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The Billionaires’ Game

The Saudi-backed takeover of Newcastle has been criticised for sportswashing, but it also exposes a stark reality of football capitalism – that the only way to replace one billionaire owner is with another.

Newcastle United fans celebrate the takeover of their club in St James Park. Credit: Getty Images

Last night’s scenes of Newcastle United fans chanting ‘we got our club back’ behind the Gallowgate might have seemed surprising to many; after all, the club has been sold to a Saudi Arabian public investment firm.

This image of celebrating Geordies has led to plenty of crowing and laughter from the football press and rival fans, keen to highlight their complicity in sportswashing. But that line of commentary has tended to ignore something quite fundamental. Football’s thorough integration into the global capitalist market means that fans today are faced with a grim choice: the only way to replace a bad billionaire owner, it seems, is with a richer billionaire.

Of course, the Saudi-backed takeover of Newcastle United follows the European Super League debacle and its fallout. During that saga, protests started with Chelsea fans outside Stamford Bridge blocking Fulham Road and delaying the kick-off of a game against Brighton. In fact, it is arguable that game might have been postponed were it not leaked to fans that Chelsea was preparing to withdraw from the Super League. The other five English clubs had their own equivalent protests in the days and weeks that followed, but an often-overlooked aspect of these demonstrations were the subtle differences between the perspectives of the fans.

Whereas Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City fans were mostly satisfied with their super-rich owners – meaning protests focused on the European Super League itself – Manchester United’s Glazers, Arsenal’s Kroenkes, and Spurs’s ENIC are examples of owners that fans become frustrated with. And the link to success on the field couldn’t be clearer: United haven’t won the league in the decade since Alex Ferguson left, Arsenal in almost two decades, and Spurs haven’t won a trophy of any sort since 2008. Contrast this with perennial Premier League champions Manchester City, or Chelsea and Liverpool, who have both recently won the Champions League.

All of this raises a question: if fans get their way, who replaces the Glazers, the Kroenkes, or ENIC? The best recent example of this is provided by Liverpool, which was previously owned by two Americans, Tom Hicks and George Gillett. They were accused by Liverpool fans of running the club into the ground with their 2007 leveraged buyout. It’s easy to forget now, but that was a particularly bleak era in the club’s history: the momentum of glories in Istanbul and Cardiff was squandered and Liverpool ended up in the relegation zone and under threat of administration. But who were the saviours? Other billionaire Americans, Fenway Sports Group (FSG), led by John Henry, who made his money through trading commodities.

There’s no doubt that FSG have been better owners for Liverpool fans, whose club have won their sixth European Cup and 19th league title, as well as gaining a new main stand and breaking ground this week on another expansion of Anfield. But there have still been difficulties – proposed ticket price increases led to a walk out on the 77th minute (£77 would have been the highest general admission price under the proposals) of a game against Sunderland in February 2016, in which roughly a quarter of fans left the ground and the decreased atmosphere contributed to Liverpool losing a 2-0 lead in the last ten minutes to draw 2-2.

That protest won, and ticket prices were frozen. In fact, the episode was a major boost to grassroots fan organisations such as the Spirit of Shankly and Spion Kop 1906 groups, which have recently agreed a landmark deal with the support of Labour MP Ian Byrne. That deal commits not only Liverpool’s owners FSG but any future owners to negotiation with the fan organisations over issues of concerns to fans, such as ticket prices, as well as giving a veto over highly controversial proposals like breakaway leagues. It is the beginning of a process which the Spirit of Shankly sees as leading to supporters’ unions in football, like trade unions in the economy – but they are clear that it is only a stepping stone. The ultimate aim is ‘supporter ownership’ of football clubs.

However, that landmark deal has not been replicated elsewhere. At other clubs, where fans are more dissatisfied with their owners, the focus seems to be simply replacing one mogul with another. To replace the Glazers, for example, you would require someone who could stump up the $4.5 billion that Forbes estimates is the current worth of Manchester United. Arsenal and Spurs aren’t at that level, but any prospective buyer would still be talking about a multi-billion-dollar acquisition. It’s easy to slag off Newcastle United fans for wanting to replace Mike Ashley with the Saudis – but many fans of other Premier League clubs must face the reality that they are in similar situations.

Fan ownership is fantastic, and as socialists what we want, but it isn’t going to come about on its own: English football is swimming in too much money – so much so that even those clubs that are or were fan owned are sometimes abandoning that model in order to compete. Brentford’s supporters’ trust, Bees United, was once the majority owner of the club. But to compete with other clubs seeking promotion to the Premier League and ensure a new stadium to abide by the Taylor Report, they sold their stake in 2014 to Matthew Benham, a supporter of Brentford who made his money in high-stakes sports betting. Indeed, without Benham, previously a minority shareholder and provider of loans to Bees United, it is unlikely Brentford would have been bought out by the fans; instead, it may have gone to the wall.

Another example is Wrexham, a once-famous fixture of the English Football League despite being based in North Wales. Wrexham fell on hard times and have been stuck in non-league football since 2008. Fans took the club from unscrupulous owners in 2011, but with the influx of money into non-league clubs seeking the promised land of league football (think Forest Green Rovers or Salford City), Wrexham have struggled to return to where they were for 87 years before 2008. Now, they are famous for being owned by Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, Hollywood stars who have promised to invest in the stadium and community in ways that the supporters’ trust couldn’t. 98.6 percent of fans voted for the takeover, seeing it as the best option for the club’s long-term prospects.

The Spirit of Shankly deal guaranteeing supporters’ unions a place within the game is a progressive model – but if fan ownership is the ultimate goal for our game, it seems a long way off. Tribune recently covered the 1892 Scheme, an effort by Newcastle United fans to buy into their club and have a say over its future. They should be applauded for raising tens of thousands to that end. But the Saudi-backed takeover was worth £305 million. To put that into context, the median annual salary in the North East is around £26,000 per year. To raise the same amount as the Saudi takeover, every fan in the Gallowgate End would need to donate roughly that sum to a fan ownership project. And that’s before considering any further injections to compete on the pitch. It is an astronomical sum of money.

There are three ways that fan ownership can come about – two of which are more common. One is a buyout of current owners by well-organised supporters. This is usually reliant on the club going into administration, a wealthy benefactor fronting the majority of the cash, or both. The second is a club going into liquidation, and the supporters starting again from scratch with a fan-owned phoenix club. Neither of these are particularly likely for giants like United or Arsenal, so what’s the third?

The only other option is legislation. The 50+1 rule is often presented as the answer to football’s financial ills, but the only way this can come about is through mandates coming from government and the football authorities. Germany, where this proposal originates, has a mandate by the German Football Association that the only way clubs can compete in their competitions is for 50%+1 (i.e., a majority) of shares of a club to be owned by a members’ association.

But this has deep roots in Germany, where clubs remained members’ associations through the 20th century. In order to replicate this in England, the government would need to pave the way for a substantial expropriation of the billionaires who own our elite clubs – it’s hard to see how fans could purchase 50%+1 of a Premier League side without either public subsidy or a massive reduction in the cost.

It has already been noted that Newcastle’s takeover will inevitably become sportswashing for the Saudi state and their various human rights atrocities. But the Toon Army understandably grew tired of their club being a vessel for Mike Ashley. His contempt for the club, its tradition and its supporters was obvious. And he was also a miserable capitalist figure, overseeing some of the worst working practices in the country in SportsDirect. His departure yesterday deserved celebration, even if the Saudi takeover did not.

Those of us who are critical of this takeover must answer difficult questions. If the ambition of the 1990s returns to Newcastle, with signings on a par with Asprilla and Shearer, competing in Europe and challenging for trophies, why would fans care if the hoardings say Aramco instead of SportsDirect? Since the ‘Ashley Out’ campaigns started in earnest, other interested parties have included Arthur Blank, owner of anti-union Home Depot, and Vince McMahon of WWE, who also has various controversies surrounding the treatment of his workers. In ethical terms, would these have been preferable to the Saudi regime? Probably. But what a choice.

Being an anti-union employer like Ashley, Blank, or McMahon is bad. Of course, the Saudi regime’s role in Yemen is far worse. Take your pick, football fans. What is happening in Newcastle is a parable for much of the modern economy, where our choices are increasingly limited to those between two evils. If we want any prospect of better options in the future, we will need to organise for a more fundamental change in the economy – of which football is just one increasingly lucrative part.