Billionaire business owners: What are they doing to football?
Billionaire football club owners. Their investments have either brought your club unprecedented success or has left you attending protests trying to get them out.
Here in the city of Manchester, this difference has been played out right in front of us. The City Football Group which owns Manchester City has completely transformed a club once in the shadow of Manchester United. Meanwhile, the relationship between the Glazers and the red side of Manchester has become a toxic one. How has a working class sport become plagued by greed and extreme wealth?
Elite level football is a business. From this, we see the rise of corporate tycoons running our clubs. Of course, the investment can bring huge success to a club. Chelsea and Roman Abramovich’s takeover in 2003 being the most obvious example. Once a mid table club from West London down by Fulham Road, on the edge of bankruptcy, have now gone on to win the Champions League twice and have earned the status of one of the biggest clubs in the world.
With the recent news that Abramovich was selling the club, most Chelsea fans had nothing but gratitude for the billionaire, whose investment led to an era of unparalleled success.
Other fans have a more fractured relationship with their owners. The resentment between Manchester United supporters and the Glazers has been growing for many years. Yet this should come as no surprise. Before their takeover in 2005, the club was debt free and had been since 1931. The club’s debt now stands at £494.8 million.
This is because in order to buy the club, the Glazers took out loans secured against Manchester United’s own assets, meaning the responsibility for paying interest on those and indeed paying off the loans entirely fell on the institution, not on the Glazers themselves. A truly crazy business move, one which has now come back to haunt the club. Fans are left feeling their beloved club is simply there for the owners profit.
Clubs which are built on tradition and a solid working class community can clash with wealthy businessmen with no background in football. The takeover of West Ham is no exception. Of course they have recently found success under manager David Moyes so the pressure on the board has settled slightly. However the club’s owners, David Sullivan and David Gold, made their money in the adult magazine and film industry. When they took over in 2010, they promised so much for West Ham, now banners with ‘sold a dream, given a nightmare’ are held up by supporters at matches.
But it is West Ham’s move from Upton Park to the Olympic stadium in 2016 which I believe captures everything wrong with the corporate world becoming involved in football clubs. A true east London fortress built on West Ham’s rich history which stood for 112 years traded in for a multi purpose stadium three miles away, just off a Westfield shopping centre.
The local businesses which made up a buzzing Green Street are simply left behind. The iconic family run, Nathan’s pie and mash shop, open for 80 years feeding hungry supporters on their way to Upton Park, is now permanently closed. This was just two years after West Ham’s move. Food trucks which also stood outside the old ground, have been denied the right to set up outside the new stadium. There has been a complete and utter disregard for the community built around the club. Unfortunately, protecting this community simply was not part of the business plan for David Sullivan and David Gold.
Meanwhile, in Germany a model called the 50+1 model means Russian oligarchs and US hedge funds cannot muscle their way into the ownership of football clubs. Since 1998, when the 50+1 rule came into existence in German football, members have owned 50 percent of their clubs plus one share, limiting commercial investment to a minority stake.
Fans are therefore more involved with off field decisions, the powers of those at the top are limited. This is unlike what we see in the UK. Whilst many fans are drawn to this 50+1 model, the ownership of clubs falling to a few wealthy individuals does not seem to be going anywhere.
Recently, Newcastle United was sold by Sports Direct CEO Micheal Ashley to Saudi backed Public Investment Fund (PIF). It was a controversial deal which collapsed in 2020 as the Premier League was not convinced PIF was completely separate from the Saudi Arabian government. However, in 2021 it seemed there was enough evidence to prove this was not the case.
It means Newcastle are now the world’s wealthiest football club, surpassing Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, with owners who are worth an estimated £700bn.
In 2021, the proposal of the breakaway European Super League showcased the greed from the so-called ‘top six’ clubs in embarrassing fashion. Within 48 hours of the announcement, club owners were apologising to fans as the plans collapsed due to severe backlash.
Businessmen with no loyalty or appreciation for the community built around the football clubs in this country, attempted to create a separate competition all for a money grab. A league with no relegation? Who thought that would be something football fans wanted? An obvious case of money and profit being put before supporters interest. The already fragile relationship between the board of clubs and fans has been damaged permanently.
One thing this whole scandal did show was how even as the corporate world tightens its grip on football clubs, fans will not allow them to get their hands on everything. To owners, football is their very own profitable business. To fans, it is, and always has been far more than that. If owners fail to recognise this, supporters may feel like walking away from the club. A disaster for the sport. After all, football is nothing without fans.