Football, money and the nature of the local

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To cultured Martian observers the decision of a few European football clubs to start a new competition would have seemed routine. They might have been surprised, however, at the outrage it caused. Even Prime Ministers were brought into the debate, threatening to block it. The history of sport, with its varied and often conflictual relationships between local communities, money and administration, provides the context for understanding the move. It also raises more important questions about the nature and importance of the local. 

Main image: Football player and ball (Emilio Garcia/Unsplash)

The beginnings of modern soccer in the second half of the nineteenth century, like those of cricket and the rugby codes, saw it as play rather than as work. The founding clubs that codified the games included schools or had connections with local church youth groups. The red and black colours of the Essendon AFL club, for example, are probably derived from those then sported by St Patrick’s College where many of the early Essendon players had gone to school. Essendon played at the East Melbourne Football Ground adjacent to the school.

The distinction between work and play generated conflict over the payment of players. In English cricket, where entrepreneurs had sponsored touring teams, the distinction was domesticated in the class difference between amateur players, who were considered to embody the spirit of the game, and professionals who were paid. More explosively, it led to the split between rugby union and rugby league. In all sport, however, the majority of players even in sports where players were paid, did not earn their living from the game. They had other employment. 

The beginnings of most sports, too, lay predominantly in small and tightly bound communities. They expressed and generated local loyalties, often intensified by religious identification. The rivalry between Celtic and Rangers, Manchester United and Manchester City, and between Liverpool and Everton, for example, was sharpened by the sectarian divide between Catholic and Protestant.

The administrators of sporting clubs and of the associations that regulated the competitions were also largely unpaid and were members of the local communities who had been long associated with the clubs.  The conflicts that arose in the sports were typically between the management of the associations and players or clubs and reflected the feeling that the boards were out of touch with their local roots and that players were not sharing fairly the revenue of the game.

Finally, in the beginnings of sporting clubs the income needed to support the costs of grounds, players, equipment, travel and administration came through a mixture of gate takings, donations from supporters and patrons, and fundraising. This too was largely local.

All this highlights how central to sport was its local character. The players were generally drawn from the local area, as were those responsible for the administration of the club. The main source of income was drawn from local supporters who became members and attended the games. If the club and the sport were to survive they needed to be deeply rooted in local communities.

 

'The simulacrum of the local is not, however, the reality. In fact it is the mask of the global neoliberal market that praises competition and then systematically limits it by changing the rules to favour the wealthy.'

 

From the last quarter of the twentieth century the relationships between its local and the economic aspects of sport at the top level have changed significantly. It became common, and often mandatory, for players to be employed full time by their clubs. They were often paid more than most other young people. Sport became work as well as play, and was governed by all the conventions and contracts of any workplace. This created the demand for paid administrators and for board members with broad business experience. 

These changes were enabled and demanded by massive changes to the funding of first rank competitions and clubs. The demand for content on television and the competition for high-rating and relatively cheaply produced content made sport attractive. Television outlets that bankrolled the associations could pressure them to adapt their competitions to meet their needs. Kerry Packer was able to buy the best international cricketers for a rival cricket competition, see off the Board of Control, and make lasting changes to the game.    

These developments put pressure on the local character of clubs. Generational change and mobility meant that most supporters to their clubs lived outside their local centres. The competition between clubs to secure good players and the rewards on offer to them meant also that few players grew up in the local area.

Most significantly, however, the change and increase in funding led to structural conflict between the local autonomy of the clubs and the interests of the associations. The games most attractive to the television stations were those between the best teams and players. The interests of the associations, however, lay in a relatively even competition in which all teams were competitive. This conflict was resolved in many associations by strengthening the power of the association, allowing it to negotiate funding from television, imposing salary caps and other restrictions on expenditure, and supporting the development of the game. Other associations placed no restriction on spending by clubs with a resultant gross disparity of resources. Increasingly the stronger clubs were taken over by wealthy individuals or hedge funds interested in profit.

In both cases the local ownership of clubs and of the competition was diminished. Simultaneously, however, the power of the visual media and the immediacy of the images of games also significantly maintained and universalised at least the appearance of locality. Football lovers in rural Australia or in Paraguay might be drawn to support Liverpool. They can watch its matches on television, see close ups of its players, hear their voices after games, buy the caps, flags and kit that local fans have, and explore the Anfield surrounds of its stadium. In these ways the imagining of the local can bring profit to the club owners through hosts of people connected only remotely to the club. The club can draw together the local people, the players, the administration and its owners together in a feeling of solidarity.

The simulacrum of the local is not, however, the reality. In fact it is the mask of the global neoliberal market that praises competition and then systematically limits it by changing the rules to favour the wealthy. The Premier League had already separated itself from the rest of English soccer by independently signing media contracts whose profits are distributed only to clubs in that league. They could then sign the best international players for massive fees. The recent proposal refined this advantage by limiting further those who profit from the game. 

The wider interest in this story comes from the furious response by local supporters of clubs and players and managers, as well as from local towns and national politicians. The greed taken for granted in neoliberal economics was simply too naked to give credibility to the emperor’s local clothing. The withdrawal of the proposal for a breakaway competition opens space to associations to weigh the importance of the local. The odds are that when set on the scales against greed it will be found wanting.

The deeper question underlying the soccer conflict, however, concerns the nature of the local, and with it of the importance of the personal and the communal. This question was raised earlier in churches, businesses and schools by the virus restrictions and by the rise of Zoom and other electronic meeting platforms. Through them people and events at a distance were visually made local. For most people this mode of local presence was frustrating in its difference from the immediacy and tangibility of physical presence. But in the future three dimensional imaging on television and computers will surely become available, with its simulacrum of a tactility unavailable even to most of those physically present to events. Such an experience will be very costly to produce and will be made available only through wealthy sponsors.

The questions that follow are whether this appearance of intimacy and belonging, so much less ambiguous and edgy than its physical reality, will be accepted as superior to it, what limits can and will be placed on the political power of the wealthy corporations that enable it, and how it will shape human relationships. On the answer to those questions hangs much more than a football competition.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Football player and ball (Emilio Garcia/Unsplash)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, UEFA Champions League, European Super League, local, sport, neoliberal

 

 

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Existing comments

A group of ordinary British people thwarted the proposed Super League. This week a local community in Darwin thwarted Woolworths plans to open a Dan Murphy’s megastore close to a liquor-free Indigenous community. Too many free marketeers, like Marxists, believe that getting the economics right will solve all social problems. But economic life depends on trust, stabilized by customs and laws. Customs and law withdraw from the market things that cannot be traded, like religious beliefs. In every society, that which is of greatest value is precisely that which is not to be exchanged. It is a never-ending battle. The architect Le Corbusier wanted to demolish downtown Paris and replace it with reinforced concrete. Fortunately, he failed. Jack Mundey saved Sydney’s The Rocks and Woolloomooloo from a similar fate. Brexit was a revolt against a European super-state that trashed local customs. Globalization destroyed the American “Rust Belt” cities while enriching multinational corporations that support every new fad that trash American values. Yet the NBA kowtows to China to protect its basketball money stream. Scottish journalist Nick Dixon wrote that he has now stopped watching football because it has become a meeting point for “globalism and wokeism.”


Ross Howard | 30 April 2021  

There were always local heroes in sport, like Ted Whitten at Footscray or Billy Wright at Wolverhampton till the big money took over. So many of our best, like John Landy and Bill Woodfull, were amateurs with real jobs. Bill Woodfull was offered a knighthood for services to cricket but knocked it back. He would have accepted it for services to education. We shall not see their likes again whilst advertising and gambling control sport. It's all about money in the big leagues.


Edward Fido | 30 April 2021  

Local amateur league football clubs have really struggled and some have folded since payment of players was permitted, to the detriment of community involvement and spirit especially in poorer areas.


John RD | 02 May 2021  

Edward. "Its all about money", you say. What about domestic violence and tattoos!!


john frawley | 10 May 2021  

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