This blog hasn’t had much to say about The Football of late. In large part that’s because Yr Humble Correspondent’s major team of choice, Liverpool FC, has rambled from comic disaster to calamity to tantalizingly brief false dawn of hope sure to yield, ere long, to heartbreak. It’s hard to fire up the pseudo-journalistic mojo on the subject when your team struggles to get past Romanian clubs in second-tier European competitions.
But, partisan concerns aside, fascinating stuff is going on in the global game, and I’m not just talking about the evolving majesty of Barcelona’s pocket-sized genius, Lionel Messi. Thanks to the global financial crisis and a couple of decades of freewheeling cowboy capitalism, the English Premier League—arguably the sport’s top circuit, and definitely its strongest magnet for trendy, post-modern American fuckers like myself—finds itself in the grip of a political and financial crisis. (Which I wrote about, a bit, for Good not long ago.) The league is beset by profligate spending, shady transactions, leveraged buyouts, bad debt and phantom owners. One club, last-place Portsmouth, essentially went bankrupt mid-season and is now guttering along on administrative life support, with players taking up collections to pay the training staff and whatnot. At both Manchester United and Liverpool, fans are in a state of open rebellion over huge debts and other malfeasance under American owners who are either rapacious, incompetent or both.
This season-long soap opera has been quite the boon for those of us who like to commingle our sporting pleasures with ornery rants against neoliberal policy. And now comes the best development so far: with a dicey general election imminent, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Labour Party plan a radical shake-up of the sport’s governance. The Labour scheme would require that clubs give their own fans the “first option” to buy them out if they go up for sale or into bankruptcy; furthermore, it would apparently demand that clubs hand over a 25 percent ownership stake—and the accompanying boardroom power—to fan collectives regardless of their current financial status.
Yes, it’s like Billy Bragg suddenly took over sporting policy for New Labour, as the same leadership that helped gut the old socialist party of anything resembling socialism casts about for a populist (or perhaps, dare it be nerdily said, Distributist) solution to football’s crisis. Of course, Labour is frantically nailing a supporter-ownership plank into its platform largely because Gordon Brown wants to avoid becoming known as the Scottish version of Gerald Ford. Predictably, the opposition parties dismiss the move as a gimmick that would be impossible to implement for legal reasons. The league’s current owners, of course, must be somewhere between amused and paralytic—and are probably, at this moment, clubbing together to buy David Cameron T-shirts for all their domestic staff to wear during the campaign.
Still, thanks to the Premier League’s upheaval, the notion that supporters should run (or at least help to run) their own sports teams may now be impossible to extinguish, even if the concept proves to be somewhat slippery in execution. (The ever-excellent Pitch Invasion has offered a huge amount of coverage on the relevant complexities; you might as well start here.) In England, a decisive number of fans may now feel—as The Guardian‘s David Conn writes—”there has to be a better, more human way to organise society and its institutions.” In a country where football clubs are forever wedded to their communities of origin—Manchester United’s rebellious fans adopted the colors green and gold to pay tribute to the original railway workers’ team that eventually became their present-day superclub—some form of communal control makes sense.
And what about over here, in the franchised (and comparatively well-run) American sports world? The vast differences between the English club system and the American major leagues make exact comparisons elusive. And yet surely it is as true here as over there that sports teams are not just ordinary businesses.
Not to be all, like, in my forthcoming book, I argue—but, in my forthcoming book I argue that we’ve made sports such an integral, major component of our culture that we need to reinvent both athleticism and fandom.On the latter front, if fans are expected—as they now are—to pay higher ticket prices every time their hometown team wants to move up in the world, shouldn’t they also be given a vested say in team operations? And if taxpayers are now basically required to kick down vast stadium subsidies so their cities or states can acquire or retain sports franchises, shouldn’t those franchises be governed, to some extent or another, as communal assets? And if our major leagues continue to enjoy cozy antitrust exemptions, shouldn’t they be required to desist from such monopolistic tactics as, for example, using franchise relocation as blackmail?
Some impressive initial efforts to create a more fan-directed sports world are surfacing, particularly in the fizzy subcultures of American soccer. As for the political ramifications of sports governance, they could be great fodder for the sports-obsessed reformist now in the White House. Well, second term, maybe. We’ll see how Gordon Brown’s poll-testing does.