Corporate Invasion

By Christian Radnedge  |  31 Mar 2015

This article first appeared in Issue Six of The Green Soccer Journal, Spring 2014

The worlds of football and business are becoming ever more intertwined, with each passing year seeing new investment in clubs in England.

Sometimes they look like a celebrity marriage — lots of attention to begin with, professions of great devotion and promises, along with a vow to remain together for a long time. However, like many high-profile marriages, the result is often a messy and public break-up.

Since the money of the Premier League began growing at a rate faster than anyone could have imagined, some of the high-flyers of the business world have tried to transfer their success into the world of football. But the biggest successes so far, arguably, have come from billionaire owners with a mountain of cash.

To break that mould, clubs are now trying to prioritise longevity and long-term visions. In 2009, for example, German Markus Liebherr bought Southampton FC, then in League One [the third tier of English football]. He decided to appoint Italian Nicola Cortese as executive chairman to bring in a senior structure to the club.

Cortese then began the process of building a modern football club. “There was no company culture at the time. There was no plans, there was no vision, there was no ambition,” he said at the 2013 Leaders in Football conference in London. “Just using the word ‘ambition’ was a problem for some people because we are on the south coast and you shouldn’t be ambitious. But we should.”

With the introduction of Financial Fair Play, teams are driving up their commercial revenues to balance the books. Sensible and pragmatic business policy is becoming more fashionable, although it does move football further away from its working class roots.

“It was a bit more of a psychological problem,” Cortese added. “We had to bring in psychologists at that moment to get people to see our point of view. We had a small staff but we are obviously bigger now — we grew ourselves as a company and now we have a vision today.

“The plan was to get promoted in the first year and then spend two years in the Championship, but we had to accept that it turned out the other way around — two years in League One and one year in the Championship, but it worked out!”

Another part of Cortese’s vision was to make the club self-sustaining through its youth academy. Southampton has already produced the likes of Theo Walcott, Luke Shaw and the world’s most expensive player, Gareth Bale.

But the idea behind the £15m redevelopment of their training centre at Staplewood is to create many more stars — ones that are likely to stick around.

The club’s long-owned training ground on the other side of Southampton Water already sports a new look, with a two-storey complex on the site. It now houses a top-class academy, the under-18s, under-21s and first team, as well as departments devoted to scouting, sports science, medicine, fitness and tactics.

The self-sustaining-through-youth-development model is one that the biggest clubs in the country aspire to work to, if they don’t already. Chelsea and Manchester City have both recently spent large amounts upgrading their youth academies.

This, then, highlights why manager Mauricio Pochettino was so highly thought of at St Mary’s, having brought through many young players in his time at Espanyol, despite the criticism that came from the sacking of Nigel Adkins.

But again the rhetoric of ‘long-term’ strategies was pronounced.

“We came at it with a more continental approach in terms of the company structure, in terms of the manager has an important role but basically you have department heads and you’ve got to build the company, build a company culture.”

Certainly it looked to be paying dividends with, at the time of writing [ed: early 2014], Southampton ninth in the Premier League, the richest domestic league in the world, and their last set of published accounts showing a profit of £900,000 in the last six months of 2012. It is the first profit they have made without player trading since 2005.

But last month Cortese left his post at St Mary’s, with owner Katharina Liebherr installing herself in his place. The reason for his departure is not clear but is rumoured that he was at odds with the owners about the future of the club.

So even for all his talk in October, the marriage didn’t last. But Cortese is not alone in falling painfully short of a long career in the game. The Premier League has seen many before: Thaksin Shinawatra had a turbulent time at Manchester City, Eggert Magnusson’s short tenure at West Ham was marked with notable transfer failures, and the list of failed owners/CEOs at Portsmouth would extend beyond this page.

Without passing too much judgement on the modern owner, in some cases it is becoming more of an imposing position in today’s football. Owners are taking more matters into their own hands, from transfers to tactics and even to the club’s colours and name.

Vincent Tan strayed into the realm of megalomania in some people’s eyes recently by changing Cardiff City’s club colours from blue to red, his favourite colour . He also changed the badge with the traditional bluebird to one incorporating a red dragon.

Fans protested but, as the man who has invested in the club and ultimately brought them to the Premier League, he was allowed to make the changes.

Hull fans appear, in the majority, to vehemently oppose owner Assem Allam’s plans to change the club’s name to ‘Hull City Tigers’. There are those who argue that, as he owns the club, he should be able to do with it what he wants.

That is the conundrum we come to in modern day football. It appears very much that the clubs are no longer community-driven entities, but more like franchises existing to feed off fans from all over the world.

With more business-driven initiatives making their way into football, the need becomes to make money – rather than provide value for money.

It’s hard to see this changing anytime soon. For me, it needs to come from the top and be a universal restructuring to benefit all. Financial Fair Play may not be enough. UEFA and FIFA need to work to control the rising costs and fragility in the financial state of the sport. Otherwise there may be a crash akin to those seen in the stock markets.

Like any marriage that works — stability is built on a strong foundation, trust, and compromise.

This article first appeared in Issue Six of The Green Soccer Journal, Spring 2014

Christian Radnedge is a freelance reporter, journalist and broadcaster specialising in the business of sport. His work has appeared on Sky News, BBC and World Soccer Magazine, among others.
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