There’s lots of comment today about the Premier League clubs passing a version of Financial Fair Play; some positive, some negative. The first thing to say is that by defining sustainable as losing on average £35m a year, they’ve done us a favour in pointing out just how crazy this environment is. Remember that the next time you hear any club chairman talk about their club as a business, or defer to ‘the market’ as a means by which they will and can be regulated. These are not businesses in any conventional sense (as we’ve always known) and now at least they’ve had the good grace to admit it definitively.
Many commentators, especially on the fan activist side, have pointed out that these rules won’t reduce ticket prices; quite so. But they were never going to. But what they do is mean that themain argument that has been used by clubs to refuse to reduce or to raise them can’t be used in the same way. Time after time, clubs told fans that price rises were necessary for the team to be competitive. We know that’s partly true, and partly a very, very easy line to spin in a sector where still too many fans have a default posture of credulity towards their clubs’ tendentious statements.
Indeed, as many writers have noted, if wages are capped in real terms, it makes life easier for owners to profit from the club. If owner subsidy is capped, the net impact will be to slow the rate of inflation in player costs (it will rise whenever a new increased TV deal comes along, but that’s a separate income stream to tickets). As a result, when clubs refuse to reduce prices, or even raise them, fans won’t be able to tolerate this on the basis of the manager needing the cash. It will be a simple exercise of rentier capitalism at work.
Maybe lots of fans will still go along with that, but I’d not be so sure. Every fan who pays an extortionate amount knows that there’s something fundamentally wrong about this, but everyone cleaves to the notion that this is all for the good of the team. It’s like a cohabiting couple pretending to live in separate rooms when traditionally-minded parents come to visit; everyone kind of knows what’s going on, but they’re grateful for the fact that they’ve been offered some hooks on which to hang their cognitive dissonance in mild comfort.
People can put up with a lot as long as they think they’re not having the complete piss taken out of them. With these regulations, that will be harder to do should clubs not respond to the demands of fans for cheaper football. The main thing yesterday signals is that at last there’s a framework in place for managing club finances; it’s been far, far far too long in arriving, but it would be churlish to reject for that reason.
But it has to be a first step. The strongest argument against any form of controls is that owners splurging money they may or may not have might be unedifying and unsustainable, but it’s the way in which clubs outside the historic big-guns fight their way to the top table. That’s true enough, but it’s not the only way it can happen. One could, of course, do something else that would actually address the problem is a far better and sustainable way.
The next battle then is to ensure that the smaller clubs in the Premier League get enough money to be competitve enough, which needs proper redistribution. But before rejoining the battle, fan activists should pause to congratulate themselves for the fact that something happened yesterday which for nearly a decade was said to be undesirable, impossible, unrealistic and impractical. 1-0 to the impractical dreamers.
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