Football economics as if supporters (and Scotland) mattered

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
10 May 2011

On Monday 9 May 2011 there was a probing national television documentary, fronted by a feisty, well-known entrepreneur, all about the Scottish Premier League's business dealings and the future of the game in Scotland.

Okay, stop right there! That didn’t quite happen. What did appear on the airwaves was ‘Lord Sugar Tackles Football’ (repeated on 11 May, and also available on BBC iPlayer). By this title BBC2, in Scotland too, naturally meant you to understand (guess what?) the English Premier League. Or the Premier League, as it gets called by those who assume the normativity of its Englishness.

The programme cast a wondering business eye at the richest football league in the world. Among other things, it wondered about how a TV-driven enterprise with a £2 billion income can have 14 of its 20 main operators (football clubs) in serious arrears, amassing £3.3 billion worth of collective debt, paying silly money to players who already struggle to figure out what to do with it, and burdening even its largest franchises with having to charge fans for unfeasible amounts of leveraged (borrowed) money.

None of that is news, of course. And despite some pithy common sense from a number of quarters (accountancy wonks Deloitte, Guardian sports writer David Conn, Wigan chairman Dave Whelan), none of the possible keys to changing the situation had turned substantially at the end of an hour – wage caps, rule changes, financial regulation, better governance, and TV trust funds for football development (a really good one, that) among them.

What the programme did confirm is that those required to pour soothing rhetoric on the clichés and assumptions of ‘soccer-nomics’ need – for their own good – to have it well chewed and returned, preferably by people who love football, who are supporters themselves, but who also know from experience how to run things … and how making the game add-up off the pitch is vital.

Which brings us back to Scotland. Almost. With the SPL looking to make decisive changes to its own structure – and by effect or design that of the rest of the professional game – there has of course been much media coverage of post-McLeish Report choices. But it is still the machinations of the EPL which attracts the real, in-depth scrutiny and the biggest headlines.

This is because (as its chief executive Peter Scudamore, now semi-proudly proclaims) it is ‘a global brand’. It is also setting the trends, the agenda and the climate of conversation (or non-conversation) about what pundits sometimes refer to as “the rest of the game”. And in wider media terms that reaches far down the ladder in England before anyone even mentions what is happening “north of the border”.

This distorted sense of the landscape needs to change. Football is deeply woven into the social, cultural and historical fabric of Scotland. All the main contenders in the 5 May Scottish Parliamentary elections made at least a passing reference to the game. Some less passing than others. Meanwhile, the political terrain looks to be changing dramatically. Issues and possibilities that have been buried are now “back on the table”.

Supporters’ groups, among others, now have a real opportunity to think about football in Scotland in those radically changing terms. ‘Business as usual’ isn’t working. People are voting against it – at the ballot box, but also on the terraces.

So the questions are: What should be up for serious debate once again? And what Scottish fitba-related concerns might BBC and STV researchers now start to take a serious interest in?

In asking those questions it is important to start to look – for all our sakes – at some fresh ideas about ‘football as if fans mattered’ which begin with the wider picture (not least community interests), rather than consigning the non-elite to our peripheral vision.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia, and has a long-standing interest in football matters, on and off the park. He is a member of the board of the Dumbarton FC Supporters Trust (Sonstrust) and is now co-editing the new campaigning group blog from Supporters Direct Scotland, called Changing Scottish Football (http://changingscottishfootball.wordpress.com/). This article is adapted from one recently published on CSF.

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