporting property.

What is the actual issue? It is the war of capitalists, nothing more. The EPL and UEFA are set to lose billions if this new league succeeds. For example, UEFA generated €2.8 billion from the 2019 Champions League, and the EPL’s £5 billion broadcasting rights bubble is about to burst. Therefore, it is no surprise the EPL and other European counterparts are threatening the 'dirty dozen' with 'heavy sanctions’ for signing up. Ironically, this response seems more about wealth protection than protecting the game. Even then, the banishment from other domestic, supranational and international competitions may not outweigh the potential economic gains of an elite super league, backed by investment banks, conglomerates, sovereign wealth funds, governments and the worlds 1%.

Capitalists are well aware there is no such thing as a free lunch so the short-term pain may not equal the long-term gain of potential new markets and explosive financial growth. Without the backing of other football leagues and authorities, this new league will become an isolated product, and the operational design would have to be reconsidered. That, of course, does not mean it won't work.

Banning players from international competition is another ploy to save their wealth. At first glance, this may seem more compelling. Yet, it assumes playing for your country is the pinnacle of footballing prestige. This new European elite proposal may become the footballing pinnacle to a footballer career. It also assumes footballers value playing for their country more than the financial rewards and commercial opportunities likely to be attached with the proposed concept. In effect, it may force players to become footballing nomads, mercenaries of the game. It may be enough for some, but not all.

Football’s current power war is between capitalist administrators (governing bodies, leagues) and wealthy club owners. Add capitalist broadcasters like Sky Sports into this power war, who have enjoyed years of monopolistic power, and the situation becomes uglier. The leading media broadcasters across Europe are likely to enter an incredibly aggressive media rights auction, probably against up and coming online streaming broadcasters like Amazon prime.

Fans are likely to buy into the narratives of disarray. Most fans will believe it is the end of football as we know it, much like the generation of fans who went through football's first capitalist project, the EPL. Most fans, with some exceptions, have enjoyed the proceeds watching the best global talent playing week in week out. Is this where football fans draw the line? Hyper-commercialisation is acceptable when it affords our team the advantage?

Let's assume the top-six leave the EPL. There is an argument it can be positive, affording the other 86 (or so) teams in the English football pyramid to compete for prizes rather than merely surviving the hyper-commercialised market. Mid-table battlers may dominate. Yoyo clubs may become regulars. The gap between top and bottom will be smaller, and competition may be rife. Will the money be less in the EPL? Yes. Will the money be less in the English Football League? No. Will the EPL talent be less? Potentially. Would it be good for English lower-leagues? Probably. Will it provide more winning opportunity for fans, most of which have only experienced disappointment and little glory? Most certainly. Of course, the true sports enthusiasts will point out any glory without the top-6 devalues the glory. That may be a lesser burden to bear than watch more clubs disappear due to the capitalist system.

As turmoil unravels, little is known about how this will actually work. It is operationally hard to fathom it being connected to domestic leagues. It would work much better if we let the super-rich play among themselves in a separate elite for the transnational fans. For certain, the arguments being played out are the tensions of football as a business and football as a social and cultural institution. The latter has been in decay since 1992 and the FA’s ‘Blueprint for Football’.

Is it good? Yes, for the capitalists and some fans.

Is it bad? Yes, for some other capitalists and some fans.

Is it Ugly? Most definitely. 

Dr Alexander Bond

Senior Lecturer / Carnegie School Of Sport

Alexander Bond is a Senior Lecturer in Sport Management and leads the MSc Sport Business Management. He also leads the Management and Governance Theme for the Research Centre of Social Justice in Sport and Society.