Last week, Martin Samuel wrote a long screed against financial fair play in the Premier League, which received a lot of attention, including from this blog. He got a lot of response on it, and so today he answered some of his reader responses. Admittedly, Samuel can only work with what he’s given in his Daily Mail comments section, which is fascinating in its own right.

Why?

Because the bulk of the arguments against a version of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play initiative, which would limit Premier League clubs from spending in excess of turnover for more than three years, follow boringly partisan lines. The general tenor of Samuel’s mailbag comments can be summed up as: “Why should MCFC be able to jump the queue via Sheikh Mansour while Arsenal and Man United got here by the sweat of their brow?”

These are easy enough for Martin to shoot down in turn, so he does so over and over and over again, normally by pointing out these clubs did, in fact, spend a lot of money at some point in past to build winning teams and secure their historical legacy (although he crucially avoids investigating whether these clubs spent well in excess of turnover at these various junctions).

But none of these so-called criticisms either of FFP or Samuel’s own stance really speak to what Samuel actually believes about FFP. Which is that it’s essentially just a means for the already revenue-rich clubs to further solidify their season-over-season domination of the Champions League places, which, to be fair, would not constitute a radical change from the status quo.

Samuel in fact responds to only a single argument for FFP along economic lines (and it’s again a poor one), as a means to mitigate wage and transfer fee inflation:

Utter nonsense. Financial fair play should be bought in ASAP to bring a more level playing field. Martin Samuel fails to address the point that Man City and Chelsea have contributed hugely to the inflation of players wages, which in turn is fed through to fans by increasing ticket prices: simple economics. If you look back to the Eighties and Nineties there were many teams competing and winning trophies, such as Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest. FFP properly implemented would allow managers of clubs outside the top four to mount a challenge, particularly if player wages were reduced or even capped. Jay1200, Sydney, Australia.

So let’s go back to Jay’s golden Eighties and Nineties. A few highlights. Stan Collymore (Nottingham Forest to Liverpool), £8.5m, British transfer record. Dennis Bergkamp (Inter Milan to Arsenal), £7.5m, British transfer record. Andy Cole (Newcastle United to Manchester United), £7m, British transfer record. Jaap Stam (PSV Eindhoven to Manchester United), £10.75m, record for a defender, record foreign signing. Sander Westerveld (Vitesse Arnhem to Liverpool), £4m, record for a goalkeeper. Marc Overmars (Ajax to Arsenal), £7m, record for a winger. Dean Saunders (Derby County to Liverpool), £2.9m, British transfer record. Bryan Robson (West Bromwich Albion to Manchester United), £1.5m, British transfer record. But you’re right, it is only Manchester City and Chelsea that have been forcing prices up.

The writer has of course dug his own grave here by referring to specific clubs and a specific era. Of course there was no such thing as FFP in the 1980s or 1990s, so the argument is moot from the offing. Moreover, though citing record breaking transfer fees is interesting, it only matters as far as FFP is concerned whether those fees were spent in excess of club revenues. Samuel doesn’t seem to understand that, or more likely he does, but it’s more fun to throw around figures and declare victory.

Much of the rest of the article follows these lines. For an better take on how FFP might further limit competition in the Premier League, Stefan Szymanski has a piece out for the Times today. It’s paywalled, but this is the pertinent paragraph:

The likely effect will be to ossify competition and maintain the dominance of established clubs (ironically, Chelsea and Manchester City may be the greatest beneficiaries, having already paid to join the elite). Less competition will reduce the pressure to spend on players’ salaries. While few may shed a tear for multimillionaire footballers, the quality of competition will also fall, as owners funnel their income into profits, not players.

This claim though seems to closely conflate football and business. Generally, investors don’t pour millions into football expecting to earn handsome profits. They invest into football to win. If anything, a wealthy investor would be glad to reinvest profits into advanced scouting, club academies and recruiters, anything in order to tip the balance in their club’s favour, and, ideally, break into the elite, and grow commercial revenues.

That’s because Szymanski presumes owners have more in common with Donald Trump than Jack Walker. If they’re already making a profit, why invest in the club? But owners invest to win. It’s as much for personal glory as it is for profitability.

The more practical bit from Szymanski is whether FFP would violate UK competition laws. More on that in the days to come…

Comments (3)

  1. I’ll help: (from Stefan Szymanski article in Times)

    “The Premier League case seems even simpler. Chapter One of the Competition Act prohibits agreements between undertakings that “have as their object or effect the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition within the United Kingdom” and this applies to agreements that “limit or control production, markets, technical development or investment”. This move by some of the Premier League clubs would appear to be an open-and-shut agreement to limit investment, and therefore illegal.

    http://www.mcfc.com/News/What-the-papers-say/2013/January/WTMS-17-Jan

    • I’ve also wondered if FFP challenges the EU restriction of trade rules with the claim that wages will become “artificially suppressed”.

      I can see the anti-competition argument, but no company can be forced to spend itself to death. With turnovers well in excess of income, any club could argue that they simply want to be more fiscally responsible. While history says clubs have spent at “X” for a long time, the books also say that spending at X is a recipe for disaster for the club.

      Szymanski has also pointed out that cutting back one club’s excessive spending (or the top end,) will have a knock-on effect for the entire system. Just as a rising tide floats all boats (unless your tether is too short, then you go under – Hey, I live by the Bay of Fundy.), an ebbing tide releases tension on the lines that keep you grounded.

      SB

  2. ”But owners invest to win. It’s as much for personal glory as it is for profitability.”

    Umm, no it’s not! Tell me, with a straight face, that Stan Kroenke, the Glazers and Fenway are investing for glory and not the profitability that success leads to. How many games have they gone to? Do you genuinely believe that anyone of them would know what ‘offside’ is? They’ve all admitted not knowing about football and that their purchase of AFC, Utd and LFC is just an investment. As an Arsenal fan I have no problem with City or Chelsea because at least it’s for the glory [and in any case I'd rather have a league where 4 or 5 teams can win, or even 3, than just Arsenal and Utd], but I cannot stand leaches coming in with the sole purpose of making money from owning a football club. Read David Conn’s most recent article in the Guardian if you have a problem with that last sentence. Just because it’s deemed acceptable in the US does not mean Europeans are happy with it; and yes it’s been going on for a long time in football, especially in England since 1992 but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want to get rid such practices.

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