Will top flight football go the same way as the banks and collapse as debts become unpayable? Portsmouth FC is already in administration, the first Premier League club to suffer that fate, and many Manchester United fans fear the long-term future of the club is endangered by a mountain of debt.
That’s why many of them staged a colour-coded protest at yesterday’s Carling Cup final at Wembley. They chose to wave green and gold scarves and wore hats of the same colours instead of the United’s famous red and white in a protest organised by the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (Must). The green and gold was intended as a symbolic reminder of Newton Heath, the club founded in 1878 that then became Manchester United in 1902.
Must is campaigning for the removal of the Glazer family, who run a US sports corporation. They bought United in 2005 with money borrowed from the banks. Last year, but for the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid for £81m, the massive interest payments on the club's £700m plus debt would have meant a net loss, although the club won the premiership and reached the final of the UEFA Champions League.
There’s a similar protest movement by Liverpool supporters, whose club has £300m in debt following a buy-out by another US business group. Fans are so concerned that there is even talk of a joint protest with arch rivals United when the teams meet in a few weeks.
The Premier League as a whole is the most indebted in Europe, owing more money than all the other clubs in Europe's top divisions put together. The European governing body UEFA calculates the combined debts of just 18 Premier League clubs at just under £3.5bn, around four times the figure for the next most indebted top division, Spain's La Liga.
The fans are angry that top clubs in England have become a milch cow for big corporations and that as a result, the game has become remote from ordinary working people whose support was once taken for granted. More than that, the sense of community that clubs provided has gone for good and replaced by expensive admission, merchandising and players tempted by huge salaries into boorish behaviour.
And where it was once possible for a variety of clubs to win trophies and titles, that is definitely no longer the case. Without a rich backer, clubs cannot bring in the world class players and managers. For many fans, the Premiership is reduced to a competition between a US corporation (United) and a Russian oligarch (Chelsea) and the rest struggle for the minor placings.
With banks reluctant to refinance debts except at punitive rates, the Premier League’s position can only worsen. As the recession deepens, more and more fans will become TV watchers rather than spectators. UEFA says the English model is unsustainable and will require clubs to break even financially from 2012-13. Naturally, the Football Association has insisted that English clubs should still be able to top up with external finance, in practice rejecting UEFA’s rule while signing up to it on paper.
On Saturday, fans from across the country attended a Beyond the Debt rally organised by FC United of Manchester, a club formed by United fans disillusioned by the Glazer takeover, and sponsored by Supporters Direct, a fans' organisation. Dave Boyle of Supporters Direct told the meeting: "Football clubs shouldn't be owned by individuals, or even a group of individuals. They should be owned by supporters."
Too right! And, of course, the same principle should extend to other areas of culture and the economy. Private, corporate ownership isn’t working. Common ownership and control, on a not-for-profit basis, is the way forward as our draft Manifesto proposes.