The amount of money that football generates is crazy. Beyond belief. Obscene even.
Yadda yadda yadda. Nothing new or revealing about that. Move along please, nothing to see here.
And yet and yet…
For all of the assorted ills spreading themselves in and around the game these days we still, like it or not, would like some of that filthy lucre at our club.
There was a time, and not that long ago, that our, or any other club’s, football ‘model’ was what generated the money that came into that club.
If the team played well the rewards would follow. Good players performing well, decent runs in the league and cups and all the accordant attention that would bring in was what generated the money that we needed to not only survive but prosper.
Take the 1988/89 season for example; one that will probably always be, for me at least, the best in the Canaries history.
A 4th place finish in the old First Division as well as a run to the semi-finals of the FA Cup. And, with it, the continuing emergence and national prominence of players like Robert Fleck, Andy Linighan and Andy Townsend.
Our successes that season (a then best ever league finish, the aforementioned run to the last four of the FA Cup, topping the table for three months and not being out of the top four for the entire campaign and six, read that again, SIX successive away wins from the start of the season) firmly, as the old footballing cliché goes, “put the Canaries on the footballing map”.
Everyone knew who we were and who played for us. Including, as it turned out, quite a lot of British football’s bigger clubs.
Because, looking back at the 18 players that the club used in the 47 League and Cup games played that season (an extraordinary feat when you consider we can use 14 in just one game now!), seven of them went on to leave Norwich for large transfer fees; an essential and self-sustaining income that was, for all the moans and groans, self-included, whenever a Fleck or Townsend moved on, essential for the club’s future.
Put simply, we could not have survived back then without the money raised from player sales.
Which means that that relative success and prominence that the club enjoyed that season didn’t just give all of us a great deal of pleasure – it also meant that the club could plan for the next few seasons without having to worry too much about fending off the bank manager, or, in the case of Middlesbrough at one point, the bailiffs.
Success through your own efforts was what the game was all about. If you did well, then you could prosper. If you did not, well, the opposite applied, as Middlesbrough found out when the aforementioned bailiffs locked players, staff and fans alike out of Ayresome Park at the beginning of the 1986/87 season.
It leads me to recall one of (the many) footballing quotes attributed to Bill Shankly, a man who related to that relationship between hard work, success and financial reward for same.
“The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life”.
He could have been talking about the Canaries and how the football club operated for much of its history. Everyone at the club working hard, everyone set to achieving the same goal, everyone focused on success.
It’s certainly how the club went about its business during what turned out to be another particularly successful season for the Canaries – 1992/93.
Those of you who regularly read the club’s match day programme will know that I’m writing a regular feature in it that looks back, game by game, over that season.
I’d previously looked at that campaign in some detail for my book that went into it in even more detail, namely Fantasy Football, in which I interviewed eight of the players who were at the club in the seasons leading up to that one. Without exception, they all spoke about the club’s wage structure at the time, one that followed the quote by Shankly almost to the letter in that the players were expected to work hard, to work hard together and, if that brought success, would lead them to all being rewarded equally.
Their basic wage was probably the lowest in the whole of the Premier League. But the bonus system they were on was, to put it bluntly, eye wateringly good.
Professional footballers, despite what they may say in public, do love to talk about money and the class of 1992 were no different. One of the ex-Canaries I spoke to said he was chatting to some Manchester United players after our first game against them that season and, inevitably, talk of wages came up.
To say that the Manchester United players were impressed at the Canaries bonus structure would be an understatement. It was, as they confirmed, massively superior to the one they were on, and, as it turned out, every other club in the Premier League.
Now I wouldn’t be so shallow as to suggest our success that season was purely down to the bonus system on offer to the players at that time because there was a lot, lot more to it than that – as the book reveals (subtle plug there) through the various interviews given by the players.
But we are all only human. And whatever you do in life, if you know that your efforts are going to be financially rewarded (and extremely handsomely) the more you put in and the more successful you are as an individual and within the group then you as sure as hell are going to work a lot harder.
Which is exactly how Bill Shankly was suggesting was, and is, how it should be.
One of the problems with football today is that the incentive to do well seems to have dropped out of the game altogether, which brings me back to where I came in (i.e. the money swilling in and around the game at the moment and how we still want some of it for ourselves).
Remember one of the reasons given for staying up last year was the increase in the TV money paid to clubs this season; the highest it has ever been, and, quite possibly, will ever be.
Even, we heard, if we finished bottom of the Premier League this season, we’d still receive several squillion pounds for doing so rather than the measly few squillion pounds we were paid for being relegated last season instead.
It was as if relegation, for some Canary fans, wasn’t so much the problem – it was when we got relegated. And it would have been much better for us to have gone down this season rather than at the end of the last one.
But whichever way you look at it, it’s still being rewarded handsomely for being, at best, mediocre.
The polar opposite of what Shankly was preaching.
Where’s the incentive to do well gone?
Doesn’t all of this money generate complacency? There is certainly a case to argue that, even if a club does go down this season, those who are welded to its business (rather than football) model will see it as being at least a partially successful one because of the mammoth financial advantage that they will have over their Championship peers throughout the 2017/18 season.
And that is not right.
Football, we are repeatedly told, is now not just a business, it is a big money business.
Then maybe it’s time it started acting like one?
Take, for example, another business; one that is, like the Premier League, very much a blue chip one.
It’s at the very top. A market leader. Known and respected throughout the commercial world.
The John Lewis Partnership.
Now, I should, before I go on, qualify the reasons for my selecting them as an example. It’s not because I have any interest, financial or otherwise, in the business, nor do I know anyone who works for them or has done in the past.
It’s simply because I read a piece about them in the news earlier this week.
The John Lewis Partnership are renowned for looking after their staff, their partners as they refer to them, both personally, professionally and financially.
That includes, every Christmas, paying them an annual bonus. All 91,000 of them.
This year that means they are getting a bonus that amounts to 10 per cent of their annual salary from a bonus pit that totals £145 million.
It’s generous. If you, for example, are on £24,000 a year, then that’s an additional £2,400 included on your wage slip at the end of the month.
But it’s not as good as it has been in recent years. It was 11 per cent in 2015, 15 in 2014 and 17 in 2012.
The company hasn’t been performing as well as it would have liked to in recent years. Hence the bonus amount has been falling. The staff are still happy mind you as it’s probably head and shoulders above any other in the industry.
Much as ours was in the Premier League during that 1992/93 season.
What John Lewis are saying, in essence, is that if we do well then so do you. If we don’t do so well then you won’t either. But we’ll still acknowledge and reward you for the work that you have put in, because our best chances of improving our overall performance depends on a happy, hardworking and motivated staff.
And if our all working harder next year means the Christmas bonus goes up to 12 per cent or more then great.
Common sense really. Shankly would approve.
But that isn’t how the Premier League works. In pledging that the minimum amount that the club which finishes bottom of the Premier League this season will be £100 million, they are not rewarding success, they are rewarding failure.
Although, deeper down, that failure is of the Premier Leagues making and an admittance that their business model isn’t working. They’ve helped create such a massive gap between themselves and the Championship, the end result is that they have to subsidise the relegated clubs for up to three years to prevent them from going out of business.
But whose fault is that clear and present danger to the game?
Is it the Premier League’s for implanting such an unworkable model in the first place? Or is it that of the clubs for being so freely taken in by it?
One thing is clear though. It’s extremely likely that the current TV deal, which runs until the end of the 2018/19 season will be the last of its kind and the amount of money on offer will never be the same, or as high as it is now.
Because the leading clubs have cottoned on that collective bargaining isn’t as good for them financially as doing their own separate TV deals would be.
And that is what the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, the two Manchester clubs and Tottenham will be looking to do from the 2019/20 season.
Which raises the question, how will all the other clubs replace the collective income they are on now if they either have to agree their own individual deal as well, or, as is more likely, form themselves into their own group and look to arrange a TV deal of their own that doesn’t include any of the big clubs?
With a resultant, sudden drop in income that will be, for some, beyond cataclysmic.
When that happens, will some clubs go to the wall? You bet they will.
But I’m thinking ours might not be one of them. And that, for all the moans and groans that the current owners and board generate for their perceived pecuniary caution, it’s a policy that just might, a few years down the line, help keep us in business and to ultimately prosper.
Massive TV deals in football are, like the dinosaurs, shortly going to become extinct.
And only the smallest and fittest will ultimately survive.
The clock is ticking…
Gary Field says
Collective bargaining has certainly been beneficial to all Premier League clubs, and I can see the logic as to why they may want to do their own thing. However, wouldn’t the rest out vote them?
Weakening the Premier League brand may also have a negative impact on the overseas TV deals.
On balance, it makes little sense to alert the status quo. Then again, since when has football been logical?
Derek P says
I doubt the biggest Clubs will feel that the current deal has been beneficial to them, as they would almost certainly get more if they went it alone.
I firmly believe, as Ed does, that this money train will come to a halt soon and all clubs who have built business models around it continuing will have a nasty shock.
Whilst I would love my Club to be competing at the top level, it shouldn’t be at any price. And any success we do have is all the more sweeter if it has not been “bought”.
Neil Pearce says
Thought provoking piece Ed. Perhaps going back to a similar bonus scheme adopted by the club in the early 90’s would indeed give non-performing players the incentive to improve and give that much more. If it works in other industries why not football? I fear in the modern climate however players and their agents wouldn’t put up with it, and whilst the game is as it is awash in money (at least at the top level) highly unlikely to be considered. If, as you suggest that money were to disappear from the huge TVs deals and sponsorship many clubs would perhaps have to reconsider their stance.
Just on a slight digression, I learned recently that the great Bill Shankly did in fact play as a ‘guest’ for City during the Second World War whilst stationed near Great Yarmouth during his service in the RAF. If I read correctly he played under the alias of Rod Newman (?) for three games. Apparently even the other Norwich players were unaware at the time they were temporary teammates with the then Preston stalwart and Scottish international.
Great piece as always from Ed…..begs the question I suppose of whether any club would be able/brave enough nowadays to operate on a similar system to that which NCFC did in 92/93. No doubt players agents would have an awful lot to say about such a plan. Given our recent performances (or rather lack of), it is something which we discuss regularly with our fellow supporters in the Jarrold/Galway/Green Bean/South (or whatever it is today) stand!