Football in the Digital Age – Foreword

Foreword by Johan Cruyff

Whose game is it anyway? Money appears increasingly to be the driving force in football, with media contracts not far behind. But anyone who knows anything about the game knows that nothing can be taken for granted. Anything can happen. And when it comes to the future ownership and direction of football, it is up to us, those with an interest in the good of the game itself, to make sure that the right decisions are made and that the right things happen.

The first goal of football must be the quality of the game. The role of money in today’s game is important, of course, and cannot be ignored. But the huge flow of funds into the game from TV deals will only continue if the quality of the game is good enough to keep delivering the audiences. And, in terms of today’s broadcasting arrangements, that means an audience that is not only attracted to watch the matches on TV but also to pay for the privilege, whether on a match-by-match basis through pay-per-view or by paying for a cable subscription or a satellite dish. Without an attractive product, there is nothing to sell.

Football has been described as ‘the people’s game’. Many of those in and around the ‘business’ today just do not think in these terms. They think not of the people but of the ‘customers’, the ‘product’, the ‘branding’ and the ‘audience’. But in the long term these business opportunities will only be sustainable if the sport can remain just that – a sport. It is and must remain the people’s game. If football does continue to serve the people, audiences and money will certainly follow. If the aim instead is just to exploit and make money, football itself will suffer and so too will the profitability of the ‘business’. You cannot make money for long by selling a second-rate product. But by then of course the broadcasters would have moved onto some other entertainment ‘content’ with which to attract viewers, advertisers and subscribers. There is a real danger that commercial interests outside the game will kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

I write this not as someone who harks back to some ‘golden age’. I do understand the modern game, including the commercial pressures and opportunities. Indeed, I have spent all my life in the service of football – first as a player, then as a coach. I think that I do have just as good an understanding of the ‘business’ of football as do those who are now moving in to use the game in the interests of rival broadcasting empires. The contributors to this book, myself included, are not advocating a return to the past. On the contrary, we need to move forward to ensure a greater degree of participation from fans than has generally been achieved so far.

We are not against progress. Nor are we against good management practices or increased commercial revenues. For my own part, I have been well rewarded for my efforts within the game, and that is as it should be. If football is pursued as a sporting spectacle, money will flow in, those involved can be properly rewarded, and the game can serve an important sporting, cultural and social role. Sporting success will lead to financial success. That is quite different, though, from wanting to use the game simply to make money.

In the book A Game of Two Halves? my friend Sir Alex Ferguson wrote:

Certainly, football is big business. But it also plays an important role in the country’s social and cultural life. Some may see it as just about money. I see it as much more important than that.

I would endorse these sentiments wholeheartedly. Sir Alex has been responsible for Manchester United becoming the wealthiest club in the world. But he knows that the real wealth lies in the devotion of the fans to their club, and in what football can bring to the lives of millions of people. That goes far beyond what can be accounted for in the balance-sheets.

And I would make one further point about Manchester United. As with all clubs, they have signed players from abroad and many of these players have been hugely successful, including with the fans of the club. But at the heart of the team is a group of local players who were brought up through the club’s youth system. And that, too, is how it should be. Football clubs must remain precisely that – clubs. What does this mean? Well, a club must have responsibilities not just to the investors. A club must have a responsibility to its fans and to its local community. It should be involved in the life of the local community. And an important aspect of this is to encourage and train young players from the local schools, to bring them through the club’s youth system and into the first team.

This might sound strange coming from the pen of someone who was signed as a foreign ‘star’ by Barcelona. But FC Barcelona have always played an important social and cultural role in the community. This is discussed in Chapter 15 by the L’Elefant Blau, the supporters’ group that is defending the great traditions of FC Barcelona. One of these traditions has been to bring local players into the team to play alongside those who come from other clubs. Local involvement and responsibility are vital.

These sporting traditions are under threat across the world in all sorts of ways from commercial exploitation. Control has too often passed from people concerned with the good of the game to business people with their own agendas. For example, the stars are signed up for commercial promotions and activities. More and more competitions are dreamt up for TV broadcasters, with players required to play an impossible number of games. You can end up with a top international player being paid huge sums to promote some brand of football boot, for example, who, as a result of the increased number of games, is then repeatedly injured. Hardly a great promotion – more like the golden goose being strangled.

These are important issues that need to be analysed and discussed. It is therefore an extremely welcome development that alongside this increased commercialism over the past few years we have witnessed the growth of supporters’ organisations such as L’Elefant Blau in Barcelona and seen a growth of serious policy analysis, such as this book. Clearly solutions to the new problems are emerging. There is a better way to proceed than the headlong rush into commercial exploitation. Football can be developed as a sporting, social and cultural institution at the same time as being well run and even profitable. Indeed, it is the sporting success that underlies the commercial opportunities. Forget that and you can forget everything.

For many in the game today, money seems to come first, with football a poor second. This, though, is a short-term and ultimately self-defeating attitude. The priorities need to be reversed. Football has to be enjoyed – by the players and the fans. That was always my attitude as a player and as a coach. The same attitude is needed from those who run the game today – the clubs, the football authorities and governments. Each country needs to find its own way of ensuring that those who are running football clubs cannot exploit the fans for their own personal or financial benefit. It is the people’s game or it is nothing.

Johan Cruyff

Preface and acknowledgements

Sean Hamil, Jonathan Michie, Christine Oughton and Steven Warby

In our previous book, A Game of Two Halves?,1 we attempted to do two things. First, to document that there are indeed growing problems within the business of football which, if not tackled now, threaten the long-term future of the business – quite apart from the game on which that business relies. Pre-publication copies of that book were provided to all delegates at a major international conference held at Birkbeck College in July 1999 attended by representatives of all the key footballing bodies and leading industry analysts. This first point gained widespread consensus – that there are indeed problems deserving of serious analysis and action.

The second aim of that book was to put forward our own views as to the best way forward. These issues are discussed in more detail in Chapter 1 below, but here we should acknowledge our gratitude to our co-authors of A Game of Two Halves? for those ideas; and to all those who attended the July 1999 conference to participate in what was an extremely well-informed and constructive event. The present volume came out of the July 1999 conference. As can be seen from the chapters that follow, differences emerged as to the most appropriate forms of policy action. But here we simply want to thank the various authors for the positive way in which they have engaged with the issues.

This volume aims to follow up A Game of Two Halves? by providing what we hope is the most comprehensive account yet produced – from the leading ‘players’ in football – of where the game is heading. For the first time ever, the views of the FA, the Premier League, the Football League, UEFA, the government, the Football Task Force, the Professional Football Association, the Coalition of Football Supporters and others have been brought together to take stock not only of where the industry is today but where it is going and what needs to be done to ensure that it develops positively in the future.

In addition to this cast from the footballing industry, the book includes the exclusive story from a member of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission panel for the BSkyB/Manchester United case on their decision to block BSkyB’s moves. With this route blocked, BSkyB embarked on their ‘plan B’, as documented in this volume by Adam Brown. The chapters that follow likewise include reports from some of the key players in the Office of Fair Trading’s case before the Restrictive Practices Court.

Bringing together as it does the leading football analysts and commentators with representatives of the main football and regulatory bodies to report on the latest developments and to reflect on future prospects, this book will, we believe, become the authoritative guide against which future developments can be assessed. The various authors provide unique insights into the key debates within the industry today. The text will therefore serve, we hope, as an essential ‘one-stop’ work of reference for all journalists, academics, lawyers, accountants and financial advisers, club administrators and regulatory and government officials with an interest in policy developments in the game.

For the fan we aim to offer a comprehensive and up-to-date account of the key issues facing football. This is the first book to analyse the implications of the 1999 Restrictive Practices Court ruling on the collective sale of football broadcasting rights; the implications of the UK government blocking of BSkyB’s attempted takeover of Manchester United – and of BSkyB’s subsequent attempts to buy into other Premier League clubs; the October 1999 policy proposals from the government to establish supporter-shareholder trusts and for a levy on the Premiership television deal to fund the grass-roots of the game; and the deliberations of the Football Task Force.

Our main debt of gratitude goes to all the authors for having provided their chapters under such tight deadlines and for having responded so fully and efficiently to all requests. As mentioned above, the authors presented their initial thoughts on their respective topics at a conference at Birkbeck College in July 1999 and we are grateful to the sponsors of that conference, the Co-operative Insurance Society (CIS), the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), FT$port, Soccer Investor, Waterstone’s Bookshop, the Royal Economic Society and Birkbeck College itself. We are also grateful for assistance from Gerry Boon of Deloitte & Touche and Peter Hunt, General Secretary of the Co-operative Party. Many others assisted in making that conference the huge success that it was and our thanks go to Andy Burnham, Josie Charlton, Vivek Chaudury, David Conn, Neil Conway, Jenny Cook, Simon Deakin, Carolyn Downs, Duncan Drasdo, Ray Eccersely, Julia Elias, Dave Fenton, Michael Flaherty, Andrew Gamble, Laurence Harris, Patrick Harverson, Moira Hunter, Ricky King, Michael Kitson, Marianne Knight, Simon Lee, Yang Lin, Mark Longden, Jacqueline Mitchell, Roland Muri, Steven Parrott, Simon Roberts, Huw Richards, Nicola Richards, Simon Rundle, Lee Shailer, Peter Trim, Shraddha Verma, Andy Walsh, Charlie Whelan, Jim White, Shonagh Wilkie and Paul Windridge for their assistance and participation.

We are grateful to Mainstream Publishing for their professional work in producing this book. As with A Game of Two Halves?, the staff at Mainstream turned the manuscript round with speed and efficiency and we are particularly grateful to Sharon Atherton, Bill Campbell, Judy Diamond, Sarah Edwards, Andrea Fraile and Elaine Scott.

The work that has gone into this book has led to two hugely encouraging developments. Firstly, a broad consensus has emerged across fans’ organisations, players’ and managers’ representatives, officials from the footballing bodies, government and others with an active interest in the health of football, for tackling the problems of the game in a positive fashion. Those who say that nothing can be done, or that nothing should be done, have been well and truly left behind, as have those who are clearly pursuing their own financial, business or egotistical agendas.

Secondly this consensus has spread internationally, not only in consultation with the international organisations but also with the active participation of fans from European clubs. This is particularly important since one of the stock responses from those who wish to head off any interventionary measures is to say that nothing can be done since it would have to be done at an international, or at least European, level. To this the growing answer that is emerging is: yes, fine, let’s take action collectively, at the European and international levels. Here our colleagues from FC Barcelona , organised through L’Elefant Blau (the Blue Elephant), have been truly inspirational. Particular thanks go to Armand Carabén and Joan Laporta.

Sir Alex Ferguson contributed an important foreword to A Game of Two Halves? in which he warned of the unsustainable pressures emerging in the game and called for action very much along the lines of the growing international consensus just referred to. In view of this growing coalition of forces it is particularly pleasing and appropriate that the foreword to this book should have been contributed by one of the greatest players of all time, and someone who is known for his genuine love and knowledge of the game – Johan Cruyff.

In A Game of Two Halves?, we advocated the increased involvement of supporters in their clubs, including through share-ownership and even the mutualisation of clubs. It was therefore fantastically exciting for all involved in the game in Britain when the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the Rt Hon Chris Smith MP, announced at the Labour Party conference in October 1999 that the government were to give assistance to such efforts by fans. We are grateful, of course, to Chris Smith for his vision and courage in making this commitment, and also to his Special Advisor Andy Burnham for his work in translating this political commitment into practical action through the establishment of a national unit to provide legal and other advice to such supporter groups. Great work is also being done on this by the Football Trust, and the gratitude of all football fans should go to Alastair Bennett, Philip French, Peter Lee and Tom Pendry, and likewise to Brian Lomax, Trevor Watkins and others who have been working unpaid to make a success of this initiative.

Key to the success of this project is of course the work being carried out by football fans across the country at various clubs, and Jonathan Michie is particularly grateful to his colleagues in the supporter-shareholder organisation Shareholders United, especially Ernie Battey, Monica Brady, Roger Brierley, Michael Crick, Eric Downs, Sarah Downs, Oliver Houston, Richard Hytner, Alastair Lees, Stewart Matthews and Sue Simpson. Jonathan is also grateful to various officials at Manchester United, including those on the plc board for their constructive and positive attitude. Thanks also go for valuable advice and assistance to David Dunn of the Co-operative Bank, Neil Harding of stockbroker Wise Speke and Kevin Jaquiss of Cobbetts Solicitors.

The authors are collaborating with supporters at numerous clubs to try to put these democratic principles into practice, and in addition to Brian Lomax, special thanks for assistance goes to Jeanette Findlay and Kevin Miles.

Finally, a special thanks from Jonathan Michie goes with love to Carolyn, Alex and Duncan.

Sean Hamil, Jonathan Michie, Christine Oughton and Steven Warby