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Finance in Football: Is it a Level Playing Field?

Sport Editor Edward Ducker looks at the state of ‘the beautiful game’. He asks if financial disparities are making the competition unfair and looks for hope in football’s future.

The idea that the game is becoming increasingly inequitable is a growing concern for football fans. The current, soon-to-be ubiquitous, opinion is primarily based on the exponential financial growth of the sport, resulting in an extreme disparity between those at the top and those at the bottom.

Large clubs worldwide have always dominated the sport, often as a result of the funds injected by rich owners and their brand marketability, but the current divergence between large and small clubs is more significant than ever before. The argument for financial equity in football has been given new weight by how capital-driven the sport has become. Have the richest teams have developed a hostile and dominant monopoly?

Pay to Win?

Twenty-first century football has been subject to a plethora of polarising financial and political events. At the heart of such discussions naturally sit some of the world’s largest footballing clubs and organisations. The proposal of the European Super League in 2021 demonstrated to the world the owners of many elite clubs would sacrifice their integrity for financial gain – an act which was viewed near-unanimously as gluttonous. The idea of the top European teams only competing between themselves, without relegation or promotion, would have been a complete departure from the national league system.

The term ‘corruption’ is frequently used when referring to the modern game, with the subsequent launch of numerous enquiries to deduce just how much financial power can buy footballing success. Recently the executives of clubs such as Juventus, FC Barcelona and Manchester City have come under fire for the evasive manner in which the financial aspects of their clubs have been handled. If there was a club which perfectly exemplifies footballing success as a product of wealth, it’s Manchester City. Between 1996 and 2003, Manchester City were a club often between divisions, with a series of relegations and promotions defining the period. After securing a stable spell of Premier League football, many large suiters were interested in taking ownership of the club.

The takeover of Man City came in the form of Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG), fronted by Sheikh Mansour, who took over the club on 1 September 2008. The high-profile purchase altered the entire face and structure of the club, as well as setting a financial precedent for the English game. Upon assuming control of the club, ADUG turned Man City into the richest side in the world overnight, with their primary aim being to transform them into title-winners – an idea which seemed far-fetched at the time.

ADUG and Sheikh Mansour have since fulfilled almost all their promises, revolutionising every aspect of the club and modernising it at a staggering rate, while building up the club’s local and international reputation. Their success can be proven tangibly, with City having attained six Premier League titles, two FA Cups and six League Cups since the takeover. Although fans of the club are euphoric with their successes, a large cohort of football fans across the country suggest that the Man City project has ‘ruined’ English football. Many believe that City’s financial firepower has made for an unequal game. 

To combat this financial inequity, the concept of Financial Fair Play (FFP) were implemented by UEFA (the Union of European Football Associations) from 2010. The basic premise of FFP was to ensure that clubs were not spending unsustainably to prevent them from falling into the kind of financial trouble which could threaten their existence. FFP is also used as a regulatory technique to make sure that the playing field is kept reasonably level among each league. 

Upon being transformed into a high profile and marketable outfit, Manchester City encountered an abundance of issues concerning Financial Fair Play. When being investigated by UEFA, Man City have always insisted they have abided by the set regulations and have continuously challenged alleged cases of financial misdemeanour. In February 2020, they were banned by UEFA from all European competitions for two seasons and handed fine of €30m (£26.8m). Man City took that case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) which concluded that the ban was to be overturned and the fine reduced to €10m (£8.9m). At the hearing, the judicial panel found many of the alleged breaches to be non-punishable due to them being ‘time-barred’, essentially meaning they occurred too far in the past for UEFA to press substantial charges. This loophole essentially rescued Man City from facing dire financial and footballing consequences at the time. However, their luck has since expired. 

Recently, Manchester City have also been charged with breaking Financial Fair Play rules 115 times across a nine-year period (2009-2018), a timeframe in which they won the Premier League (PL) three times. Crucially, Premier League rules do not include a time bar, making the club’s previous defence against UEFA totally ineffective. According to the PL, Manchester City allegedly did not provide accurate financial information or fully disclose the financial compensation paid to one of their managers. It has been suggested by the league that there was a ‘secret contact’, meaning that Roberto Mancini was being paid more than officially stated in the club’s financial records. Furthermore, the Premier League also allege that Man City failed to comply with UEFA’s FFP rules over a five-year period, as well as accusing the club of not being fully co-operative with the ongoing investigation. 

The absence of a Premier League statute of limitations gives them a larger number of cases to deal with and, unfortunately for Man City, a wider scope of punishments. The the PL legal handbook also states that the source of the evidence against City is irrelevant to the case, yet with much of the evidential content having been initially discovered by German Media company Der Spiegel and infamous football hacker Rui Pinto, it is believed Man City will address the credibility of the sources and the Premier League’s right to use them when responding to the PL’s legal action.

Possible punishments include a significant points deduction or even possibly the threat of expulsion from the division – albeit the latter would be an excessive penalty in the eyes of many. Man City representatives released a statement in response to the Premier League, in which they expressed ‘surprise’ about the allegations and refuted the claims of their non-cooperation. They have repeatedly expressing confidence that the evidence does not indicate financial wrongdoing at all. 

Dissolving the Ecosystem

A recent phenomenon in the world of football is the expeditious and exponential growth of the Saudi Pro League. The league, being the top division in Saudi Arabia, has acquired many of the top performing and best players, including the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Neymar Jr. These stars join a cohort of others who were transferred to various Saudi Clubs in the summer transfer window. Yet unlike the similar period of Chinese investment in their league, young stars with room for growth are also being acquired. Instead of signing Gareth Bale, Didier Drogba and Carlos Tevez in the twilight of their careers, Saudi Arabian clubs are signing starlets like Gabri Veiga and Jota, as well as players in their prime like Aleksandar Mitrović, Sergej Milinković-Savić and Rúben Neves.

This is all made possible due the incredibly large sums of money the Saudi clubs can offer, both in the transfer fee and the player’s contract. The issue lies with how this affects the rest of the footballing landscape, as it completely wrecks football’s financial ecosystem. Cristiano Ronaldo reportedly earns £3.4 million a week (before bonuses or sponsorship deals), while Kevin De Bruyne, the Premier League’s highest-paid star, earns a measly £400,000. There is no risk of Saudi teams facing legal issues over their exorbitant spends since they are working under different financial regulations than European clubs and are backed by their government’s sovereign wealth fund (SWF). They can essentially spend what they like on any player that they desire. 

The rise of Saudi Arabian Football comes only months after the Qatar World Cup, a tournament which unearthed various discussions about ‘sportswashing’ in the Middle East. Much like the World Cup, the recent events in Saudi Arabia involve a country with essentially unlimited money, and little regard for the sport historically, recklessly throwing large sums of cash at an event in the hope of it benefiting the GDP and public image of the nation.

Michael Emenalo, the Saudi Pro League Director of Football, recently suggested that “in a couple of years, this will become a league for exceptional players only… we have the resources and we’re going to use them” – the expansion of the Saudi Pro League may be only in its early stages. Many are now wondering if the Premier League can compete financially with the Saudi one; with the latter acquiring seemingly every top player in the world right now, it’s looking increasingly unlikely. 

The current infrastructure of football worldwide is fundamentally underpinned by broadcasters and broadcasting rights. As the Premier League is the most watched league in the world, the broadcasting packages offered to the teams which compete in it are substantially larger than those in other leagues. Due to their affluence, the Saudi league is not at all dependent on their broadcasting revenue, which is why they are currently negotiating with DAZN for around £500,000 as opposed to the lucrative £5.1 billion TV deal owned by the Premier League. This demonstrates that they don’t need to be a part of the current financial ecosystem – a feat which may prove to be a worrying one for the European leagues. 

However, the question of whether the growing influence of the Saudi teams is unfair is far more complex. The argument is primarily determined by how you view football – as a sport or as a business. Some models, such as the Bundesliga’s 50+1 rule, ensure that football clubs are community projects rather than commercial ventures. Yet most football clubs are businesses at heart, with owners choosing how to invest their funds for the best possible outcome on the field (which is usually the best outcome on the balance books too). From a business perspective, the Saudi clubs are well within their rights to build up a competition with the best players in the world – even if it might dissolve the value of the current top clubs and leagues. They want to fast-track their way to being the best league in the world, and they seem on course to achieving this.

Inequity Between Sexes

But the disparity isn’t just inter-club and international. The playing field is steeply tilted even between the men and women’s game. England’s female national team – the Lionesses – have just unfortunately lost to Spain in the final of the World Cup. With the whole country behind them on their well-publicised run to the final, the popularity of women’s football has become greater than ever. However, the spotlight put on their incredible performance has also highlighted concerns about how they are treated in comparison to the men’s game.

Much like last year, following the triumphant success of the Lionesses winning the European Championship, the question of inequity between men’s and women’s football has been revisited. The argument primarily concerns the disparity in player wages between male and female footballers, with male players earning significantly more. For example, the total prize money for the women’s World Cup was $110 million, compared to the $440 million earmarked for the men’s tournament. Although there remains a gulf between these two payments, the women’s prize money has seen a 300% increase from the previous tournament in 2019, and a 1,000% increase from 2015. FIFA has stated they are aiming for parity between the men’s and women’s tournaments by 2027, showcasing the rapid growth of the women’s game. 

Despite the continuous expansion of the women’s World Cup and domestic leagues, many are still demanding equal pay for all sexes. For international football (the national teams), the problem was addressed head on when the FA announced in 2020 that they will pay women the same appearance money as men. However, for Women’s Super League (WSL) clubs (the equivalent of the Premier League), the issue is still a prevalent one. With the industry being predominantly demand-driven through broadcast revenue, payments are largely dependent on league viewership. Despite growing at a rapid rate, the demand for women’s games is currently much lower than in the men’s and there is therefore still a substantial gap in the revenue paid to WSL and PL clubs.

Average match attendance at Women’s Super League games has nearly tripled from last season, as women’s football continues to make exceptional progress. The average WSL attendance in the 2021/22 season was 1,923, but this rose to 5,616 in the 2022/23 season. In 2021, the FA launched its strategy to increase average WSL attendance to 6,000 by 2024. Arsenal broke the WSL attendance record when they played Tottenham at the Emirates stadium with over 53,000 tickets sold, showing that women’s tickets are often near sell-out when played in much larger grounds. The demand and interest in the women’s game is growing rapidly, which is fantastic to see.  

Flo Lloyd-Hughes, the host of leading women’s football podcast Counter Pressed, said that “there has been a significant step forward which should be celebrated, but things need to be pushed on even further to make women’s football sustainable in England and also feed this growth down to the grassroots”. 

Women’s football should never be discouraged due to the differences in pay compared to the men, or it being more difficult for girls to get into the game. Ellie Guedalla, a voluntary coach at East London grassroots club Clapton Community FC, played football when she was younger but stopped due to the lack of access. She believes greater coverage of women’s football will help to nurture a generation of talented players who will have more opportunities and support than their predecessors.  

She said “women are being celebrated for being strong, fast and clever, as opposed to skinny and pretty. The growth in women’s football is brilliant because girls are going to get the support to be the best they can be. I hope women’s football continues to grow and that it doesn’t mimic the men’s game. There’s so much history of corruption and poor practice – if we just mimic the men’s model, it’ll be backwards. Women need to do it our way”. As the interest in women’s football continues to grow, the gender inequality is beginning to reduce. This is certainly a ray of hope for the beautiful game.  



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