THE collapse of the European Super League is reminiscent of the Soviet Coup of 1991. Then, as now, some quite powerful people believed they could impose their vision of the future on the masses by making radical change regardless of the consequences, to the point of not actually considering how to manage those consequences. The collapse showed that the assumed power was a chimera, resting as it did on popular consent. In the case of the Soviets, the coup plotters thought that putting a few tanks in relevant locations would allow them to impose their will in a manner similar to their provably unassailable predecessors. The owners of the football clubs thought their wealth and assets would be enough to cow the fans and bring governments and broadcasters into line. Both groups of men were wrong.
In the case of the erstwhile participants in this international soccer cartel, the vast amount of money that sloshes around the highest level of this professional sport has been exposed. One argument made in an internal document which was found rather too easily by the Guardian suggested that the effective close-down of the sport regarding attendance at matches has seriously affected revenue streams; the Super League was crafted as some kind of financial lifeboat for top-flight teams struggling to meet expenses while not much money was coming in. However, the money side of soccer has always been an issue. The requirement for ‘true’ fans of a team to buy and wear the latest design of an ‘official’ team shirt which changed regularly has been controversial for over a decade. The fact that Manchester United’s ‘authentic’ home jersey retails for £110, and that fans pay for the privilege to have a logo for the Chevrolet car company emblazoned prominently on the front seems ludicrous.
The money that clubs charge broadcasters has a significant cultural impact. The BBC had to fork out millions from the late 1990s onwards to televise matches, and this had a knock-on effect on the rest of its programming. I certainly noticed a rise at the time in cheaply-done reality television replacing quality drama and documentaries at peak viewing time. The reason for this had to be that there was less money to go round, but the BBC felt it had to show these football matches to justify the licence fee.
There is also the issue of how much the players are paid. As the ‘talent’ that spectators and broadcasters pay to watch and televise, their rewards are significant. They are able to command such high payments because if their demands are not met they can leave the club and play for a rival team, and this will have commercial consequences. A team which is regularly outplayed will not make as much money, so will not be able to attract new talent, which will result in a poorer performance and possible relegation, which means even less money, and so on.
So the top players’ earnings will rival those of the best-rewarded captains of industry and commerce. But here is the interesting divide. While Labour rail against inequality and wealth generally, and see millionaires and billionaires generally as ‘the enemy’,
their opprobrium seems reserved for those who benefit the most from the productive sector of the economy. Income, however, is income. Any tax that would take money out of the pocket of company director of a large business will also do the same to a Premier League football player. Any tax on wealth and substantial property would do the same. While the company director may be anchored here as the business trades in the UK, the soccer player is not. A punitive tax imposed by a future Labour government on wealth and income would see the Premier League denuded of the world-class players of international origin, and would also see an exodus of home-grown talent to more tax-friendly shores. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was routine for high-earning Britons with portable skills, epitomised by pop stars and actors, to become tax exiles, especially after Harold Wilson started taxing certain income at 95 per cent, a measure that inspired a Beatles song.
It is interesting, however, that Labour’s proposals for taxation on the wealthy have never been associated with their impact on Premier League football. It would be unreasonable for Labour to argue that there would be an exemption for these well-paid players, as this would obviously promote inequality in the tax system. It would be unfair for one man who earned substantial reward from taking business risks to create wealth by trying to provide goods and services to meet public demand nationally and internationally to be penalised financially while another who kicked a ball around for 90 minutes or so was exempt, especially if the club who employed the footballer actually added value and contributed to the UK economy as much as the risk-taker.
So whenever Labour politicians rail about inequality and redistributing wealth from the richest, it would be useful if an interviewer would pin them down about the incomes of Premier League footballers as an example. The socialist politician might cry foul, but Labour’s ambitions should surely be a concern to the jersey-purchasing section of soccer fandom.
A future socialist government, unless it defined millionaire soccer players as ‘socially useful’, would plunge top-flight football into a crisis in this country or would ramp up the already notorious practices of tax abuse.
What is Labour’s policy towards millionaire Premier League players? I think we should be told.