In 1997, twenty seven days after Tony Blair became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Mohamed Al Fayed completed his takeover of Fulham FC. In the process, he became the first foreign owner of an English football club. Six years later, Roman Abramovich bought into Chelsea FC and his success then led to many others following suit.
The rich had always clambered to get a piece of the action in previous decades, with clubs traditionally being owned by local business people. A big change occurred during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure in 1983, when the FA’s rule 34, which prevented people from making money from their involvement in football was first bypassed and then removed altogether.
The ownership model which relied on the philanthropic local businessman who was also a lifelong supporter saw a sea change and throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a new breed of British owners started buying into football clubs.
It surely wasn’t coincidence that this opportunity to profit from football saw its roots in Thatcher’s era. She was after all a huge believer of the free-market philosophy. Blair, during whose tenure foreign investment in English football began, and her are seen today as the key leaders whose neoliberal ideas have eventually resulted in Brexit.
Neoliberal policies have led to lawmakers world over conceding their authority to market forces, and while there have been benefits in the short term, eventually, it has led to an increase in inequality. Competition and deregulation have ensured that.
English football is still riding the wave however, much like the UK and US did under Blair and Clinton’s leadership. The deep rot in the economic systems they put in place have only become obvious in recent years. And it will be much the same with football in England and the continent.
On the face of it, it is all good. £8.3 billion in TV rights for the Premier League. It is easily the most watched in the world, shown in 212 territories, in 643 million homes, with an estimated potential audience of 4.7 billion people. The commercialisation of the league has been a neoliberal marketeer’s dream come true.
English football’s influence has spread far and wide and the benefits have been there for everyone to see. But dig a little deeper, and one finds stories of club grounds that are heavily mortgaged by their owners, once proud teams in decay due to mismanagement and a lack of real investment in infrastructure. For all the money the league generates, England still have an extremely average national team.
Overseas viewers still find the league to be a big draw but there aren’t even enough people watching anymore on TV in the UK to justify the big deals. Sky saw a 14% decrease in viewership last season. Pubs showing matches have been asked to pay more, but the margins are tight and a lot of them are finding it hard to manage costs. At some point, the TV companies will begin to realise that these huge deals do not make sense anymore.
English clubs see the Chinese Super League as a threat and they should. The quality in China and the fledgling Indian Super League will improve in the next decade, and football fans in the two most populous countries in the world will not have to look outside to find teams to support. As will be the case with other ambitious leagues around the world.
It will all go pear shaped fairly soon and most people will be left scratching their heads and wondering what went wrong. Neoliberals thrive on regulators doing their bidding, and football in general has had just the kind of people to facilitate that. Be it FIFA, UEFA or the FA. It is a world in which Neymar can buy out his own £200m release clause.
In addition to owners who have been reckless with their management, what has been scary in recent years is a growing irrationality in fans regarding transfer spend, even at the detriment of the clubs that they support.
One of the causes of the Great Recession that originated in the US in 2008 was an irrational exuberance in the housing market that led many people to buy houses they couldn’t afford. Everyone thought housing prices would only go up and then one day, the bubble burst and prices began to decline.
The financial regulators were asleep while all this happened as are football’s regulators today. The inherent problem with neoliberalism is that there are too few winners in the long term and far too many losers.
Among other things, it has contributed to recent recessions, Brexit and Trump. The Great Crash of English Football is around the corner.