The beautiful game is sullied by commodification. Regulation should empower the fans at its heart.
It was a rotten spectacle. Last year’s World Cup in Qatar was built on the bodies of thousands of migrant workers and flew in the face of half-hearted attempts by football’s global governing body, FIFA, to include LGBT+ fans.
This was, however, the logical endpoint of a process that has seen football depart from its social-democratic roots in favour of pure commodification. Clubs across Europe are increasingly controlled by hedge funds, instrumentalised as soft-power tools by state actors or treated by oligarchs as personal playthings.
Limited attempts at regulation by national and European football associations have been drowned by this sluice of cash. In Spain, clubs have responded to the requirement to include buyout clauses in players’ contracts by setting these at ludicrous levels—in some cases over €1 billion. In Germany, RB Leipzig has made a mockery of the 50 per cent +1 rule, requiring (with few exceptions) that Bundesliga clubs be subject to majority fan ownership—charging €1,000 for membership. It has also invented the near-nonsensical name RasenBallsport (Rasen means grass/field) for itself, having being prohibited from calling itself RedBull Leipzig (after the controlling drinks company) by the Deutscher Fußball Bund.
But it is in England where this process is most advanced. In 1992, the old Division One was replaced by the Premier League, by which the top clubs seceded from accountability to the Football League and the Football Association in favour of ‘commercial independence’. A deal with the private broadcaster Sky brought soaring television revenues, concentrated increasingly in the hands of the richest clubs—coinciding with soaring ticket prices for most fans and games timed to favour broadcasting schedules instead of their needs.
Sop to moneyed interests
Nor is this regulation deficit confined to the national federations. The European governing body, UEFA, seems too to be unable to enforce its ‘financial fair play’ rules—which in any event control only how much debt clubs can accrue, not how much cash their owners can inject to buy trophies. The Qatar sovereign-wealth fund’s de facto ownership of Paris Saint-Germain has in effect ensured all other clubs in Ligue 1 compete only for the remaining European qualification places. The expansion of the UEFA Champions League to 36 teams from next year is a sop to moneyed interests within the sport at the expense of player fatigue and fan budgets.
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With the publication in February of a government white paper, however, England is set to become the first federation to have its own football regulator. The envisaged body has laudable aims: to clamp down on the financial mismanagement of clubs, prevent teams from joining breakaway leagues, such as the abortive European Super League, and give fans some say in preventing changes to club colours or crests.
The proposed remit of the regulator is fairly conservative, however. It would do nothing to reverse commodification but rather freeze it in place. The regulator might stop new owners attempting to instrumentalise clubs or prevent some smaller clubs from collapsing through poor bookkeeping and planning. But the fundamental power balance of English football would still be tilted firmly against fans.
At the heart of these failures of regulation is a collective-action dilemma: no federation wants to limit its own clubs’ competitiveness. It is no coincidence that in Germany the loudest voices pushing against fan-ownership rules have been the board of (majority-fan-owned) Bayern Munich—who worry about falling behind English clubs whose wage and transfer budgets dwarf their own—alongside Red Bull and the former Hannover president Martin Kind. Preventing individuals from having full control over the decisions of a club limits their desire to pump money in.
This is not just a problem between leagues but within them. In England, in the rare case where a club has been fan-owned, fans themselves have generally sought to sell their stake, to compete financially with private enterprises. One has to go down to League 2—the fourth tier—to find the most successful fan-owned club in England, AFC Wimbledon.
Most fans of Newcastle FC welcomed the takeover of the club, after 14 rocky years of ownership by the head of a British sports retailer, by a Saudi-backed consortium—undeterred by the ghoulish murder of the dissident blogger Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Turkey in 2018. The team’s turnaround on the pitch this season, competing for a Champions League place, has only strengthened this support.
The root cause of instability is not financial mismanagement but the extreme concentration of wealth at the top of the pyramid among mostly self-regulating Premier League sides. Even they are threatened with collapse when purchasers use leveraged buyouts to saddle a club with debt, as with Manchester United under the Glazer family, or the personal fortunes of an individual or company on whose success a club depends evaporate, as with Chelsea under the sanctioned Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.
The solution is twofold. Other countries should follow the model of England’s football regulator: instead of a race to the bottom, federations should move in tandem to create new enforcement powers on matters such as club ownership and ticket prices, in addition to prudent financial management. And these regulators should vest true power with fan groups, club members and supporters’ associations, if not move towards a model of outright fan ownership similar to the 50 per cent +1 rule in Germany.
Without these steps, football risks slowly throttling the fan culture that made these teams such an attractive commodity in the first place.
Oz Russell is a freelance writer doing a masters in comparative politics at the London School of Economics. His areas of interest are nationalism and ethnic politics, the politics of sports, and right-wing parties and organisations.