We are occasionally reminded that, although the amount of money in football has increased dramatically over the last two decades or so, football isn’t quite the “big” business that we might occasionally believe it to be. Real Madrid’s annual turnover is reported to be over £300m, which sounds like a lot until you start comparing it with other businesses. Edinburgh-based Morrison Construction, for example, have an annual turnover of £500m. Tesco, a company which one might say matches the biggest football clubs in the world in ubiquity, turns over £1bn per week.
Further down the pyramid, we are faced with what are essentially small – tiny – clubs that are struggling to stay afloat. These are organisations whose playing staff and coaching staffs will be the only people paid by them (the backroom staff will usually be volunteers). They are still “clubs” in something approaching the pure sense of the word. In football terms, the grand dividing line over whether you are a proper club or not is whether you are full-time. Do you pay your players a living wage, or do they also hold down jobs elsewhere?
There is something slightly paradoxical about the thin line between the pros and the semi-pros. There are a large number of “professional” footballers that earn no more than you and I. By contrast, there have long been players that have quit clubs when they have turned professional because they won’t earn as they much as they did combining semi-professional football and their day job. Turning professional is also seen as being something of a gamble. In signing up players on professional contracts, clubs are taking a gamble that everything will work out alright. It has to. Their biggest single expenditure is about to increase by forty to fifty per cent, or more.
Twenty years ago, the Football Conference was largely semi-professional. Football’s trickledown effect has not, however, worked as we might have thought that it would. The fundamental principle of trickledown theory is that as the get richer, the benefits of their economic activity will benefit worse off people. It’s a fundamentally flawed theory, and it has applied itself in an extraordinary way in football. Football has chosen to follow the path which says that you have to speculate to accumulate. Clubs have spent much of the last twenty years trying to keep up with the Joneses, which has turned out to be a thoroughly fruitless path for most that have followed it.
All of this brings us to the subject of the recent announcement of Gateshead Football Club that they are to turn professional and build a new 9,000 capacity stadium. The appeal of such a decision to their supporters is obvious. Better players and a better chance of a strong position in the Blue Square Premier, the highly competitive league into which they have just been (somewhat unexpectedly) promoted. However, is it the right decision for a club with a current average home attendance of 685 be making such a decision?
The only rational answer to that question is “no”. The club has already confirmed that they will stay full-time should they be relegated this season. The chairman appears to be a wealthy man, but seldom do modern football club owners jeapordise their own financial positions in order to try and guarantee their clubs a higher league position. The money is usually “invested” in the form of loans. The club has also confirmed that it will stay full time, even if it relegated at the end of this season. Gateshead currently sit two places and one point above the relegation places in the BSP. Relegation would surely make a full time policy untenable, even if they were able to keep their heads above water in the BSP in such a position.
Added to this mix is their proposed 9,000 capacity stadium. This is a fifty per cent increase on the figure that has usually been quoted over the last few years when talk of a new stadium for the club has been suggested. There is no question that their current home, the International Stadium, is wholly inppropriate. With an 11,000 capacity and an athletics track, it is an athletics stadium into which a football club has been shoehorned. However, the question needs to be asked of whether a club the size of Gateshead needs a new stadium that holds that many people. Costs start to spiral when building bigger facilities, and there are no guarantees that better facilities will bring vastly bigger crowds. In addition to this, regardless of the size of the crowds that are there on match days, the day to day running of such a facility is considerably higher than the cost of running a smaller stadium.
Gateshead’s crowds this season might have been higher. With Newcastle United relegated from the Premier League, they might have expected to attract a degree of residual support from those disaffected at the way that they were being run. This, however, doesn’t appear to have happened and, whilst the poverty of the facility that they currently inhabit may explain a degree of apathy towards them in the local community, it seems unlikely that they will ever get anywhere near being able to be self-supportive if they do turn full time or come anywhere near to even half-filling a 9,000 capacity stadium on anything like a regular basis. A more sensible policy might be to build a smaller, higher quality stadium and reach out into the community, spending within their means and developing a support that loves the club because of what the club gives them. It’s a crazy idea, but it might just work.