Last updated: Thu, Jun 8, 2000
Football; the money game
[Workers Power Britain June 2000]
This month television screens across the continent will be dominated by Euro 2000. This footballing feast involves much more than just watching men kick a ball around.
England manager, Kevin Keegan, stands to earn quite a few bob from Euro 2000 - but only if his team are knocked out early!
He is under contract to appear on ITV's Euro 2000 coverage as soon as England are out of the competition. This little fact speaks volumes about the new ethos at the heart of modern football.
Though a rich man, Keegan is but a small fish swimming in a sea of capitalist sharks from the ITV executives through to the multinational corporate sponsors shelling out for advertising time.
At the beginning of the twentieth century football was patronised by big business. Bosses saw in major sporting events an opportunity to enhance their prestige - and therefore market share - at both a local and national level.
The situation today is very different. Television rights, sponsorship, ownership and advertising are all sources of profit.
The principal mass spectator sports have become big business in their own right: football clubs are floated on the stock exchange; television rights to coverage involve billions of pounds and huge returns for clubs and television companies; sponsorship rewards individual players and clubs, while the companies paying for it are gu
aranteed regular adverts to audiences numbering millions.
Players change clubs for millions and are paid grossly inflated salaries. Supporters' paraphernalia is now a multi-million pound, superstore-led operation.
In the early days the British ruling class used football - which originated at Eton - to try and instil team spirit and Christian discipline in the "respectable" working class. Its popularity as a mass spectator sport grew in the late nineteenth century, especially in the urban industrial areas of northern England and Scotland.
With the growth of sport as mass spectacle came the spread of professionalism. The "amateur gentleman" status of sport came under threat from workers who earned their living by playing. There was a massive conflict in cricket, which the Times called "class war", that saw the northern professionals refuse to play the southern gentleman amateurs and the MCC respond by banning the professionals from Lords.
The Football Association (the FA - the game's ruling body, to this day made up by ruling class appointees from Oxbridge, the public schools, the armed services and the Commonwealth!) proved more adept at compromise, licensing professionalism via the Football League, but ensuring that it retained overall control of the game.
The working class crowd disrupted the idea of the "harmless" entertainment of the football match. The game had been dominated for years by the Old Etonians, the Old Corinthians and such like. Then the industrial city clubs came of age with Blackburn winning the FA cup in 1883. Ever since no gentlemen amateur team has ever won the competition, and the bourgeoisie took note of the danger the "northern" (i.e. working class) crowd posed. The football hooligan was invented when the Pall Mall Gazette reported on the Blackburn fans arrival for the final:
"A northern horde of uncouth garb and strange oaths - like a tribe of Sudanese Arabs let loose."
These fiercely partisan crowds were not what the bourgeoisie had intended. They were vociferous. They drank on the way to the match. They were unruly and they solidarised with each other. These were the very first "hooligans" - so feared today but now because they may deter investors.
Sensing the danger of football being taken over by the working class, the more far-sighted sections of the ruling class responded by re-organising the clubs as limited companies, run by unelected boards. That way the crowd could be used as a source of income - a captive paying audience.
The crowd could also be manipulated, not only financially, but in terms of uniting behind the team at the expense of their own class interests. West Ham United, for example, was set up by Arnold Hill after a strike at the local ironworks so as to promote class peace among his workforce.
And if this local chauvinism could be used to blind workers to their independent class interests then the same could be done on a national basis. National sporting teams could encourage jingoism and loyalty to the empire.
By the start of the last century the objective in promoting sport had become integration of the working class - more especially the skilled working class - into the capitalist order.
The great and the good of British imperialism realised that by identifying with sport - and in particular its great spectacles such as the FA cup - they could promote the nation and themselves. At the 1899 FA cup final Lord Roseberry, while presenting the cup, told the victorious Bury United captain:
"This is the second year running you have had a distinguished cabinet minister amongst you to preside over this sport. It is good for football, and it is not bad for the cabinet minister."
It was a short step from this to the attendance at the event by royalty in 1914 - a few months before the first world war broke out. Not accidentally, football grounds were then handed over to the War Office and half a million men were recruited to the army via football organisations.
Patriotism was systematically built into the spectacle of the great sporting events. Royal attendance at the cup final forged a link between sport, royalty and the very idea of the nation. In came the national anthem and with it chauvinism.
This trend not only kindles the sort of battles between rival national hooligans that both authorities and fans fear will erupt at Euro 2000. It also contributed to the blight of racism that still - despite the rise of black players in the last decade - plagues the game.
The deliberate identification of sporting prowess with the nationís morale encouraged this rapid growth of rabid nationalism and racism within sport. The ruling class may complain about the hooligan - but it fostered the ideology that fuels the hooligan's battles.
Meanwhile, the state built sport into general education as part of its programme for inculcating discipline and subservience into working class youth. The bosses exploited the transformation of clubs and associations into companies by increasing the scope of their commercial activities.
By the final quarter of the twentieth century business had really begun to emulate the example of North American companies and seized on the new opportunities for profit being opened up by football. Sponsorship money was pumped in. Mainly this was for advertising purposes, but the bosses noted a correlation between success on the pitch and morale (and therefore productivity) at work, a fact commented on by the Financial Times during Euro '96.
Today these aspects of sport have become predominant. Football is the clearest example of this process - an evolution that mirrors capitalismís own development. It has left behind its early local capit
Football was in serious decline in the 1980s. Working class fans were treated as second class citizens by the clubs and the state alike. The terrible tragedy of Hillsborough - where poor conditions at a ground, combined with police hatred of working class supporters, left 97 Liverpool fans dead - exposed this clearly.
To deal with the decline footballís governing bodies faced two choices: treat working class fans like human beings or turn away from them in order to refashion football as a middle class "entertainment", a money-spinning leisure industry. In reality, for the Thatcherite breed of pirate capitalists who were buying into football clubs (Alan Sugar, Peter Johnson, the Hall brothers and so on) as well as the toffs at the top of the FA, there was no question about the route football should take. The FA's position post-Hillsborough was clear:
"The response of most [business] sectors has been to move upmarket, so as to follow the affluent middle class consumer. We strongly suggest that there is a message in this for football."
Reports were commissioned which talked about football in terms of "brand image" and "quality product". Fans were re-titled "consumers". The bosses at the top clubs saw an opening. Clubs were floated on the stock market.
The post-Hillsborough "Taylor Report" on safety at grounds became a convenient pretext. Its wide-ranging proposals for reform - including giving working class fans a say in the running of the game - were totally ignored. Only its proposal for all-seater stadia was acted on.
This was viewed as a welcome opportunity to turn the grounds from centres where working class crowds gathered on terraces into entertainment complexes suitable for the new middle class target audience, complete with corporate hospitality boxes.
Such boxes sell for £15,000 a season at Villa Park where Aston Villaís sponsors, Mueller Foods, entertain corporate clients. Better still, money for the transformation of the grounds came from outside the clubs, meaning minimal capital expenditure by the club owners.
But there was a further problem. While the Football League (the professional wing of the game) has never been democratic, it had one progressive element that the FA had insisted on when the League was established in the nineteenth century - that some of its income would be redistributed to benefit football in general. The big clubs had to give small clubs some of their takings.
The top dogs of the old First Division grew increasingly resentful of this, particularly given the newest source of big money - television, terrestrial and satellite.
The early 1990s, therefore, saw the biggest transformation of football since the League first emerged - the creation of the Premiership. This was the true dawn of monopoly capital for the "beautiful game".
This "epoch" sees football in Britain dominated by a tiny handful of super-rich clubs. It sees the transformation of the old competitions (like the FA Cup and the European Cup) into mere stepping stones towards big money games in a European super league. And it sees the withering of the game at a grass roots level, something that the executives who run today's clubs don't realise, is alienating the mass of supporters and choking off the supply of talent. How did this come about?
In 1990 the then head of ITV, Labour supporter Greg Dyke, (now running the BBC) invited a handful of League chairmen to dinner and suggested the setting up of a breakaway League which would have sole rights to television revenue.
Discussions and negotiations followed, and in 1992 the FA, itself now happy to undermine the old redistributive principle in return for retaining overall control over the breakaway league, sanctioned the Premiership. Twenty clubs were now at liberty to gorge themselves on television takings.
Enter, stage right, Rupert Murdoch. His Sky television company was losing money but he knew that football had the potential to bring in more viewers - and eventually through a pay-per-view scheme - millions in profit. Dyke at ITV offered the "premier clubs" £262 million for television rights.
Through his ally, Alan Sugar, Murdoch learnt of this bid and immediately phoned through a £305 million bid, leaving Dyke, the architect of the breakaway, floundering. And so, the "whole new ball game" was born. When the contract was re-negotiated in 1997 Murdoch - who by now was raking in £1.3 billion in virtually tax-free profit from his sports channel - wasted his competitors by offering the Premiership clubs £670 million in takings in exchange for exclusive television rights.
The road to mega-rich clubs was opened. A handful of them could now use their wealth to corner the market in transfers and, via guaranteed regular television coverage, garner mass passive support willing to purchase club merchandise to wear while they sit in front of the telly eating Pringles and drinking beer from whichever brewery is sponsoring the competition. A monopoly, in other words.
Meanwhile, community-based sport - the source of talent and grassroots club support - rots as local councils close sports centres, sell off playing fields and cut leisure budgets. No matter, though, you can pay to watch matches, fantasise about your two-bit team joining the European Super League and even save up for two months in order to afford to take yourself or your family to see the odd live game in the plush new stadia.
For the countless workers who enjoy football none of these developments will deter us from watching and enjoying Euro 2000. We will eagerly await 12 August (because its the start of the new season - football, not grouse shooting!).
But for the class conscious among us the main worry will not be whether or not it kicks off between England and Germany fans, but whether or not we will be able to afford to stay regular supporters a few years down the road.