The Corporate Future of the Beautiful Game

“These training camps in the modern game are decided for commercial reasons and because of the extent of popularity of the club.” This is what Arsene Wenger had to say recently when he was asked about Arsenal’s pre-season trip to the United States. For him, the decision to travel across the Atlantic was  money-motivated, rather than football-motivated.

Wenger is a man of great financial understanding. He holds a degree in economics and he realises that football is just as concerned with the balance sheet, as it is with the trophy cabinet. His tenure at Arsenal is proof of this, having done an outstanding job for the London club since arriving 18 years ago. Though the last decade has brought little in the way of silverware, he has guided Arsenal through a period of relative financial austerity, whilst keeping them competitive. If the bank balance had not as been as healthy as it was over the last 10 years, Wenger would probably have lost his job.

The training camps which Wenger has taken such a dislike to, are just one of a number of bricks in the house of corporate football. Since the introduction of the Premier League, with its multi-million pound TV rights, this house has been extended year after year, and I believe that now we are beginning to see what the complete project shall look like.

Liverpool were another side that travelled across the pond to play some “soccer” before the Premier League season got underway. Since mid-July Liverpool have played eight pre-season friendlies against the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, AC Milan and Borussia Dortmund. Just one of these games took place at Anfield, whilst five took place in the United States. As is the case with Arsenal, these decisions were made on the commercial benefit of the club, rather than the footballing benefit of the team.

The much talked about 39th Premier League match is another aspect of the modern game which, if introduced, would prioritise commerce over football. The potential to raise the profile of clubs abroad seems just too tempting an opportunity to miss, and the financial benefits could be lucrative. The NFL International Series is an example of such thinking becoming practice in other professional sports. Though the NFL brand may be benefiting, it is unlikely the players of the San Francisco 49ers appreciate playing a game in London mid-season.

The commercialisation of football is not just affecting fixtures, but it is affecting the game itself. What was once a harmless goal celebration – one that Fabrizio Ravanelli, and John Arne Riise tended to favour – is now a bookable offence. It is rumoured that it is because the authorities do not want political slogans to be shown, but I don’t believe that to be the case. When a player scores a goal, the camera focuses on them, and millions of people watch the actions of this individual player over a period of around 30 seconds. This 30 second window is prime advertising space, and it is likely that the club’s sponsor, with its logo emblazoned across the chest of the goalscoring player’s shirt, will be seen quite clearly. If the shirt was to be removed during this time, the sponsor would lose its 30 seconds of prime advertising.

More and more football is taking on a corporate identity rather than a sporting one, as is clear from the balance sheets at the end of each financial year, players are assets to be marketed, traded and used for advertising. Asia is a particularly lucrative market for football, and Manchester United clearly knew this when they signed Park Ji-Sung in 2005. He became the proverbial cash cow for the Asian market, raising viewing numbers, and selling millions of pounds worth of Manchester United merchandise. Though he featured rarely in the team, it did not matter, because his signing was not a footballing-decision. Interestingly, in 2012 when Park left Manchester United, Shinji Kagawa joined, thus ensuring that Manchester United had a “product” in the Asian market.

As the influence of money within football continues to grow, and as the prioritise change from football to finance, and points to profit, we will see a dramatic shift in how football is structured and conducted.

We have already seen the rise of the oligarch owner, and the foreign billionaire investor. Though football may be of interest to them, it is primarily a hobby, and another potential market in which to make money, and raise their own profile and portfolio. As well as businessmen owning teams we have also seen the emergence of businessmen owning players. More common in South America than in other parts of the world, third party ownership is where economic rights of a player are owned by an outside business, rather than the club he plays for. There are numerous examples of this today, but the most famous for Premier League fans is probably the case of Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez.

In his 2003 novel, Jennifer Government, Max Barry paints a picture of a world run by corporations. Where workers are owned by the companies that employ them, and where cross brand alliances are formed by the global leading businesses. Though it is a fictional, dystopian world, it seems football is moving towards making it more a reality.

The influence of corporations, and money within football will only continue to grow. In a recent addition of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver highlighted the alarming power that corporations have within the game. He noted that Brazilian laws had been amended during the World Cup to accommodate the drinking of Budweiser in football stadiums throughout the tournament. This was despite the fact that alcohol consumption had been banned in football stadiums within Brazil since 2003 due to the high number of deaths it caused.

I believe that the next stage of the corporatisation of football is well underway. The ownership of football clubs by businesses has been a common practice for some time, but now we are seeing the emergence of football brands where a business has ownership over a number of clubs across the world. These clubs then act as a portfolio for the business that owns them. An excellent article in These Football Times looks at how Red Bull are doing precisely that, with their recent acquisition of the newly named RB Leipzig.

Luke Bidwell correctly highlights the “global franchising experiment” that Red Bull have in place. With ownership over a team in each of the Brazilian, American, Austrian and now German football leagues, they are looking to create a portfolio of clubs across multiple nations. Each of these teams “play in a re-branded Red Bull Arena; have an identical or extremely similar badge involving the infamous bulls; have RB incorporated into the team names; are nicknamed The Red Bulls, and sport matching kits.”

I believe that Red Bull are providing the blueprint for the future of how corporations and football clubs will interact. The future is not just  having a company own a player, or having a company sponsor a club, but the future is having a company own a number of clubs across the globe. Players will be then freely transfer between these clubs, and rotate among the squads for the benefit of the brand.

Bidwell brings to our attention the case of Marcel Sabitzer, a striker formerly of Austria Wien, who are the title rivals of Red Bull Salzburg in the Austrian Football Bundesliga. Sabitzer had a buyout clause in his contract of €2 million, but this only applied to foreign clubs. With Red Bull Salzburg wanting his services, the German wing of the Red Bull franchise, RB Leipzig, duly met the buyout fee, before sending him on loan back across the border to Austria. Sabitzer will now start the 2014/15 season as a Red Bull Salzburg player.

If the Red Bull model is going to be followed then this sort of transfer activity is going to become increasingly common. With off-seasons occurring at different points in the year for different leagues, it may well be that players partake in nearly 12 months of football.

If we imagine a world were Fenway Sports were to buy an MLS team, someone such as Raheem Sterling could play in the English premier League for Liverpool, before heading to the United States in the summer to play for the Fenway Sports owned MLS team. His flights and accommodation would be paid for by a Fenway subsidiary or partner, and his clothing provided by another partner of Fenway. His latest iPhone would be due to a recent 10 year partnership deal between Apple and Fenway Sports. Sterling would not only be a Fenway asset, but he would be a walking advertisement of the brand.

Transfers in this world would not be conducted club to club, instead they would be business transactions, buying and selling stock. When the time and the price was right, perhaps Sterling would move on to Barcelona, again flights and accommodation would be provided, this time by a subsidiary of the company that owned Barcelona. When he arrived in Spain a new car would be waiting for him on his drive, this being a gift from Audi as they are a premium partner of Barcelona. (Before the start of the 2013/14 season Audi in fact did just this, supplying the entire Barcelona squad with new vehicles). Once again, come the end of the season in Spain, Sterling would travel to North America to participate in the MLS, raising awareness of the brand and increasing merchandise sales for the company.

And if this seems preposterous then, we should look no further than the recent loan of Frank Lampard, something the Daily Mirror sums up perfectly by saying that: “He is a guy doing shifts for different departments of the same company.” His recent signing for New York City meant that he was officially their player, but he was then immediately loaned to Manchester City for the start of the Premier League season. This transfer was only possible because New York City are owned by Manchester City, who in turn are owned by Sheikh Mansour.

I believe that Red Bull’s project, and transfers such as Lampard’s, are simply the tip of the iceberg. An iceberg that is going to become larger and more powerful as the years go on. Though Red Bull may be just beginning their empire building, from small seeds grow mighty oaks. Whether we approve of it or not, this is going to be the future of the beautiful game. Cross brand alliances, players transferring freely between multiple teams across multiple leagues, and corporations waging wars not just on the product shelves, but also on the football pitch.

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This article was originally published on These Football Times on 22/08/14.

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