The Guardian provides a glimpse at the English Premier League’s debt situation—the equivalent of a CAT scan of a surgically enhanced supermodel that reveals she’s got early-onset osteoporosis. In a word, the scenario looks f’ugly: the 20 clubs owe 3.1 billion sterling (or $5.1 billion, or about 80 percent of Major League Baseball’s total annual revenue) between them, with the Big Four in the deepest self-excavated holes and everyone else frantically spending themselves into hock just to survive.
Manchester United, despite its gonzo global popularity and smashing success in recent years, loses money thanks to the enormous millstone Malcolm Glazer devised for the club when he made it pay for its own leveraged buyout. Chelsea owes a huge amount of Kremlin-approved funny money to its own chairman, but Roman Abramovich also seems to be allowed to revalue that debt at will, so who knows? Arsenal spent other people’s money on a real building, at least, but made a large bet on the luxury residential property market at an inauspicious time. Liverpool—as so often seems to be the case—is just a less impressive version of Manchester United in this particular department. Meanwhile, the “lesser” clubs are tartily wooing suitors from Dallas and Dubai.
Quaint, isn’t it? It’s like 2006 never ended. Soccer is a parallel cultural universe—and obviously, the global financial crisis has not yet happened in its realm. Given the so-called real economy’s travails in the last 18 months, can anyone look at this festival of irresponsibility, feckless greed, asset mismanagement, non-existent planning and fantasy-land accounting and not see looming disaster? Just as millions of people around the world took plunges into debt based on the ironclad certainty that property values always go up, it would seem that the international cast of billionaire-amateurs who now own the world’s most popular sports league are banking on ever-increasing gate, television and licensing revenues to keep their shell game going.
What happens then, if the world wakes up one day in 2010—after a World Cup extravaganza, say—and collectively decides that it’s just slightly less interested in football than it was a year before? If a few million people in Asia decide they can’t really afford to devote quite as much leisure time to watching teams that represent cities they will never visit? If the hipster-jock-yuppies of North America suddenly swerve into a torrid affair with team handball and trade their Chelsea replica jerseys for MKB Vezprem shirts?
One thing’s for certain—the Premier League’s supporters, who live on every continent, will end up paying for all this in end. Talk about the socialization of risk.