WUP 8.6

This article was originally published in the Womble Underground Press fanzine 8.6, January ’11.

As some of you may recall, in a recent edition I wrote a long, elegant and mostly funny account of my plans to move to the States. As is normally the case when I make dramatic announcements, said plans go to shit within weeks and I end up with egg on my face. A combination of economic factors on both sides of the Atlantic means I will be around for a little longer than I expected… in fact emigration plans are now on hold indefinitely which means it might be 4-5 years until we try again. So you’ll all have to put up with both my ugly mug and inconsistent blogging for the foreseeable future. Sorry.

I’m trying to look at the benefits of the move breaking down. With holiday reset at work, and five weeks to fill, I know employment in the States would have been a huge culture shock with an average of ten days annual leave, and would significantly have cut down my opportunities to return to my homeland and watch the Dons. Oh, and maybe visit family and stuff while I’m here… There are other factors too. We might moan about our NHS for example, but you only realise how important it is when you don’t have it to fall back on anymore.

But for all the things wrong with the USA there are a million things they do right, and one of those things is the organisation of major sporting leagues. Whatever your opinion of the big four sports in North America, the administration is second to none. Of course, they have good reason to be so efficient. I’ve heard it said that the NFL is almost communist in its commitment to equality among its teams, but at the heart of it is the desire to accumulate that most capitalist of commodities, cold hard dollars… Here in England, clubs are given carte noir to invest how they see fit, regardless of the effect it might have on skewing the competition in the short-term.

But is there anything we can learn from American sports? Our top division is dominated by the same old clubs year in, year out. Certain clubs have broken into the Champions League moneypit simply by throwing vast amounts of cash into the playing budget – and anyone wondering how all this affects the Dons will probably see where this is going… It’s hard to imagine a club rising from non-league football to the top flight of English football in the manner the Dons once did – with financial prudence and good management. In that respect the Crawley model of throwing seemingly infinite amounts of cash at the problem is the quickest method of rising above your station. And I know they are supposedly paying all the bills up front which has resulted in them getting some positive press, that’s all well and good, but the point being missed is this funding needs to continue far longer, decades even, in order for there to be even a chance that the sustainability of the club catch up with the elevated position it finds itself in.

If Crawley find themselves in League One in a couple of years, and the money men decide to walk away, all that leaves is an uncompetitive club trying to exist on sub 3000 crowds. At that stage the board will spend its way into trouble in a desperate attempt to remain competitive, or take the hit with an inferior budget and weak playing staff, thus dropping down the divisions, perhaps even plummeting beyond their current level. As newly acquired supporters are normally the first to abandon ship, they’ll find themselves in a much worse situation than they started, as presumably a portion of the pre-existing fanbase will have been driven away, alienated by the whole experience. Or so we hope.

The only example of such spending, ignoring a few non-league sides who shone brightly before imploding (some of whom we encountered on our own journey…), is Chelsea. Ten years on, are they really sustainable yet?  While Abramovic is still paying the bills, Chelsea will remain competitive. In fact, you get the impression that the speculated situation they now find themselves in, that Abramovic is slowly losing interest, is their best possible outcome. Rich enough to continue signing away cheques in absence, Chelsea now have a period of warning rather than the money just drying up out of the blue. Some Chelsea fans I know are already looking forward to returning to 20,000 crowds and no ‘tourists’, although I get the impression there is a fair amount of self-defence behind such comments, as they return to their typical position in footballs history, a mid table top flight club, equally capable of getting relegated to winning anything…

And if Crawley are lucky, they’ll return intact to the fifth tier of English football unharmed. In the meantime however, ourselves, Luton, in fact all well run Conference clubs with ambitions to escape the division, have to compete in an environment where one side has a ridiculously unfair advantage, skewing the competition accordingly. Of course, you don’t need a rich benefactor to achieve such results, you could simply borrow a unsutainable amount of cash. Or why not just avoid paying your tax bill for a few years? Football authorities are catching up… Michel Platini might be unfairly demonized by certain UK tabloids for the perception that he is anti-English football… for all I know he might be, but the fact is he seems to be committed to levelling the playing field by introducing a salary cap based on turnover, at least as far as entry into European competition is concerned.

The Football League also has plans for a cap, in fact League 2 clubs are currently restricted to spending no more than 60% of turnover. While this was introduced as a protection measure, and may well reduce the number of clubs losing ten points through administration, it could have the effect of curbing Crawleys spending plans if they gain promotion. Yet I’m not sure I’m personally keen on an arbitrary cap on spending based on turnover either. While it might have the effect of preventing short-term vanity projects such as our Sussex rivals, surely in the long-term it will only ensure a return to the historical problem that larger clubs will always have an advantage… bigger crowds = higher gate receipts = larger turnover.

Naturally US sports have tailor-made solutions to these problems, which work because the leagues are either completely closed shops (such as the NFL) or sit atop a world game as by far the dominant market (i.e. basketball, hockey). Implementing, say, a luxury tax on English club would just lead to a migration of talent to clubs in nations or competitions not restricted in such ways. For an easier way to level the playing field, yet still reward clubs for higher attendances, we need only search our history. As late as the mid-eighties, gate receipts in the Football League were shared equally, less 4% which went into a pot for distribution to all the league. Perhaps returning to a system of gate sharing will go a long way towards levelling the playing fields. Maybe such a move will allow a well run club to progress through the pyramid once more, without the need for vast and unsustainable investment?

Since this article was written, the Football League agreed to extend its cap to 55% turnover for League 2 clubs, and 60% for League One clubs as of the 2011/12 season.

Further WUP articles can be found in the Features Index

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