If you are a football fan it will have been hard to avoid the news that Bury have been expelled from the English Football League.
They had a lot of loans, their stadium was mortgaged up to the tits and the taxman came for his dues, with all of his usual compassion and grace. This caused Bury FC to be unable to pay players and staff, so almost all of them left. Needing to reduce the amount owed to their creditors and HMRC to remain financially viable, Bury enetered a Company Voluntary Arrangement. This prevented them being wound up by the courts in the summer at the expense of losing 12 points in the league. Still unable to service its debts, and unable to find a new owner, Bury got kicked out of the football league on 27th of August. A sad end for a club that has been in the top 4 tiers since 1885 and brought home two FA cups, even if the last one was in 1903.
The economist’s view of this would be simple. A company borrowed money to compete with its rivals, but failed to increase revenue enough to repay those loans, so it failed while its stronger rivals survived.
But this view is not one that is shared by the fans, of Bury or most other teams. A notable exception being Bolton, whose fans waved cash at Leeds fans when they were in dire financial straights. Leeds declined to be the bigger club when Bolton were relegated last season.
Bolton narrowly avoided being expelled from League 1 last week when they found a new owner while in administration.
But that’s enough fun, back to the fans. The old school view of the football fan is that you pick your club as a child, ideally the local one, and you support them through thick and thin for the rest of your life. Their successes are your successes and their failures hurt. You follow them up and down the country. Somehow money can always be found to pay for that ever more expensive season ticket.
In my view, the Premier League has ruined this forever. The best clubs decided to form their own league at the top (it is a separate entity to the English Football League) and take the bulk of the sponsorship, TV and prize money for themselves. The Premier League is a profit making machine for its members, and showing loyalty to your fans or the local areas of the clubs is not required to enjoy its financial riches. With prize money on the order of £100 million per year, clubs are being bought up and down the country as a rich man’s gamble on reaching the promised land of the Premier League, if only for one year (followed by very generous parachute payments in case of relegation). Of course you don’t actually have to be rich to do this. You simply have to appear rich, so that your holding company can borrow enough money to buy a club, before using the profits from the club to pay those debts.
This mercantilism of modern club owners is in direct conflict with the traditional fan’s view of their football club.
What will be the end result of this? As with all capitalist enterprises, it will encourage consumerism amongst the fans. Why pay half a day’s wages for a matchday ticket to watch a team play poorly every week, when you can simply follow the most exciting games wherever they are played? Your loyalty won’t be rewarded by your club, so why keep swelling the coffers of their international owners? This is what the fans growing up today will be thinking.
If clubs are still failing tens of years from now, when fan consumerism dominates the football market, will there be people crying outside the stadium? Will fans freely offer their own time to get the stadium in shape for a game, as they did at Bury? No. They will find another team. This clearly isn’t in the interests of the clubs, but the money that can be made from short term speculation is now so large that it attracts owners who don’t care what the club will be decades from now.
So what is the Southern Oatcake recommendation for new football supporters? Get yourself down to your local non-league club. There will be a warm atmosphere, occasional glimmers of on-field skill and, critically, they are not bound by the EFL regulations so you can drink beer in the stadium. My latest club? Dulwich Hamlets! Easy and cheap to get a ticket, fun fans, good selection of food and beers in the stadium and, somewhat importantly, within walking distance of my (sadly former) abode.
Then there are the two additional advantages of being the Pride of South London, you know it’s true, we’re pink and blue (how can you out-debate an appeal to colour?), and it does, of course, look like Tuscany!