Football's Super-Rich Owners Are Killing the Game Fans Used to Love

James Carr@@jamescarr89Special to Bleacher ReportFebruary 13, 2015

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When Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, owning a football club became a marketing expense to global oil conglomerates, a way to hide money from untrustworthy world leaders, a safe place to store money from prying accountants.

Abramovich spent millions buying players and boosting the infrastructure of Chelsea, aggrandising both the club and himself.

Matthew Syed of The Times argued on Sky Sports and in the paper that Abramovich bought the club to raise his profile across the world and avoid the wrath of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has made a habit of attacking rich oligarchs from the days of Boris Yeltsin's presidency.

In one purchase, Abramovich changed Chelsea from a local English side to a global brand financed by Russian natural resources, reportedly so that he could avoid persecution for negotiating with Yeltsin.

Abramovich started a bit of a trend.

Since then, several super-rich individuals or conglomerates have bought or at least paid for sponsorship of several teams. Emirates, Azerbaijan and Malaysia now appear regularly on television screens around the world.

In the case of the Qatar Foundation, shirt sponsors of Barcelona, its involvement with the Camp Nou club could be seen as an attempt to soften the market to the atrocities occurring in the building of World Cup stadiums in its country—a far cry from what football represented just 20 years ago.

Rather than mirroring the heart of the community, football now reflects the world economy and the desires of its drivers.

The larger trend of wealthy Russians and Middle Eastern oil conglomerates purchasing assets in London—such as the Shard, the Gherkin and much of Kensington, where there are now more vacant properties than ever, per the London Evening Standard's Joshi Herrmann—causes gentrification of those already in England.

These investments cause shifts in the market, pushing people further down the ladder of economic housing and driving prices higher in former middle- to lower-class neighbourhoods while increasing the tax burden among the lower class.

Roman Abramovich
Roman AbramovichRichard Heathcote/Getty Images

The same thing is happening in football, where a select few teams battle for the domestic title and international glory as the rest play for table scraps. Meanwhile, ticket prices continue to rise.

Andy Walker is a spokesperson for FC United of Manchester, a club born in 2005 from immense frustration with the way ownership was running Manchester United. When the Glazer family from the United States bought Manchester United just a few years after Rupert Murdoch attempted the same thing in 1998, some fans drew the line and formed their own club.

Walker, and the rest of the renegade fans, place the destruction of football—from the anti-competitive nature of the Premier League to rising ticket prices and incessant bowing down to television—at the feet of these super-rich owners.

"These are business people whose primary aim is to make the maximum profit from their investment while saddling the club with massive debt," Walker told Bleacher Report.

"They epitomise everything that is wrong with modern football. Supporters are rarely consulted about matters affecting their clubs, have to suffer massive hikes in ticket prices and inconvenient kick-off times for the sake of television and have largely been marginalised."

Many thought that UEFA's financial fair play ruling and other recently adopted rules in the Premier League and Championship might put an end to some of the practices and disparities that create an impenetrable hierarchy of elite clubs more interested in the bottom line than fan experience or equality.

At this early point in the process, that does not appear to be the case. In fact, these rules seem to be solidifying the elite hierarchy more than ever.

On its website, UEFA acknowledges the massive financial disparity between clubs and argues that the FFP rules do nothing to increase that gap. During FFP's short reign, that has already proven false.

Specifically, there has been a distinct inequality between teams who break the rules. Malaga, a Spanish club that made it to the Champions League quarter-finals in 2013, were banned from European competition, while Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City got off with fines and squad limitations, punishments that haven't had much effect, with both heading into the knockout stages of this year's Champions League.

While Malaga's problems were more severe, both Manchester City and PSG were guilty of breaking the rules. However, the implication seems to be that some teams have the ability to pay their way out of trouble.

Another inequality is the fact clubs such as Chelsea have around 26 players—worth around £100 million, according to the The Guardian's Owen Gibsonout on loan. This buying and selling of players like short-term stocks boosts revenues while ensuring competitors can't bring in talent that might knock Chelsea off their perch.

Under FFP rules, it would be impossible to stockpile players without incurring UEFA's wrath, so only teams that arrived with extra baggage get to keep it.

Azerbaijan and Qatar Airways now feature prominently on the shirts of Atletico Madrid and Barcelona, two of the biggest clubs in Spain.
Azerbaijan and Qatar Airways now feature prominently on the shirts of Atletico Madrid and Barcelona, two of the biggest clubs in Spain.Alex Caparros/Getty Images

The icing on the cake is Manchester City's shrewd manoeuvre to simply buy clubs in other leagues. Perhaps fueled by hiring the firm that helped UEFA to write the FFP rules, the ownership group of Manchester City bought clubs in Melbourne and New York, which then sold property rights back to City to cover costs.

More to the point, the announcement of the establishment of New York City FC came with the news that Frank Lampard would head to the U.S. and give Major League Soccer another star player to improve the league's image, marketing ability and overall talent level.

Though NYCFC fans were initially thrilled, their attitude soon soured—local supporters group the Third Rail stated they were "outraged" and publicly denounced the decision—when Lampard's loan with Manchester City was extended through May, more than two months into the MLS regular season.

Incidentally, the cost to open a team in New York was about the same as City's original fine for breaking the rules—a pretty good trade-off for the ability to swap players as desired while improving the global brand, if you can afford it.

It remains to be seen what UEFA will do to rule-bending clubs moving forward, but the governing body is treating the Manchester City case as an ongoing investigation, declining to comment for confidentiality reasons.

UEFA added in a statement to Bleacher Report: "UEFA undertakes thorough checks of all relevant accounts and related-party activities as part of its financial fair play investigations," perhaps leaving room for later correction.

Some action may be necessary to save the Premier League from becoming too anti-competitive to watch. Though increased exposure, financial strength and geopolitical power has, without a doubt, dramatically improved the quality of the elite clubs on the pitch, apathy awaits for teams that need the revenue from the Premier League to survive but can't actually win the league.

Recent media deals made revenue from ticket prices a mere blip on the radar for Premier League clubs, further tipping the balance of power away from the input of matchday fans. Clubs are so dependent upon media revenue for survival that challenging for domestic cups is viewed as a waste of necessary resources.

"If clubs are going to prioritize the league, even if that just means finishing 10th, and aren't even going to bother with cup competitions, where's the dream?" asked Michael Brunskill, a spokesperson for the Football Supporters Federation.

Brunskill and the FSF actively hit back at the erosion of the home-fan experience, without which these clubs wouldn't have made any profit at all.

Aside from the lack of competition in the league, the fan experience has been hurt by two other factors: rising ticket prices, which price out younger fans such as students, apprentices and low-wage workers, and lack of safe-standing areas, which are currently banned in the top two divisions of English football.

"To use a metaphor, if you're in church, you stand up to sing, don't you? And if you're in a football stadium, you want to stand up to sing," said Brunskill.

The comparison between football and religion is almost as old as the game itself. Faith is the lifeblood of a club that keeps fans coming through thick and thin. The electric atmosphere of universal belief embodied uniformly through song is a ritual for fans and part of the attraction for those watching around the world.

If fans stopped coming, Brunskill wonders if the "product" would be worth the same.

Thus far, that tipping point hasn't been approached. Though prices and rules cause many fans to grumble, in large part, they remain devoted to their clubs, even if they have to, in the words of Brunskill, "pay through their nose to do what they love."

Some fans, according to Brunskill, take this new reality in stride, supporting local nonleague clubs instead of Premier League clubs, returning to times when football was at the heart of communities without worrying about international rights and hidden money.

"They feel more of a closer relationship with the club and more of a connection with the club and the players," says Brunskill of these fans.

"They aren't global superstars who you can't get near. If you go to a nonleague game, you can have a pint and a chat with the player in the bar afterward."

FC United of Manchester are taking it to the next level. Just 10 years in the making, FC United have already made the Northern Premier League playoff final three times.

The former Manchester United fans boast more than 3,500 paying members, all of whom get a vote in decision-making of the club. And they will soon move into their own stadium, Broadhurst Park—financed largely by their own members.

Members, referred to as co-owners, vote on everything from the board to the kit to ticket prices, all to create an environment of loyalty, engagement and community involvement—a far cry from the elite hierarchy of teams or the motives of super-rich owners.

Though victory happens to be a byproduct of rabid fans willing to do anything for a club that shows them as much love as they show the club, FC United's goals, according to Walker, are "to be a sustainable football club that can be the best it can be on the pitch while making a real difference in the local community and beyond of it."

Oddly, it sounds like the ideal marketing pitch to a group of millennials, though FC United isn't a start-up tech company from Silicon Valley. Instead, they are simply going back to the days when football meant something to the community and reflected the ideals of the fans who built the club.

"People want to belong," said Walker. "If you value that loyalty and promote engagement and involvement, then people will do amazing things with you and support you through thick and thin."

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 13:  Scorer of the matchwinning goal Sergio Aguero of Manchester City celebrates with the trophy during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Queens Park Rangers at the Etihad Stadium on May 13, 2012 in Ma
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Whether FC United are part of a bigger trend or simply a small reaction to a larger problem remains to be seen, but they certainly have strong selling points for young adults who can't afford to attend bigger games, participate in the spectacle or have a say in the direction of the club.

Of higher importance in a global economy, the profits from FC United will stay in the community rather than going back to a Russian, American or Middle Eastern bank account.

Still, less practical, more emotional reasons may have a stronger effect on the tide of fanhood. Gone are the days when David toppled Goliath to win the league. The key element in both religion and football—faith—is in danger of being eliminated.

We know Sunderland will not have a moment like Sergio Aguero's to snatch the title from an age-old rival. We know Newcastle United will not play in the Champions League and stun Real Madrid in the final. We know players such as Willian will choose Chelsea over Tottenham Hotspur.

We know these things because the global economy has taken so much money away from middle and lower classes and at the same time seen the wealthy become the super-rich. We know because the game favors those with the largest bank accounts. Over time, knowledge erodes faith.

At what point will it erode fanhood?

James Carr is a former writer and editor for Fox Sports and The Shadow League. He recently wrote a book called The Jig Is Up about the sustainable revolution.

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