Mark Murphy spent all week peering through the windows of the Soccerex European Forum in Manchester, and found that, even in these financially straitened times, there were plenty of people prepared to part with over £800 in the pursuit of making even more money from football.
To judge by newspaper and website reports (and without a delegates fee of £775 plus VAT to hand, I had to), the recent Soccerex European forum in Manchester was a rather panicky gathering of the clans. On the lengthy attendance list were delegates from clubs and football organisations across Europe, from BATE Borisov to Accrington Stanley, whose three-man delegation would have taken a chunk out of an average matchday gate. Previous such events, “football-industry conferences” as the main protagonists like to style them, have had similar agenda:
Item 1: We’ve got loads of money, how do we make loads more?
Item 2: Any other business.
Last week’s version couldn’t dare be so bold. Hence the session on “Financial Prudence”, the directly-entitled BBC debate, “Football in the Red”, and the number of speakers who drew the same conclusion about football’s folding finances, that “something must be done” – even if they didn’t get round to “what” must be done in the two days available. Soccerex was the original football “industry” gathering, with its first such event taking place at the old Wembley in 1996. It was the brainchild of Duncan Revie, son of Don, the legendary Leeds United manager of the 1960s and 1970s. He had observed a music industry event in 1995, wondered if football needed something similar and, being in the “events” business himself, knew just the man to organise one.
Revie junior, displaying the self-absorbed attitude that obstructs sensible industry decisions to this day, noted recently that his idea came “shortly after the Premier League was formed and there was no necessity before then.” Because, of course, there was never any big money in football and none was being miss-spent, before then. Since the first events, however, Premier League broadcast deals have grown exponentially, leading to young men with football brains and footballs for brains earning huge annual salary figures as a weekly wage, all in a general economic context of growth and prosperity. So, like the Premier League itself, these conferences haven’t had to deal with tough economic times before. But it was an industry conference which famously questioned the Premier League’s business model for the first time.
Unfortunately for Soccerex, it was the smaller “Leaders in Football” event at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge in October 2008 which did so. “Leaders in Football” was something of a breakaway conference, formed as it was by former Soccerex director James Worrall. And its first do contained a double whammy. The FA’s independent chairman Lord Triesman a) told the world that the never-ending Premier League riches were all on tick, and unsustainable tick at that and, perhaps more importantly, b) said so without giving the watching and listening (and, soon no doubt, spluttering) Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore any prior warning that he was about to do so.
Not even the wealthy backers of the Stamford Bridge affair could have bought the amount of publicity which followed, none of it bad. Last year, “Leaders in Football” tried to follow that up, it seemed, by going for the comedy touch. Sulaiman Al-Fahim was invited to speak, as he was Portsmouth owner when the guest-list was being finalised. Fortunately, Al-Fahim (“Al-Fantasist” according to the latest issue of Private Eye) he didn’t make it because he was out-the-door at Fratton Park by the time the conference came around, never to be seen again…if only. Unfortunately, Fifa vice-president Jack Warner did make it, and somewhat besmirched the event with a long, crackpot speech and his trademark self-importance.
A chance, then, for Soccerex to bring itself to the forefront of the collective football psyche. And “luckily” for them, Portsmouth crashed into administration immediately pre-conference and a chief executive of one of the local clubs, a Mr David Gill of Manchester United, had something to say about someone. The programme was a suitably chastening, almost downbeat list. “Leaders in Football” during the good times had talks on “Understanding how football can deliver a return on objectives for sponsors” and the programme was all marketing opportunities, global brands and “best practice in commercial hospitality.” Soccerex had to ask “Can Europe’s elite balance the books?” (let alone anyone else). And by the time the second morning began with the launch of this year’s Deloitte Money League report, Deloitte’s Dan Jones had to remind his audience that “there’s more to the football finance story than debt.”
Of course, debt was about half the story when David Gill took to the stage on the second afternoon for a 30-minute interview with Sky Sports’ Matt Lorenzo, whose brief spell as Notts County communications director made him a part of one of this season’s worst debt stories. Gill, still fresh from a verbally bruising encounter with Birmingham University students, wasn’t about to take any questions from the floor. Instead he took the well-documented opportunity to try and discredit the “Red Knights” – the indeterminate group of rich men ruminating over a bid to buy Manchester United. The club’s PR-strategy appears to be to focus on the bid’s only public mouthpiece, Keith Harris – Manchester United fan and “leading football power-broker”, according to all newspapers at some stage since larger clubs entered the takeover merry-go-round.
Accusing Harris of being a publicity-seeker has, of course, afforded him some unsought publicity. And it is unclear whether personal attacks go down better with the football audience than the political one, which has shown an increasing distaste for such things. Gill was wise not to take questions, even disregarding what he had to say about the Red Knights. His declaration that “our debt is easily serviced” (my emphasis) might not have passed everyone by. His assertion that the Premier League is still “the most professional league in the world” will have elicited a view in Portsmouth. And he must have given up self-awareness for Lent to have come out, after of all the recent accusations of hypocrisy levelled against him, with: “The ‘Fit and Proper Persons’ Test’ is limited but clubs themselves should vet the business plans of prospective owners.” Presumably as he did in 2004, when declaring the Glazers’ prospective takeover of United as “potentially damaging” and debt of the sort they planned to load onto the club as “the road to ruin.”
There were other gems dotted about the conference contributions. Arsenal Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis denied that English football was in crisis because a “crisis would have no way forward…we can see the way forward,” although he neglected to go into detail on that “way forward.” He did suggest, not unnaturally given his background, that the “American Way” had lots from which the Premier League could learn. But his definition of a “league” involved all sorts of hippie nonsense like clubs being “collaborative off the field of play” and “working towards common goals… rather than solely being driven to make money.” All rather distant from West Ham co-owner David Gold’s dictionary-defying definition of a league as “the survival of the fittest” (there are times when it is SOOOOO hard to want West Ham to avoid relegation).
The Football League’s commercial director Stewart Thomson made the worthy point that “(our) commercial strength lies in the strong community ties.” But his suggestion that this was part of “a model which other second-tier leagues can learn from” suggested that “community ties” were being written off at top-tier level. We learned that former FA chief bottle-washer Brian Barwick now runs “Barwick Media and Sport” which, perhaps unfairly, seems the very definition of incongruity to me. America’s Major Soccer League commissioner Dan Garber accidentally revealed how far “soccer” has to go before properly entering even his psyche, describing David Beckham “exploding our league” as “a home run for us.”
Former Uefa general secretary David Taylor, away from the paperwork and into the money work that is “Uefa Events” gave us his version of “evolution not revolution” – “optimise not maximise.” His talk about how unwise it would be to sell-off TV rights to subscription channels would have had Scudamore reaching for the selling salts. But the only sniff of action not words throughout the two days was bought in from an external source, when European Clubs Association chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge reported on their general assembly earlier on the Tuesday –with David Gill alongside him, not seeking publicity at all.
The ECA had persuaded Uefa to delay its much-vaunted “financial fair play” proposals for three years, to give clubs sufficient time to adjust. Whatever your view on that move, the ECA had actually done something.
Of course, Soccerex isn’t that sort of event. And it is impossible for an outsider to quantify the benefits of the frantic “networking” that took up much of the event’s time, both on and off the agenda. But it would be informative for Duncan Revie to open the next Soccerex event with a report on the tangible achievements of this one, other than filling newspaper column inches and diaries for a couple of days, and whether Accrington Stanley’s delegation can consider it £775 plus VAT, three times, well spent.