By J Hutcherson (Aug 27, 2019) US Soccer Players - If you spent any time around soccer stadiums in Europe a few years ago, you probably saw a few Against Modern Football stickers slapped onto a light pole or a street sign. They took their place alongside stickers proving some other club's fans had shown up in that particular city. Some fan groups put on in-stadium displays of support for a simple point. The current version of the game as a sports business is not what they want.
Though nostalgia tends to gloss over the era of hooliganism and stadiums being unsafe for anybody who didn't look like the majority, there's more to the changes across European and world soccer. Clubs disconnected from the areas they represent. Clubs as brands mainly interested in the global market. Leagues realizing just how much they can get for the rights to broadcast games. Ever escalating transfer fees putting an economic barrier between those elite clubs turned brands and everybody else. Those outside revenue streams dwarfing the local ticket-buying public who now feel more like consumers than fans. Relative to the long histories of most European clubs, these are new developments starting in the 90s when the Premier League and the Champions League emerged.
Both of those moves suggested fundamental changes that in large part have yet to happen. There are still 92 professional clubs in England, though the names of their leagues have changed. The Champions League is still the top competition in Europe, without a rival breakaway super league. The transfer system is still in place. Most leagues still sell their broadcast rights collectively. It's still possible for an individual club to hit the wall financially.
It's that last one currently causing significant angst in England. Bury and Bolton Wanderers could go out of business this week, a scenario that isn't exactly uncommon in English soccer. The difference is timing. Right now, there's plenty of money in English soccer so how could two clubs end up in such financial difficulty? Are they outliers, or the precipice of multiple clubs running into trouble paying the bills?
Those aren't existential questions for the Premier League clubs. They're fine in an era where there's plenty of money to allocate and spend. At least until the big four to six move on to that long-promised European Super League, the Premier League pays for itself. That's part of the problem, with the wealth in the game collected at the top and distributed accordingly. Further down the leagues, it's a familiar story. It's easy to lose a lot of money in a short period of time at a level where there's nowhere near the economic rewards. Short of two clubs on the brink of collapse, there's also usually not a lot of interest.
It's easy enough to make this about struggling regions, depopulation, lack of opportunities alongside flat wages and the basic desperation that marks places that once had it better. That has very little to do with soccer economics. If the game operated as a reflection of the economy in general, there wouldn't be 92 professional clubs in a country the size of the state of Massachusetts. There certainly wouldn't be those four to six in the heady realm of the super clubs. It's already on repeat that the cost of one squad player for the Premier elite would save both Bury and Bolton Wanderers. That's how the game works these days, and the plight of two clubs isn't likely to change that.
Still, along with the hope that the same 92 clubs are still in business at the end of the week, there's at least the recognition of a problem. It may or may not be one of disparity. At this point, the Premier League super clubs have little in common with the rest of their own league even when those teams are beating them. That's what years of increasing broadcast rights fees and the popularity of those teams around the world created. Whatever the next step is for the elite of English soccer, it's doubtful that part of it will be making sure the rest of the English league structure is healthy.
Maybe it's still an "if" rather than a "when" for some of those English super clubs deciding their future is in a pan-European league, world league, or something else that breaks them free of the rest. Regardless, the game right now is coming as close to an elite league of European super teams as possible. It might be the Champions League or some version of a breakaway, but it's undoubtedly going to leave clubs behind. That's already the current situation for some of the professional English soccer clubs. Bury and Bolton represent the extremes with specific ownership and funding issues, but only for now. Eventually, it's the model that will break.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson:
- Year two of the Campeones Cup
- What to watch in Europe this season
- The Champions League asks too much
- The new MLS playoff problem
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