Scattered amongst the news articles this week in the soccer world were two disturbing stories of financial failure involving top clubs in both England and Scotland. Sadly, fans of Rangers and Portsmouth awoke to the news that their clubs had entered “administration” due to overwhelming financial debts which, according to the rules of their respective Leagues, means that both teams receive a 10-point deduction for the current season. More seriously, it represents a rapidly increasing phenomenon that threatens the future of the sport back home in the UK, but at my boyhood club, Blackpool, there is a story of financial responsibility that shows that running a soccer club successfully can be done within normal operating business budgets.
The term administration is a frightener for all soccer fans. In the US, it means bankruptcy and can easily result in extinction which in football club terms can be historically devastating as many clubs have been bastions of their communities for over 100 years. Recent times have seen an escalation in these predicaments, particularly in England, and are a direct result of mismanagement from ownership who blindly attempt to catch lightning in a bottle for their fans, without regard for the financial repercussions in the long term. Understand that we are not talking necessarily about the Chelsea’s or the Man City’s of the game, who both have owners with bottomless pockets, but the clubs who linger on that border between mediocrity and instant fame and fortune that is the Football League Championship and the English Premier League. Sometimes these pressures can affect the top clubs too as evidenced by Leeds United’s plummet from grace a few years ago and more recently with Rangers’s difficulties in Scotland. Without a doubt, whoever is affected is almost doomed to devastation.
The problem in the UK lies with the attitude of the average fan who beleives that his local football club should provide his weekly “football fix” no matter the cost or the consequence, and which then bleeds into the boardrooms which are populated by club directors, whose sense mirrors that of their fans. Consequently, caution is thrown to the wind and the club gorges itself on players who it can’t afford to pay in the long term, but because of the huge rewards of top level football in England, clubs fall for the attraction of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Portsmouth are in their second administration period, and Rangers in their first, and the effect in Scotland has been shattering. Glasgow fans can hardly begin entertain the possibility that one of the “Old Firm” could disappear in a suffocating cloud of debt in such a short period of time. Unfortunately, the writing has been on the wall for long enough for someone to have reacted, but financial caution had long since disappeared.
However, on the NorthWest coast of England, Blackpool Chairman Karl Oyston has a different philosophy and definitely one that brings him daily criticism from the club’s supporters. Let me say firstly that I am in no way a great fan of Oyston in terms of his football knowledge nor his credibility as a businessman. My own father’s dealings with the Oyston family, and particularly would curl your hair but what we are specifically referring to here is Oyston’s attitude towards running a football club. He has shown that a club can exist in the top levels of the English game without mortgaging it’s future away. He refused to overpay for players when Blackpool were promoted to the Premier League at the end of the 2009-2010 season. Manger Ian Holloway didn’t even have a full squad when the season started and many players were signed on loan deals at the last minute. Fans were totally outraged and felt like Oyston didn’t care to succeed and to some degree, his caution looked obsessive,. When Blackpool were relegated at the end of that season, Oyston was pilloried in the local media for not being ambitious, but in reality, the net result is that Blackpool have a bright future financially and on the playing field. Oyston refuses to pay players more than they are worth and has a healthy contempt for player’s agents which endears him to many fans. Couple that with an aggressive youth policy and some loaned-in veterans, Blackpool continue to push for promotion back to the Premier League in only their first season back down in the Championship. Typically, many relegated clubs spiral away in a “fire sale” of departures which decimates the playing squad, or they try to retain huge portions of their squad with dire financial repercussions. Rangers have been the victims of bad management coupled with lofty ambitions of being regular Champions League participants without having a playing staff to reflect that, but a wage bill that does.
Contrast this style with many US sports franchises where business comes first and sports second. It’s true that the US sporting environment is different with many major sports having a complete monopoly over players and Leagues, but if a franchise isn’t profitable, it’s either sold, wound up or moved. The thought of those options in the UK would be reprehensible as fans are unwilling to accept that their teams have to be run under formal business rules. It’s no secret that football clubs with American ownership make very unpopular decisions amongst their fans whilst showing a forward looking business sense. They generate a ton of hate from their fanbase but it’s the medicine that needs to be taken in order to prevent further extinctions from occurring throughout the game in England and Scotland.