The beautiful game

Mar 10 issue

A love of football starts in childhood and, in a sense, never really leaves there. Footie is pure fantasy where club owners, players and fans lose themselves in the pursuit of the next win, says Chris Ingram.

In professional, top-flight football, the innocence is lost amidst the millions of pounds spent on signing, pampering and paying players. As we’re seeing with clubs such as Portsmouth and even Liverpool, reality is beginning to bite.

It’s the sort of stuff that could make for great television. Not that any self-respecting commissioning editor would believe the pitch.

‘Okay, so tell me about your idea.’
‘Well, the owner of the company is a billionaire and no one knows quite how he made his money. He has divorces that cost him hundreds of millions. But apart from the company, he likes yachts. He has three over 300 feet long.’
'An egoist?’
'You bet.’
‘Keep talking.’
‘The boss spends money without looking at how much money is coming in. One day he wakes up and discovers that the company is £238 million in debt, so he writes them a personal cheque and they start all over again.’

At this point, the commissioning editor starts looking at his watch. ‘What about the characters within the company?’

‘A COO gets fired if the results of the company are bad, which they always are. The main staff are paid around £4 million a year and have girls chasing them night and day.’
‘Where’s the plot?’
‘Tricky  – I suppose the company wants to be the best in the world.’
 ‘But it never makes a profit?’
 'Not really.’

'‘We’re done here,’ says the commissioning editor, sealing the idea’s fate.

Every single point mentioned above is true, with 85 per cent of it coming from one club. It’s a magnificent soap opera and I love it – but it’s not business as we know it. Because sport, and football in particular, is tribal and ruled almost entirely by passion.

Dubious business

It’s not difficult to categorise owners. First off, there’s the local businessman made good. Management skills won’t be a strength and it won’t even be necessary for him to be a fan of the club. Local recognition is what matters, although the owner won’t want to be seen to be running an unsuccessful club. Unfortunately, with football, when Saturday comes everyone knows how well your ‘business’ is performing. These businesses are never judged by profits so there’s a temptation for this type to keep spending. ‘If we only had another striker  – yes, I know we’ve spent the budget – but I reckon we’d make the play-offs.’

Next there’s the property developers. Usually they are looking to separate the club from the property, even if it means building apartments over the pitch. They come in with big promises and because all the shareholders dream of glory, they want to believe anyone offering a dream so give them the benefit of the doubt. This is how some clubs get severely exploited and, sadly, there are a disproportionate number of such operators in football, feeding off the naivety of fans.

Finally, there’s the smart businessmen. They come into a club full of good intentions but are condemned by the unwritten law that as soon you enter the boardroom of a football club, you leave your brains at the door. In time, the smart businessman is indistinguishable from the first category. This is exactly what happened to me when I took over Woking FC. I don’t know when I was last so stupid.

Ultimately, no one owns the business except the fans who have a view on everything, and won’t let a little thing like ignorance get in the way. As for the types of people who try to buy a football club, I heard a wise observation only last week by a board director of a premier league club: all owners of these clubs have made a lot of money once and this means they believe they can do it again. They also tend not to be good listeners.

Match funding

Moreover, football clubs are complex businesses with multiple revenue streams: gate money; TV; merchandise; sponsorship; in-stadia advertising; hospitality; lottery; licensing and programmes. Even in the lower divisions there are always at least six sources of revenue and many of them involve payment in cash, so you have to be more watchful (and suspicious) than in many businesses.

Finally, to add to the complexity, you are dealing with voluntary, part-time, match day and full-time staff. It needs careful handling.

In short, if you run your business like a football club, you’re not going to be rich, although you might have a lot of fun along your way to financial ruin.