Football: a people’s sport?

The collapse of the attempt to form a ‘super league’ of top European soccer teams by the billionaire owners of the big clubs is only an interrupted chapter in the story of the commodification of sport into profitable capitalist enterprises, owned and controlled by capital.  It is no accident that JP Morgan was the fund manager for the Super League plan – as the bank epitomises the role of global capital in controlling modern sport.  And it is no accident that the main driver for the new league was the president of Real Madrid, a football club dominated in the past by the corrupt Spanish monarchy and Francoism, the fascist wing of Spanish capital. Real is a membership controlled club, unlike most top clubs, but only the very rich can become president and the club lives off branding, as do most clubs. And RM has massive debts.

The Super League was going to be a cartel, designed to create a monopoly for the larger football clubs in Europe at the expense of the smaller clubs, and eventually at the expense of the ‘fans’ or followers of these clubs who would soon be paying big subscriptions to watch matches on TV or face high prices to see matches in the stadiums.  But then that was already happening. 

The fuss made about this cartel hides the role of capital itself. It is the same idea when economists talk about the nasty role of monopolies, as though competitive capitalism was fine and equitable and we just need to return to ‘free competition’. The reality is that football had already been capitalised: owned and controlled by billionaires, often as their playthings, but increasingly as money-making businesses.  Fans have no say; players and managers follow orders. Fan organisations rail against the rule of the billionaires, but on the whole offer no solutions except to say Now we need to do more than call their bluff and settle for the compromise of an expanded Champions League. We must rewrite the rules, remake the institutions and reassess our role as fans. 

So ending this cartel (for now) does not change the reality of the commodification of sport from its original ‘use value’ for people to play and watch into the exchange value of profit.  That sport became a business began as early as the development of industrial capitalism in the mid-19th century.  Take football.  There are about 600 premier league professional players in England, around 4000 professional footballers in England and around 65,000 professional players in the world.  Of course, from the bottom to the top, the inequalities of income or wages for footballers are huge: from one player that earns $1.5m a week to one that cannot live on football wages and needs a second job (the latter of course are the overwhelming majority).  And then there are people who just play for fun, apparently about 250 million association football players in the world.

The inequalities in wages are just the same in other major sports around the world: baseball and American football, cricket and tennis. But the thing about football (soccer) and American baseball is that they are supposed to be the people’s sports.  But at some important levels, they have never been ‘people’s sports’.  The first is that women have been broadly excluded from playing, until fairly recently.  Football was not a people’s sport’, but a men’s game, played by men and mainly watched by men.  Women did not ‘do sport’ and certainly not football.  Women’s football has only just got into the wider world in recent decades and remains poorly supported by capital and followers.  Women were supposed to stay at home and prepare the meal when the men got back from playing or watching. In the case of cricket, women were expected to make the tea and prepare the sandwiches while their men played on the field.

Also racism was a powerful force in modernised sport.  If you were black or Asian, you were excluded from professional sport. For example, it was not until 1947 that American professional baseball teams included a black player.  Baseball until then was not just a man’s sport but a white man’s sport, particularly where money was involved.

Cricket originated in the medieval villages of England and France and was played by rural labourers on the whole.  But it soon became a ‘toff’s sport’.  At an organised level it became dominated by upper class and aristocrats (still is in England).  In England, the professional game was divided between those who were ‘players’ and got paid for playing and those who were ‘gentlemen’ , who were so rich that they did not need to be paid.  Indeed, at the capital of cricket, Lords in England, there were separate entrances for gentlemen and players and every year each group played the other, preserving the tradition of separation. 

Of course, modern capitalism got rid of most of this when money talked.  Now cricket has become a global capitalist enterprise, run by Indian billionaires employing cricket mercenaries from around the world in their lucrative competitions.  Cricket has become the people’s sport in South Asia ( a product of colonial rule), but it is completely commodified at the top.  Indeed, the Super League football cartel already operates in cricket in India, while the old amateur leagues founder in the face of billionaire capital.  Now cricket is hardly played in English state schools and professional players are almost completely drawn from private schools or from cricket ‘families’.  The working class players of Yorkshire and Lancashire’s industrial areas have mostly disappeared.

Tennis was never a people’s sport.  It was invented by medieval aristrocrats and played in the palaces of kings and nobles as a pastime.  Tennis maintained its amateur status right into the late 20th century because it was an upper class activity.  Working class English tennis hero, Fred Perry, son of a cotton spinner from Lancashire, three times Wimbledon champion and winner of eight ‘grand slams’, was never recognised by the authorities because he turned professional to make a living. Professionalism in tennis eventually triumphed when capitalism saw the profits that could be made in the sport.  Now tennis is yet another globalised operation run by billionaire sponsors based on an intense global rat race for players to get their rankings and earnings. 

Cycling might be considered a people’s sport as multi-millions cycle every day. But while millions cycle every weekend for pleasure, professional sport has become yet another commercial product controlled by billionaire sponsors and riddled with drug use, corruption and race fixing.

Rugby was a toffs sport, on the whole, although in the mining valleys of Wales it gained adherence from local communities as a people’s sport (men only).  Otherwise it was the main sport of farmers in the richer areas of England, France and the colonial countries of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – and in the private schools of the upper classes.  Rugby League was a development in the working class areas in the north of England and was formed professionally so that working-class players could be paid – something frowned upon by the Rugby Union authorities..  The irony is that capital eventually made rugby union go professional and that is where the money is now, and rugby league is the poor relative.

The people’s game of baseball in America was brought to the new continent by immigrants playing older bat and ball games in England.   But it too has been totally commercialised in ‘super league franchises’. American football was never really a working class sport, but came from the Ivy league colleges of the rich, like rugby in the UK.  Now working class kids with sporting talent desperately try to get scholarships in football, tennis and basketball as a stepping stone to riches of the professional leagues – and of course, only a tiny minority ever make it, despite huge sacrifices.

Football was a truly working class sport in Europe.  It was first played by rural labourers in villages and then workers in industrial cities.  And it was mostly played for little or no money.  And it was followed by working class men (and some women).  For many working class people with talent it was a way out of poverty, just as boxing had been also.  But capital took it over in the last 150 years or so. Now football is a business run by billionaires for their enjoyment and funded increasingly by global capital.  Football clubs have shareholders and are quoted on the stock exchanges. The Super League saga is only the latest chapter in the commodification by capitalism of sport. 

Sport is now operated at the top by capital for capital, and the top players are like gladiators in ancient Rome, paid much (at the top) and adored by millions, but are soon dropped for the next bunch, while sport for profit rolls on.  Hundreds of millions watch these gladiators for entertainment; but less actually do the sport itself.

What the story of football and other sports tells us is that football cannot become a people’s sport again under capitalism.  To achieve that requires that stadiums and clubs should be in public ownership and that clubs should have members on the basis of one person one vote to decide their activities of clubs.  Sport should be state-funded only, not by capital. Players should be employed on reasonable wages like any other job.  Private capital and sport for profit must be replaced by a real people’s sport, run by the people for the people. The implementation of such an approach would not be possible on its own but only as part of a wider programme of public ownership and democratic control in society in general. 

20 thoughts on “Football: a people’s sport?

  1. The first paragraph is factually incorrect. Florentino Perez, one of the key actors in this story, does not own Real Madrid. Real Madrid is owned by its members. So is FC Barcelona, another of the ‘dirty halfdozens’. See for example this short youtube-film by Tifo Football for an introduction to the ownership of Real Madrid:

    1. yes you are right. I shall correct. I think there are four top Spanish clubs that have a membership constitution and are not limited companies. But you only get to be boss at real if you are multi-millionaire with sufficient cash in the bank. And the club depends on TV subscriptions and branding deals (along with hidden state subsidies) to function.

    2. Members only vote every 4 years, retain no operational control in most cases and Socios are rife with unscrupulous political battles, with any prospective owner being required to pony up something like 15% of the clubs value as guarantee. This functionally means that it’s an even more elitist perversion of bourgeois democracy resigned to exclusively billionaires

  2. This can’t be understood without recognising the role of intangible capital; balance sheet assets with no physical characteristics.

    Setting up the SL is comparatively uncomplicated once the requisite number of clubs agree:

    1 Set up a tax-haven registered special purpose vehicle (Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Cayman Islands, you name it). Let’s call it SL1.
    2 Transfer all claims on future broadcast income from the specified games to the company. This will appear in it’s projected profit and loss statement for the requisite 25-year period. Take out costs (better to leave any domestic costs in the domestic vehicle where it can get tax relief).
    3 Apply the requisite discount rate to each annual slab of income. Sum the total. That’s the NPV. Get auditors to recognise it as a legal balance sheet asset (not difficult.)
    4 Ask JP Morgan to lend you the money you need to start the SL up. Place the SLI NPV with them as collateral.

    This is not only entirely legal. It’s entirely normal.

    It’s an adaption of the method used by ENIC, which owns Tottenham. The ultimate owner is incorporated in the Bahamas.

    So. How do you stop it and how do national jurisdictions recover control over not just the SL but all clubs structured in this way?

    The starting point is recognising the key is the intangible asset recognised on the balance sheet of the SPV.

    Kill that and you not only off the SL. You kill of the entire business model that’s been used in the last 30 years to take control of English football and others. In fact, it’s the business model that is increasingly used by all investors in all private businesses operating in the UK.

    How to kill intangible capital:
    1 Change UK company law to require any business recording sales in the UK to have a fully-incorporated UK company covered by UK tax law.
    2 Require ALL companies incorporated in the UK to have a balance sheet where at least half the assets are either 1) physical: buildings, machinery, stocks etc or 2) government infrastructure bonds or both. No capitalised future income streams would be recognised as an asset.

    But that’s just the first step.

    Almost certainly ENIC would conclude that owning Tottenham is no longer viable. It would be invited to sell White Hart Lane Stadium (estimated cost 1bn pounds) to the UK government in return for UK government sports infrastructure bonds (return would be a small premium over the normal rate for government bonds).

    White Hart could then be run as a part of London’s urban infrastructure and repurposed to meet the needs of the local community (one of the poorest in London). Corporate boxes could go for a start.

    The players and coaching staff could then be required to set up a non-profit partnership with no physical assets (a bit like an old fashioned legal partnership). The partnership would hire White Hart Lane for required matches. It’d would probably require a general manager (non playing), but there would be no need to pay him/her 3m pounds like levy gets.

    The fans (exactly how do you define those?) could express their views through their locally-elected representatives (MPs, councillors).

    This is an interesting case study of value. Where’s value created in football? Obviously by the players, who are the workers. But there is no value creation without fans (off or online). But they only need to be recognised in the transaction between them and the team and between them and the owners of the stadium.

    1. As a Spurs fan this should 100% happen, all of the supposed community efforts by ENIC to revitalize the area are not taken with any view other than to make the place into a gentrified leisure centre for international visiting fans from the global middle and upper classes. Profits over all else.

  3. Good article, and thanks. What you don’t mention, though, is some of the more detailed logic that is involved here. So: i) Bear in mind that in W Europe, football is organized on a tier system. Teams in the Premiership are not guaranteed to stay there; if they end up at the bottom they will be relegated to the tier below. ii) The big teams have massive quasi-fixed costs, largely in the form of player contracts. If they are relegated, that is a challenge: less sponsorship money, less TV revenue, less of all revenue. One of the things that the Super League promised was maintaining revenues since there would be no relegation. On the other hand, the fans like the relegation/promotion system, since it adds huge interest to the game. There are lessons here for the NFL. No issue of relegation or promotion there, and the European adventure suggests why: big sums are at stake. But imagine the interest if a team’s future in the NFL could be threatened in this way.

  4. Bread and circus, the last refuge of the center-leftist.

    A sad end to the vaunted European social-democratic consensus, which has now probably seen its last mobilization.

  5. Michael.
    You wrote: ‘So ending this cartel (for now) does not change the reality of the commodification of sport from its original ‘use value’ for people to play and watch into the exchange value of profit.”

    An alternative analysis would go something like this.

    Who creates value in pro-football and how?
    Answer. The players, but this could not be realised unless there are spectators (fans). So in order for value to be created in football you have to have players AND spectators.

    How is profit harvested in pro-football?
    Answer By restricting spectator access off line (tickets at the stadium) and online (subscription). This is a monopoly which is also used to extract revenue and hence profit through TV/online distribution.

    Where does the stadium fit into value creation and profit harvesting in pro-footbball?
    Answer: the stadium creates no value. It supports value creation by facilitating the interaction between players and spectators and restricts access to the ground, thereby making it possible to charge up to two thousand pounds for a season ticket.

    What role does constant capital play in this process?
    Answer In the form of the stadium and other non-human inputs including broadcast/online facilities. But a key additional part for the European Super League was $4bn worth of capitalised future broadcast income recognised in the ESL’s balance sheet and used to collateralised a loan from JP Morgan. This too creates no value but is a social relationship that secures the transfer of the surpluses generated from the monetisation of the constructive interaction between players and spectators.

    If it’s conceded that value is created in the constructive interaction between players and spectators, then it requires an adaption of Marxist value theory which is largely based on value creation in the manufacture of tangible goods. This adaption is applicable to all value-creating activities involving constructive human interaction (ie in all service industries).

    If the constructive interaction between players and spectators does not create value where does value creation take place?

    1. The players (mostly the under-paid grunts, not so-much the aristocrats of this degraded form of commodifired labor) create the value, including the surplus value for this (beer and circus) service, which is sold to happiliy drugged and fleeced fans. Sober tax payers indirectly also pay via overt of covert public subsidies provided to team owners (and, indirectly, their creditors. In the US cities usually provide the colesseums, parking arrangements, etc.

      1. In pro football, players and the coaching team are the workers and they are the ones who create value by interacting with spectators.
        Surpluses are harvested by the owners of the stadiums and distribution channels (these are the means of production in football).
        Pro football can be analysed using Marx’s categories with comparatively minor adjustments.

        What makes football particularly compelling is that it provides insight into how every form of performance (theatre, conferences) creates value and profits.

        It also sheds light on how all services work.

        In services, value is exclusively created by constructive human interaction (labour theory of value).
        It is immaterial and only subjectively perceptible (the value form of labour in services is the intangible commodity).
        Physical assets support value creation but are not the source of value creation.
        Surpluses are harvested by the owners of the processes (the physical and social (legal) infrastructure).
        Capital in football and in all services is intangible (ie non-physical).

        In services, intangible capital rules.
        Der Reichtum der Gesellschaften, in welchen immateriellekapitalistische Produktionsweise herrscht, erscheint als eine ungeheure Immateriellewarensammlung
        .(The wealth of societies, in which the intangible capitalist mode of production rules, appears as a huge collection of intangible commodities)

  6. Hello, Roberts! I know that you are well versed in the Marxist theory of crises and other theories of business cycles, so I think that you are familiar with the Austrian theory of business cycles (obviously, this theory is often contrasted with the Marxist one). On the Internet, I came across posts from Meng-hu’s blog that empirically prove it (especially with the help of research by the Austrian economist James Keeler), please can you make a critique of these studies, since this is within your competence, and I am not educated in this. I think that criticizing this theory, and especially the research that empirically proves it, is very important to defend Marxism, just as it is against Keynesian and mainstream attacks. Once again, please make a detailed critique of both the theoretical part of the Austrian theory of business cycles and its empirical component, it’s just that all this confuses me very much and makes me doubt Marxism in favor of the Austrian school of economics. Thank you very much in advance! Here are the posts with empirical evidence: /
    And, you should read all the posts on the topic ABCT:
    Thank you again, and I hope you won’t ignore my request.

      1. Thank you very much. I will wait for your feedback and criticism, I think you should focus on the methodology and data of James Killer, because they are filled with econometrics, and this is exactly in your field. Good luck!

      2. Sorry to bother you, but did you read what I give? Just enough time has passed (10 days).

      3. Give him some time. It’s not just reading. If the posts are as cogent as you describe them, he needs to articulate a careful reply to do them justice, and he’s also working on his own next book.

        He had also said he’d try to write a series of posts on China early in the year, but so far has been unable to. We can only imagine how busy he is with his own research.

  7. Before the major league baseball teams in the U.S. accepted Black players, there was a Black league. A fine movie, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976), including Richard Pryor and other notable actors, tells the story. It portrays both the racist exclusion and also the class struggle between the Black team owners and the players. That was possible in 1976; today it would be all identity politics.

  8. Did you discount gladiatorial Rome having sport (including the Ben Hur chariot races) as a business?

  9. A total of 274 Gentlemen v Players matches were held from 1806 to 1962, with the Players winning 125 and the Gentlemen 68; there were 80 draws and one tie

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