Football needs to reform to become a real business
The Harry Rednapp case, whatever the final verdict, has illustrated what we all knew: for all the talk of football being a business, it is still essentially a cottage industry. It has not moved on from the early twentieth century world when it first came into prominence.
That football is big business can hardly be doubted. Look at the financial figures that UEFA has released about the profits and losses made by the clubs and the huge debts they have. In 2010, total revenues for top-flight clubs reached a record €12.8bn, but the increase in revenues was accompanied by record aggregate net losses of €1,641,000,000.
Yet, as has emerged from the trial so far, football clubs, by paying their managers commission on the sale of players, are still part of a world that would be unacceptable in any other business. So what is wrong with that, you may say? A manager recruits a player, improves him, and then sells him on at a profit to the club. Surely he should be rewarded for that? And since a bottle of whiskey or a case of wine would not be considered sufficient reward, he should get something in his bank account. Is that not part of normal business? If bank chairmen and chief executives can get huge bonuses for their work, why should not football managers profit from their work?
The problem is a very real possibility for conflict of interest. The manager is in charge of the team, he decides who plays, and who does not play. He decides whether a player continues at the club or not. For him to then also get a bonus for enhancing the value of the player is not the sort of conflict that other businesses would find acceptable in the modern world. The reason is obvious. It may be in the club’s interest to sell a player, but not the managers. And the manager’s interest may be dictated, not by football, but by money. Can that be right?
I can see how the situation arose when there was little money in football and the role of a manager in a club was very different to what it is today. Then, there were many clubs that even paid managers a bonus if their team contained players who had come from the club’s own youth system. Consider the potential conflict of interest here. The manager is about to select his team for a match. The choice is between a player the club has developed, and one the club has bought. All footballing logic may dictate that the player bought by the club should have preference over the home-grown one. Yet the manager, aware of the difference it would make to his bank balance, could be forgiven for choosing the home-grown player. He would have to be a saint not to do so.
In those days, clubs also had other practices which we would find astonishing today. So, for instance, a club in the lower reaches of the league – or an amateur club – drawn against one of the giants in the FA Cup, would have bet against them winning the match. This does not mean they would not try to win the match, but they took the realistic option, and saw it as a way of making money. That has long been outlawed.
In the same spirit, clubs should look at the contracts they have for managers and make sure they are in line with what would be acceptable in any normal business.
Yes, football is not a mere business. But it generates huge money. Plenty of the top clubs see themselves as businesses, try to run themselves as businesses, and it is time the football industry as a whole, came in line with normal business practice.