‘Football is recession-proof’: an interview with Simon Kuper

(This is an interview I wrote for Newturn Magazine, for which I am Politics Editor. You can read the print version here)

Simon Kuper is a columnist for the Financial Times. Here, he talks to Josh White about Michel Platini, football’s global appeal and why football finances are perfectly sustainable.

At the end of the day, football is the most popular sport in the world. Two of the tritest clichés associated with the game. The soundbite that rings in a dozen managers’ post-match interviews every Saturday; the reminder, drilled out of TV sets and newspaper headlines at the frequency of every major cup final, that We’ve Never Had It So Good.  But football truly is a cultural, economic and global phenomenon. A cumulative twenty-five billion viewers followed the World Cup in South Africa in 2010. The Premier League is broadcast to over six hundred million people in two hundred countries worldwide.

But the story is quite different in the boardrooms of some football clubs. Darlington and Wrexham are two of the latest names in British football to be staring at financial ruin. Much has been said about the financial sustainability of football and many are considering a crisis in lower league football funding. For example, David Conn of The Guardian wrote of Darlington that ‘the Darlington Arena is a rattling monument to the reckless buying, selling and mismanagement of historic football clubs.’ Simon Kuper, football anthropologist and sports columnist for the Financial Times disagrees. ‘I don’t think there’s a crisis,’ he says. In an interview from his Paris home in January, the co-author of Soccernomics is steadfast. ‘There’s an extent to which some [lower league] clubs are too small to fail.’ It simply is not the case, he reckons, that the debt crisis in football is unmanageable or a cause for a alarm. Sustainability is plausible and likely. Most clubs, he says, are ‘immortal’. ‘[It’s] incredibly rare that they disappear.’ The club is routinely protected from the collapse of its sister business. Pointing to Aldershot in 1992, he remarks that ‘it was the company that failed, not the club.’

Kuper is something of a dove to the hawks of Conn and others in the British press (especially) who moralise mawkishly at the bedside of English football. Despite the global financial crisis, there is no indication that fans are turning away from football. Kuper showed exactly this in 1994’s William Hill Sports Book of the Year Football Against The Enemy, in which he documented the fans’ unique expressions of their cultural, national and social identities via the game. The development of football is such that we are seeing more anthropologies, sociologies and histories of the fans that make up the game – studies and writers that remain shy of club loyalties. (Kuper does not tell me which football team he supports.) And especially at the moment, the demand for football is still high, even in the lower leagues. ‘Thirty million people went to league football matches in 2008, at the height of the recession. At about £10, watching football in a recession is a cheap means of entertainment.’ Football, he says, is ‘recession-proof’.

So are clubs taking for granted the permanent revenue stream from fans? The Glazers at Manchester United introduced a compulsory purchase of cup tickets for season-ticket holders. ‘United get a huge additional grant [from this],’ Kuper says, ‘but British football is incredibly durable’. Match day revenue accounts for only around one third of a club’s annual income, and there are empty seats in Blackburn and Wigan, he says, ‘because they are poorer areas’. ‘Arsenal have a massive match day revenue, which makes up half of their income because they are in London and because of who they can attract.’ And, on top of this, fans are not building real opposition to big finance in the Premier League. ‘However much debt you have, your club will always survive. Fans always want rich businessmen to invest. The more you pay [in wages], the better players you get.’ The attraction of the Premier League to foreign investors is not subsiding. ‘It’s tempting to want to say something apocalyptic, but football is a successful product with enduring brands.’

The Premier League cannot be matched financially. For the most ambitious players, ‘after Real Madrid and Barcelona, it’s the Premier League. It doesn’t even need to be the most successful league in the world. There is always a global support base, always enough to go around.’ But what about when clubs are not performing on the pitch? Does that not affect their global revenue? ‘Liverpool aren’t performing on the pitch,’ he says, sharply. ‘They’ve been building their brand around the world for years. The big clubs of the 60s are largely the big clubs [and global brands] of today.’ With growing audience across the world, it may be the case that ‘we ain’t seen nothing yet’ when it comes to the spread of the Premier League brand. (Ratings for Premier League matches on American television networks are breaking records, he reminds me. Fox will even be showing a Premier League game directly before the Superbowl this year.)

We must separate, Kuper says, the moral critique of football spending from the business critique. This normative proscription against the ills of debt and deficit are zipped around in a recession but UEFA’s financial fair play rules (UEFA decrees on clubs spending only from within their income and means) aim, surely, at protecting the game from the harsh extremes of capitalism, don’t they? No, he says. The failings of the rule on club debt are twofold. ‘Firstly, what problem is it meant to solve? Clubs don’t go bankrupt. Secondly, it’s a nightmare to enforce. There’s nothing to stop clubs keeping their spending off the books.’ So then how can UEFA compel clubs to act? ‘Real Madrid, Manchester City, AC Milan are examples of strong clubs versus weak regulators.’ So a ban from the Champions League is inconceivable? ‘The rules help traditional clubs. [Michel] Platini’s is a moral initiative. He doesn’t like foreigners to come and spend money on football.’ The problem with the rules, he says, is that ‘like Valencia, once you can’t spend anymore, you can’t compete.’ It sounds like a cynical attempt by Platini and UEFA to keep the top clubs powerful and the smaller clubs dutiful. ‘It’s not what he [Platini] intended,’ Kuper says, ‘but it’s the sausage that came out of the grinder.’

Platini, Sepp Blatter et al are wrong to decry the game as immoral and fatally weakened by greedy financiers. If Kuper is right, there is no indication that we will soon see any drop in the popularity of the sport. Football is so enduring and permanent, so culturally unique and nonpareil, that the question of sustainability seems like exactly the kind of cliché that Kuper the contrarian relishes debunking. Football – the sensation – could survive the recession unscratched.