Football is the people’s game. Its wealth, sustainability, and support are all underpinned by the mass gathering of spectators. Without the fans, the game simply could not exist and, even in this atomised, digital age, the value proposition of football is its massive global appeal, making it attractive to investors, benefactors, the media, sponsors, and advertisers. When something disrupts the world’s most popular sport, the impact goes way beyond supporters being left bored twice a week. Coronavirus stopped football in its tracks, jeopardising the eco-system that nurtures the livelihoods of thousands of people, both inside the footballing world and its periphery businesses.
The longer-term health of some football clubs could be compromised. Broadcasting revenue has essentially fuelled the dramatic growth of football, with vast sums of money being paid for TV rights. The prospect of falling subscribers, viewers, and advertisers is very real following months of complete uncertainty regarding the future of the game. The virus, which has already triggered high volatility in financial markets, could be the catalyst for a transformational period for the game.
At the top, most Premier League clubs were in profit in 2018-19 and their revenue streams are diverse and robust. But if club owners run into difficulties, as some have in the past, then their financial stability will be questioned, especially if owners are reluctant to inject cash into a struggling business model. The average wage-to-income ratio in the Premier League is just over 50%, which means they are not paying-out everything they earn. However, the Football League is a different story, with many clubs paying wages that exceed their revenues. This makes them highly vulnerable in the event of a cashflow problem.
Although broadcasters may seek an adjustment to their deals, and this would be disastrous, the most direct impact on many clubs will be the destruction of important matchday revenues. While season ticket sales are high at many clubs, meaning some ticket income has already been received from fans, it should be remembered that the figures vary greatly across the spectrum.
Matchday income for smaller clubs represents a larger share of overall income than it does for Premier League clubs. It can amount to more than 30% for a League Two club, while higher up the food chain in the Premier League, could be below 20%; the average for the so-called “big six” is only around 17%. Lower-division clubs, who do not benefit from high broadcasting fees or global sponsorship, are heavily reliant on community backing and smaller businesses which will undoubtedly suffer through the crisis. Hence, the effect on smaller clubs might be two-pronged by missing matchday income, and troubled sponsors.
Even before the virus hit, teams were in big trouble. Bolton Wanderers have perennially lingered above the bread line for years, staving off bankruptcy through player sales and copious amounts of debt. The same cannot be said for proud, historic Bury, a 134-year-old club, founded in the Victorian Era, who were put into administration and look likely to be liquidated after years of complete mismanagement. The FA’s own ‘Fit and Proper’ rule, meant to weed out shoddy or malicious ownership, was completely ignored when Steve Dale bought the club for £1, as he did not provide up to date future financial information by failing to notify the football league of the “source and sufficiency of funds” required to pull the club from the brink of solvency. The ruinous takeover and immediate collapse of Wigan Athletic sadly appears to be almost a carbon copy of Bury’s ordeal.
Were it not for the much-needed government intervention at the end of February, many more groups of fans faced the cold embrace of faceless administrators, as their clubs’ financial predicaments looked grim. Barnet F.C., one of the oldest teams in the UK, was set to lay off all sixty non-playing staff; until the government’s furlough-scheme saved them at the last hour.
The crisis will, undoubtedly, highlight the huge imbalances in football – for instance, Crewe Alexandra, in 2018-19, generated an income of £3.2 million while, just up the road, Manchester United earned £602 million. Naturally, the smaller clubs are far more exposed to financial hardship, and some have little margin for error. The story of Bury demonstrated clubs can fall into the abyss and in recent months. There have been concerns about the financial health of Morecambe, Macclesfield Town, Bolton Wanderers, and Oldham Athletic. If there is a liquidity crisis in English football, then clubs that have been on the brink of disaster could be pushed into bankruptcy, or at the very least, administration.
It’s not just a question of clubs not finishing their season, because football as an industry provides income for many people not necessarily working within the game. Local shops, restaurants, and bars have built themselves around clubs’ home grounds and have become accustomed to profitable footfall on matchdays. The lost revenue could be totally devastating for whole communities, even if more teams survive this reckoning than expected.
What’s more, is that football remains very much a working-class sport. The days of nascent actors emerging from humble beginnings is probably behind us – theatres are not the social institutions or community pillars they once may have been. One’s local team dying – as my friends across the great city of Glasgow know – is not only a horrific personal blow but also an irreversible loss for the group spirit that comes with it. More ought to be done for the arts in this country, but if we can’t support our teams and the communities around them, we’d be as well shutting up shop – last one out turns off the lights.
If nothing else, this crisis should prompt a proper reassessment of the financial state of football. The game is flooded with cash, yet far too many clubs are a missed payday away from disaster. Better provisioning for adverse trading conditions – not just relegation to a lower division, like the FA’s ‘parachute payments’ – and a more realistic wage structure must surely be under consideration in the future if the current football system is to be maintained past COVID-19.
Outside of the relatively well-off English Football League, with its lucrative TV deals, the rest of the footballing world maintains similarly deep-rooted foundational cracks.
Clubs like OFK Beograd, and countries like Serbia, are the breadbasket of European football. The entire financial eco-system of Serbian football is based in large part on moulding and then selling young players with high potential. Serbian football has a complicated, Kafkaesque organisational structure. Clubs are, in effect, mostly still state-funded, a hangover from communist times. Most are dependent on government subsidies, especially in the form of sponsorship deals, and almost all of them have to sell their young talent to survive.
According to the 2019 CIES Football Observatory Migration Atlas, 521 players left Serbia to play professional football in other countries, more than Germany. It is the sixth biggest exporter of players in the world, with Brazil number one. Serbia has a population of just 7 million, Brazil has 210 million. Per capita, only Argentina and France export more.
OFK’s academy is one of the most admired in the Balkans. The two biggest successes in recent years are current Serbia captain Aleksandar Kolarov and Serbia’s all-time record caps holder Branislav Ivanović. But for the past three seasons, they have been stuck in the third division unable to get out. According to OFK director Vladimir Simovic, the club’s annual budget of €200,000 – to pay for the upkeep of its vast stadium and its academy – is now almost all made up of player sales and UEFA’s 5% solidarity payments for clubs that played a youth developmental role in any sold player.
Such dividends could become rarer, though, with transfer volumes and fees set to plummet in the post-COVID world. A report by KPMG predicts that with revenues taking a hit across the board, up to £10 billion had been wiped off player values, with teams in the top five leagues drastically cutting back their transfer budgets. That, in turn, will have a trickle-down effect on the clubs lower down – and those like OFK, often living on money one season to the next, will be the first to feel it. “We are dancing on the edge,” said OFK director Vladimir Simovic, “most of the [Serbian] clubs are on this edge.” He predicts that 30 percent of Serbian clubs will disappear in the next two years.
The COVID-19 crisis hit just as Serbia’s top two leagues were being expanded. Extra promotion spots were made available in the third tier, but OFK couldn’t prove they would be financially viable to be considered for the level above. To make matters worse, Ilija Petković, head coach and club legend, died after contracting the coronavirus after he went to the hospital to be treated for a burst ulcer. It looks like a harbinger of a bleak future. The post-COVID world could well spell disaster for a 108-year-old club like OFK, but they are just one of many, with a story likely to be repeated many times across Europe over the coming months.
“Football without fans is nothing.” The fabled words of legendary European Cup-winning Celtic manager, Jock Stein, have resonated through the footballing sphere and its empty stadiums, as the sport has returned behind-closed-doors. A message I wholeheartedly agree with, but it’s not entirely accurate. Football without football is nothing. I’m afraid that, in the post-COVID world, a football-less future waits for hundreds of clubs around the world.