Elite Football’s Coronavirus Shame

In response to coronavirus, football's billionaire owners are asking minimum wage staff to take pay cuts while corporate elites earn eye-watering sums. It's a sign of the sickness in the soul of the game.

It is not every day that you hear the Mayor of London, a backbench Tory MP, and the former Portsmouth manager all taking to the airwaves at the same time to decry the moral bankruptcy at the heart of British football. But coronavirus is making for strange bedfellows, and in these bewildering times even Sadiq Khan, Julian Knight MP, and I’m a Celebrity winner Harry Redknapp are in agreement about one thing; that football’s reaction to the coronavirus crisis is plumbing a new depth for an industry that has already lost much of its soul to capitalism. 

This will not come as news to the many of us who have watched in horror in recent years as the game we love has sunk into an abyss. Football has always had a knotty relationship with the forces of capital, from its roots in Victorian factory grounds through to its modern entanglement with global petrodollar regimes. This process has intensified in recent years, and the conduct of major clubs in response to this crisis is further proof that football, which is capable of deep displays of social solidarity, is increasingly the rich man’s game.

The latest furore came with the announcement this week that Tottenham Hotspur will be putting 550 full-time staff on the government’s Job Retention Scheme, resulting in a twenty percent wage cut. Eyebrows have been raised because the eighth richest club in world football is not exactly the cash-poor business that this scheme was designed to help. While coronavirus will certainly reduce revenue in the short term, Tottenham is still a business in rude financial health: the club is a global brand that took a trading profit of £101 million in the last financial year, and owns over £1.69 billion of assets, including a world class new stadium. Chairman Daniel Levy paid himself £4 million this year (with a £3m bonus for good measure), and the club is owned by offshore tax billionaire Joe Lewis, who is estimated to be worth £4.36bn himself.

Putting staff on the Job Retention Scheme is a legitimate decision for the thousands of businesses facing cashflow problems. It involves the government paying 80% of workers’ wages and was a welcome measure when it was introduced. But it is only a good deal for workers when the business agrees to pay the other 20%. Questions have to be asked when an enterprise as rich as Tottenham is using this scheme to effectively cut the incomes of their poorest workers, whilst the senior club officers and players continue to receive exorbitant sums. Those who will be hit by this scheme are the club’s average workers – the security guards, retail staff, and matchday assistants who work at the club and live in the surrounding areas, which has one of the highest rates of deprivation and in-work poverty in the UK.

The Corporate Capture of Football

The broader picture here is that major companies in football and beyond are abusing the Job Retention Scheme to frontload risk onto their own workers, all the while protecting elite salaries and assets. Research from Autonomy think tank has shown that Covid-related job losses are likely to disproportionately affect low-paid and vulnerable workers, and the TUC has already highlighted the risk of manipulation of this scheme from bad bosses.

Football has more than its share of bad bosses, and it is no surprise that Newcastle owner and sporting magnate Mike Ashley has been a major culprit in this crisis. Sports Direct has been roundly criticised for refusing to comply with emergency public health regulations, and while the stores have finally closed, warehouses are still open and workers are concerned about hygiene standards. 

Ashley is running his football club in a similar way, with Newcastle following Spurs in furloughing its most vulnerable workers. These are two particularly bad cases, but the rot here goes deeper than a few bad individuals. As with Tim Martin or Richard Branson, the fault is not just with the individual bosses but with the system that has allowed industries — in this case football — to become a vehicle for wealth extraction and corporate malpractice. 

This is the latest in a long line of abuses by the capitalists who have captured our football clubs. Inequality is now hardwired into the game, and the average fan is crushed underneath the weight of dodgy owners, rising ticket prices, and the absurdities of clubs being run as sport-washing vanity projects by corrupt oligarchs. Even the burgeoning women’s game is suffering the strain of financialisation, and a decade of austerity means that football is now more inaccessible for young people than ever before. 

But there is an alternative. In a recent paper, the Centre for Local Economic Strategies and Common Wealth set out a roadmap for taking back control of football in the interests of ordinary fans and communities. Democratising Football argued that British football should learn the lessons from the German game which, although by no means perfect, has a better balance between the interests of owners and fans. In the German 50+1 model, clubs would not fall under the control of a single owner, and fans continue to have a say in the governing process of their club, countering the acceleration of club debts, financial instability and rising ticket prices. 

Paired with careful licencing practices and regulatory oversight, the 50+1 rule is an approach to football fan ownership that has come to define community-based, fan-centred football. Germany is not entirely free from dodgy owners — but it has nowhere near the scale of the problem that have dogged British clubs such as Newcastle, Blackburn and Charlton in recent years. The German model would also force clubs to take the interests of their workers into consideration, as these workers would also be worker-owners of the enterprise. 

It is no surprise that German clubs have not gone down the Tottenham and Newcastle route in recent weeks. The German approach was nicely summarised by former goalkeeper-turned Bayern Munich executive Oliver Kahn, who announced that the board of directors and players would all be taking a salary cut by saying that ‘a crisis is always a test of resilience. It shows how we as a club and everyone involved are dealing with this change.’

Taking Back the Beautiful Game

By taking back control of football, communities can rediscover how to build and harness collective power. Labour has developed strong policy in this field, and the 2019 manifesto included welcome commitments to examine the games ownership and governance structures, including the so-called ‘fit and proper persons test.’ Democratising football is not just important in and of itself, but can also act as a striking example of what Alex Niven calls the ‘radicalisation of everyday popular culture.’ 

Doing this will require a number of policies and initiatives to re-embed solidarity into the fabric of football, and strike a blow against the financialisation of the game. We are beginning to see green shoots, not least in the Fans Supporting Foodbanks initiative, which arose out of a shared desire to combat poverty between Liverpool and Everton fans.

The football season may have been suspended, but the sporting-capital complex will continue to roll on during and after the Covid-19 crisis. As football fans and concerned citizens, we should welcome when the clubs we love do good charity work, or when noble individual footballers commit to taking temporary pay cuts as they sit at home doing kickups with toilet rolls. But we should also be clear who the culprits are here, and we must not allow the mainstream media to deflect attention onto individual players and away from the corporate elites that have turned the beautiful game into a tool for wealth extraction. 

Footballers are often rare examples of successful young working class and BAME people in British society, and the press are all too ready to tear them down whenever possible. Dele Alli or Raheem Sterling did not cause the conditions in which football executives take home billions while those selling programmes are forced onto poverty wages. This cuts deeper; it goes to the heart of what football is and how it operates in society.  

Bill Shankly famously said, “some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” The events of recent weeks have sharpened the irony of this joke, as huge numbers of people who rely on the game suffer the loss of incomes or livelihoods. Football should provide a helping hand. But it will only do it if the game is brought back to the communities who built it.