I’m a sports fan. I see the value of participation and I share the excitement of watching but lately I have lost my enthusiasm for teams. I’m sick of the loss of the Corinthian spirit and I loathe the impact which money and professionalism has had. This may sound old-fashioned but unless something changes we will have less and less sport to follow. Our sporting culture has been ruined by allowing democracy and market forces into a part of our lives in which it they have no place.
There was an excellent article by Boris Becker just before the Champions League final in which he outlined why he loved Bayern Munich. He brilliantly pointed out that the highlight for his team was to see the young local players progress and how they were always the fans’ favourite. Celtic’s magnificent win in the 1967 European Cup Final is remembered everywhere outside Scotland because all but one of the Lisbon Lions squad was born within 10 miles of the ground. The great Manchester United team in recent times has been built on a core of homegrown players – they’ve done it the right way. Barcelona has its magnificent worldwide reputation because of its clear identity as a Catalan club that would not accept sponsorship.
Consider the alternative approach. Teams in Britain have tried to buy their way into the Big Time with disastrous results – Leeds United, Blackburn Rovers, Hearts, Portsmouth, QPR, Gretna, Rangers, and Monaco all thought they could spend some money and break into the top ranks, with full support of their fans. Money has also ruined other sports – names like Allen Stanford, Kerry Packer, Hansie Cronje, and even participants in badminton and snooker. If it isn’t match-fixing its gambling, drugs or destructive breakaways. The true impact is revealed as players are “injured” or committed to more profitable activities such as pre-season tours rather than playing for their country. Are the fans really glad they took the approach they did? Despite all the warning signs we now have a whole new set of clubs in the starting blocks to do the same – Chelsea had a head start but now Manchester City have taken over. In Europe Paris St Germain, Monaco (don’t they ever learn?) and Anzhi Makhachkala have found rich owners willing to spend.
History tells us time and again that money cannot buy long term success in sport. But if the principle that spending money creates a winning team is true then the consequences are just as dire. The world economy has for many years been based around North America, Japan and Europe and the highest grossing sports teams with the biggest TV followings have most so happened to be in the same places. Imagine that the sporting world follows the work economy. The clues are already there with Anzhi’s ambition. Other hints come from the fact that Brazil’s Corinthians (now there’s an ironic name) are now in at number 16 in the world’s richest football club list. Whereas currently the rest of the world screens Premier League games live we could find our TV screening Chinese League 1. It may seem far fetched but money talks and gate receipts have no sway whatsoever. Whenever the football deal is renegotiated, Sky wins because no-one else can remotely compete with the money they are willing to pay. The deal funds the player purchases and attracts the interests of overseas investors. Rupert Murdoch thinks in global terms however. If the best football isn’t being played in Europe he will take his investment elsewhere. Scottish football has already seen the sudden winter caused by Setanta’s collapse.
So is there any hope? North America has realised the risks of a free market in sport. They discarded the idea of promotion and relegation many years ago by controlling franchises in their major sports. Sure they wanted the revenue but they also wanted longevity and they realised that having a competitive league where all fans stood a chance of success was key. As a result baseball has had 7 different winners in the last 10 years, American Football 7 winners, the NHL 9 winners and the NBA 5 winners. Compare this with just 11 different winners in English football in the last 50 years and only 8 different Scottish winners in the last 110 years! The American diversity has been achieved through salary capping and the Draft system which also has the benefit of drawing in an interest in College sports too. The league system helps to control costs by having geographical control. The impact, of course, is fewer teams but with a bigger fan base. As a fan though, you know that some shrewd selections and a great coach can lead to success – there are no long term dynasties and you can’t buy success.
In Europe clubs like Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Barcelona have built brands with some resistance but it is highly unlikely that new clubs can do anything to rival them even in the medium term. The main problem is that no matter how much money you have, someone else has more and players are disloyal. Despite this, fans continually criticise their clubs for not committing financial suicide with no thought for what will be left behind for their children. The vaunted Financial Fair Play regulations would go some way to redressing the balance but there are always ways of challenging in law or finding ways round the system in a market economy. Is there a better way?
As I write this, Yorkshire County Cricket club are top of the County Championship and are on top against Surrey in their latest game. For many years they only selected players who were born in Yorkshire and saw counties such as Surrey usurp them. This season they are supplying England with Jonny Bairstow, Tim Bresnan and Joe Root while at home Adil Rashid, Andrew Gale and the rest are making names for themselves without any overseas players (albeit Antipodeans with British passports in some cases). They’ve had their money troubles in a game of low attendances and are reaping the benefits of the economical selection policy.
There was a time that local sporting teams were everything. They could bank on the support of fans in their thousands to come and support just because they were local. For many there was no chance of seeing the big teams but there was just a glimmer of hope that the local small team could become the national big team. For every Wolverhampton Wanderers sliding from First Division to 4th Division there was a Wimbledon or Wigan making their way up. TV coverage was restricted to highlights and served as an advertisement for the big teams coming to the local ground in the FA Cup or league. We have a great advertisement in Ashbourne with Shrovetide street football. There is no chance of Up’Ards or Down’Ards gaining promotion, attracting an oligarch, or of players being transferred, although the WAGs are often out on the town. There is no sign of a third team attempting to demand a place in the Hug through the court system. By definition the teams are selected by birthright and as a consequence there have shockingly only been two different winners since records began.
The true Corinthian spirit is right under our noses.